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The history of the Tahuantinsuyo: the most important empire in South America

The Inca Empire was the most important in the American territory due to its extension and its cultural wealth that, to this day, can be seen in the territories that formed part of the empire. An example of this is the majestic Inca Citadel in Peru: Machu Picchu.

Monument to Manco Cápac, the first Inca, in Cusco

What does Tahuantinsuyo mean?

Tahuantinsuyo is a word from Quechua (native language of the Andes) and was born from the fusion of 2 terms: tahua, which means “four”, and suyo, which means “region”. The name mainly referred to the four regions in which the empire was divided. To the northwest was Chinchaysuyo, to the northeast was Antisuyo, to the southwest was Contisuyo, and to the southeast was Collasuyo.

What territories did “suyos” cover?

  • Collasuyo: Located south-east of Cusco, this Suyo was the largest in Tahuantinsuyo and at the same time the one with the least population. Their territories began in Urcos to the south of the imperial city and crossed the Titicaca region. In addition, on the coastal side, the Collasuyo lands spanned from the south of Arequipa to the Maule River on the southern border of Tahuantinsuyo.
  • Contisuyo: From the south-west of Cusco and to the Coastal Region, the Contisuyo territories were made up of lands located between the Quilca and Ica river valleys.
  • Chinchaysuyo: The Chinchaysuyo stretched across the Northwest of Cusco from Ayacucho and Ica and up to the Ancasmayo River.
  • Antisuyo: The Antisuyo lands began northeast of Cusco and extended to the Amazon High Forest, because the climatic conditions and geographic characteristics did not allow them to continue further.

What territories belonged to Tahuantinsuyo?

In the 13th century, the Incas from the Peruvian highlands (who had to move after a confrontation with the Aymara culture) settled in Cusco. Once the sovereignty of the city was assured, they prepared to start from that point the expansion of the Empire that in its apogee extended for 2,500,000 km² through the lands that are today in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and Colombia.

Sacsayhuamán, the most important ceremonial fortress in Tahuantinsuyo, Cusco.

What was the social structure of the Incas?

At the top of the Inca social scale was the Inca, son of the Inti, the sun god, and who by divine order should rule the Tahuantinsuyo. The only way to become an Inca was being part of the line of blood succession, since the position was hereditary.

Under the figure of the Inca was the Ayllu Panaca, a group formed by the direct family of the Inca. Among its members was the Auqui or heir to the empire, who ruled alongside his father while he was prepared to assume command of the Tahuantinsuyo, once the Inca regent passed away. In this ranking was also the Coya, main wife of the Inca and daughter of the Moon, dedicated to the home of royalty.

All the aforementioned strata were part of royalty, as they shared direct blood ties with the Inca.

Then there is a privileged nobility made up of the rest of the non-direct relatives of the Inca. The Curacas, local nobles and heads of an Ayllu, were in charge of organizing tasks at the territorial level, as they were councilors, judges and administrators of the Ayllu’s assets. The priests were also part of this privileged nobility within this empire.

Finally, there was the rest of the town. Here we can differentiate three types of people:

  • The Hatunruna, the peasant village
  • The Mitimaes, who were in charge of colonizing new lands and teaching Inca customs
  • The Yanaconas, the servants of royalty and who were generally prisoners

How many Incas did Tahuantinsuyo have?

In total there were 13 Incas who ruled the Tahuantinsuyo, with Manco Cápac being the first of them, and the last Atahualpa Cápac, after the arrival of the Spanish to the continent.

Pachacútec Yupanqui, the ninth Inca, was one of the most important emperors in the history of Tahuantinsuyo due to his work in the expansion of the Inca territory by conquering other ethnic groups such as the Ayarmacas, the Chancas. At the same time, there were others who joined the empire peacefully such as the Cotanera, Omasayo, Cotapampa and Aimarae.

Pachacutec Monument, Aguas Calientes.

The Inca Pachacútec is the one who ordered the construction of the mythical Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu, one of the great legacies of Inca culture in the Latin American continent and that to this day receives thousands of tourists daily. Although at the beginning it was thought that the ruins of Machu Picchu were some sort of fortress, with years of research it has been concluded that these ruins were once a place of rest and meditation for the Incan royalty.

How does the Tahuantinsuyo fall?

After the death of Huayna Cápac, his sons Huáscar and Atahualpa (half brothers) faced a war for the power of the Tahuantinsuyo. Although Huáscar had been named as the new Inca, his relationship with Atahualpa (who by then had been named Governor of Quito) deteriorated over time and ended with an armed conflict between the two. Atahualpa was the victor and proclaimed himself as the emperor of all the Inca territory.

Coricancha Temple today, Cusco.

After this internal conflict where the Tahuantinsuyo was weakened, the Spaniards made their appearance in Inca lands. Under the command of Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish colony reached Cajamarca, the city where the Inca Atahualpa was located. Once here, they took him hostage to later negotiate his release. In exchange for the Inca, his captors demanded a room full of gold, a request that was fulfilled. Even so, the Spaniards did not comply with the deal and Atahualpa was assassinated, making him the last Inca of Tahuantinsuyo.

Although those sent by the crown named 3 Incas after the assassination of Atahualpa, none was really considered an Inca leader, since they were acting under the command of the Spaniards. In a last attempt to rebel against the Spanish crown, Manco Inca established a new empire in Vilcabamba. This rebellion would end in 1572 with the death of Túpac Amaru at the hands of the Spaniards. This act ended the Inca Empire definitively.

Currently, the streets of Cusco are full of Inca history and samples of the majestic Tahuantinsuyo empire, such as the Coricancha Temple, which was the main Inca temple, Sacsayhuamán, Tambomachay, among others. Likewise, the ruins of Machu Picchu represent a unique energy, history and beauty in the world that you must know.

Visit the historic Inca lands aboard the PeruRail Vistadome train and discover the mysteries its buildings held. Check the schedules, choose the one that best suits you and visit the magical Inca Citadel, Machu Picchu.

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