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The harsh terrain, high elevations, and ravaging earthquakes of the Andes Mountain range stretch across the western shore of South America. Some would look at the Andes as inhospitable, but the Inca saw the mountains as home, building a massive empire in modern-day Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador in the 15th century. Warriors, stonemasons, religious fanatics; the Incans had a fascinating society that was swiftly crushed by a handful of prospecting Spanish conquistadors. Keep reading to learn more about the Incan Empire.

Incan Empire Map

The map below represents the territories of the Incan Empire. The Empire was divided into four different provinces, or suyu, representing south, west, north, and east. The territories of the Incans covered over 2,000 miles of South American coastline.

Incans, Empire Map, StudySmarterFig. 1- Incan Empire map.

The empire was called Tawantinsuyu:

In Quechuan, the language of the Incans, Tawantin refers to a group of four. Suyu translates to province or region, so the name 'Tawantinsuyu' means a group of four regions, which the Incan Empire was. While the Incans had many different titles for their rulers, they often used the term 'Inca' which meant "lord, king" or "man of royal blood". When Spanish conquistadors conquered the Incan Empire, they ascribed the title 'Inca' as a generalized title to the entire people of the region.

Incan Empire

Shrouded in mystery, the origins of the Incans are best known through creation myths.

Origin of the Incans

The Incans seemingly had four different creation myths, including a creator god named Viracocha, humans emerging from caves from another world, and a group of four brothers and four sisters spawning into the world. In one of the myths, a brother named Mango Capac bore a magical golden staff that would indicate where to build the first Incan settlement. He planted his staff at Cusco.

Incans, Portrait of Urco, StudySmarterFig. 2- Portrait of Urco, the 9th Inca.

Historians believe that the Incans rose as a people from the skeleton of the 7th century Wari Empire (which was also located in eastern South America). The Incans derived from hunter-gatherer tribes that engaged in animal husbandry of animals such as llamas, eventually consolidating their power by founding the future capital city of Cusco sometime in the 12th century.

Animal Husbandry:

The agricultural science of breeding and managing domestic animals.

From Cusco, the Incas launched constant expansions into the surrounding territories. Until their end in the first half of the 16th century, the Incans were almost always conquering new lands. Much like the Mongols of Eurasia, the Incan Empire used its military to topple its opponents, then enforced rule through fear, zeal, and relative autonomy (including religious tolerance).

The Incas, although an authoritarian monarchy, had succeeded nevertheless during their short reign not only in creating a massive empire, but perhaps more importantly in guaranteeing all of the empire's millions of inhabitants the basic necessities of life: adequate food, water, and shelter. It was an achievement that no subsequent government -- Spanish or Peruvian -- has attained since.

-Kim Macquarrie, author of 'Last Days of the Incans'

For an empire with a population soon breaching 10 million people, the Incans of Cusco themselves made up only a fraction of that population, inhabiting positions of nobility and social strength over millions of conquered peoples.

Incan Religion

By the start of the 16th century, the Incans established what was possibly the largest empire on planet earth. To ensure the compliance of conquered peoples, the Incans held important people and religious relics hostage, though the flaws of this system would soon manifest.

Farming in the mountains:

The Incans were clever engineers, turning the mountainous landscape of the Andes Mountains into thriving farmlands. The Incans constructed terraces in the mountains (imagine a set of steep stairs, but each step was a large plot of land that grew potatoes, beans, or squash). Canals and underground cisterns were also constructed to provide irrigation to the crops, other than the mountain rainfall. After the Spanish conquered the Incan Empire, a lack of maintenance caused the collapse of most cisterns and canals, but the mighty terraces remain as a testament to the ingenuity of the Incan people.

Conquered tribes were allowed to retain their religions, as long as they accepted that the Incan gods as superior to their own gods. This was important because the Incan emperor was considered a deity. The Incans did sacrifice humans to their gods, but far less often than the Aztecs did. The highest Incan deity was Inti, god of the sun.

Incans, Machu Picchu, StudySmarterFig. 3- Photograph of Machu Picchu.

To pray to their gods, the Incans constructed many temples and religious palaces, such as the mountainous Machu Picchu. Massive stone monuments were built into the rocky landscape, complete with irrigation systems and precise craftsmanship. Many of the monuments still stand today, having survived hundreds of years of Andes Mountains earthquakes.

