The Incan Empire

Contributor: Tara Ondra. Lesson ID: 13343

It was the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population of over 10 million and stretching more than 700,000 square miles. Discover the rise and fall of the Incan Empire!


World, World

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personality style
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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Their civilization thrived from 1438 to 1533 across the Andean highlands, stretching in the north from modern-day Ecuador down to central Chile.

Many Incan ruins can be seen, explored, and studied today, giving us insight into this vast empire.

Use the slider beneath the images below to view five ruins:

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Rise of the Incan Empire

The Incas first appeared in 1200 AD in southeastern Peru. According to origin myths, the sun god, Inti, sent Manco Capac, the first Inca emperor, to earth.

Manco Capac is credited with founding the city of Cusco, which would become the capital of the Incan Empire.

Cusco, Peru

It wasn't until the 15th century under the eighth emperor, Viracocha, that the Incas truly began the mass expansion of their empire. During their expansion, the Incas defeated various kingdoms, bringing together more than 100 distinct ethnic groups and growing to over 10 million inhabitants.

The Incas had no written language; however, a form of Quechua became the primary dialect among the people of the empire. In Quechua, the empire was known as Tawantinsuyu, which means Realm of the Four Parts.

Watch The rise and fall of the Inca Empire - Gordon McEwan from TED-Ed:

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The Incas are well-known for building with polished, dry-stone walls. The blocks were finely cut and precisely pieced together. The interlocking blocks and sloping walls make the Inca structures highly resistant to earthquakes, which are quite common in the area the Inca inhabited.

One of the most impressive and most visited Inca ruins is Machu Picchu, located 2,430 meters (or 7,932 feet) above sea level in the Andes Mountains of Peru.

Machu Picchu

Interestingly, following the decline of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu was hidden for hundreds of years until it was discovered in 1911 by Yale professor and explorer Hiram Bingham. Since then, it has become one of the most important tourist attractions in South America.

Watch Machu Picchu 101 | National Geographic:

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Incan Roadways

A series of roadways traversing over 15,000 miles connected the towns throughout the Incan Empire. Segments of the road network are believed to have been built by cultures preceding the Incas, such as the Wari of Peru and Tiwanaku of Bolivia.

Because wheels were not known to the Incas, they relied on transport by foot or transported goods using pack animals like llamas. Relay runners are said to have conveyed messages up and down the empire at rates of 150 miles per day.

caravans on the Inca road

Mythology and Religion

The Incas were polytheistic, which means they believed in several gods. These gods occupied three different realms: the sky, the inner earth, and the outer earth.

The most important god was Inti, the sun god. Viracocha was known as the creator of the earth, the sky, other gods, and humans. Pachamama was the goddess of the earth or Mother Earth. Apu Illapu was the rain god.

The Incas built temples to venerate or honor their gods. Given their strong belief in the afterlife, the Incas embalmed and mummified the bodies of the dead.

replica of the Plomo Mummy at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Chile

Image by Jason Quinn, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Fall of the Incan Empire

The arrival of the Spaniards to South America in 1529 triggered the collapse of the Incan Empire.

Francisco Pizarro ultimately kidnapped the Incan emperor Atahualpa in 1532, leading to his eventual execution. Atahualpa's brother, Manco, and his followers retreated to the mountains of Vilcabamba, holding out until 1572 when they eventually succumbed to the Spanish conquest.

Despite the fall of the Incan Empire, numerous well-preserved archaeological sites can be visited today, allowing us to continue learning about this incredible civilization.

Descendants of the Incan people continue to speak the Quechua language, use textiles reminiscent of those from Incan times, and preserve Incan ceremonies celebrating Inti and Pachamama.

To test your knowledge and learn about modern-day ceremonies, continue on to the Got It? section.

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