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the inca

10 june 2022

The Inca, by Kevin Lane, is the newest in Reaktion's Lost Civilizations series; but as Frances Berdan noted of The Aztecs, and Lane re-emphasizes, the Inca were hardly lost. They were conquered, but their descendants still speak their languages and constitute a majority in large areas of Peru and Bolivia.

About half of The Inca is clear, intriguing exposition; the other half is a kind of blur of lists and details. Some of the blur is due to admirable motives. Lane wants to cite and acknowledge many an Inca-ologist, and that's a good thing: introductory books can sometimes give the impression that their writers just found out all that stuff by themselves, by direct observation. Lane by contrast shows how his knowledge is drawn from a large matrix of scholarship. But it does get meta at times. Part of the blur is also perhaps due to the nature of Inca historiography. Early accounts, whether by Spanish writers or mestizos (both with an interested bias, Lane remarks) tend to be in the form of lists, particularly of various rulers. Those lists tend to be sketchy in several senses: thin in detail and of dubious accuracy. Yet often such lists are all we know.

The stronger expository sections of The Inca are clear and thought-provoking. Isolated from all but the most indirect outside influences, the people of western South America built a substantial civilization all by themselves – without writing, and using Bronze Age technology, but in many respects equal or superior to Mexican or Old World civilizations in terms of organization, imperial extent, and material comforts.

Many things about any empire are familiar worldwide. They need emperors, and the Inca had one (they called him the Inca, the embodiment of his entire realm, no pressure there). They need bureaucracies, transport systems, organized markets, labor corvées, diplomacy, hegemony over client states. The Inca had all those.

But they made their empire using local solutions. They built with great blocks of local stone, ashlar-style, often without mortar (the haphazard look of Inca masonry was its big advantage, technologically: it shows superior resistance to earthquakes). They strung suspension bridges of wood and rope, from stone anchors, across chasms. These bridges, some still in use (though continually reconstructed) are terrifying-looking to Europeans but capable of bearing unlikely amounts of weight. In place of European livestock, they domesticated llamas and alpacas.

The Inca practiced a religion based on local manifestations of animist power, oracles, and their own transformed ancestors. Their cults bear resemblances to other world religions but those resemblances are perhaps suggestive at their closest. Inca geography determined not just their place-based religion, but their unusual social structure. They did not go in for huge cities. Their basic socio-economic units, Lane explains, were "vertical." The resources needed for a high standard of living had to be drawn from a variety of environments, from the coast across phenomenal mountain ranges down to the rainforest beyond. People were interdependent up- and downhill. Communities established connections vertically in the mountains to serve as the building blocks of the larger empire.

The Inca themselves, of course, like the Aztecs, were relative latecomers to power. Much of their sway incorporated earlier Andean institutions. Among these were quipu, the knotted mnemonic devices that served bureaucracies in lieu of writing, and chasqui, relay runners who carried quipu and many a commodity across a massive network of roads and bridges, with astonishing speed. The social and technological innovations produced by the Inca and their forerunners might seem implausible if a writer of speculative fiction were to have dreamed them up, but they were the basis for rich, extensive lifeways that endured for centuries.

Lane, Kevin. The Inca. London: Reaktion, 2022.