The Incas were engaged in wars almost continuously, from the initial conquests to the suppression of rebellions, as well as conflict on the frontier and the civil war in the empire’s final years . Militarism was also prominently celebrated in Inca culture. Conquistadors, chroniclers, and Native authors were keenly interested in the topic. To their accounts can be added archaeological studies of forts, skeletal remains, and destruction episodes.

Scale and logistics were the great military strengths of the Incas—not technology, tactics, or battlefield organization. Conscripts fought with the same weapons their ancestors had used. In the highlands, the primary projectile weapon was the sling, with smooth round or egg-shaped slingstones, followed by the bola (ayllu), two or three stones linked by a cord, thrown against the legs of enemy fighters or Spanish horses. Coastal conscripts used spear-throwers and spears with fire-hardened points, metal tips, or fish spines; bows and arrows were used in many regions, especially the forested eastern lowlands. Hand-to-hand weapons included clubs of hard palm wood, maces with stone or bronze heads shaped like rings or stars (champi), small hafted axes of metal or stone, thrusting spears with fire-hardened points or metal tips, and macanas, hardwood broadswords said to cut like steel. Soldiers had helmets of thick wool, cane, or wood, and sometimes wore padded cotton armor; at the back, they might bear a protective shield of leather or palm-wood slats. They carried small shields of hard palm wood, decorated with bright cloth and feathers.

Perhaps as important were the components of ritually effective defense: shining discs of precious metal strung at the chest and back, painted standards for each squadron, musical instruments, and effigies of royal ancestors carried into battle “because,” noted the chronicler Bernabé Cobo, “they thought that this was a great help to them in their victories and it made the enemies fearful” (Cobo 1990 [1653]).

As an Inca army approached, we are told, first the slingers fired, then the archers, and then the lancers. Finally the soldiers fought hand-to-hand with maces and small hatchets tied to the wrist, “and with these they did great damage and chopped heads as with a sword” (Cobo 1990 [1653]). Skeletal remains in the Cuzco area have more lethal cranial injuries in Inca times than before, demonstrating elevated hand-to-hand combat as the empire emerged.

Inca conscripts were male subjects aged 25–50 performing their labor service, who had little specialized military training. Although the Incas came to prefer certain ethnic groups for garrisons or for the emperor’s guard, such as the Cañari and Chachapoya, they never developed a professional army, relying instead on forces that could be quickly mustered and disbanded. At the emperor’s call to arms from the ushnu in Cuzco’s main plaza—chronicler Pedro de Cieza de León called it the “stone of war”—the word passed down through the provincial governors and Native lords to call up men through the decimal hierarchy. By the contact period, Inca armies numbered in the tens to hundreds of thousands. Atahualpa reportedly had 40,000–80,000 soldiers at Cajamarca. In 1533, 35,000 troops were stationed in the provincial center of Hatun Jauja, according to accounts of quipucamayocs. Manco Inca mustered at least 100,000 troops with 80,000 auxiliaries at the siege of Cuzco. Such numbers speak to the unprecedented scale and efficiency of Inca administration.

An Inca army on the march was a splendid sight. Foot soldiers marched in decimal squadrons, bearing their regional headdress and arms, following their Native officers. Orejones, Inca nobles who wore earspools, formed a distinctly higher level of command; they also composed the vanguard and were given particularly crucial tasks. The army was commanded by the ruling Inca or a close male relative. The Inca ruler traveled on a litter with an escort of armed guards, wives, and servants. There were porters and thousands of pack llamas with their drovers, carrying food and coca leaf; soldiers’ wives; guides; shell-trumpeters; ancestor effigies; and the bearers of the royal standard. Large armies move slowly, and the spacing of tambos (way stations) every 15–25 kilometers (9–15 miles) suggests relatively short stages compared with other ancient armies.

Moving and feeding such armies was a critical challenge for the empire, answered by the remarkable armature of the Inca road network and its support settlements. Large forces could be stationed long-term at major provincial centers, consistently located on travel corridors and in open plains where an army could camp. Hundreds of collcas (storehouses) pepper major centers on the Inca road to the hostile northern frontier; such collcas stored food, and, according to Cieza, also furnished the army with clothes, shoes, tents, and arms. As the empire grew, the supply system—storehouses, pack llamas and porters, and supplies requisitioned at need—became critical, enabling the Incas to concentrate overwhelming forces at a single point and set prolonged sieges where necessary. These were fundamental military advantages.

Most campaigns were against chiefdom-level societies at various degrees of complexity, and some victories were achieved merely by the show of force. The Incas also manipulated Native groups by allying with one against the other. Military campaigns doubled as propaganda campaigns; groups who surrendered were treated leniently, their leaders given enhanced authority, while those who resisted could be massacred or deported. Archaeological evidence points to destruction episodes at several sites where enemies offered stiff resistance or rebelled. Elsewhere, prominent Native buildings were razed and replaced with new Inca architecture.

