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Last Days of the Incas

The Inca Empire was awash with gold, and the Spanish knew it. Nige Tassell recounts how greed and God signalled its death knell
MAIN: Machu Picchu is the most familiar icon of a vast empire that spanned much of South America, but it wasn’t the Incas’ last city - or even their capital
LEFT: The Inca Empire’s famed riches (like this Tumi knife) drew unwanted attention from Spanish conquistadors

Huayna known had of just whom his as Cápac badly a people, fever were had He like suffering many didn’t never it. Nor have long to contemplate his condition, though. He died swiftly The disease – almost certainly smallpox, brought to South America by European voyagers – wasn’t discriminatory It struck all levels of society

Until his death around 1528, Huayna Cápac had been the 11th supreme ruler, the Sapa Inca, of the Inca Empire, a civilisation described by historian Jago Cooper as “the greatest pre-Colombian empire in the Americas – a land of desert temples, of palaces in the clouds, of cities hidden deep in the forests”. Stretching along, and inland from, the Pacific coast of South America, at its height the empire included at least parts of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.

Huayna Cápac’s death prompted a civil war that would leave the Inca Empire vulnerable

The Incas were a resourceful people. To help bind this empire and its population together, they created a vast road network totalling 40,000 kilometres. Tese roads transformed the concept of food distribution; furthermore, the food being distributed had benefitted greatly from the adoption of some revolutionary agricultural methods. And this deep connection to agriculture was one of the tenets of their worship of Inti, the Sun God – the deity who guided much of Inca life.

Only a century before Huayna Cápac’s death, the Incas had been an inconsequential mountain tribe in possession of a limited amount of land. Over the intervening years, the empire had expanded rather rapidly particularly under the rule of both his father and grandfather. To a large extent, the expansion hadn’t been achieved through military might. Instead, Huayna Cápac sought to assimilate the region’s various tribes. Cooperation and diplomacy were his main tools. And he was rather successful in deploying them too, earning the devout respect of much of the Inca population.

Tere had been many losses in the north of the empire, though, as the Sapa Inca tried to extend his lands still further. For 17 long years, Ecuadorian natives had fought against these incursions, stretching Inca resources and manpower to the limit. It was perhaps a sign that the empire was getting too great to handle.

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About History Revealed

Few stories can match that of the end of the Incas, when the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas was defeated thanks to deceit and double-crossing. How did thousands of experienced Inca warriors fail to repel just 170 Spaniards? Plus: the CIA’s mind-boggling PsyOps experiments, the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the origins and accuracy of the Bible, wacky races, jousting and much more