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Huayna Capac: Biography, Facts & Accomplishments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Inca Empire was once the most powerful states in South America. In this lesson, we'll get to know one of the emperors who helped make it that way, and see what role he had in the history of the Inca.

Huayna Capac

For historians, the fall of a mighty empire is always an intriguing topic. How do such mighty states end up in ruin? Often, the end comes relatively quickly. That was the case for the Inca Empire. Traditionally, the fall of the Inca Empire is attributed to the arrival of the Spanish, but the truth is actually much more complex. The Spanish arrived at a time when the empire was already in turmoil, following the death of the Sapa Inca (ruler) Huayna Capac.

Huayna Capac was one of the last great rulers of the Inca
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Early Life of Huayna Capac

So, who was Huayna Capac? We don't know the exact date of his birth (estimates range from 1464-1488 CE, but he was likely born on the military frontier near Tumebamba (today in Ecuador) while his father led the empire's wars. His birth name was Titu Cusí Huallpa, and he was the son of the Sapa Inca Topa Inca.

As a young man, Huayna Capac grew up very close to his mother, Mama Ocllo, and spent very little time in battle. This was very unusual for an Inca youth, but by the time Huayna Capac was old enough to fight, most of the Incan wars were stagnating. Topa Inca had essentially expanded the empire to its limits. Still, Huayna Capac got to learn other skills of governing and was well educated as a diplomat and political leader. He was also prepared for his role as leader of the Inca religion.

Huayna Capac as Emperor

Topa Inca had several sons by various wives and concubines, but Huayna Capac had been already selected as the legitimate heir when the emperor died around 1493. How Topa Inca died is somewhat of a mystery; some think he was poisoned by a concubine who wanted to promote her own son's claim to succession. That woman (along with members of the royal family who supported her) was killed. A second attempt to dethrone the young emperor came at the hand of his own tutors, who were also discovered and killed.

Despite a few turbulent years during the immediate succession, Huayna Capac survived to become a powerful emperor. Perhaps because of the early threats to his power, he personally inspected each of the empire's provinces to oversee their governance and administration. After his mother died, he also continued his father's work in fully securing what is now Ecuador, into the Inca Empire. This was achieved through marriage to the daughter of the ruler of the Quito people. Huayna Capac also proved to be a competent military strategist, extending south into Chile and Argentina and pushing the Empire's borders to their furthest extent.

The Inca Empire reached its greatest extent under Huayna Capac
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Where Huayna Capac really seems to have shined, however, was in domestic matters. He renovated the famous road system of the empire, improving trade, communication, and transportation. Ever dedicated to his duties as a religious leader, he also built new temples across the empire. Being an active and informed leader, Huayna Capac was aware of everything that happened in his empire. This included the arrival of Spaniards along the shores of South America as early as 1516. While we don't know exactly what Huayna Capac thought of these foreigners who were cautiously testing the coastline, he was aware of their presence.

Family and Heirs

Huayna Capac's marriage to the Quito princess produced a son, named Atahualpa (although some sources claim that Atahualpa was the son of a Cuzco noble lady). However, this was not his only child, nor the princess his only wife. From one of his royal wives, he also had a fully legitimate son named Huascar. These are the two names most important for you to know, but Huayna Capac did end up with roughly 50 sons through various wives and concubines. After the Spanish invaded, some of these sons (or their heirs) would be implanted as puppet rulers to help legitimize Spanish occupation.

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