The earliest information regarding the Incas dates back to 1200 AD. They were a bellicose tribe (we do not know its real name, since Inca was the word they used to indicate the ruler), native of the Cusco area, which, in less than two centuries, managed to build a very large empire, including the South American territories from today's Colombia to Argentina.
The Inca state—called Tahuantinsuyu, or the "Four Parts of the Earth''— was organized according to a centralized framework and was managed through the use of a common language called Quechua. The state bureaucracy kept an accurate account of the population, recording the sex, age, and social class of every person of the Ayllu, independent farming units formed by groups of families involved in the same type of activities and ruled by a hereditary chief. Every Ayllu had a founding ancestor and kept an accurate record of its genealogical tree; people of the Ayllu was divided into two parts called haran (up) and hurin (down), mirroring the subdivision of the capital, as we shall see further on.
The management of the country was in the hands of a rigid hierarchy with the noble Incan families on top, residing in the capital. Taxes were paid in nature or by compulsory work in state enterprises. The central archives recorded, therefore, in the same meticulous way, taxes, harvests, and work done by the various villages; the method to record such data was called quipu.
A quipu is a cluster of ropes tightened to a main one and laid out as a
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Figure 10.4: "Mapa Mundi of the Indies of Peru , showing the quadripartite division of the Inca state (Poma de Ayala)
"tree." The ropes are of different colors, lengths, and dimensions, and have a series of different knots (Urton 2003). Using these knots, it was possible to record numbers (on base 10) and data, which could later be read by the state officer by simply letting the quipu slide between his fingers. Linked to the quipu was the Yupana, a kind of abacus made of a board with small boxes (Laurencich Minelli 2007). Despite reports suggesting the existence of special quipus suited to record written texts, they were never found; consequently, it has been stated frequently that the extraordinary civilization of the Incas was illiterate. Recently, however, in the family archive of the Neapolitan researcher Clara Miccinelli, a set of secret Jesuit manuscripts by the mestice Blas Valera and by two of his brothers were found. The manuscripts date from the early 17th century and contain new information on the Peru of the preconquest period; they suggest the existence of a special kind of quipu used to write sentences by the means of a syllabic system (there is a huge debate among specialists on this find; for further information see Laurencich Minelli 2001, 2007; Miccinelli and Animato 1998).
The Incas were amazing builders. First they built hydraulic canals and land terraces, in order to improve the farming system, making it far more
efficient and productive. Then, a very efficient storage system enabled accumulating the surplus of production to be used in case of a food shortage. Finally, they built a capillary network of roads thousands of kilometers long, composed by two main roads, one along the coast and the other up in the mountains, connected by numerous bypasses (the roads were not planned to be run by wheeled vehicles because the Andean beasts of burden, the llamas, are not suited to pull carriages; the idea that the Incas did not invent the wheel, which has sometimes been stated, is as nonsensical as it was in the Aztec case, at least in my opinion).
In addition to the language, the centralizing bureaucracy, and the infrastructures, religion was another unifying element of the Inca state. The cosmological vision of the Incas puts their origin in Lake Titicaca. According to the legend, the God-Creator Viracocha created the world: the celestial bodies, the earth (Pachamama), and the sun (Inti), which rose for the first time from a rock in the lake island, consequently called Island of the Sun. On the island there was a complex and very important sanctuary, visited by pilgrims coming from every part of the empire. The pilgrims followed a path that led them to visit the "footprints'' of the sun—large marks on the bedrock similar to footprints—and then to the sun rock itself, in front of which there was a huge ceremonial square (Bauer and Stanish 2001). A precise astronomical alignment obtained by using two towers positioned on the top of the hill on the northern edge of the island allowed the pilgrims to watch the sunset at the winter solstice.
The first Inca, Manco Capac, was considered the son of Inti and of Mama Ocllo, daughter of the Moon. The two moved northwest and, after a long subterranean voyage from Lake Titicaca, they reached the Cusco area, where they settled. Thus, the Incas claimed to be direct descendants from the gods; they had a myth prophesying the return of Viracocha, a myth that was probably amplified after the Spanish Conquest however. It is indeed highly improbable, although it has been stated, that the Inca Atahualpa who greeted the arrival of Pizarro at Cajamarca on November 16, 1532, and was that day taken prisoner, believed he was greeting Viracocha in person.
The direct descendance of the Incas from the gods and the close relationship between gods and nature were reflected in the two main aspects of the religious life of the Incas. The first was the worship of the ancestors, whose mummies were carefully preserved (the mummification process is recorded in the Andes starting from the year 4000 BC, and it was practiced by the Chinchorros, in Chile, more than 8000 years ago). The second was the worship of objects, places, and natural phenomena. The entire landscape, with its places (huaca), directions (ceque), and mountains (apu), was considered sacred, and these ideas are still partially alive today (see, for example, Domenici and Orsini 2003). On the mountaintops in particular, on special occasions, the Incas practiced human sacrifice, as the shocking findings of natural mummies of sacrificed children prove (Reinhard 2005).
In addition to the level of the sacred landscape, there was a superior, celestial level, and an inferior one pertaining to the earth. These three levels were connected by the flowing of the rivers from Earth into the great celestial river, the Milky Way or Mayu. The three levels of the cosmos and the four parts of the state flew together into the heart of the empire, the navel of the world, the true center of the Incan universe: Cusco, the Puma city.
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