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The Inca Empire for Unit 1 of AP World History

Cate O'Donnell

14 min read

Dec 24, 2023




Do you need to learn about the Inca Empire for AP World History? The Incas dominated South America until the Spanish arrived. They had a complex road system with suspension bridges, massive temples, and a thriving society. Unfortunately, the Spanish had superior weapons and diseases. This post will teach you everything you need to know about the Incas before the Spanish for your AP World History exam.

You can read and watch videos on the Inca Empire using Google Slides, or you can scroll down to read on the website.

Machu Picchu of the Incan Empire
Machu Picchu 1387848629/Shutterstock

The Beginning of the Inca Empire

The origin of the Inca people is still a subject of some debate among historians and scholars. According to Inca mythology and historical accounts, the Inca people believed they were descendants of the sun god, Inti, and emerged from the depths of Lake Titicaca. However, modern archaeological and anthropological research provides a more complex understanding of their origins.

The Inca civilization originated in the Andean region of South America, primarily in what is now Peru. It is believed that their ancestors belonged to various ethnic groups in the Andes and gradually coalesced into a distinct Inca culture.

It’s important to note that the Inca Empire was a multi-ethnic society, and the Incas integrated many different cultures and peoples into their empire. The Inca civilization was characterized by a highly organized and centralized state, with a common language, Quechua, and a shared religion based on the worship of their gods.


The Incas are believed to have established their capital in Cusco several centuries before the rise of the Inca Empire. The exact date of their initial settlement in Cusco is not well-documented, and there are various theories and legends surrounding its foundation.

According to Inca mythology, Cusco was founded by the first Inca ruler, Manco Cápac, who, along with his sister-wife Mama Ocllo, is said to have emerged from the depths of Lake Titicaca. The Inca origin story places their arrival in the Cusco area around the 13th century.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Cusco Valley was inhabited by various cultures and ethnic groups for centuries prior to the rise of the Inca Empire. The Incas, under the leadership of rulers like Pachacuti, gradually expanded their influence in the region. Cusco became the capital of the Inca Empire and was extensively developed and transformed into a grand city during Pachacuti’s reign in the mid-15th century.

The Inca Empire

The formation of the Inca Empire began in the early 15th century under the visionary leadership of Inca ruler Pachacuti. Emerging from the highlands of what is now Peru, the Incas gradually expanded their influence through a combination of military conquest and diplomacy. Pachacuti’s strategic military campaigns, including the defeat of rival groups like the Chancas, played a pivotal role in expanding their territory. Moreover, he introduced administrative reforms that organized the empire into four regions, promoting effective governance. The Inca people believed themselves to be descendants of the sun god, which played a central role in their cultural and religious unity. As they continued to incorporate diverse regions and tribes into their realm, the Inca Empire solidified its position as one of the most sophisticated and expansive civilizations in the New World.


Pachacuti, often referred to as Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui, was a remarkable Inca ruler who reigned during the 15th century and played a pivotal role in the formation and expansion of the Inca Empire. He ascended to power in Cusco and is celebrated as a visionary leader who transformed the Inca state into a formidable empire. Pachacuti’s military campaigns, including significant victories over rival groups like the Chancas, enabled the Inca civilization to expand its territorial reach. He introduced key administrative reforms, instituting the concept of “Tawantinsuyu” or “Four Regions,” which helped centralize governance. Pachacuti’s enduring legacy is evident in the impressive architectural feats he initiated, including the redevelopment of Cusco into a magnificent city. His reign marked a critical juncture in Inca history, setting the stage for the empire’s rapid growth and influence in the Andean region of South America.

Social Structure of the Inca Empire

The social structure of the Inca Empire was highly organized and hierarchical, with society divided into distinct classes and roles. At the top of the social hierarchy was the ruler, the Sapa Inca, who was considered divine and held absolute authority.

