The centre of Inca power was the capital Cuzco, considered the navel of the world. 40,000 Incas governed an empire of over 10 million subjects who spoke over 30 different languages. Consequently, the centralised government employed a vast network of local administrators who relied heavily on a combination of personal relations, state largesse, ritual exchange, law enforcement and military might.
The system certainly worked and the Inca civilization flourished in ancient Peru between c. 1400 and 1534 CE. The Inca empire eventually extended across western South America from Quito in the north to Santiago in the south, making it the largest empire ever seen in the Americas.
Historical Overview – The Empire
Cuzco became a significant centre sometime at the beginning of the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1400 CE). A process of regional unification began from the late 14th century CE, and from the early 15th century CE, with the arrival of the first great Inca leader Pachacuti ('Reverser of the World'), the Incas began to expand in search of plunder and production resources, first to the south and then in all directions, and so they built an empire which stretched across the Andes.
The rise of the Inca Empire was spectacularly quick. First, all speakers of the Inca language Quechua (or Runasimi) were given privileged status, and this noble class then dominated all the important roles within the empire. Eventually a nationwide system of tax and administration was instigated which consolidated the power of Cuzco. The Incas themselves called their empire Tawantinsuyo (or Tahuantinsuyu) meaning 'Land of the Four Quarters'.
The Incas imposed their religion, administration, and even art on conquered peoples, they extracted tribute, and even moved loyal populations (mitmaqs) to better integrate new territories into the empire. However, the Incas also brought certain benefits such as food redistribution in times of environmental disaster, better storage facilities for foodstuffs, work via state-sponsored projects, state-sponsored religious feasts, roads, military assistance and luxury goods, especially art objects enjoyed by the local elite.
The Inca King
The Incas kept lists of their hereditary kings (Sapa Inca, meaning Unique Inca) so that we know of such names as Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui (reign c. 1438-63 CE), Thupa Inca Yupanqui (reign c. 1471-93 CE), and Wayna Qhapaq (the last pre-Hispanic ruler, reign c. 1493-1525 CE). It is possible that two kings ruled at the same time and that queens may have had some significant powers, but the Spanish records are not clear on both points. The king was expected to marry on his accession, his bride sometimes being his own sister. The queen (Qoya) was known as Mamancik or 'Our Mother' and could wield some influence both on her husband and via her kin group, particularly in selecting which son might become the official heir to the throne. The Qoya also had significant wealth of her own which she could dispose of as she wished.
The Sapa Inca was an absolute ruler whose word was law. He controlled politics, society, the empire's food stores, and he was commander-in-chief of the army. Revered as a god he was also known as Intip Churin or 'Son of the Sun'. Given this elevated status he lived a life of great opulence. Drinking from gold and silver cups, wearing silver shoes, and living in a palace furnished with the finest textiles, he was pampered to the extreme. He was even looked after following his death as the Inca mummified their rulers and later 'consulted' them for their opinion on pressing state affairs. Despite his enviable status, though, the king had to negotiate the consent and support of his nobles who could, and did, sometimes depose or even assassinate their ruler. In addition to keeping favour with his nobles the king also had to perform his role as a magnanimous benefactor to his people, hence his other title Huaccha Khoyaq or 'Lover and Benefactor of the Poor'.
The Inca Nobles
Inca rule was, much like their famous architecture, based on compartmentalised and interlocking units. At the top was the king, his high priest (Willaq Umu) – who could also act as a field marshal - and ten royal kindred groups of nobles called panaqa. These nobles could form and instigate policy in councils with the king and, even more importantly, influence the final choice of the king's successor which was rarely simply the eldest son. Indeed, many royal accessions were preceded by intrigue, political maneuvering, coups, and even assassinations to promote a particular kin group's candidate. This may well be why later Inca kings married their own sister so as to avoid widening the elite power base at the very top of the government structure.
Next in line to the panaqa came ten more kindred groups more distantly related to the king and divided into two halves: Upper and Lower Cuzco. Then came a third group of nobles not of Inca blood but made Incas as a privilege. This latter group was drawn from that section of the population which had inhabited the region when the Incas had first arrived. As all of these groups were composed of different family lines, there was a great deal of rivalry between them which sometimes broke out into open warfare.
The Inca Administrators
At the bottom of the state apparatus were locally recruited administrators who oversaw settlements and the smallest Andean population unit the ayllu, which was a collection of households, typically of related families who worked an area of land, lived together, and provided mutual support in times of need. Each ayllu was governed by a small number of nobles or kurakas, a role which could include women.
Local administrators collaborated with and reported to over 80 regional-level administrators (a tokrikoq) who were responsible for such matters as justice, censuses, land redistribution, organizing mobile labour forces, and maintaining the vast network of roads and bridges in their jurisdiction. The regional administrators, who were almost always ethnic Incas, reported to a governor responsible for each quarter of the empire. The four governors reported to the supreme Inca ruler in Cuzco. To ensure loyalty, the heirs of local rulers were also kept as well-kept prisoners at the Inca capital. The most important political, religious, and military roles within the empire were, then, kept in the hands of the Inca elite, called by the Spanish the orejones or 'big ears' because they wore large earspools to indicate their status. To better ensure the control of this elite over their subjects, garrisons dotted the empire and entirely new administrative centres were built, notably at Tambo Colorado, Huanuco Pampa and Hatun Xauxa.
Taxation & Tribute
For tax purposes annual censuses were regularly taken to keep track of births, deaths, marriages, and a worker's status and abilities. For administrative purposes populations were divided up into groups based on multiples of ten (Inca mathematics was almost identical to the system we use today), even if this method did not always fit the local reality. These censuses and the officials themselves were examined every few years, along with provincial affairs in general, by dedicated and independent inspectors, known as a tokoyrikoq or 'he who sees all'.
As there was no currency in the Inca world taxes were paid in kind - usually foodstuffs (especially maize, potatoes, and dried meat), precious metals, wool, cotton, textiles, exotic feathers, dyes, and spondylus shell - but also in labourers who could be shifted about the empire to be used where they were most needed. This labour service was known as mit'a. Agricultural land and herds were divided into three parts: production for the state religion and the gods, for the Inca ruler, and for the farmers' own use. Local communities were also expected to help build and maintain such imperial projects as the road system which stretched across the empire. To keep track of all these statistics the Inca used the quipu, a sophisticated assembly of knots and strings which was also highly transportable and could record decimals up to 10,000.
Goods were transported across the empire along purpose-built roads using llamas and porters (there were no wheeled vehicles). The Inca road network covered over 40,000 km and as well as allowing for the easy movement of armies, administrators, and trade goods it was also a very powerful visual symbol of Inca authority over their empire.
The Inca Empire was founded on, and maintained, by force and so the ruling Incas were very often unpopular with their subjects (especially in the northern territories), a situation that the Spanish conquistadores, led by Francisco Pizarro, would take full advantage of in the middle decades of the 16th century CE. Rebellions were rife, and the Incas were actively engaged in a war in Ecuador, where a second Inca capital had been established at Quito, just at the time when the empire faced its greatest ever threat. Also hit by devastating diseases brought by the Europeans and which had actually spread from Central America faster than their Old World carriers, this combination of factors would bring about the collapse of the mighty Inca civilization before it had even had chance to fully mature.