Cultures & Traditions

Inca (Inka)

The vast Inca (Inka) Empire expanded from the 15th to the early 16th century to encompass present-day Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and parts of Chile and Argentina. The Inca called this empire “Tahuantinsuyo” (Tawantinsuyu), or “land of the four parts,” defining regions north, east, south, and west of the capital, or seat of the king—Cuzco (Quzqu). According to Inca history, the ruler Pachacutic established the tenets of Inca imperialism, beginning with military success in the early 1400s. The Late Horizon period of Inca hegemony extends from this victory until the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. Dressed “in the manner of chessboards,” the Inca fought in force, with portable weapons, to conquer ever more distant Andean provinces. The army was supplied through storehouses, or collca (qollqa), built along the main roads. Officials kept records of the stored goods, as well as subject taxes and census information, on knotted strings, or quipu (khipu). The standardization of design and technical precision that distinguish Inca art can be seen in the mortarless stone masonry at Coricancha, Ollantaytambo, and Machu Picchu and in tapestry-woven textiles. This organization supported the steady pace of Inca imperial expansion, which predominated in the Andes for over one hundred years.

The four parts of the Inca Empire were connected by a complex system of roads known as the Capac Ñan (Qhapaq Ñan). Way stations, or tambo (tampu), along these roads served as resting places for the Inca court and imperial runners, or chasqui (chaski). The runners relayed messages throughout the empire, up to 150 miles per day across dramatic changes in elevation. Recent efforts in Peru are preserving this road system, resulting in 2014 with achievement of UNESCO world heritage status. In addition to tribute and messages carried over the roads, the Inca connected the diverse empire through reciprocity of goods, rituals, and pilgrimage. This included the selection of unblemished boys and girls to serve in a ritual known as capacocha (qhapaq ucha). Performed at times of crisis or transformation, the children were brought to Cuzco (Quzqu), “married” as symbolic adults, and sent on pilgrimage back to their provinces, to be sacrificed on a mountain (apu) or other local sacred site, or huaca (wak’a). Such pilgrimages and sacrifices symbolically created a sanctified Inca realm.

Conquests are rarely finite, defined by a singular event; rather they may comprise complex periods of confrontation and convergence. This convergence seldom entails either complete resistance or utter acquiescence. The resultant context is culturally transformative; more impactful than basic exchange, it entails dynamic shifts in social relations, distribution of goods, and established ideologies. In Andean cultural history, following the decline of highland Huari (Wari) and Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku, Tiyawanaku) influence, coastal cultures resurged with distinctly local styles. The northern Moche region developed into a productive polity known as Sicán or Lambayeque with skilled metallurgists. Remnants of Huari impact appear in Sicán vessel forms and representations. The southern Moche region developed into the Chimú state. It conquered the coast to the south and north, reputedly bringing Sicán metallurgists to the Chimú capital of Chan Chan in the Moche valley. The Sicán and Chimú arts maintain aspects of north coast heritage, including black ware vessels and figures with crested headdresses.

The Inca based aspects of their imperialism and ideology on the Huari and Tiahuanaco polities, these preceding political expansions laid foundations for Inca success. The Huari and Tiahuanaco flourished in the central and southern highlands, expanding their influence to other highland and coastal regions. The nature of expansion (economic, martial, etc.) and their interrelation remain points of discussion among archaeologists. Their period of coastal influence, nevertheless, defines the Middle Horizon, from the 7th to 11th century. Social relations and status in the Middle Horizon (600–1000 C.E.) were conveyed through clothing, ritual, and feasting. Huari and Tiahuanaco polities promoted feasting with maize beer—chicha [Spanish] or aqha [Quechua]—utilizing storage jars, serving vessels, and goblet-style cups. The cup form would remain popular in Andean regions and be appropriated by the Inca. Huari standardized male tunics and hats suggest associated status, including military ranks, which may likewise undergird later Inca standardization. While colonial documents provide perspectives on Inca imperialism, the Huari state expansion is approached through architectural and material remains of Huari and Huari-hybrid arts, blended with cultures such as the south coast Nazca and north coast Moche.