Nobility and Aristocracy (Inkap Rantin): The nobility held significant political and administrative positions. They were part of the ruling elite and often had close blood ties to the Sapa Inca. The nobility had privileges, controlled vast estates, and were responsible for the administration of the empire’s provinces.

Priests and Religious Leaders: The Inca religion played a central role in society. Priests and religious leaders, known as amautas, were responsible for conducting religious ceremonies, maintaining temples, and ensuring the spiritual well-being of the empire. The high priest, known as the Willaq Umu, held considerable influence.

Commoners (Mink’a): The majority of the population belonged to the commoner class. Commoners were engaged in various occupations, such as farming, herding, and craftsmanship. They were subject to a labor tax known as “mit’a,” which required them to work on state projects, including agricultural terraces, roads, and construction.

Artisans and Craftsmen (Yanaconas): Skilled artisans and craftsmen created the intricate pottery, textiles, and metalwork for which the Inca civilization is renowned. They were often attached to the state or noble households.

Mita Workers: These were laborers who contributed to the mit’a system, which was a form of labor tribute. They worked on communal projects and served the state in various capacities, including construction, agriculture, and military service.

Specialized Laborers (Mitmaqkuna): Some communities were relocated to different regions of the empire and were responsible for specific tasks or trades, such as mining, weaving, or farming. This was a form of economic and social control exercised by the Inca rulers.

Slaves (Yana): Slavery existed in the Inca Empire, with some individuals or groups of people subjected to servitude. However, it was not as widespread as in some other ancient civilizations.

The Sapa Inca

The Sapa Inca was the supreme ruler of the Inca Empire, holding a position of absolute authority and divine significance in Inca society. This title, which means “The Only Inca,” represented the Inca ruler’s role as both a political leader and a religious figure. The Sapa Inca was believed to be the offspring of the sun god, Inti, and was considered divine. As the empire’s head, the Sapa Inca had absolute power, making all important decisions related to governance, religion, and military matters. They were the ultimate arbiter of justice and played a central role in upholding the Inca religion. The Sapa Inca was also responsible for managing the empire’s vast territories, overseeing tribute collection, and conducting grand religious ceremonies. The ruler’s person was considered so sacred that their subjects would not look directly at them or let their feet touch the ground. The Sapa Inca was the embodiment of Inca authority, and their reign was marked by an intricate blend of politics, religion, and absolute power.

The Mit’a System

The mit’a system was a critical component of the Inca Empire’s labor organization and tribute collection. It was an obligation imposed on commoners in the Inca society, requiring them to contribute their labor for the benefit of the state. Under this system, individuals or communities were periodically called upon to perform specific tasks, such as agricultural work, construction of roads and buildings, mining, and military service. The primary objective of the mit’a was to ensure the functioning of the empire and to support public projects, infrastructure development, and the maintenance of the state. While the mit’a involved mandatory labor, it was not a form of slavery but rather a system of labor taxation, designed to serve the common good. However, the heavy demands of the mit’a system could be burdensome on the individuals and communities subjected to it, as they had to leave their homes for extended periods to fulfill their labor obligations. The mit’a system was a key element of the Inca state’s ability to organize and mobilize its workforce for various essential projects and contributed to the empire’s impressive infrastructure and architectural achievements.

Inca Agriculture

Inca agriculture was highly sophisticated and played a central role in the success and sustainability of the Inca Empire. The Incas developed innovative farming techniques and adapted to the challenging terrain of the Andean region.

Terrace Farming: One of the most distinctive features of Inca agriculture was the use of extensive terraced fields. The Incas built intricate systems of terraces on the steep mountain slopes, creating flat areas for cultivation. These terraces allowed them to take advantage of the limited arable land at high altitudes.

Crop Variety: The Incas cultivated a wide range of crops, including maize (corn), potatoes, quinoa, amaranth, beans, sweet potatoes, and various types of peppers. Maize was a staple food in their diet.

Crop Rotation: Inca farmers practiced crop rotation to maintain soil fertility. They alternated between planting different crops in a single field to prevent soil exhaustion and maintain productivity.

