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In the 12th century, some Native Americans moved down the Peruvian mountains to settle in the Cuzco valley. They were farmers and crafts workers, with few territorial ambitions. Men and women shared the tasks of farming. They needed strong shoes, for example sandals made of rope, in the rough mountain terrain. Potatoes were part of the Incas' staple diet, and they freeze-dried any surplus in case of a famine. To grow crops, the Incas had to cut terraces in the steep slopes of the Andes. They then harvested the crop with a wooden digging-stick, called a tacla. On the high ground, the llamas and alpacas grazed.

Soon a dynasty of rulers emerged, each with the name 'Sapa Inca', meaning 'the unique Inca'. At this time the Incas were making sculptures of their warrior chiefs. According to tradition, Manco Capac founded the Inca civilization in 1220; he ruled along with his sister, Mama Ocllo. They called themselves 'the Children of the Sun' and, if they existed at all, they were probably the leaders of a wandering tribe. By the 1300s they had become highly skilled stonemasons and builders, and were strengthening their grip on the lands around their mountain capital at Cuzco. By the 1400s, the Incas were using llamas for transport and also traded them with other peoples. Powerful and extremely well organized, the Inca people ruled over about a third of the South American continent.

Under the Sapa Inca, many officials were responsible for the everyday running of the country. They looked after the affairs of the cities and made sure the farms were working efficiently. These officials were also responsible for the factories and workshops which produced pottery, textiles and decorative metal objects. Writing was unknown to them, so they kept all their records on quipus. In the Inca empire, the old, the frail and the young were looked after by the state in a way which would not be equalled in Europe for over 400 years, but healthy young people were sacrificed to the gods.

In the 1390s Hatun Tapac became Sapa Inca, taking the name of his people's supreme god, Viracocha Inca. Viracocha was the first Inca empire builder. He absorbed some of his neighbour's lands, and increased his prestige by making alliances with strong local rulers. He gave top jobs in state, army, and religion to members of his family or associations under his control. He and his descendants came to be thought of as living gods. Those entering their presence bowed, wore no shoes, and carried a pack on their backs to show their lowly position.

The Incas probably looked very like their descendants, the Quechua Indians, who live in the highlands of Peru today. Short and stocky, with straight black hair, they are well adapted to life in the thin air of the mountains. An Inca's clothes showed his position in society. Sapa Incas wore the finest materials, threaded with gold, covered with bright feathers of tropical birds.

The Incas celebrated two festivals of the Sun. One was in June, the other in December. The emperor led the ceremonies in the great square at Cuzco. Officials from all over the empire attended.

The Incas made ornaments in gold and silver, although they did not know how to make metal tools. Gold was often buried with the dead. Inca rulers were considered to be immortal, and their bodies were mummified. Their riches and property were administered by their heirs. The mummies 'entertained' through their heirs and attended all important ceremonies.

In the 1430s the Inca kingdom was invaded by a neighbouring state which attacked Cuzco. The old ruler, Viracocha Inca, handed over the defence of this realm to his son Yupanqui who took the name Pachacuti. Pachacuti repelled the invader, and over the next three decades reformed the government and improved Cuzco. Pachacuti and his successors also greatly increased the empire to include parts of Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador. In 1450 he conquered the Titicaca basin, and in 1463 he went to war against the Lupaca and Colla tribes, and in the same year handed control of the army over to his son, Topa.

The Inca empire was very well run. There was a hierarchy of nobles, provincial governors, and officials, all headed by the Sapa Inca. The central administration controlled the building of new towns and monitored the use of natural resources. Even the art and pottery conformed to a single set of styles dictated by Cuzco.

The city of Machu Picchu was built in the mid-15th century on a high plain between the peaks of two mountains in the Andes, above the Urubamba river. It consisted of agricultural terraces and complex stone buildings, built of granite blocks and cleverly fitted together without the use of mortar. The blocks were shaped by hand-held, stone hammers, and the edges sanded so they fitted together smoothly. The ruined city still stands high in the Andes to this day, set in an extraordinarily beautiful and dramatic position.

During the reign of Pachacuti's son Topa Inca (1471-93), the Inca empire expanded greatly. In 1466 Topa had led his people to overrun the Chimu empire. Topa conquered territory in Bolivia, the south coast of Peru, the north-west of Argentina, and all of what is now Chile, winning lands as far south as the Maule River. He also began a period of extensive road-building. His successor gained land in Ecuador. In 1498 Huayna Capac extended the empire north of Quito into what is now Colombia, made Quito into a second capital, and the Andes highway was completed.

Although the Incas had not invented a wheel, Inca rulers controlled their huge domains by developing a massive road network over some very inaccessible terrain covering some 30,000 km. Two main roads ran north and south, connected to every village by smaller roads. There were also many hanging bridges in the Inca empire, supervised by an official called a 'chaca suyoyoc'. The government kept in close touch with provincial and local officials by means of relays of couriers or runners. (Before the Spanish arrived, neither Aztecs nor Incas had seen horses. The runners were trained from birth.) Small offices were placed along the roads some 2.5 km apart, at which runners waited to take messages, instructions, reports, and so on, further down the line. An order could be carried as far as 250 km in a day. Runners trumpeted their arrival at road stations on a conch shell.

Huayna Capac died in 1525, when the empire was at its height. The empire stretched from the Andes to the coast and measured 4000 kilometres from north to south. It had many different landscapes and climates. There were deserts near the coast and high mountains in the east. Huayna Capac's sons fought over the succession, with Huascar ruling the south and Atahualpa the north. This division soon led to civil war, and Atahualpa took over in 1532. As he marched to Cuzco for his coronation, Atahualpa and his followers were set upon by 168 armoured knights on horseback led by the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. It had taken Pizarro three expeditions to find the Incas; he had first set out in 1530. The entire Inca company was killed, apart from Atahualpa, who was spared on condition that he paid a huge ransom to the Spaniards. Atahualpa delivered the goods - a huge room filled with gold and silver - and was promptly strangled. His death signalled the end of the great Inca empire.Remains of the Inca and pre-Inca civilizations survive on Lake Titicaca's Islands of the Moon and Sun.

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