How did the Incas Build their Empire?

The Inca Empire was the mightiest of its kind in the history of Pre-Columbian America. But how did it get so large? Was it through peaceful trade and political alliances? Or did the Incas expand via bloody conquest?

The Rise of the Inca Empire?

The Inca Empire originated in the Andes Mountains during the early 13th century. Beginning in 1438, it spread across the western half of South America, eventually covering a vast territory which encompassed over 2,000 miles and some 6 million people.

While military force was undoubtedly a factor in this expansion, recent scholarship suggests it wasn’t as prevalent as you might think. In a recent paper published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, anthropologists Valerie Andrushko and Elva Torres state their opinion that the Incas depended on a variety of nonviolent tactics to spread their influence across the region. As reported by Bruce Bower at Science News, they based this on skeletal remains dating to 600-1532 AD, which were recovered from areas close to the heart of the former Incan Empire. More specifically, only a small percentage of 454 adult skeletons show the sort of head trauma one might expect from battle wounds.

“It appears that the Inca relied less on warfare to conquer other groups and more on political alliances, bloodless takeovers and ideological control tactics.” ~ Professor Valerie Andrushko, Southern Connecticut State University

That’s not to say that the threat of violence wasn’t a factor. According to ancient Spanish accounts, the Incas established a protection racket of sorts. They offered military protection to other groups in exchange for complete submission. Woe to any group that refused the offer. Such defiance was met by swift retribution from the nearby Inca army.

How Violent was the Inca Empire?

For many years, scholars considered the Incas to be “great civilizers responsible for ending several centuries of regional warfare by conquering all groups engaged in hostilities.” These original perceptions were shaped by members of the Inca Empire itself, which relayed the history of its people to the Spanish conquerors.

Since that time, scholars have unearthed circumstantial evidence calling that theory into question. And Valerie’s and Elva’s research would seem to add credence to the idea that the Incas relied less on war to expand their empire than is commonly believed. But that doesn’t mean the Incas eschewed warfare. In fact, the rise of the Inca Empire corresponded with an increased level of warfare.

“Before the Inca came to power, from 600 to 1000, only one of 36 individuals in the sample suffered war-related head injuries. As the Inca empire grew from 1000 to 1400, five of 199 individuals, or 2.5 percent, living near Cuzco incurred likely battle wounds. During the Inca heyday, from 1400 to 1532, war injuries affected 17 of 219 individuals — 7.8 percent of the total.” ~ Bruce Bower, Science News

It appears that Valerie and Elva consider the rise in war-like fatalities after 1400 to be relatively small, especially for a rapidly expanding empire. They might be right and there is certainly some evidence that the Incas preferred to use the threat of violence rather than violence itself to get what they wanted. Unfortunately, due to the extremely small sample size as well as its geographic isolation, it’s difficult to make a firm statement with much certainty. The Incas conquered a large area and skeletal data from other regions needs to be gathered and evaluated – especially those places that were supposedly conquered by force.

Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis

Even if future skeletal data bears out Valerie’s and Elva’s conclusions, it doesn’t tell us much about the Incas themselves. The Inca Empire appeared to depend heavily on the threat of war and appeared ready and willing to back it up if their demands weren’t met. Thus, the only thing the skeletal data can truly tell us is how defiant the other groups remained in the face of Inca Empire aggression…and how far they were willing to go to maintain their sovereignty.

Recent Comments

    • Anonymous
      June 6, 2012 - 5:13 pm · Reply

      Yes, they had because if how would they conquer the other pre-incan cultures to join them by war oviously.

  • David
    October 12, 2011 - 12:36 pm · Reply

    Hey Boris,

    Well, they definitely had an army, and a powerful one at that! But their forces were decimated by The War of the Two Brothers and smallpox (which the Spaniards had unknowingly brought over from Europe). Those things, coupled with the fact that Spain enjoyed numerous technological advantages, led to the inevitable fall of the Incan Empire.

    Thanks for stopping by!


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