Irrigation Systems: The Incas developed an intricate network of canals, aqueducts, and irrigation systems to supply water to their fields. This allowed them to bring water from rivers and streams to arid or high-altitude regions.

Andenes: Andenes were raised, terraced garden beds that served both for farming and erosion control. They were particularly important in areas with limited arable land.

Storage Facilities: To store surplus crops for times of scarcity or for use in the event of crop failure, the Incas built granaries. These storage facilities helped ensure food security throughout the empire.

Domestication of Animals: Llamas and alpacas were domesticated by the Incas and played a crucial role in transportation, wool production, and as a source of meat.

High-Altitude Agriculture: The Incas were masters of high-altitude agriculture, with their terraces and cold-resistant crops allowing them to grow food at elevations that would be inhospitable to many other civilizations.

Selective Breeding: Inca farmers selectively bred crops to adapt them to the harsh Andean conditions. They also experimented with different crop varieties to find those best suited to their environment.

Inca Education

Inca education was primarily designed to serve the needs of the state and was instrumental in maintaining the empire’s governance, administration, and cultural cohesion.

Imperial Education: Inca education was highly centralized, and it was primarily geared towards training individuals for service to the state. The most promising children were selected for specialized education, and the sons of nobility often received the most advanced training.

Acllahuasi: These were institutions for women known as “chosen women” or “Virgins of the Sun.” They were selected at a young age to be priestesses or to serve in various specialized roles, including textile production. Their education included religious training and practical skills.

Yachay: The Inca education system was known as “yachay,” which emphasized learning through oral traditions and practical experiences. This system incorporated hands-on learning and the passing down of knowledge through storytelling, songs, and rituals.

Khipu: The Inca developed a unique system of record-keeping using khipu, which were knotted strings made from different colors and materials. These khipus were used for accounting, statistics, and historical records, and individuals were trained in how to read and create them.

Religious Education: A significant portion of Inca education focused on religious training. Young students learned about the complex Inca religious pantheon, the worship of various deities, and the proper conduct of rituals and ceremonies.

Administrative Training: Future leaders and administrators received training in statecraft, governance, and military strategy. This education prepared them for roles in the government.

Agricultural Education: Given the importance of agriculture in sustaining the empire, some individuals received specialized training in farming techniques, terracing, and irrigation methods.

Language and Communication: Inca education emphasized the Quechua language, the common tongue of the empire. Communication skills were highly valued, as effective communication was essential for governing such a vast and diverse empire.

Ethics and Values: Inca education also instilled important ethical values, such as loyalty to the state, hard work, and respect for authority and the Inca rulers.

Practical Skills: Practical skills, such as weaving, pottery making, and construction, were taught to ensure the empire’s economic self-sufficiency and infrastructure development.

Inca Architecture

Inca architecture is renowned for its remarkable stone masonry, ingenious engineering, and aesthetic beauty. The Inca Empire, which flourished in the Andean region of South America in the 15th and 16th centuries, left behind a legacy of impressive architectural achievements.

Dry-Stone Masonry: Inca builders were skilled in the art of dry-stone construction, meaning that they fitted stones together without the use of mortar. This precision allowed them to create intricate and durable structures.

Ashlar Masonry: Inca architects used precisely cut rectangular stones known as ashlars for important buildings. These stones were often cut with such precision that they fit together perfectly, making the walls exceptionally stable.

Temple and Shrine Construction: Inca temples and shrines were typically made of finely crafted stone blocks, showcasing exquisite workmanship. These structures were dedicated to the worship of Inca deities.

Fortresses: Inca fortresses, such as Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo, demonstrated the empire’s defensive prowess. They featured massive stone walls and complex terracing, designed for both military defense and as a symbol of imperial might.

Royal Estates: The Incas constructed opulent estates for the nobility and the emperor. Machu Picchu, one of the most famous Inca sites, is a prime example of a royal estate.