Over time, imperial goals shifted from active conquest to stronger control of the provinces and the defense of the frontier against unconquered people. Settlement patterns confirm a pax Inca in most provinces with Inca forts on some frontiers. But the ideal of conquest was never abandoned, for it was underpinned by aims and incentives both economic and ideological. For the ruler, conquests yielded booty and new tributaries to support the royal lifestyle and the broader regime. For those of Inca caste and the Native nobility, war was a route to gifts, land grants, and sumptuary privileges. Common soldiers stood to gain captured women, special clothing, precious ornaments, and, for exceptional service, a hereditary position in the administrative hierarchy.

Warfare was also celebrated in less tangible ways. The drumbeat of conquest in the chronicles reflects Inca military values: Cieza states that the histories of the quipucamayocs honored the valiant, victorious kings, while of those who were “remiss, cowardly, given to vice and a life of ease without expanding the realm of the empire, it was ordered that little or nothing be remembered” (Cieza 2010 [1553]). Orejones trained for war from boyhood, internalizing core values of honor and martial prowess. In triumphal processions and staged battles in Cuzco, captives, soldiers, and Incas dramatized imperial victory. Human trophies fashioned from the bones, skulls, and skin of prominent enemies were conserved and displayed in battle. On a cosmological level, triumph in war was linked to agricultural fertility, a concept that was probably far older than the Incas. Victory, then, signaled not just military superiority, but also divine favor and the promise of good fortune.


The Inca Empire was a collection of ethnic groups united through religion and kinship, reinforced by reciprocity and redistribution, and guaranteed by force. Access to tribute labor allowed the Incas to build their network of roads and bridges, monumental architecture, highly engineered agricultural terraces, well-provisioned tambos, and state storehouses. Nevertheless, there was no recognized and practiced law of succession and thus the end of each reign proved a dangerous time for the empire. Because primogeniture was not the rule, sons did not necessarily succeed fathers, brothers sometimes followed brothers, and nephews could rule after uncles. Political intrigue, power struggles, coups, assassinations, or battle marked these transitions. These followed from one ruler to another, when the last ruler named a successor; or when one would-be ruler took power after showing unusual merit and/or the blessing of the gods; or even when competition, confrontation, or war settled the question. Each candidate, ideally, had been tested and judged to be apt and each was subject to positive auguries. War had acquired a religious dimension, demonstrated as early as the Chanca war. Troops carried idols of their gods onto the battlefields, because their supernatural powers, the Natives believed, aided and even determined the outcome. Once a new ruler emerged, he reestablished ethnic alliances by visiting subject peoples’ provinces and renegotiating the relations set up by his predecessor.

Huayna Capac, who was known among his contemporaries as “el Cuzco,” the last emperor of a united kingdom, had been returning from a mission near Pasto and Popayán (in the far southwest of modern Colombia) when he fell ill from an unknown disease, probably smallpox, a few years before the Spaniards invaded in 1532. On his deathbed, Huayna Capac named a son, Ninan Cuyuchi, as his successor, but his augury was negative and he died soon thereafter. Early observers left several versions of what happened next. In one scenario, Huayna Capac then named another son, Huascar, as his heir, but his prognostication likewise proved unfavorable. When attendants approached Huayna Capac for a third name, they found him dead. Other accounts claim that Huayna Capac intended to split his jurisdiction between Huascar, who would govern the peoples of the south, and Atahualpa, his half brother, who would hold sway over the populations of the north.

Regardless of which is accurate, Huascar, by most accounts, assumed the mantle of heir apparent, marrying his sister (Chuqui Guapay), despite the objections of their mother. Atahualpa acted as a provincial governor in the north and took control of his father’s seasoned army led by the generals Chalcochima, Quizquiz, and Rumiñawi. But, jealousies, insecurities, and suspicions of treason poisoned the half brothers’ relations, which quickly deteriorated. Huascar and Atahualpa would battle for the title of “el Cuzco” and their father’s vacant throne. In this scenario, the confrontations on the battlefield would allow the Sun, their legendary forefather and origin of their lineage, to determine who was most apt. Both Huascar and Atahualpa made sacrifices to their gods, imploring their help, and visited famous oracles for predictions on the outcome of the contest. Both faced infamy and death should they lose the god’s favor and show weakness or incompetence in the field. Defeated leaders were labeled atisqa (defeated, weak) and their followers—and their labor—were claimed by the victor.

