Fourteen thousand years of unique cultures preceded the Inka in the Andes. Four in particular— , , , and — influenced Inka traditions and laid the groundwork for the rise of the Inka Empire and the , or Great Inka Road system. In less than one hundred years, the Inka used skill and innovation to improve existing infrastructures and develop a sophisticated empire.
When the Spanish conquistadors reached in 1532, the Great Inka Road system gave them easy access to the empire. Already weakened by civil war and smallpox, the Inka Empire fell. Under Spanish rule, the Inka Empire’s infrastructure rapidly deteriorated. The Spanish brought new diseases, animals, and plants, and introduced new beliefs and laws, all of which transformed the lives of Andean peoples and their land. Despite over 500 years of colonial pressures, today more than seven million Inka descendants continue their traditions and an Andean way of life that is centered around community-based values, including reciprocity and a deep respect for the land.
was the first great unifying culture in the Andes. Its scattered settlements, the largest of which was Chavín de Huántar, shared a distinctive art, architecture, and way of life that influenced a number of ethnic groups.
Located near Lake Titicaca, the city of was the core of a culture whose religion, art, and architecture influenced much of the southern Andes. To foster trade and the distribution of resources, the Aymara people of Tiwanaku built roads all the way to the Pacific Coast.
The were empire builders. From the highlands of Peru, they expanded their territory and spread their religion. To control remote areas, the Wari established provincial centers and an extensive road network.
The well-organized capital, Chan Chan, was the largest city in the Western Hemisphere in its day. The Chimú built a road network, canals, and irrigation systems to help them expand along the northern coast of Peru.
The Inka began their rise in the early 1200s. Based in Cusco, they grew first into a small kingdom, adapting many practices and policies of earlier cultures. In 1438 Inka rulers began to conquer neighboring territories, eventually creating the largest empire in the Western Hemisphere.
Under Spanish rule, the Inka Empire rapidly deteriorated. The Spanish brought new diseases, animals, and plants, and introduced new beliefs and laws, all of which transformed the lives of Andean peoples, their land, and their road. The Spanish established new cities and founded Lima as their colonial capital. Cusco was stripped of its power and remodeled with cathedrals, public halls, and houses built in the Spanish style. Many of the city’s great Inka buildings were destroyed.
Spanish invaders destroyed the system that maintained the Inka Empire. They imposed a new religion and tried to erase cultural traditions. They imported plants and animals that altered the environment. Within one hundred years, nearly eighty percent of the Native population died of European diseases. Spanish explorers were driven by a thirst for gold and silver.
The sacred mountains of were rich with mines, which soon became Spain’s principal source of wealth. The Spanish forced Indigenous people to provide labor on behalf of the Spanish crown. Unlike the Inka, the Spanish gave nothing in return. Many people died working these dangerous mines. The Spanish brought cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs into regions where llamas and alpacas traditionally grazed. They planted their imported crops in the most fertile areas, leaving poorer land for Andean people and displacing native crops. Continued abuses by the Spanish rulers prompted many regions in South America to seek independence from Spain. The six countries that were part of the Inka Empire gained independence from Spain between 1810 and 1825.
Though Spain dismantled their government and religious systems, Andeans have found ways to keep their traditions alive. They continue to speak the and Aymara languages. They adopted the Catholic religion but blend its customs with older beliefs. Inka ceremonies and pilgrimages now incorporate Catholic saints.
The Spanish distorted the Andean value of (reciprocity) only to benefit themselves. Native people described their relationship with Europeans as a "funnel law—the narrow end was for the Indians and the wide end for the whites." Despite colonial pressures, ayni as envisioned by the Inka ancestors is still practiced today as a way of preserving the reciprocal, community-based way of life in Andean villages.
Andean people adapted European technologies—such as glassmaking, ceramic glazes, and metallurgical techniques—and married them to traditional craftsmanship. Quechua- and Aymara-speaking Inka descendants today participate in varied professions and activities in rural areas and in cities in Peru, Bolivia, and the other countries that were part of the Inka Empire.