In a relatively short space of time - barely a century- the Incas built not only the largest empire in pre-Columbian America but also one of the largest in history. Their vast domain encompassed dramatic contrasts, from icy peaks to coastal desert and the Amazonian jungle. With the high-altitude city of Cusco at its center. Prior to the arrival of the Incas in the central Andes, which some estimates put as early as AD 1000, the area was home to a host of diverse, and often hostile, culture. The conquering Incas united the region under one social system and language, but did adopt aspects of the cultures they absorbed.
Inca history divides into two stages, the Legendary and Historica Periods. The Inca´s oral history lists 13 emperors (Incas) with the first six from Manco Cápac to Viracocha being mythical. Events from Pachacútec to Atahualpa´s reign are more precisely recorded.
Gold was the "sweat of the sin" for the Incas and by law it belonged only to the emperor. It was the legend or this gold and silver that brought the Spanish conquerors to the Inca land. They collected 11 tons in gold artifacts alone as ransom for the release of Atahualpa.
Power was centered in Cusco Peru and a strict social structure was imposed. To ensure complete control, entire populations were moved so as to destroy any local power base. The Inca empire, a theocracy, was ruled by the Inca, who was considered divine.
At its height in the 15th and 10th centuries, the Inca Empire encompassed thousands of square miles, stretching almost the entire lenght of the Andes. The Incas were audacious engineers, building spectacular mountain-top citadels. They developed elaborate famring terraces, sustaining their crops by canal and drainage systems, Their social structure was extremely rigid with the emperor enjoying absolute power, and revered as a living god. The Incas worshipped the sun, moon, earth, and mountains. Animals, such as the condor and puma, were also considered sacred.
The Incas revered Inti, the Sun God, who nourished the earth and controlled the harvests. The emperor, believed to be the son of the Sun God, made offerings to the sun during religous ceremonies.
Roads were crucial to Pachacutec´s program of unification. Under his reign alone, the Incas constructed some 2,500 miles (4,000 km) of tightly packed stone roads, some scaling heights of more than 16,500 ft (5,000 m). This impressive Royal Road network of roads, about 3 ft (1 m) wide, connected all four regions of the empire, running from Quito in Ecuador, past Santiago in Chile and La Paz in Bolivia to Tucuman in Argentina.
For all its glory, Inca pre-eminence only lasted around 100 years. The reign of the first eight Incas spanned the period from the 12th century to the early 15th century, but it was the ninth Inca, Pachacutec, who gave the empire its first bloody taste of conquest. A growing thirst for expansion had led the neighboring highland tribe, the Chankas, to Cuzco´s doorstep around 1438, and Viracocha Inca fled in the belief that his small empire was lost. However, his son Pachacutec rallied the Inca army and, in a desperate battle, he famously routed the Chankas.
Buoyed by his victory, Pachacutec then embarked upon the first wave of Incan expansion, promptly bagging much of the central Andes. Over the next 25 years, the Inca empire grew until it stretched from the present-day border of Ecuador and Colombia. It was during this time that scores of fabulous mountaintop citadels were built, including Machu Picchu site.
When Europeans discovered the New World, epidemics including smallpox swept down from Central America and the Caribean. In 1527 the 11th Inca Huayna Capác died of such an epidemic. Before expiring he divided his empire between his two sons Atahualpa, born of a Quitan mother, who took the north, and the pure-blooded native Cuzqueñan Huáscar, who tooj Cuzco and the south. Civil war eventually ensued and the slow downfall of the Inca empire began. By 1526 Francisco Pizarro had started heading south from Panama and soon discovered the rich coastal settlements of the Inca empire. After returning to Spain to court money and men for the conquest he returned, landing on the Ecuadorian coasts and marching overland toward Peruand the heart of the Inca empire, reaching Cajamarca in 1532, by which time Atahualpa had defeated his half-brother Huáscar.
This meeting was to radically change the course of South American history. Atahualpa was ambushed by a few dozen armed conquistadors who succeeded in capturing him, killing thousands of unarmed indigenous tribespeople. In an attempt to regain his freedom, ther Inca offered a ransom of gold and silver from Cusco, including that stripped from the walls of Qorikancha.
But after holding Atahualpa prisoner for a number of months and teasing the Incas with ransom requests Pizarro murdered him anyway, and soon marched on Cuzco. Mounted on horseback, protected by armor and swinging steel swords, the Spanish cavalry was virtually unstoppable. Despite sporadic rebellions, the Inca empire was forced to retreat into the mountains and jungle, and never recovered its glorious prestige or extent.