Throughout the 15th century the Inca conquered the coastal polities, including the Chimú state, resulting in hybrid ceramic and textile arts; transporting regional idols to Cuzco (Quzqu) encouraged pilgrimage to this capital center. The Inca further resettled families, or mitma, into acquired regions for imperial control. A local governor, or curaca (kuraka), maintained the region under Inca authority, regulating material tribute and labor service, or mit’a, to the Inca state. While the conquered provinces retained their identity, features of Inca style, such as the urpu vessel form, penetrated the regional arts and marked the Late Horizon (1400–1532 C.E.) of Inca imperialism.

The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro heard about the wealth of “Pirú” during voyages along northern South America in the late 1520s. In 1532, Pizarro led a small army toward the highland site of Cajamarca to meet with Atahualpa (Atawalpa) and the Inca army on their march southward. Following the death of the Inca ruler Huayna Capac (Wayna Qhapaq), Atahualpa was at that moment in contention for the Inca throne with his half-brother Huascar (Waskar). The Spanish captured Atahualpa in Cajamarca, held him for ransom, and then killed him, proceeding on to the Inca capital, Cuzco (Quzqu). Following upon the Inca Empire, the Spanish utilized established social formations in colonial administration. The Inca system of labor service, or mit’a, was maintained in order to obtain workers for the silver mines at Potosí. While Andean dress and traditional practices were progressively prohibited under Spanish Colonial rule and by religious missionaries, others survived. This includes the production of goblets used in social reciprocity and feasting. The wooden_ quero_ (qero, kero) became an essential medium for perpetuating Inca arts and social identity. During the Spanish Colonial period many art forms dynamically combine Andean and Spanish influence. These material arts convey not only the masterful skill of Andean artisans throughout time but also the richness, adaptability, and vitality of Andean cultural history—past through present.

Adapted from

  • Kimberly L. Jones, PhD, Inca: Conquests of the Andes / Los Incas y las conquistas de los Andes, Gallery text, 2015.
  • Carol Robbins, "Tunic with checkerboard pattern and stepped yoke (1995.32.McD)," in Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Suzanne Kotz (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997), 176.

Related Multimedia

Boshell Family Lecture Series on Archaeology; speaker is Archaeologist, Univ. of Pennsylvania, and Executive Director, Sustainable Preservation Initiative; have brochure

Web Resources

  • UNESCO
    Read about the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
  • UNESCO
    Read about the Qhapaq Ñan, or Andean road system.
  • UNESCO
    Read about the Quebrada de Humahuaca, Camino Inca.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about the Inca culture.
  • Khan Academy
    Learn more about capital city of Cusco (Cuzco).
  • Khan Academy
    Read about Inca ushnus.
  • Khan Academy
    Watch a video about Inca ushnus, landscape, site and symbol in the Andes.
  • Khan Academy
    Read more about Machu Picchu.
  • Harvard University
    Learn more about Inca quipu (khipu) and the Khipu Database Project.
  • Larry Coben Archaeology Web Page
    Read more about Inca archaeology and performance.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 1: Introductions and Opening Remarks, with Dr. José Barreiro, Assistant Director for Research and Director of the Office for Latin America at NMAI, Kevin Gover, Director of the NMAI, and Dr. Wayne Clough, the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 2: Inka Trails Near Machu Picchu, with Kenneth Wright, a consulting engineer and founder of Wright Water Engineer, and Ruth Wright, the vice president of Wright Paleohydrological Institute.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 3: Cusco, Inka Capital: Planning and Construction, with Crayla Alfaro Aucca, an architect in Cultural Heritage Management, José Alejandro Beltrán-Caballero, Associate Researcher of the Seminar on Ancient Topography at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in Tarragona, Spain, and Ricardo Mar, Professor of Classical Archaeology at Universitat Rovira i Virgili.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 4: Suspension Bridge Technology, with John Ochsendorf, MIT Professor of Architecture and Civil and Environmental Engineering.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 5: Khipu & the Inka Empire, with Gary Urton, the Dumbarton Oaks Professor of Pre-Columbian Studies and Chairman of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 6: Road Construction Technologies, with Christine Fiori, the Associate Director of the Myers-Lawson School of Construction at Virginia Tech, and Cliff Schexnayder, the Emeritus Eminent Scholar of the Del E. Webb School of Construction at Arizona State University.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 7: The Inka Road through Ethnoarchaeology, with Ramiro Matos, archaeologist and Associate Curator for Latin America at NMAI.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 8: Questions and Answers.
  • Smithsonian NMAI
    Watch a video from the Symposium "Engineering the Inka Empire," Part 9: Closing Remarks, with Colin McEwan, Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.