Agricultural Terraces: Inca agriculture was supported by extensive terracing systems. These terraces not only maximized arable land but also showcased the Inca’s engineering skills in adapting to the challenging mountainous terrain.

Roads and Bridges: The Inca road system was a marvel of engineering, featuring extensive networks of stone-paved roads and suspension bridges. These roads facilitated communication, trade, and military movements throughout the empire.

Urban Planning: Inca cities, such as Cusco, were carefully planned, with grid layouts, plazas, and ceremonial centers. Cusco itself was laid out in the shape of a puma, a sacred animal in Inca culture.

Aqueducts and Irrigation: The Incas built aqueducts and irrigation systems to channel water for agricultural and urban use. These systems were essential for sustaining the empire’s population.

Storage Facilities: The Inca Empire had extensive granaries, known as qullqas, where surplus crops were stored. These structures were designed to protect the food supply from pests and the elements.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, often referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” is one of the most iconic and breathtaking archaeological sites in the world. Located high in the Andes Mountains of Peru, this ancient city was constructed during the height of the Inca Empire, believed to have been built in the 15th century. The site is renowned for its stunning architecture, with precisely cut stone blocks that fit together without mortar, and its remarkable terraced agricultural fields. Perched on a ridge overlooking the Urubamba Valley, Machu Picchu offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and lush green landscapes. Its purpose remains a subject of scholarly debate, but it is widely believed to have served as a royal estate or a ceremonial center.

Inca Religion

Inca religion was a central and complex aspect of Inca culture, playing a significant role in the daily lives of the Inca people and influencing the empire’s governance and rituals.

Polytheism: The Inca religion was polytheistic, meaning it involved the worship of numerous deities, including Inti (the sun god), Mama Quilla (the moon goddess), and Viracocha (the creator god). Each deity had a specific domain and played a role in the Inca belief system.

Sun Worship: The most important deity in Inca religion was Inti, the sun god. The Inca rulers were considered descendants of the sun, and Inti was seen as the giver of life and prosperity. The Coricancha temple in Cusco was dedicated to sun worship.

Moon Worship: Mama Quilla, the moon goddess, was another significant deity. She was associated with fertility and was considered the wife of Inti.

Earth Worship: Pachamama, the earth goddess, held a central place in Inca spirituality. The Inca people believed that she provided the resources necessary for life and agriculture. Offerings and ceremonies were conducted to honor and appease Pachamama.

Agricultural Rituals: Many Inca religious ceremonies were linked to agriculture, as farming was essential for the empire’s sustenance. Rituals involved planting and harvesting crops and offerings to ensure successful agricultural outcomes.

Ceremonial Centers: The Inca built elaborate temples and ceremonial centers dedicated to various deities. The most significant of these included the Coricancha in Cusco, where rituals, offerings, and sacrifices took place.

Sacrifices: Sacrifices were an integral part of Inca religious practices. Animals, and occasionally humans, were offered to the gods. Human sacrifices were rare but occurred on important occasions.

Oracles and Priests: The Inca religion had priests and oracles who interpreted signs and prophecies from the gods. They played a crucial role in advising the rulers and conducting religious ceremonies.

Mummification: The Incas practiced mummification, preserving the bodies of their rulers and nobility. These mummies were considered to have a continued presence and influence in the spiritual realm.

Festivals and Ceremonies: The Inca religion was marked by various festivals and rituals throughout the year, often tied to agricultural seasons and astronomical events.

Human Sacrifices

The Inca civilization practiced human sacrifice, although it was relatively rare and typically reserved for significant religious or ceremonial occasions. Human sacrifice in the Inca Empire was believed to be a way to appease the gods and ensure their favor, especially during times of great need or crisis.

Human sacrifices were not conducted on a large scale as in some other ancient civilizations, but they were a part of Inca religious rituals. The sacrifices might involve adults or children, and the victims were often selected from specific social or ethnic groups. The exact methods and circumstances of these sacrifices varied, but they were typically performed by priests in temples or ceremonial centers.

