from Aeon Website
the University of St Andrews
Known to its conquerors as Tahuantinsuyu - 'the land of four parts' - it contained around 11 million people from some 80 different ethnic groups, each with its own dialect, deities and traditions.
The Inkas themselves, the
ruling elite, comprised no more than about 'one per cent'... (History
Despite the challenges presented by such a vertical landscape, an impressive network of roads and bridges was also maintained, ensuring the regular collection of tribute in the capacious storehouses built at intervals along the main highways.
These resources were then
redistributed as military, religious or political needs dictated.
Had they been left to work out their own destiny, this state of affairs might well have continued for decades or even centuries, but their misfortune was to find themselves confronted by both superior weaponry and, crucially, a culture that was imbued with literacy.
As a result, not only was
their empire destroyed, but their culture and religion were
The basis of khipu accounting practice was the decimal system, achieved by tying knots with between one and nine loops to represent single numerals, then adding elaborations to designate 10s, 100s or 1,000s.
By varying the length,
width, color and number of the pendant cords, and tying knots of
differing size and type to differentiate data, the Inkas turned the
khipu into a remarkably versatile device for recording, checking and
They were also used to count commodities, especially the tribute payable by conquered provinces such as maize, llamas and cloth (there was no coinage). Maize, for example, might be represented by a yellow cord, llamas by a white cord, and so on.
Early Spanish chroniclers and administrators were astonished at the accuracy of khipu calculations:
Training in what anthropologists call 'khipu literacy' was compulsory for a specified number of incipient bureaucrats (khipukamayuqs) from each province.
For this, they were sent to Cusco, where they also learned the Inka dialect, Quechua, and were schooled in Inka religion. Like most imperial rulers, the Inkas conquered in the name of an ideology, the worship of their chief deity, the Sun, and his child on Earth, the Sapa Inka.
Sun-worship was mandatory throughout the empire, and vast resources were allocated to the performance of an annual cycle of festivals and rituals, and to the maintenance of the priests who staffed Tahuantinsuyu's ubiquitous shrines.
However, the Inkas also
tolerated local deities, which, if perceived to be efficacious,
might be incorporated into the Inka pantheon.
In other spheres of government, such as law, writing would doubtless have made more of a difference, leading perhaps to the development of written law-codes, arguably even a 'constitution'.
But since writing was
never developed, imperial rule remained weakly institutionalized,
leading to a concentration of power and office, which meant that
when the Sapa Inka was removed, there was little to fall back on.
The first Spaniard to approach him after he entered the great plaza at Cajamarca was the Dominican friar Vicente de Valverde, carrying a cross in one hand and a missal in the other.
Speaking through an interpreter, he declared that he had come to reveal to Atahualpa the requirements of the Catholic religion, which were contained in the book he was carrying.
Atahualpa demanded to see the missal.
When handed it, he was initially unable to open it. When he eventually managed to do so, he seemed more impressed by the calligraphy of the text than what it said.
After examining it for a
while, he angrily hurled it to the ground. This act of blasphemy
was the trigger for Pizarro to give the order to attack.
Since fire would destroy his body, he agreed to accept conversion, and towards nightfall on 26 July 1533 he was led out into the plaza at Cajamarca, tied to a stake and strangled. The last words he heard were those of Friar Valverde instructing him in the articles of the Catholic faith.
Atahualpa wanted to preserve his body so that it could be mummified and venerated by his descendants. Whatever he believed his 'conversion' to imply, it was clearly not the monotheism central to Catholic doctrine.
Inka religion, which was
broadly speaking animistic, acknowledged many gods, ranging from
heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon, stars) to topographical features
(mountains, rivers, springs) to ancestors, whose earthly remains
were venerated to a degree that baffled Europeans - although most of
them made little attempt to understand such practices, disparaging
them as heathen, folk-magic or simply childish.
Religions based upon books such as the Bible, the Quran or the Torah, being (literally) prescriptive, were less tolerant than oral religions. Rival belief-systems presented both an opportunity and a threat.
Missionaries and evangelists preached conversion, but with them came inquisitors and crusaders, at which point definitions were sharpened, and criteria for inclusion and exclusion delineated.
Confronted by such
certainties, backed by coercive force, the more open-ended,
absorbent oral religions of Africa or the Americas were simply
The greater 'law-worthiness' given to written evidence by literate incomers meant, for example, that customary land-rights and inheritance patterns were similarly overridden.
Despite also being colonized by Europeans, societies with written cultures in China, India and the Middle East proved much more resistant to European cultural hegemony than oral societies.
The strenuous efforts made in recent times to recover and promote the indigenous heritage of the Americas, Australasia and Africa are testimony in themselves to the degree to which those cultures were submerged, suppressed or derided by Europeans.
Their lack of a written
tradition was at least partly responsible for this...