A history that strikes South American gold

The Incas

January 17, 2003

The Incas created one of the world's greatest but least-known civilisations. In less than 100 years, from AD1438 to the Spanish conquest in 1532, a succession of gifted warrior emperors welded together pre-Columbian America's most successful empire. Across South America's Andes and Pacific desert coast, the empire known as Tawantinsuyu ("land of the four quarters") embraced a multi-ethnic array of languages, religions and cultural landscapes totalling perhaps 12 million people. It is this unique and complex achievement that Terence D'Altroy explores in The Incas .

Unlike many previous authors who have written on this topic, D'Altroy is not only an Inca specialist, but is as much concerned with the nuts and bolts of the Inca political economy as with the Incas'

extraordinary military campaigns and spectacular monuments. Writing a good book on an ancient empire can be difficult, as imperial architecture, state religion and an official art style are deceptively familiar from better-known Old World examples. Yet, the Inca empire incorporated technologies, life ways and world views radically different from our experience.

Imperial Inca civilisation was arguably unique in world history. Andean societies, unlike those in Mesoamerica, existed solely in the oral tradition. While the Aztec and Maya had writing, the Inca had none. They relied on an ingenious and little-understood system of knotted strings called khipu to articulate their administration. Labour obligations (the mita tax) supported the economy, the Inca language of Quechua was the official lingua franca, and social cohesion was fostered by the mitmaq system that saw the mass movement of peoples into and out of newly conquered areas.

As the empire expanded, a vast road system was built, integrating different ethnic groups, economies and cultural traditions. Some 40,000km of Inca roads were constructed through mountain passes, deserts and jungles, their upkeep apportioned in efficient Inca fashion to the local groups through whose ancestral (now Inca) lands they passed. In the Americas, there were no horses or draught animals, and these roads were reserved for the Inca armies, the emperor and his retinue, and the imperial messengers known as Chaski who ran in stages the length and breadth of the empire.

Inca imperial success was based not on proselytising conquest, but rather on the clever adaptation and manipulation of age-old Andean traditions, especially ancestor worship. Local beliefs, religious leaders and sacred places were tolerated but integrated into an overarching Inca system in which the emperor and his predecessors formed a lineage of sacred power connected to the Sun God Inti. The rituals associated with the state religion brought together dynastic politics, cosmogonic myth, economic production and social control in an ingenious manner.

D'Altroy's mastery of the sources and his own original fieldwork allows him to explore these issues in great depth and with commendable clarity. Judiciously adding the minutiae of, for example, Inca royal marriages, the role of llamas and the importance of mining and metallurgy illustrates how details reveal broader issues concerning Inca society at work.

By avoiding a detailed account of the Spanish conquest and the syncretisms of native and European cultures that followed, D'Altroy has played to his strengths. This is a highly readable synthesis of history and archaeology, and probably the best modern introduction to Inca civilisation yet written.

Nicholas Saunders is lecturer in material culture, University College London.

The Incas

Author - Terence D'Altroy
ISBN - 0 631 17677 2
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £19.99
Pages - 391

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