As most of my readers know, I really enjoy history books, and this one is
particularly interesting. It is a republication of Daily Life in Peru under the Last Incas, 1961. It was originally written in French, but I do not
know what year it was first published. In any case, it is a good translation (by Winifred Bradford), and is easy and enjoyable reading.
While we seem to know quite a bit about the Mayans and other Pre-Columbian American civilizations, information on the Incas is possibly a bit more obscure. They lacked writing skills—in fact they had no desire to learn them. When they conquered other civilizations that did have writing skills, they forbade it. But in spite of that, we still have been able to piece together quite a bit of their history.
Part One of the book explains the steps leading up to the establishment of the Incan Empire, and this section is perhaps the only part of the book that is confusing. Wikipedia, however, in their article on the Inca Empire was able to clarify most of the points that I didn't quite understand.
The first area covered in the book deals with geography, and it must have been a rough area in which these people made their homes. The Andes Mountains along the west coast of South America posed navigation problems, along with deserts, rivers, lakes, and the forests, which was one area never to be conquered.
As in most civilizations, a mythological/spiritual origin was created, and there are varying ones for the Incas. But they all led to the beginnings and settlement at Cuzco in Peru, in about the 12th century. "Inca" meant "ruler" or "lord" in Quechua, the official language. Though numerous tribes eventually made up the Empire, they were not referred to as "Incans." The book refers to the common people as "Indians."
Though the Incas did not write, and lacked other skills common at the time, such as using wheels, they had other traits which brought to them leadership over what was perhaps the largest empire in the world during the sixteenth century, stretching through Peru, to parts of Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Columbia. They were skilled warriors, but also invited other tribes to join peacefully, which was often welcomed when that other tribe was being constantly attacked by neighboring tribes. Unfortunately, once the Incans absorbed a tribe, their history was obliterated. Kinda like the white invaders tried to do to the Indigenous North Americans. However, they did benefit from skills developed from other tribes, for instance, of using relay runners to spread messages throughout the empire. They carried beans with markings made with quartz in a bag, which may have helped communicate the message.
There were four main ethnic groups that made up the Empire. The Incas (or Incans) were most probably Quechua Indians, the largest ethnic race. Next came the Aymaras, to the south and east of Lake Titicaca (the largest lake in South America). They founded Tiahuanaco, an earlier civilization. The others were the Chimus and Urus, of which we know little. In fact, Baudin says, concerning what was permitted to be recorded as the "official history":
History destined for the mass of the population was established on the death of each sovereign by a council of high officials and scholars, who examined the events which had taken place during the reign and decided which were suitable to be recorded. Storytellers and singers were advised upon the themes which could serve as outlines for their stories and poems. For example, the defeat of the Inco Urco by the Chancas was passed over in silence.
Things haven't changed much.
And so, what we have recorded as official history may be just as much myth, as with all ancient civilizations, and with our own, too.
This first section of the book then continues with the leaders of the growing and strengthening unity of tribes which would eventually become the Empire. Though I cannot elaborate on all these wise, brave, and energetic warriors, they were certainly an interesting and colorful line of men, as would be expected, in order for them to bring together such an immense number of people under one rule. It was officially, with the accession of Pachacutec that the Empire was established in the fifteenth century, (1438-71). Four more Incas ruled, until they were ultimately conquered by the Spaniards in 1572. According to Wikipedia, the population in 1527 was about 10,000,000.
Part Two is about the lives of the rulers, and the material is fascinating, beginning with the Supreme Inca. His clothing is described, along with his coat-of-arms, which was different for each ruler. Some chose an animal, others a more abstract design, or a combination. His legitimate wife is also described (of course he also had concubines). A son of his choice, usually born of his wife, was picked to be his heir to the throne. Sometimes he picked the wrong one, and a different one ended up winning the honor through deeds and courage. The successor shared power with his father to prepare him to take over leadership of the empire.
This section also covers ceremonies and special events in the life of the emperor, including the funeral after his death. His wife also had a certain amount of power, sometimes ruling in his absence. Next, the city of Cuzco is discussed, and its division into four sections. Indians that came to live in the city would occupy the area from which they came. If they came from the south, they would reside in the southern district of Cuzco. Everything was so well organized in Incan life. Each person had their work and everyone had food and was provided for.
Below the Supreme Inca, or Emperor, came the ruling class. These could be members of the ruling ayllus, the curacas, who were chiefs from other tribes that had surrendered, and the third were common Indians who had done something outstanding.
The sons of the first two categories were specially educated. They learned the Quechua language the first year. The second year they studied religion, and the third year, the knotted strings, which was (it seems to me) an extremely complicated way that they recorded numbers and events, stock and supplies, people and everything else. The Incas were very mathematical and precise and kept records of everything imaginable. It was stated that there was not one pair of sandals that was not recorded. And the punishment for making an error on the knotted strings could be death, so I guess it was important to master that technique. The fourth year was spent on science, math, geography and maps, and astronomy. Rigorous examinations completed schooling.
