A little of History: Peru Before the Spanish Conquest

Spanning back hundreds of years, Peru has a deep history that intertwines with local and foreign cultures. It’s common to hear indigenous languages being spoken in the busy streets of Cusco, a stark contrast to the colonial architecture in the Plaza de Armas. Scattered throughout the countryside are ruins of a grand civilization that had once ruled a large portion of South America. Before the Spanish invasion, the Incan Empire was far and away the largest empire in pre-Colombian America. Cusco being the capital, this society had sophisticated political, governmental, and economic structures that led to its near century long dominance. 

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The story of Incan society begins in the 12th century. Beginning as a pastoral tribe, early Incans were nomadic people who moved with their herds. Oral history recalls the tale of a man named Manco Cápac who is widely considered the founder of Cusco. It was under his guidance in which the city-state of Cusco was formed. In 1438, after hundreds of years of development, the Incan Empire went through a period of extreme expansion. Still visible today are the ruins of Sacsayhuamán, a citadel located on the northern outskirts of Cusco. With a labyrinth of stone walls, whoever held this fortress would have a great position of control. Also located within this site is a large plaza capable of holding thousands of people. It’s speculated that many ceremonial activities and rituals were held in this area. Above all, the most impressive feature of the citadel is the precision of the terrace system. The stone walls are so well spaced that not even a piece of paper will fit between them.


Leading this mass expansion was Pachacuti. A native from Cusco, Pachacuti had visions of conquering large territories and their ethnic groups. While the Spanish Conquest of Peru led to conflict, Pachacuti was able to peacefully achieve the growth of his empire. One of the tactics he used was to send spies to the regions he wanted to take over. Once he had sufficient information about that region, he would send carefully composed letters to the leaders of those areas detailing the benefits of joining his empire. The leaders of those areas would then be indoctrinated to impose Incan administration systems in their native lands. Due to his achievements in growing the empire, he was hailed as an exceptional leader and was identified as a deity by many people.


Following Pachacuti’s death in 1471/72, his son Túpac Inca took over. As dominate as the Incan Empire was, they still had the occasional rival. The Kingdom of Chimor held a significant amount of land on the Peruvian coast and was the only force large enough to stop the Incans. Unfortunately for them, the strength of the Incan army proved to be too great for Chimor to handle as they became assimilated into the empire. Now at its peak, the empire spanned from modern day Colombia to Chile and incorporated large parts of Bolivia and Ecuador.


In terms of population, it’s speculated that there were anywhere between 6-14 million people living within the Empire. These people communicated in Quechua but did not have a written form of communication, opting to maintain records through ceramics and textiles. Though involved in outside trading, the Incans relied on central planning to allocate resources within their own boundaries. Classified as a federalist system, the empire was split into 4 self-governing provinces that intersected at Cusco. Much is still unknown about the political structure but we do know that it was common practice for the citizens to pay taxes in exchange for protection from the government.


Up until the arrival of the Spanish in 1528, the Incan Empire was a massive powerhouse with close to 2 million km2 of territory. Still do this day, millions of people flock to Peru to see the remnants of a once mystic society that has undoubtedly left its mark in various fields and cultures.

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