One of the most famous instances of Inca human sacrifice was the capacocha, a ritual in which children were chosen and prepared for sacrifice. These children were often selected for their physical perfection and sent to sacred mountains, where they were sacrificed, frequently by strangulation or blunt force trauma, and their bodies were left as offerings to the gods.


Khipu, a unique and ingenious system of communication and record-keeping developed by the Inca civilization, consisted of intricately knotted strings. Each khipu, made by skilled craftsmen, was a complex arrangement of differently colored strings and knots. These knotted cords served as a means to encode and convey information, such as census data, tax records, and historical accounts. The position, type, and arrangement of knots on the strings, as well as the colors of the strings themselves, held specific meanings, allowing trained specialists, known as khipu keepers or khipu masters, to interpret and decipher the encoded information. Khipus were a vital tool for the Inca state’s administration, aiding in the management of their vast and diverse empire. While the exact decipherment of khipus remains a subject of ongoing research, their importance as a non-written form of communication and data storage in the pre-Columbian Americas is undeniable, and they stand as a testament to the Inca civilization’s advanced knowledge and organization.

Women in Inca Society

While the Inca civilization was patriarchal, women had significant influence and responsibilities. Inca society was organized along a dual-sex parallel structure, where men and women each had distinct but equally important roles. Women were primarily responsible for household management, agriculture, and textile production, which was one of the empire’s most renowned industries. They spun and wove intricate textiles from materials like alpaca and llama wool, creating garments of exceptional quality. Women also played vital roles in farming, tending to crops and managing terraced fields. In some cases, women served as priestesses, especially in the Acllahuasi, where they conducted religious ceremonies and rituals. Inca women enjoyed certain rights and social standing, and marriage was often based on mutual consent.

The End of the Inca Empire

In 1532, the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his small army arrived in the Inca heartland. The Spanish exploited internal divisions and political tensions within the Inca Empire to their advantage. Pizarro captured the Inca ruler Atahualpa during a meeting and subsequently executed him, leaving the empire in a state of chaos and leadership vacuum. This event, known as the “Capture of Atahualpa,” was a severe blow to the Inca civilization. Over the next few decades, the Spanish continued to advance and conquer Inca territories, dismantling the empire. The arrival of the Spanish also introduced deadly diseases to which the indigenous population had no immunity. Smallpox, measles, and other diseases decimated Inca society, causing widespread death and further destabilizing the empire.


Atahualpa was the last ruling emperor of the Inca Empire, who reigned during a tumultuous period in the empire’s history. He ascended to the throne around 1532, just before the arrival of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in South America. Atahualpa was engaged in a civil war with his half-brother, Huáscar, for control of the Inca Empire when the Spanish forces arrived. Pizarro captured Atahualpa during a meeting, and this event marked the turning point in the downfall of the Inca Empire. In an attempt to secure his release, Atahualpa promised to fill a room with gold and another with silver as a ransom. Although he fulfilled this promise, the Spanish executed him in 1533, thus marking the end of the Inca Empire. Atahualpa is remembered as one of the last Inca emperors and a symbol of the tragic clash between the Inca civilization and European colonial forces, which led to the conquest and colonization of the Inca Empire.

Francisco Pizarro

Francisco Pizarro was the Spanish conquistador who is most famously known for his conquest of the Inca Empire in the early 16th century. Born around 1471 in Spain, Pizarro embarked on a series of exploratory and military expeditions to the New World. His most renowned expedition began in 1532 when he and his small band of conquistadors, aided by a civil war within the Inca Empire, captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa. Pizarro demanded a colossal ransom in gold and silver for Atahualpa’s release, which the Incas provided. However, despite the payment, Pizarro executed Atahualpa and continued his campaign, ultimately leading to the fall of the Inca Empire. Pizarro went on to establish the Spanish colonial city of Lima, which served as the capital of Spanish Peru. His conquest had a profound impact on the region, both in terms of its cultural heritage and the introduction of Spanish colonial rule.

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