The Aborigines of Peru

Mythological Traditions

According to Peruvian mythology, the whole country was, in early times, as savage and barbarous as the neigh boring nations of the East. Manco Capac, and his sister and wife, Mama Oello Huaco, two children of the Sun, settling in the valley of Cuzco, began the work of regeneration. They taught the arts of civilized life, and from them sprang the long line of the Incas whose glorious kingdom was at the height of its prosperity when discovered by the Spaniards. Other traditions, more worthy of study and reflection, speak of ” bearded white men” to whose immigration the commencement of improvement was due.

Topa Inca Yupanqui, And His Son Huayna Capac

We gather little of connected or reliable tradition earlier than the reign of Topa Inca Yupanqui. This monarch’s victories widely extended the domains bequeathed him by his ancestors. By his warlike achievements, and those of his son, Huayna Capac, the Peruvian empire was extended from the southern portion of Chili to the boundaries of the present republic of New Grenada. The center of government, and site of the royal palace, the great temple of the sun, and the most celebrated fortification, were at Cuzco, in the interior. The town was situated in a valley of the tableland, at an immense height above the level of the sea, an altitude which secured to it a delightful climate in those tropical regions.

The principal buildings of the capital were of hewn stone, wrought entirely by instruments of copper, hardened by an alloy of tin; for, like the Mexicans, the people of Peru were entirely ignorant of the use of iron. A certain perfection of workmanship, seldom attempted in more advanced nations, and only elsewhere observable in the casings of the great Egyptian pyramids, is described as peculiar to the laying of the courses of stone in these ancient buildings. For the most part no cement was used, but the blocks were so accurately fitted that “it was impossible to introduce even the blade of a knife between them.” Mr. Prescott, giving, as his authority, the measurements and descriptions of Acosta and Garcilasso, says: “Many of these stones were of vast size; some of them being full thirty-eight feet long, by eighteen broad, and six feet thick. These enormous masses were hewn from their native bed, and fashioned into shape by a people ignorant of the use of iron; they were brought from quarries, from four to fifteen leagues distant, without the aid of beasts of burden; were transported across rivers and ravines, raised to their elevated position on the sierra, and finally adjusted there with the nicest accuracy, with out the knowledge of tools and machinery familiar to the European.”

The Peruvian Capital, Religious System, Government, Agrarian Law

At Cuzco stood the great temple of the sun, by far the most resplendent with gold and ornament of all the public edifices of Peru. The description of this central point of the religious system of the country vies with those of fairy palaces in Arabian tales. It was built of stone, but, by a strange contrast of magnificence with rudeness, was thatched with straw. The most striking object in the interior was a huge golden sun, represented by the figure of a human face, surrounded with rays. This was so placed as to receive the first beams of the rising sun. The whole building sparkled with golden ornament; even upon the outside a heavy belt of gold is said to have been let into the stonewall around the whole extent of the edifice. Great vases of the precious metals stood in the open space of the interior, filled with offerings of maize, and no less valuable material was used for the various tools and implements connected with the establishment.

This profusion of gold and silver, which, although in inferior degree, was noticeable in the royal palaces and temples throughout the empire, resulted from the circumstance that the mines were a government monopoly. No money was used, and consequently the whole product of the country, in this line, was collected in the coffers of the Inca, or displayed in the gorgeous ornaments, which adorned the temples. The mines were worked by bodies of laborers systematically drafted from the common people, to serve for specified periods.

The Peruvians had some idea of an invisible deity, whose supremacy they acknowledged, and to whom homage was rendered, but the sun was their chief object of worship. The moon and stars took the place of subordinate divinities. By virtue of his office, the Inca was the head of the visible church, and high priest of the sun; all the other religious functionaries were of the nobility, viz.: descendants in the male line of the royal family. One lawful wife gave birth to the successor to the throne, but from the innumerable concubines kept by the emperor sprang the race of Inca nobility, distinguished by dress and occupation from the body of the people.

