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The Rise and Fall of the Inca Empire

Joseph Cataliotti, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Joseph Cataliotti

    Joe Cataliotti holds a Master of Arts degree in World History from Northeastern University. He earned a B.A. in History and Political Science from the same university and wrote his senior thesis on the history of radical right-wing movements in the United States.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

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

Understand the history of the Inca Empire, the rise of the Incas, and the Inca empire expansion. See an Inca Empire timeline. Discover where the Empire was located. Updated: 05/12/2022

Inca Empire History

At its height, the Inca Empire stretched across much of the Andes Mountains as one of the largest empires in the world. All of its land was conquered in less than a century. The emperors of the Inca Empire were called the Sapa Inca, the One Inca. In 1438, the Sapa Inca Pachacuti launched his invasion of the mountains from his capital city of Cusco. By the 1520s the Inca Empire had conquered land stretching from modern-day Ecuador to much of the way across modern-day Chile. However, the 1570s saw the collapse of the Inca Empire due to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

Where Was the Inca Empire Located?

The Inca Empire was based in the Andes Mountains, which stretch across most of the western coast of South America. Across this stark and uneven terrain, Inca engineers built a vast road system to transport trade goods, food, and soldiers.


The Inca Empire stretched across a vast expanse of territory

Map of the Inca Empire


When Did the Inca Empire Exist?

The Inca Empire existed in full power from the period of 1438 to perhaps 1533. The first date marks the beginning of the Sapa Inca Pachacuti's expansion, while the second date marks the execution of the Sapa Inca Atahualpa at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, and the seizure of the Inca Empire's capital city, Cusco. Despite this loss, resistance against Spanish imperialism did continue for decades.

The next section will include a timeline to see when was the Inca Empire, showing its origins, rise, and decline.

The Rise of the Incan Empire

There were many cultures who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. Did you know that? Of those many, many cultures, one stood out as the largest empire in the hemisphere. And this empire had alpacas.

The Incan Empire was a massive military state that controlled the west coast of South America in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was based in the high peaks of the Andes Mountains, in modern-day Peru, which ranged from 13,000-20,000 feet above sea level. The total empire stretched over 772,000 square miles and dictated the lives of 20 million people.

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Inca Empire Timeline

This timeline traces the leaders of the Inca Empire from their initial rule in 1438 to the Empire's final collapse in 1572.

  • 1438: Pachacuti rises to power as the ninth Sapa Inca
  • 1471: Tupac becomes the tenth Sapa Inca
  • 1493: Huayna Capac becomes the eleventh Sapa Inca
  • 1525: Huayna Capac dies of smallpox, leading to his son Huascar becoming the twelfth Sapa Inca
  • 1532: Atahualpa defeats Huascar in the Inca Civil War
  • 1533: Atahualpa is captured and executed by Francisco Pizarro
  • 1572: Tupac Amaru, the last Sapa Inca, is captured and executed by Spain

Cusco and the Origins of the Inca Empire

What is considered to be the Inca Empire began with Pachacuti's ascension to emperor in 1438. However, the Inca began their quest for empire before the Inca Empire timeline begins, gaining power in the city-state of Cusco, which was founded around the year 1200. Its founder was Manco Capac, who became a god in the Inca religion. The rulers of this city-state were also called the Sapa Inca. The term Sapa Inca would continue to be applied to the main leader of the Inca as they expanded from city-state to Empire.

Cusco would become the center and capital city of the Inca Empire. Beyond the city were four vast provinces, or suyu, ruled by noble governors titled Apu.

Rise of the Incas

The rise of the Inca Empire began in battle and would continue for nearly a century. In 1438, the Chanka tribes, which neighbored Cusco, invaded Cusco. Pachacuti, the son of the Sapa Inca Viracocha, successfully led the defense of the city. With this victory, Pachacuti was declared the successor to Viracocha, and soon rose to be the ninth Sapa Inca. As emperor, he rebuilt Cusco, established many important institutions, and conquered Chanka lands.

In 1463, Pachacuti appointed his son Tupac as the head of the Inca armies. Tupac marched north, conquering a path to the distant northern city of Quito. In 1471, Pachacuti died and Tupac inherited the throne as the tenth Sapa Inca. During his reign, he defeated the Chimor Empire along the Peruvian coast.

In 1493, Huayna Capac became the eleventh Sapa Inca. While historians are not sure when exactly the Inca Empire expanded southward, they have determined it was likely in this time period. Huayna Capac also oversaw the development of much of the Inca road system which stretched along the Empire. In 1525, however, a plague of smallpox or measles arrived in the empire, killing many —including the Sapa Inca Huayna Capac. This plague marked the beginning of the end of the Inca Empire.

How Did the Inca Expand Their Empire?

The Inca Empire expanded through military conquest or the diplomatic threat of military conquest. The central government, being strong, was able to conscript many thousands of men into armed service. All men were required either to serve in the military or work on public works projects, such as the vast road system which facilitated communication across the empire. Records were kept using the khipu string system. The Empire also could raise the funds necessary to pay, clothe, and feed these men. Imperial logistics were advanced.

