The term Inca refers to the small group of people who lived in the Cuzco area. The other people who comprised the "great Inca empire" belonged to other ethnic groups and are properly known as Andean people. However, today the word Inca encompasses all the people of the empire.
The Incas called their empire The Four Parts Together and divided it into four areas—northeast, southeast, northwest, southwest. It was not an easy job for the army to carry out the dreams of conquest and expansion as determined by the Sapa Inca. Most of the time, the Incas won their wars, but occasionally a culture was able to repel the Incan army and remain independent. This article is meant to give a simple overview of how the army was organized, how they fought, and what it was like for the ordinary soldier.
The first of the great rulers was Pachacuti (the ninth Inca). His name meant "he who transforms the earth," and in the early 1400's he attempted to do just that. His armies conquered the area around Cuzco and then moved north. Until Pachacuti came to power, the Incas ruled over a small territory; however, year after year, his military campaigns expanded the empire beyond the valley of Cuzco. Pachacuti was also an excellent administrator, and to unite the disparate peoples under his control, he required that state leaders and their sons learn Quechua, a spoken (but never written) language.
Tupa Inca (Pachacuti's son and the tenth Inca) was as good at making war as his father. In Chile and Argentina, Tupa Inca conquered an area larger than Spain. By the end of his rule, Tupa Inca had an empire nearly as vast as ancient Rome.
Huayna Capac (Tupa Inca's son) added millions more subjects from Ecuador and Colombia to the Inca empire. However, when he tried to extend the empire into the forested lands of the fierce Araucanian Indians, they refused to give up. The Incas also failed to extend their control far into the Amazonian rain forest in the north. Around 1525, Huayna Capac died, probably from smallpox contracted from someone who had come in contact with Europeans. His death led to a bloody fight between his sons for control. Enter the Spaniards!
The first Inca army was raised to defend their home in Cuzco from the Chanca intruders. After discovering that they were indeed fighting men, Pachacuti spurred his growing army to branch out and conquer "the whole world."
Thus, a campaign which had started out in defense of the homeland was transformed into a triumphal conquest drive, made possible by an army largely made of up allies. In return the allies received a place in the new organization of Cuzco, in the empire, and a share of the increasing prestige of the Incas. In this way the continued engagements and successes of the Inca army must have done much to integrate the Inca with their new allies and first subjects, who shared in the victories.
The Inca saw themselves as the bearers of civilization to their barbarian neighbors (sound familiar?). The defeated cultures were incorporated into the Inca system for "their own good." Although many of the areas conquered and integrated into the empire added very little economic value to the empire, the people in these regions were at least introduced to (and probably converted to) the cult worship of the Inca ancestor, the Sun, which was the only approved religion for the empire.
You're In the Army Now
The Inca's policy was to keep the army and the general population so busy with tasks, there was little time for insurrection or even consideration of such an act. Since the military genius of the Inca was organization and supply, it made sense to have the army build roads and forts as they advanced. Not only did this building program keep the army out of mischief, it provided the empire with the best roads, forts, and cities in the New World.
"Service in the army was not necessarily an unattractive proposition; on the contrary, it provided many commoners with their only opportunity to travel and the possibility of reward and advancement in civilian life." The salary and pay of those in the military was relatively generous. While a man was absent from home on active duty, the Inca gave them food, clothing, weapons, and munitions. The people of the community plowed and sowed his fields. Of course, the possibility of reward beyond these benefits was always possible.
Organization of the Army
The aristocracy or ruling class also sought reward and advancement through military service. The Inca government was designed as a pyramid—the Sapa Inca and royal family at the top and the working peasant at the bottom with everyone else in the middle. The army reflected the general class system.
Every ten warriors formed a unit ordered by a native leader—a sergeant responsible for the discipline and daily existence of his group. He was called Chungacamayoc (Guardian of ten). His duties were to see that his men were provided with army dress, arms, and supplies, and it was up to him to guide them through foreign territory and train them for war. Every five groups of ten were under a Picha Chungacamayoc (Guardian of 50) who over saw the activities of the Chungacamayocs, and inspected them. These in turn were under the command of a Pachaca Camayoc and so on, as set out below:
Chungacamayoc (Guardian of 10)
Picha Chungacamayoc (Guardian of 50)
Pachaca Camayoc (Guardian of 100)
Guaranga Camayoc (Guardian of 1,000)
Apu (Captain of 2,500)
Apuratin (Vice Captain of 2,500)
Hatun Apu (Commander of 5,000)
Apusquiprantin (Aide to Commander-in-Chief)
The two lowest posts in the hierarchal scale were held by the Camayocs, local civilian officials, who were required to enter one of the services for a time. Other posts were probably filled by professionals, who may not have held a civil administrative post prior to army experience, but who would almost certainly be given one when the army service was terminated. Many of the army officials may have had private lands awarded to them by the Sapa Inca as a reward for service. Native generals and captains often maintained their rank and commanded their own people under other generals of the Commander-in-Chief of Inca blood set over them. The Sapa Inca and his council chose the Commander-in-Chief.
