Peru has a fascinating history. I will be explaining the history of the West side of Peru (the Andes). Before European influence, Peru had no wheel, iron, or a written language. How did they achieve what they did?
Part One: The Beginning of Civilization in Peru
Peru started as one of the civilizations that emerged independently approximately 3000 years ago. It was an ancient civilization. Most of these were states, not yet empires or kingdoms of any sort. Surprisingly, most of the Andean culture was decently similar to today (if you’re putting it on a scale of 3000 years ago).
We don’t have much of an idea of what it was like back then, since all we have is textiles, jewelry, and ceramics. Most likely, many of the civilizations were based on agriculture. They used terracing, with irrigation and canals. There are three main raw foods that the Andes is known for having: potato, corn, and most of all, quinoa. Most of the tribes/civilizations in the Andes used those as their base foods. But they were all different in ways. Some were warlike, others peaceful. Some did more with agriculture, while others did more hunting.
Part Two: Achieving the Impossible
As we go farther into our history, we run into the largest empire in all of the Americas before the coming of Europeans: the Incas. They probably started out as a not so significant estate in 1000 CE, based in Cusco. They finally grew into what we would call an empire around the mid 1400s. As time went on, they became a flourishing empire stretching throughout the whole west coast of South America. But how did they make their empire? They built on the knowledge of previous states.
These states were ones such as the Wari, Chimu, Tiwanaku, and Chavin. I will be talking about the Wari. The Wari introduced much of how to adapt to Andean climate and terrain, so you could sustain your domain and have time to let it flourish. They introduced sturdy terraces and a state without starvation. But, eventually, as all civilizations do, the Wari died out. With long enough of a drought, their food storages ran out. But as the Incas expanded, they found what the Wari built and brought it to the next level.
The Incas also had a successful empire because of their efficient road system (also known as The Quapaq Ñan). It is an engineering marvel. Over all types of difficult terrain the Quapaq Ñan stretched 40,000 kilometers (about 25,000 miles). And most impressive of all, they had no large work animals, iron, or the wheel. I am mind-blown by how they did it.
. . . on hillsides . . . [the road] is flat as if the land around it were, too . . . in muddy places and marshes, it is paved, and in abrupt drops and rises, it has steps and sidewalls of stone . . .
– Miguel de Estete, Noticia de Perú [News from Peru], 1535
For the Andean people the Quapaq Ñan is not just a way to get places, it connects them with the spiritual world and holds their society.
The Incas also expanded. And expanding means conquering. Starting in the mid-1400s, the Incas conquered other kingdoms such as the Chimu and Tiwanaku. But, they didn’t just do full on war. They bribed other kingdoms with riches and said that they had a nice empire that would supply you with food all year long, and much entertainment. Most of the kingdoms/tribes accepted. But some didn’t. That’s when war broke out. When dealing with war, the Incas were ready. With their great fortresses such as Saqsayhuaman and their strong knives and spears, they were prepared. With their conquering, they became the largest empire in the Western Hemisphere.
Incas were not only a warfare society, they actually focused mostly on agriculture. Terracing was a common technique of the Incas. When the Incas terraced, they used many smart methods in agriculture. One of these methods is putting stone walls between each terrace. Then, through the day these stone walls heated up and when night came, the heated stone walls prevented the food from frost. These terraces can be up to 3 meters tall and below the crops are a series of different materials. First, there’s fertile soil for the crops to grow in. Then, there is a layer of fine sand as a bedding. And finally, there is gravel at the bottom for drainage. That water that has gone through the soil, sand, and gravel goes into to a canal so that it is ready to be used for irrigation again. As every successful empire has done, the Incas used what they had and used it to their advantage.
One of the other architectural feats I saw was that the Incas used rocks and tightly and carefully set these rocks on top of each other and used no mortar. This is called dry stone wall. It was so beautiful how they did it because it looked like the rocks were built to be these perfectly flat square or rectangle stones.
Pachacuti, born in 1438, was the one who truly founded the Inca Empire. He gave the push for the Incas to move out of Cusco and stretch throughout the Andes. He built many wonders, started the Incas military conquests, and founded the Inca Empire.
Pachacuti also built many of the great Inca buildings we know. Machu Picchu was one of those. 8000 meters above sea level, Machu Picchu is famous throughout the world. It’s on a steep hill, so it’s very difficult to bring supplies up there. It’s remote, and the scenery is stunning, so it is a beautiful place to be. The final thing that makes Machu Picchu famous is that it is untouched. It was hidden from the Spaniards, so it didn’t get destroyed.
But Pachacuti didn’t just start Machu Picchu, he did much more. Much of what he built was in the capital, Cusco. One of these structures was Saqsayhuaman. The Great Fortress of Saqsayhuaman. Built during Pachauti’s reign, it was a strong fortification that was the last stand against the Europeans in Cusco. Saqsayhuaman used dry stone wall, and some of the stones were more than 8 feet tall! Something that I think is bonkers is that, up until the 1930s (when it became a UNESCO world heritage site), people could buy rocks from Saqsayhuaman with just a small fee. I mean, WHHHHHHAAAAAAAAAATTTTTTTTTTT!!!!!
After Pachacuti, many other Sapa Incas supported these missions, and the Empire was spilt into four part, with separate rulers reporting to the king.