Incan girls had the option of joining what was equivalent to a Catholic convent, (and we know all Christian rites came from Pagans). They were called the "Virgins of the Sun." After they were accepted, they went through a period of trial, a novitiate, from ages twelve to fifteen. They learned to spin and weave, and cared for religious objects. Some girls of more important families came just to be educated, but were also prepared to be consecrated, if they found it was their calling. At age eighteen, the candidates met with the high priest, and it was then that they made their choice to remain for life, or leave for a regular life. Those who remained then became "married" to the Sun, (as Catholic nuns become "married" to Christ). The "Virgins of the Sun" played important roles in celebrations and festivities. And if a girl broke her vow of chastity, the punishment was severe.
If they violated this rule they were buried alive, their guilty partner was hanged, and the agrarian community to which they belonged was destroyed—a brutal application of the solidarity of the members of the ayllu.
I want to point out that chastity was not important for girls who planned to marry. In fact, it was considered an asset to have had lovers, because it was a sign of desirability. I also want to point out that the Incas demanded the highest integrity and morals from the members of their Empire. The common Indians complied because they had to, not because they were honorable. Here is an excerpt from a document by the Spaniard, Mancio Sierra de Leguizamo to King Philip:
His Catholic Majesty must know that we found these countries in such a condition that there were no thieves, no vicious men, no idlers, no adulterous or evil-living women. All these kinds of behavior were forbidden; immoral people could not find a living, and the Inca's subjects all had honest and profitable occupations. Cultivated land, mountains, mines, pastures, hunting, woods and everything else were organized and shared in such a way that each one knew and owned his heritage; no one else could occupy or seize it, and there was no need to go to law.
Of course, the Spaniards came and stole it all from them, just like the white
Europeans did to the Indigenous North Americans.
The Inca Emperors may have been unduly strict, but they provided for all their people. They had storage places built which were always stocked with food, clothing and cloth, and everything that might be needed in an emergency, for instance if an area suffered a natural disaster. In fact they were stocked to such a level of abundance that often food had to be thrown away because it went bad.
And everything, everything was accounted for by those knotted strings, which boggled my mind in reading about them, and how the experts had to learn how to interpret them. Knots had meaning, and so did lack of knots. Keep in mind, these people had no form of writing. Apparently, they didn't need it.
To facilitate the interpretation of the cords and strings, people and things were arranged in an unchangeable order of precedence. In the population, quipus men came first, then women and children; in the listing of weapons the following order was observed—spears, arrows, bows, javelins, clubs, axes and slings.
Of course, the architecture of these people was amazing. Perhaps the most
famous Pre-Columbian ruin in the entire world is at Machu Picchu, which is pictured on the front cover of this book. Their roads were incredible, too. The
picture below is an example. It appears that Machu Picchu is in the background.
In the chapter about spiritual life, quite a bit is written about the Feast Day of the Sun, which lasted about two weeks. That festival is still held on June 24 every year at Cuzco. Below is a picture of modern Peruvians participating in the festival.
Following that is the chapter on Intellectual and artistic life. In speaking about measurements, parts of the body were used as units (as we use the "foot"). I was startled that a typical male plateau-dweller averaged only about 3 feet 8 inches tall. People who did not live at such high altitudes would have been taller.
The section on medicine was, well, just plain gross. Remedies ranged from herbs and plants to animal body parts to urine, which apparently came in quite handy. Of course, there was also spiritual healing and magic to be done. Incan surgeons were skilled, and cutting open the skull seemed to be one of their specialties.
Quite a few pages are also spent describing Incan art, and the wonderful and beautiful fabric they produced. They were also musicians, poets, and playwrights. There is one surviving play, Ollantay, written down by a Spanish scholar. It is believed to be by Espinoza Medrano, an Indian with a Spanish name, who was a "high priest of Cuzco Cathedral, a famous orator, philosopher and theologian," who lived from 1632 to 1688. It is a love story. There are also a few stories of Peruvian folklore/fables that have survived, notably The Greedy Brother, and The Night Butterfly, a sad tale.
Part Three of the book is on the common people, and this section was just plain disgusting. Even though the Emperor provided for his people, the poor were still very poor. The whole family lived in a tiny hovel with their animals. There were no windows, so it was dark and filthy; it stunk and was infested with lice. The Incan women were so overwhelmed with hard work that, after a couple years of marriage, they cared not for their appearance. No one bathed. Yuk. The part on food and eating was even worse. The wife would never think of eating out of her husband's bowl, but the dogs and guinea-pigs were allowed. Yuk, again. People living in the Inca Empire were not joyful, but overworked, over-regulated and fearful. (Gosh, that sounds familiar.)
A closing quote from the end of the book sums it all up:
Seen with the eyes of a man of the twentieth century, daily life in the times of the last Incas gives the impression of having been organized once and for all as a piece of mechanism of gloomy perfection. The absolute and the permanent reigned without opposition. The common people had nothing to learn, nothing to foresee, nothing to desire. There was for them no inner withdrawal, no outer radiance. The Inca and his Council, and they alone, constituted the brain of this immense collective personality.
And on that note, I will end this review. This is a very interesting and readable book, filled with remarkable facts and information. Enjoy the pictures below. First, a breathtaking view of the Andes Mountains. Next is an Incan roadway which appears to be leading up to Machu Picchu. The bottom one is the Sun Festival held on June 24 each year at Cuzco. For more pictures relating to the Incas, please see the Ancient Mexican, Pre-Columbian, Aztec, Mayan, Incan Index Page.
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