Most able-bodied males were trained in the use of arms from boyhood, and could expect to be called up to military service between the ages of 25 and 50. The only standing army was the Emperor's, consisting of a bodyguard of several thousand warriors, and captains of the Inca nobility. At times during the history of the empire, a Sapa was able to field an army of from 70,000 to 250,000 warriors.
The Best-Dressed Soldier
Soldiers wore "uniforms" of body armor consisting of quilted cotton tunics, but no cloaks. Their helmets were made of quilted cotton or of wood—or in some instances of plaited cane which could withstand any blow from a stone or club. The helmets usually had some sort of decoration running across the top spanning the entire width. Some soldiers wore woollen fringes below each knee and around their ankles. Round metal discs were worn, both front and back, signifying military awards, the "rank of the award being indicated by the type of metal, either bronze, silver, or gold." The Inca soldier hung round shields of armor on their backs. These were made of chonta-palm slats and cotton. On their arms they carried square or oblong shields made of wooden boards and covered with deerskin or metal draped with a cloth decorated with a painted or woven design. Over the defensive gear, the Incas would wear their most attractive and rich adornments and jewels, including fine plumes. "In addition, a long shawl or cloth was worn and this could be used as a shield wrapped around the arm, or even wrapped around the body for protection. Some soldiers painted themselves in a variety of colors and designs to frighten their enemies. Captains and generals wore rich and colourful uniforms and were recognized in battle by their plumed helmets."
Weapons of War
For long range weapons, slings were the weapons of choice. These were made of wool or cabuya. The Inca soldiers were excellent marksmen with their slings having practiced with them since they were small boys—picking off small birds and mammals while in the fields assisting their parents.
The most popular weapon for both war and hunting was the bow and arrow. "The bow was made as long or longer than the height of a man, and some were eight to ten spans long, made of a certain black palm called chonta, which had a very heavy, strong wood. The string was made of animal sinew or some other strong thing. The arrows were of light material, such as reed or cane or some other rod as light as these, with the tip or point of chonta or some other hard wood with prongs, bone or animal tooth, obsidian point, or fish spine."
The Incas also used spears or darts with fire-hardened points or equipped with fish spins, and these projectiles were case with a spear-thrower, which the Spaniards call tiraderas. At a short distance, in order to catch and hold the enemy, they would thrown an implement called ayllo; it is made of two round stones slightly smaller than the fist connected with a thin cord about . . . five and one-half feet in length. It was thrown at the feet in order to entangle them as the cord hit the legs; with the weight of the stones at the ends, the cord swings around the legs until it comes to the end and holds them.
The close-range weapons of choice were spears, pikes, macanas, clubs, hatchets, and others similar weapons. The spears were made long of hard wood with fire-hardened points of the same wood or copper points. The macana is a stick made of chonta palm wood about four fingers wide, thin, and with two sharp edges; it ends in a rounded hilt and a pommel like a sword. It is held with both hands like a broadsword, and a blow with it is so effective that is a man gets hit on the head, it will crack his skull. They also had heavy round wooden clubs. They had another club called champi that was a favorite weapon of the Incas; it has a shaft like a halberd and a copper head on the end in the shape of a star with very sharp points or rays all around. Some of these champis were short like a club, and others were as along as spears, but most of them were about medium sized. The battle-axes had a copper or obsidian head or blade. Some were small, one-handed weapons, and others were large, requiring both hands. The majority of the weapons used by the captains and nobles had gold or silver heads. Each man fought with only one type of weapon; therefore, they were organized into groups based on the type of weapon each man used individually; there were the bowmen, the slingers, etc. They also had musical instruments which were used to encourage the men doing battle. There were small drums, large seashells, flutes, and small trumpets both made of bone or animal shells.
Basically, being a soldier of the empire was not a bad life for a peasant (well, except for the possibility of death in battle) and could be a stepping stone to a better and richer life when he returned home.
I realize that this article is an inadequate rendition of the Inca warrior's story. I would encourage you to read the books I used as source material.
The Everyday Life of the Incas by Ann Kendall, published by Dorset Press and
Inca Religion and Customs by Father Bernabe Cobo and translated by Roland Hamilton, published by University of Texas Press in Austin.