Memories of the civil war differ. One version recounts how Huascar’s forces, which included aggressive Cañari troops from what is today Ecuador, won the first matches. At one point, they captured Atahualpa and held him prisoner in Tomebamba, a leading Inca settlement; he escaped, according to accounts, by transforming himself into a snake. Others report how southern and northern armies met at Riobamba or Mochacaxa, where Atahualpa’s forces won, killing one of Huascar’s commanders. Subsequent battles were fought outside of Tomebamba, where the outcome changed overnight. At this encounter, Huascar’s forces triumphed on one day only to be ultimately overtaken by Atahualpa’s forces the next. They retreated to Cusipampa, in the northern highlands between Tomebamba and Cajamarca, where they were again routed. Atahualpa’s experienced troops maintained their advantage pushing them south to Cajamarca in the northern highlands of Peru, where they regrouped and recruited thousands of fresh men, 10,000 of whom were formidable Chachapoya. In the next battle, Atahualpa’s general wisely focused on breaking the Chachapoya line. This success demoralized Huascar’s forces, some of whom must have thought that Atahualpa’s victories demonstrated the Sun’s favor. Atahualpa’s general, Quizquiz, continued to dominate at Pumpu, a center in the central high plains. Additional victories followed in the Yanamarca Valley (north of Hatun Jauja), at Angoyaco, and at Quipaypán (between Apurímac and Cuzco).

As the confrontations turned against him, an oracle told Huascar that he must appear at the front of his troops to reverse the outcomes of these confrontations. Huascar followed the oracle’s counsel. Though versions differ on how Huascar was captured, a particularly vivid story recounts how Huascar donned a headdress and other fineries adorned with gold and, on his litter, entered the field of battle. The Sun made his figure shine so that his image “wounded the eyes” of onlookers, making it easy for Atahualpa’s generals to seize him.

Atahualpa, too, consulted oracles. He stopped while in the north at the well-known shrine of Catequil in Huamachuco, where he asked about the outcome of the war. The oracle replied that there had been too much bloodshed already. An outraged Atahualpa beheaded the attendant and knocked the top off the oracle’s image. Then he decided to dismantle the constructions and flatten the site. As his forces leveled Catequil’s sanctuary, Atahualpa learned of the arrival of Pizarro and his men. He decided to meet them in Cajamarca, a nearby ceremonial center. Meanwhile, Huascar also had been informed. Both he and his brother independently remarked that the tall, bearded strangers must be the gods or their messengers who had answered his prayers and supplications and come to aid him in his struggles.

But, their initial interpretations proved faulty. Huascar was already a captive by the time that Atahualpa had met Pizarro in the plaza of Cajamarca and been imprisoned himself. During the next few months, Atahualpa tried to buy his freedom, promising Pizarro a rich ransom of gold and silver. Atahualpa also ordered the murder of Huascar after learning that he had offered Pizarro twice his ransom. Atahualpa himself was garroted when rumors circulated that he had ordered his troops to amass and wipe out the Spanish invaders.

Pizarro named two successors before arriving in the southern ceremonial center of “the Cuzco,” the capital of the realm. Eventually, one fled and established a rump government in the jungles of Vilcabamba. But, the days of the Sapa Inca, the unique, unquestioned, and omnipotent Inca, son of the Sun god, had been eclipsed.

Further Reading

Andrushko, V. A., and E. C. Torres. “Skeletal Evidence for Inca Warfare from the Cuzco Region of Peru.” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 146:361–72, 2011.

Bram, J. An Analysis of Inca Militarism. New York: J. J. Augustin, 1941.

Cieza de León, Pedro de. The Second Part of the Chronicle of Peru. Translated and edited by Clements R. Markham. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010 [1553].

Cobo, B. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990 [1653].

D’Altroy, Terence N. Provincial Power in the Inka Empire, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

———. The Incas. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Murra, J. V. “The Expansion of the Inka state: Armies, War, and Rebellions.” In Anthropological History of Andean Polities, edited by John V. Murra, Nathan Wachtel, and Jacques Revel, 49–58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

D’Altroy, Terence N. The Incas. 2nd ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2014.

Pease, Franklin. Los últimos Incas del Cusco. Madrid: Alianza América, 1991.

Ramírez, Susan Elizabeth. To Feed and Be Fed: The Cosmological Bases of Authority and Identity in the Andes. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Nielsen, A. “Ancestors at War: Meaningful Conflict and Social Process in the South Andes.” In Warfare in Cultural Context: Practice, Agency, and the Archaeology of Violence, edited by A. Nielsen and W. Walker, 218–43. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2009.

Rowe, John H. “Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest.” In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian Steward, vol. 2, The Andean Civilizations, 183–330. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, 1946.

Topic, J. R., and T. L. Topic. “Hacia una comprensión conceptual de la guerra andina.” In Arqueología, Anthropología e Historia en los Andes: Homenaje a María Rostworowski, edited by R. Varón Gabai and J. Flores Espinoza, 567–90. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1997.

Urteaga, H. H. “El ejercito incaico.” Boletin de la Sociedad Geografica de Lima 35–36:283–331, 1919.

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