How did Pizarro do it? Sooner or later, everyone who studies the Inka confronts this question. Henry Dobyns wondered about it, too. The empire was as populous, rich, and well organized as any in history. But no other fell before such a small force: Pizarro had only 168 men and 62 horses. Researchers have often wondered whether the Inka collapse betokens a major historical lesson. The answer is yes, but the lesson was not grasped until recently.

The basic history of the empire was known well enough by the time Dobyns began reading the old colonial accounts. According to Cabello Balboa’s chronology, Pachakuti died peacefully in 1471. His son Thupa Inka, long the military commander, now took the imperial “crown”—a multicolored braid, twisted around the skull like a headband, from which hung a red tasseled fringe that fell across the forehead. Carried on a golden litter—the Inka did not walk in public—Thupa Inka appeared with such majesty, according to the voyager Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, that “people left the roads along which he had to pass and, ascending the hills on either side, worshipped and adored” him by “pulling out their eyebrows and eyelashes.” Minions collected and stored every object he touched, food waste included, to ensure that no lesser persons could profane these objects with their touch. The ground was too dirty to receive the Inka’s saliva so he always spat into the hand of a courtier. The courtier wiped the spittle with a special cloth and stored it for safekeeping. Once a year everything touched by the Inka—clothing, garbage, bedding, saliva—was ceremonially burned.

Thupa Inka inaugurated the Inka custom of marrying his sister. In fact, Thupa Inka may have married two of his sisters. The practice was genetically unsound but logically consistent. Only close relatives of the Inka were seen as of sufficient purity to produce his heir. As Inkas grew in grandeur, more purity was required. Finally only a sister would do. The Inka’s sister-wives accompanied him on military forays, along with a few hundred or thousand of his subordinate wives. The massive scale of these domestic arrangements seems not to have impeded his imperial progress. By his death in 1493, Thupa Inka had sent his armies deep into Ecuador and Chile, doubling the size of Tawantinsuyu again. In terms of area conquered during his lifetime, he was in the league of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan.


Expansion of the Inka Empire, 1438–1527 

Tawantinsuyu is known to have risen and fallen with breathtaking rapidity, but the exact chronology of its trajectory is disputed. Most researchers regard the account of Miguel Cabello Balboa as approximately correct. It is the source for this map, though the reader is cautioned against regarding it as either exact or universally accepted.

Thupa Inka’s death set off a fight for the royal fringe. Tawantinsuyu did not have strict succession rules. Instead the Inka selected the son he thought most qualified. Thupa Inka had more than sixty sons from all of his wives, according to Sarmiento de Gamboa, so he had a lot of choice. Alas, Thupa Inka apparently selected one son but then changed his mind on his deathbed and selected another. Factions formed around each son, leading to a melée. The first son was banished or killed and the second took the name Wayna Qhapaq (Why-na Ka-pok) and became the Inka. Because the new Inka was still a teenager (his name means “Munificent Youth”), two of his uncles served as regents. One uncle tried to usurp power but was killed by the other. Eventually the Inka grew old enough to take the reins. Among his first official acts was killing two of his own brothers to avoid future family problems. Then he, like his father, married his sister.

Wayna Qhapaq was not a military adventurer like his father. He initially seems to have viewed his role mainly as one of consolidation, rather than conquest, perhaps because Tawantinsuyu was approaching the geographic limits of governability—communication down the long north-south spine of the empire was stretched to the limit. Much of Wayna Qhapaq’s time was devoted to organizing the empire’s public works projects. Often these were more political than practical. Because the Inka believed that idleness fomented rebellion, the Spanish traveler Pedro Cieza de León reported, he ordered unemployed work brigades “to move a mountain from one spot to another” for no practical purpose. Cieza de León once came upon three different highways running between the same two towns, each built by a different Inka.

Consolidation was completed in about 1520. Wayna Qhapaq then marched to Ecuador at the head of an army, intending to expand the empire to the north. It was a journey of return: he had been born in southern Ecuador during one of his father’s campaigns. He himself brought with him one of his teenage sons, Atawallpa. When Wayna Qhapaq came to his birthplace, the city now called Cuenca, Cobo reported, “he commanded that a magnificent palace be constructed for himself.” Wayna Qhapaq liked his new quarters so much that he stayed on while Atawallpa and his generals went out to subjugate a few more provinces.


In 1615, the Inka writer Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala presented his life’s work, a massive history of Inka society with four hundred drawings, to King Philip II of Spain, hoping that the king would use it to learn more about his new subjects. Whether Philip ever saw the manuscript is unknown, but Poma de Ayala’s work—one of the few non-European accounts of Inka life—is now a fundamental scholarly source. Although the portraits here are not taken from life, they hint at how the Inka viewed and remembered their leaders.