Incans, Road Map, StudySmarter

Fig. 4- Territories and roads of the Incan Empire.

To connect their empire, the Incans impressively constructed almost 25,000 miles of roadways through the Andes Mountains. A postal system delivered important information from one end of the empire to the other in a matter of days. Incan society was flourishing; the people of Cusco believed that they were on track to conquering the world. There was unrest in the empire, however, and a small army of inspired Spaniards was sailing across the Atlantic.

Fall of the Incan Empire

Many believe that Francisco Pizzaro, a Spanish conquistador seeking gold and glory, solely brought the Incan Empire to its knees in 1532. While he had a very important part to play, a multitude of factors led to his personal success, including:

  • The Incans had been embroiled in a Civil War between two brothers named Waskar and Atahualpa.
  • Rebellions from displeased peoples were rising on all fronts of the Incan empire.
  • Smallpox and other European diseases ravaged the Incan population (Well over half of the Incan population was estimated to have died due to foreign diseases!).

Incans, Painting Francisco Pizarro, StudySmarterFig. 5- Pizarro attacking the Incans.

When Francisco Pizarro and his 160 soldiers first met the newly risen Incan ruler Atahualpa in the city of Cajamarca, the Incan Empire was already a shadow of its former glory. Inspired by Cortez's success with the Aztec Empire, Pizarro used his gunpowder weapons to terrorize the Incans. He captured Atahualpa and slaughtered thousands in Cajamarca. Atahualpa was used as a puppet ruler of the Incan Empire until Pizarro executed him a year later. The capital city Cusco fell soon after, and the Incans were no more.

Incans - Key takeaways

  • The Incan people founded Cusco, the future capital city of the Incan Empire, in the 12th century.
  • The Incan Empire quickly grew to include over 2,000 miles of South American coastline and a population of 10 million people.
  • The Inca empire was the largest empire in the world at the time.
  • The Inca were clever architects, farmers, and administrators. Religious monuments, mountainside terraces, and roadways sustained the empire for many years.
  • Disease, rebellions, and civil war ravaged the Incan Empire, setting the stage for Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro to conquer what remained.


  1. Fig. 1 Map of the Incan Empire (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inca_Empire_South_America.png) by EuroHistoryTreacher (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:EuroHistoryTeacher), licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en).
  2. Fig. 4 Incans Roads Map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Inca_roads-es.svg) by Haylli (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Haylli), licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en).

Frequently Asked Questions about Incans

An Incan is considered a person who lived in the Incan Empire. More accurately, Inca was a title used to reference the rulers of the Incan Empire.

The Incans lived in western South America, in modern-day Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, and Ecuador.

Yes, the Incans performed ritual human sacrifice, but to a much lesser extent than the Aztecs. 

No. The Incans did not have a formal slave class where people owned other people, but they did have a massive population of people who were essentially forced laborers.

The Incans traded ceramics, textiles, and agricultural surpluses between the provinces and cities in their empire. 

Final Incans Quiz


Did the Incan people perform human sacrifices? 

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Yes, but not as often as the Aztecs performed human sacrifices. 

Show question


Where was the Inca Empire roughly located? 

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Western South America

Show question


The Inca Empire was divided into how many different territories? 

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Four. A territory was called a 'suyu'.

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According to myth, how was the site for the city of Cusco determined by the settlers? 

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Mango Capac's magical golden staff planted itself in the fertile land. 

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What does animal husbandry mean? 

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The agricultural science of breeding and managing domestic animals.  

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How did the Inca treat the religion of conquered peoples? 

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Relative religious tolerance, as long as the conquered peoples accepted the Inca gods as superior. 

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What historical architectural building stands as a testament to Incan engineering? 

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Machu Picchu 

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What was not a factor that directly led to the fall of the Incan Empire? 

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The Incans had fought costly battles against their competitors, the Aztecs.

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What was the name of the Spanish conquistador who held Incan ruler Atahualpa hostage, eventually leading the Incan Empire to its final demise? 

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Francisco Pizarro 

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What is the name of the mountain range that runs through Chile and Peru, where the Inca built their great empire? 

Show answer


Andes Mountains 

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