A most singular resemblance to the ancient order of the vestal virgins existed in that of the Peruvian Virgins of the Sun. These were set apart, at an early age, for the services of the temple, the preparations of its tapestry and ornaments, and especially for the preservation of the sacred fire. Terrible penalties followed the violation of chastity by either of these devotees, always excepting the privileges of the Inca, to whom they were subservient as “brides,” or concubines. The office did not necessarily continue during life: many of these “Virgins” were dismissed to their paternal homes from time to time, and were ever thereafter held in great honor and veneration. The religious ceremonies and festivals familiar to the nation were singularly numerous and complicated: an enumeration of them would be, for the most part, wearisome and devoid of interest.

The Peruvian system of government merits a more particular attention. Here, for the first time in the history of the world, we see the results of a paternal despotism carried to its most extravagant extent, yet meeting the apparent wants of the people, and universally acquiesced in and approved by them. From generation to generation the whole mass of the commonalty was shut out from any possibility of change or improvement, and subjected to immutable rules in every employment or privilege of life.

The whole empire was minutely divided and subdivided into districts, according to population, and over each of these departments a curaca or governor was set to maintain law. The penal code was sufficiently severe, and rigidly enforced; in all matters of private right there was no room for contention among the citizens, as the state prescribed every man s place of residence, the amount and nature of his employment, and the provision necessary for his support.

The government assumed the entire ownership of the soil, which was divided into three parts for the following uses: The first was set apart to support the whole extensive system of religion; the second sustained the royal court, and furnished the “civil list” for the accomplishment of all public works, and to defray the current expenses of the empire; and the third was yearly divided among the people. The apportionment was made to each family, according to its numbers, and, unless some good cause should appear to the contrary, it is supposed that the same spot was continued in the possession of its proprietor from year to year. The public domains were cultivated by the people in mass, and, in the management of the private allotments, vigilant care was taken, by the appropriate officers, that no one should be idle, no one over burdened with labor, and no one in a state of suffering from want.


The only beast of burden in Peru was the llama. The immense herds of this animal were, without exception, the property of the state, and under the management of government officials. The wool and hair of the llama furnished the most important material for the clothing of the whole population, but before it reached its ultimate destination it must pass through the hands of appointed agents, and, after the separation and preparation of the portion devoted to religious and royal purposes, be equitably par celled out and distributed among the private families. The manufacture of cloth was more especially the business of women and children. No man had the power to choose his own employment. A select number of artisans were set apart and instructed in such mechanical sciences as were known to the age and country, while the mass of the population were employed in agricultural labors, or, by a systematic apportionment among the different districts, were engaged upon the vast works of public utility or magnificence which astonished the eyes of the Spanish invaders.

Public Records: The “Quipu.”

The most exact accounts were kept, by certain appointed officers, of the entire population and resources of the empire. No birth, marriage, or death, was suffered to pass unchronicled, and an immense amount of statistical matter, relative to the condition of the people, the productions of the soil, the extent of manufactures, &c., was regularly and systematically returned to the proper department. The substitute for writing, by which these results, and even much more abstract particulars (as of dates and historical events) were perpetuated, was exceedingly ingenious and unique. It consisted of the “quipu,” viz.: a cord of strands varying in color, from which depended numerous short threads at regular distances. A series of knots in these appendages (which were, like the strands of the main cord, of various colors) served to express any amount in numbers, and the difference in hue designated the subject to which they were applied. The endless combinations which could be effected in this system of knots might, as we can readily perceive, be extended to the expression of a very wide range of ideas. In the words of Mr. Prescott: ” The peculiar knot, or color, in this way (by association) suggested what it could not venture to represent; in the same manner to borrow the homely illustration of an old writer as the number of the Commandment calls to mind the Commandment itself. The narrative thus concocted could be communicated only by oral tradition; but the quipus served the chronicler to arrange the incidents with method, and to refresh his memory.”