They did not meet with success. The peoples of the wet equatorial forests did not belong to the Andean culture system and were not interested in joining. They fought ferociously. Caught by an ambush, Atawallpa was forced to retreat. Enraged by this failure, Cobo wrote, Wayna Qhapaq “prepared himself as quickly as possible to go in person and avenge this disgrace.” He left his pleasure palace and publicly berated Atawallpa at the front. In a renewed offensive, the army advanced under the Inka’s personal command. Bearing clubs, spears, bows, lances, slings, and copper axes, brilliant in cloaks of feathers and silver breastplates, their faces painted in terrifying designs, the Inka army plunged into the forests of the northern coast. They sang and shouted in unison as they fought. The battle seesawed until a sudden counterattack knocked Wayna Qhapaq out of his litter—a humiliation. Nearly captured by his foes, he was forced to walk like a plebe back to his new palace. The Inka army regrouped and returned. After prolonged struggle it subjugated its foes.

Finding the warm Ecuadorian climate more to his liking than that of chilly Qosqo, Wayna Qhapaq delayed his triumphal return for six years. Wearing soft, loose clothing of vampire-bat wool, he swanned around his palaces with a bowl of palm wine or chicha, a sweet, muddy, beer-like drink usually made from crushed maize. “When his captains and chief Indians asked him how, though drinking so much, he never got intoxicated,” reported Pizarro’s younger cousin and page, Pedro, “they say that he replied that he drank for the poor, of whom he supported many.”

In 1525 Wayna Qhapaq suddenly got sick and expired in his Ecuadorian retreat. Once again the succession was contested and bloody. Details are murky, but on his deathbed the Inka seems to have passed over Atawallpa, who had not distinguished himself, and designated as his heir a son named Ninan K’uychi. Unluckily, Ninan K’uychi died of the same illness right before Wayna Qhapaq. The Inka’s next pick was a nineteen-year-old son who had stayed behind in Qosqo. As was customary, high priests subjected this choice to a divination. They learned that this son would be dreadfully unlucky. The priest who reported this unhappy result to Wayna Qhapaq found him dead. In consequence, the court nobles were left to choose the emperor. They settled on the teenager who had been the Inka’s final choice.

The teenager’s principal qualification for the post was that his mother was Wayna Qhapaq’s sister. Nonetheless, he had no doubts about crowning himself immediately—he didn’t even wait to find out if Wayna Qhapaq had left any instructions or last wishes. The new Inka took the name Washkar Inka (“Golden Chain Inka”). Atawallpa remained in Ecuador, ostensibly because he was unable to show his face after being berated by his father, but presumably also because he knew that the life expectancy of Inka brothers tended to be short.

Meanwhile, Wayna Qhapaq’s mummified body was dressed in fine clothing and taken back to Qosqo on a gold litter bedecked with feathers. Along the way, the dead emperor’s executors, four high-ranking nobles, schemed to depose and murder Washkar and install yet another son in his place. Something aroused Washkar’s suspicions as the party neared Qosqo—perhaps his discovery that Atawallpa had stayed in Ecuador with most of the Inka army, perhaps a tipoff from a loyal uncle whom the conspirators had approached. After staging a grand funeral for his father, Washkar ordered the executors to meet him one at a time, which provided the occasion to arrest them. Torture and execution followed.

The plot circumvented, Washkar went to work eliminating any remaining objections to his accession. Because Wayna Qhapaq had not actually married Washkar’s mother—the union was properly incestuous but not properly legitimate—the new Inka demanded that his mother participate ex post facto in a wedding ceremony with his father’s mummy. Even for the Andes this was an unusual step. Washkar further solidified his credentials as ruler by marrying his sister. According to the unsympathetic account of Cabello Balboa, Washkar’s mother, who was apparently willing to marry her dead brother, objected to her son’s plan to marry her daughter. The ceremony took place only after “much begging and supplication.”

Civil war was probably unavoidable. Egged on by scheming courtiers and generals, relations between Atawallpa and Washkar spent several years swinging through the emotional valence from concealed suspicion to overt hostility. Washkar, in Qosqo, had the machinery of the state at his disposal; in addition, his claim to the fringe was generally accepted. Atawallpa, in Ecuador, had a war-tested army and the best generals but a weaker claim to the throne (his mother was merely his father’s cousin, not his sister). The war lasted for more than three years, seesawed across the Andes, and was spectacularly brutal. Washkar’s forces seized the initial advantage, invading Ecuador and actually capturing Atawallpa, almost tearing off one of his ears in the process. In a sequence reminiscent of Hollywood, one of Atawallpa’s wives supposedly smuggled a crowbar-like tool into his improvised battlefield prison (his intoxicated guards permitted a conjugal visit). Atawallpa dug his way out, escaped to Ecuador, reassembled his army, and drove his foes south. On a plateau near today’s Peru-Ecuador border the northern forces personally led by Atawallpa shattered Washkar’s army. A decade later Cieza de León saw the battleground and from the wreckage and unburied remains thought the dead could have numbered sixteen thousand. The victors captured and beheaded Washkar’s main general. Atawallpa mounted a bowl atop the skull, inserted a spout between the teeth, and used it as a cup for his chicha.

