Inka Universe

The city of Cusco is the principal one of all the cities and is the residence
of the nobles, and is so great and beautiful that it would be worthy of Spain.

—Pedro Sancho de la Hoz, secretary to Francisco Pizarro, 1534

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    Mazuco, Peru, 2014. Photo by Doug McMains, NMAI.


Antisuyu—Exotic and Forbidding Landscape

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    Select highlighted words to hear them spoken in Quechua.

    The Inka spoke the Quechua language, which is still spoken today in the Andes.


Located in the upper Amazon, Antisuyu had a rainforest environment marked by heavy rainfall, high humidity, and lush vegetation. It offered many natural resources, especially coca, medicinal plants, gold, and exotic bird feathers. Antisuyu's rainforest diseases, and resistance by tribal peoples, made the region difficult to conquer.

Building the Road

Controlling Water—Machu Picchu

Built as a residence for the Inka ruler Pachacutic, Machu Picchu stands on a high mountain ridge at the edge of Antisuyu. It has survived for centuries, thanks to ingenious methods for managing water. Heavy rainfall from December to March can cause landslides and erosion. Inka engineers devised ways to channel water where it was needed and to divert runoff away from roads and buildings.

Machu Picchu is a well-known icon of the Inka Empire. Clever engineering has enabled it to survive more than 500 years of torrential rainfall.

Coca Leaf

The coca plant is sacred to Andean people, who often make offerings of its leaves at holy sites. Adults chew coca leaves for energy while laboring, or to relieve altitude sickness and various other ailments. (Note that coca leaf is not cocaine.) The Inka state strictly controlled the production and distribution of coca, assigning teams of workers to tend and harvest the plant.


The brilliant feathers of Amazonian birds had spiritual meaning for the Inka, for whom birds were symbols of the “world above.” Feathers adorned figurines in temples, and feathered tunics and headdresses were worn by rulers and high-ranking Inka.

Medicinal Plants

State and village healers harvested medicinal plants from the rainforest. The best-known of these is the quina tree, whose bark contains quinine, a cure for malaria.