While Inca armies did not have as advanced technologies compared to European forces at the time, they did make some use of metallurgy. Copper maces were the most common weapon, while armies made use of spears, arrows, and clubs.

Origins of the Inca Civilization

In Inca mythology, their people emerged from a legendary cave. The people followed four semi-divine brothers and sisters to a place called Cusco, where their golden staff sank into the ground and they decided to settle there, after defeating the previous inhabitants. The brother who conquered the area was Manco Cápac, the founder of the Inca.

According to historic and archeological records, the ancestors of the Inca were nomadic herders who settled in the Cusco area in the 12th century under the leadership of the king Manco Cápac. There, they founded a small city-state, an independent government based around an urban center, called the Kingdom of Cusco.

Emergence of Empire

In 1438, the Sapa Inca, ruler of the Inca, named Pachacuti, began an imperial conquest of the Andean region, and the Incan Empire was born. Pachacuti reorganized the Kingdom of Cusco into a system the Inca called Tahuantinsuyu. In this system, the Incan Empire was divided into four provinces with the centralized government in Cusco. Each province was ruled by a governor, appointed by the Sapa Inca to maintain control.

The Incan Empire had two methods of expanding its territory. First was warfare. The son of the Sapa Inca led the imperial army against kingdoms that refused to cooperate with the empire. The Incan army was deadly, effective, and after a lifetime of having lived in the high mountains, in very good shape.

The most common form of conquest, however, was diplomacy. The Sapa Inca sent messengers into areas he wanted to conquer. These ambassadors talked about the greatness of the Incan Empire, the wealth that came to those who joined, and the destruction that came to those who resisted. The ambassadors always brought lavish gifts as a display of their good will, and most kingdoms decided to peacefully submit to the Inca. In fact, the vast majority of the Incan Empire was conquered this way.

After the new kingdom joined the empire, the children of the local leaders were sent to Cusco and raised in the imperial court. They received the finest education and were raised as Incans. Once they were grown, they returned home as provincial leaders on behalf of the empire. This was a great system because it filled the provinces with leaders who wanted to be part of the empire and still managed to keep local royal families in power.

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Video Transcript

The Rise of the Incan Empire

There were many cultures who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans. Did you know that? Of those many, many cultures, one stood out as the largest empire in the hemisphere. And this empire had alpacas.

The Incan Empire was a massive military state that controlled the west coast of South America in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was based in the high peaks of the Andes Mountains, in modern-day Peru, which ranged from 13,000-20,000 feet above sea level. The total empire stretched over 772,000 square miles and dictated the lives of 20 million people.

Origins of the Inca Civilization

In Inca mythology, their people emerged from a legendary cave. The people followed four semi-divine brothers and sisters to a place called Cusco, where their golden staff sank into the ground and they decided to settle there, after defeating the previous inhabitants. The brother who conquered the area was Manco Cápac, the founder of the Inca.

According to historic and archeological records, the ancestors of the Inca were nomadic herders who settled in the Cusco area in the 12th century under the leadership of the king Manco Cápac. There, they founded a small city-state, an independent government based around an urban center, called the Kingdom of Cusco.

Emergence of Empire

In 1438, the Sapa Inca, ruler of the Inca, named Pachacuti, began an imperial conquest of the Andean region, and the Incan Empire was born. Pachacuti reorganized the Kingdom of Cusco into a system the Inca called Tahuantinsuyu. In this system, the Incan Empire was divided into four provinces with the centralized government in Cusco. Each province was ruled by a governor, appointed by the Sapa Inca to maintain control.

The Incan Empire had two methods of expanding its territory. First was warfare. The son of the Sapa Inca led the imperial army against kingdoms that refused to cooperate with the empire. The Incan army was deadly, effective, and after a lifetime of having lived in the high mountains, in very good shape.

The most common form of conquest, however, was diplomacy. The Sapa Inca sent messengers into areas he wanted to conquer. These ambassadors talked about the greatness of the Incan Empire, the wealth that came to those who joined, and the destruction that came to those who resisted. The ambassadors always brought lavish gifts as a display of their good will, and most kingdoms decided to peacefully submit to the Inca. In fact, the vast majority of the Incan Empire was conquered this way.

After the new kingdom joined the empire, the children of the local leaders were sent to Cusco and raised in the imperial court. They received the finest education and were raised as Incans. Once they were grown, they returned home as provincial leaders on behalf of the empire. This was a great system because it filled the provinces with leaders who wanted to be part of the empire and still managed to keep local royal families in power.

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Frequently Asked Questions

When did the Inca Empire start and end?

The Inca Empire began in 1438 as it began to conquer its neighbors. It ended in 1533 when Francisco Pizarro of Spain defeated Atahualpa and took the capital of Cusco. The last emperor, Tupac Amaru, was captured and executed in 1572.

How did the Inca Empire gain power?

The Inca Empire gained power through conquest or the diplomatic threat of conquest. Many local leaders surrendered to the Inca, agreeing to pay tribute and send their children to Cusco in exchange for keeping their lives.

Where was the Inca Empire located and how big was it?

The Inca Empire was located across the Andes Mountains. It stretched from modern-day Ecuador across much of modern-day Chile. Its subjects numbered in the millions.

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