With the momentum of war turning against him, Washkar left Qosqo to lead his own army. Atawallpa sent his forces ahead to meet it. After a horrific battle (Cieza de León estimated the dead at thirty-five thousand), Washkar was captured in an ambush in the summer of 1532. Atawallpa’s generals took the Inka as a captive to Qosqo and executed his wives, children, and relatives in front of him. Meanwhile, Atawallpa’s triumphant cavalcade, perhaps as many as eighty thousand strong, slowly promenaded to Qosqo. In October or November 1532, the victors stopped outside the small city of Cajamarca, where they learned that pale, hairy people who sat on enormous animals had landed on the coast.

No matter how many times what happened next has been recounted, it has not lost its power to shock: how the curious Atawallpa decided to wait for the strangers’ party to arrive; how Pizarro, for it was he, persuaded Atawallpa to visit the Spaniards in the central square of Cajamarca, which was surrounded on three sides by long, empty buildings (the town apparently had been evacuated for the war); how on November 16, 1532, the emperor-to-be came to Cajamarca in his gilded and feather-decked litter, preceded by a squadron of liveried men who swept the ground and followed by five or six thousand troops, almost all of whom bore only ornamental, parade-type weapons; how Pizarro hid his horses and cannons just within the buildings lining the town square, where the 168 Spanish awaited the Inka with such fear, Pedro Pizarro noted, that many “made water without knowing it out of sheer terror”; how a Spanish priest presented Atawallpa with a travel-stained Christian breviary, which the Inka, to whom it literally meant nothing, impatiently threw aside, providing the Spanish with a legal fig leaf for an attack (desecrating Holy Writ); how the Spanish, firing cannons, wearing armor, and mounted on horses, none of which the Indians had ever seen, suddenly charged into the square; how the Indians were so panicked by the smoke and fire and steel and charging animals that in trying to flee hundreds trampled each other to death (“they formed mounds and suffocated one another,” one conquistador wrote); how the Spanish took advantage of the soldiers’ lack of weaponry to kill almost all the rest; how the native troops who recovered from their initial surprise desperately clustered around Atawallpa, supporting his litter with their shoulders even after Spanish broadswords sliced off their hands; how Pizarro personally dragged down the emperor-to-be and hustled him through the heaps of bodies on the square to what would become his prison.

Pizarro exulted less in victory than one might imagine. A self-made man, the illiterate, illegitimate, neglected son of an army captain, he ached with dreams of wealth and chivalric glory despite the fortune he had already acquired in the Spanish colonies. After landing in Peru he realized that his tiny force was walking into the maw of a powerful empire. Even after his stunning triumph in Cajamarca he remained torn between fear and ambition. For his part, Atawallpa observed the power of Inka gold and silver to cloud European minds. *9 Precious metals were not valuable in the same way in Tawantinsuyu, because there was no currency. To the Inka ruler, the foreigners’ fascination with gold apparently represented his best chance to manipulate the situation to his advantage. He offered to fill a room twenty-two feet by seventeen feet full of gold objects—and two equivalent rooms with silver—in exchange for his freedom. Pizarro quickly agreed to the plan.

Atawallpa, still in command of the empire, ordered his generals to strip Qosqo of its silver and gold. Not having lived in the city since childhood, he had little attachment to it. He also told his men to slay Washkar, whom they still held captive; all of Washkar’s main supporters; and, while they were at it, all of Atawallpa’s surviving brothers. After his humiliating captivity ended, Atawallpa seems to have believed, the ground would be clear for his rule.

Between December 1532 and May 1533, caravans of precious objects—jewelry, fine sculptures, architectural ornamentation—wended on llama-back to Cajamarca. As gold and silver slowly filled the rooms, all of Tawantinsuyu seemed frozen. It was as if someone had slipped into the Kremlin in 1950 and held Stalin at gunpoint, leaving the nation, accustomed to obeying a tyrant, utterly rudderless. Meanwhile, the waiting Spanish, despite their unprecedented success, grew increasingly fearful and suspicious. When Atawallpa fulfilled his half of the bargain and the ransom was complete Pizarro melted everything into ingots and shipped them to Spain. The conquistadors did not follow through on their part of the deal. Rather than releasing Atawallpa, they garroted him. Then they marched to Qosqo.

Almost at a stroke, just 168 men had dealt a devastating blow to the greatest empire on earth. To be sure, their victory was nowhere near complete: huge, bloody battles still lay ahead. Even after the conquistadors seized Qosqo, the empire regrouped in the hinterlands, where it fought off Spanish forces for another forty years. Yet the scale of Pizarro’s triumph at Cajamarca cannot be gainsaid. He had routed a force fifty times larger than his own, won the greatest ransom ever seen, and vanquished a cultural tradition that had lasted five millennia—all without suffering a single casualty.

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