How did the Incas bring food to the whole empire? Well, they sure had many terraces to grow the food, but how would you transport it quickly enough through such a big empire? Well, the roads sure helped, but the roads couldn’t do it all. The Incas had storage houses. At first, you might just think of an ordinary storage house, like a shack or a barn, but no. These storage houses were sophisticatedly crafted with ventilation, and were well protected against natural disasters. But, just to mention, it wasn’t all food. They had textiles, weapons, seeds for a new year of plantation, and a few other things. For you to really get the capacity of these storage houses, here is a true story. In 1548, a group of 2,000 Spaniards were moving through the Andes and stayed near one of these warehouses for multiple weeks and ate a lot. When they left, they couldn’t tell a single difference in the amount of food.
The Incas also had a religion, like all other empires. They incorporated other gods, and different towns used their own gods as well as the Inca gods. The three principal gods of the Incas were: Pachamama, god of the harvest, Viracocha, the creator god, and Inti, the sun god. Pachamama, god of the harvest was very important to the Incas since they were such a large empire and if the crops went wrong it wouldn’t be easy to get enough food. Viracocha the creator god, may have actually been the first Sapa Inca, and was passed down to have been the creator god. As for Inti, the sun god, it is always so confusing, a giant ball of light in the sky that rises and sets the same time every day? So they call the sun Inti.
Earlier, I said the Incas had no iron and no wheel, but they did have things to substitute. To substitute the wheel, they used log rolling. Log rolling is where you put down a whole ton of logs next to each other and you roll something along it, in this case, stones. Even though it wasn’t a great substitute, it worked. But, they didn’t use the log rolling for very long distances. And for the substitute of iron, they actually used a bronze alloy that is stronger than iron. So, they didn’t “not have a strong metal,” they just didn’t have iron.
Llamas played a big role in society as well. Even though they were not as strong or as large as horses or oxen, they still did well for the Incas. They are suited for cold and rocky territory, where a horse, not so much. They are also so cute! Well, of course that didn’t help in any way.
The last thing thing I want to talk about in this part are quipus. Even though they didn’t have a written language, they did have a complicated series of knots to form a “message.” We still don’t know much about these quipus, so we don’t necessarily know whether they were used to just track numbers, or they were used to keep important information.
Even though the Incas were a flourishing empire, they didn’t last long. The Incas, just like many other American civilizations faced the Europeans, or, the Conquistadors.
Part Three: The Conquistadors
In 1492 Columbus arrived in the Americas, which was a huge discovery for Europe. Immediately, Europeans flooded into this new land, destined to colonize it all. They started with doing many expeditions in North America and Central America. One of these colonizers was Francisco Pizarro. He had heard of a grand empire down south, so he searched in Panama, Costa Rica, and many other Central American countries. Of course, the conquerors were in search of the Inca Empire, mostly for its riches. Pizzaro had done many expeditions for the Empire, but his men were growing weary and were not certain there was such a thing. But Pizzarro clung to this thought of riches and gold. He asked one last time for one last expedition. But Pizarro’s men were done with his promises. Many of the men left, but 13 of them kept on going.
The finally set off through South America. They didn’t know that they were about to find the largest empire in the western hemisphere. They soon came across a few towns, finding what they thought was a simple culture. But no, they were on the edge of the Inca Empire.
As the Spaniards traveled through the outskirts of the Inca Empire, the Incas were a little confused. “Why do they wear pots on their heads (helmets), and not even take them off when they are ready to cook? And also, what are these strange creatures they ride (horses).” Some Incas even thought these people were gods.
As the Spaniards moved through the highlands of Peru with their only 168 men, they finally reached the great capital of the Incas. By now, they had noticed this was not just a simple culture but an empire. They were allowed into the capital where they met the Sapa Inca, Atahualpa. Just before the Conquistadors came, within the Incas there was a war between Atahualpa and his brother Huascar for ruleship, which greatly weakened the empire. When the Conquistadors met Atahualpa, the Incas decided to do a festival for the Spaniards’ arrival. During the festival, the Spaniards cornered the Incas and captured Atahualpa. Even though the Spaniards were greatly outnumbered, the Incas were not armed and the Spaniards had guns.
The Spaniards said that they would free Atahualpa if the Incas gave a bunch of gold to them, so the Incas did. But, the Spaniards just melted all the gold to add to churches in Spain, and killed Atahualpa. After taking down the Inca’s last stand in Cusco, Saqsayhuaman, the Incas retreated. Manco was the Sapa Inca after Atahualpa, and was more like a puppet. After taking down Cusco, Manco finally stood up and spoke for himself. Manco and the rest of the Incas retreated to Vilcabamba, a city in the north. Along the way, many cities were abandoned, like Machu Picchu. The Incas hid through the forests of Vilcabamba for a whole 40 years, before all resistance was destroyed.
There was a legend known through the Conquistadors of a City of gold, or El Dorado. There was thought to be a grand city of gold, perhaps hidden in the Amazon. A few expeditions were sent out to find El Dorado, but nothing was found. Perhaps, there may be a City of Gold still out there.
Part Four: Modern Peru
Now, if you look at Cusco, you can see the influence of the Incas. The walls, the clothing, the streets, you can see Inca in every little bit of it. Also, the ruins. One street even has some Inca walls, with a modern wall built on top of it. But, to wrap this blog up, the Incas were a prosperous empire.