In some of the sciences, particularly in astronomy, the Peruvians were far behind the Aztecs. A few simple observations of the movements of the planets; and the measurement of shadows to mark the solstices, equinoxes, &c., formed the limit of their speculations or experiments. In the more practical and necessary arts of husbandry and agriculture, not even the laborious and patient population of China could excel the subjects of the Incas. The ex tent of the aqueducts, to conduct the mountain-streams through the arid fields where rain never fell; the immense excavations made to reach a moist soil, fifteen or twenty feet below the surface; and other mighty undertakings which individual enterprise could never have accomplished, evince the effects that a complete centralization of power can produce. Were it not for the ruins, of which modern travelers give us measurement and description, we should be tempted to throw aside the early histories of Peruvian achievements as gross exaggerations. The use of guano for manure was common, and the gathering and application of it were in accordance with rigid and careful regulations. The destruction, or even the disturbance of the birds to whom the formation is owing, was punished by death. A plough was used in the cultivation of the land, but it was rudely and simply constructed of wood, and was forced through the earth by human thews and sinews. The unequalled diversity in soil and climate provided suit able localities for a variety in vegetable productions seldom seen within the same limits. Bananas, Indian corn, potatoes, a grain called quinoa, and many other well-known crops, were successfully cultivated. The desire for stimulants and narcotics, so universal to mankind, was satisfied by a liquor brewed from maize, by tobacco, and by the coca or cuca, whose leaves possess something of the sedative qualities of the latter plant.


We have mentioned the control exercised by the government over the private affairs of every citizen; this extended even to the ties of affinity. Every person was required to marry at an appointed age, (eighteen in females, and twenty-four in males,) and, although a certain degree of choice was left to the individual in the selection of a partner, it must be confined within a specified district or community. The Inca always married his sister that the purity of the royal blood might not be contaminated, but such a connection was forbidden between any of lower rank.

Warlike Policy Of The Incas

Although the mass of the people were constantly employed in the operations of peaceful husbandry, the policy of the Inca dynasty towards neighboring nations was essentially warlike. The youth of the nobility, and especially the presumptive heir to the throne, were instructed in the arts of war, and subjected to a routine of bodily exercise, and trials of fortitude not unlike that practiced by the ruder nations of North America, in the initiation of their future warriors.

An extensive militia system was enforced, and, in time of war, troops were drafted from the different districts in some proportion to the population; regard being had to the hardihood and energy of the various races, in making the levy. Axes, lances, darts, bows and arrows, and slings, formed the principal weapons of offence. The soldiers were also supplied with the quilted coats of such common use in past ages, to ward off arrows and sword-thrust, and with helmets of skins or wood.

The Great Roads

The great roads, led along the mountain ridges, or by the level plain of the seacoast, furnished ready means of transit to the royal armies throughout the extent of the empire. Enough of these yet remains to excite the admiration of every traveler. Of the principal of these roads, Mr. Prescott speaks as follows: ” It was conducted over pathless sierras buried in snow; galleries were cut for leagues through the living rock; rivers were crossed by means of bridges that hung suspended in the air; precipices were scaled by stairways hewn out of the native bed; ravines of hideous depth were filled up with solid masonry; in short, all the difficulties that beset a wild and mountainous region, and which might appall the most courageous engineer of modern times, were encountered and successfully overcome. The length of the road, of which scattered fragments only remain, is variously estimated from fifteen hundred to two thousand miles.” No celebrated conqueror of the old world ever pursued such perfect system and method in the conduct of a campaign as did the Incas. Stations for couriers were built at regular intervals throughout the main routes, by means of which messages or light burdens could be conveyed with incredible celerity to any required distance. Granaries and store houses filled with supplies for the army stood, under care of appointed officers, at convenient intervals, and all these provisions and supplies being furnished from the state funds, no man felt them as an extraordinary burden.

A strange but sagacious policy was observed towards a conquered nation. The Peruvian worship of the sun was immediately introduced; all the laws of the empire were enforced, and its customs established; but, that the yoke might not be too galling, the privileges as well as the duties of a subject were extended to the conquered people. The former nobles and governors were not uncommonly continued in office, and a paternal care was taken of the necessities and interests of the whole populace. With all this, no steps were omitted which would tend to completely denationalize the newly acquired country. Large colonies of Peruvians were transplanted from their own country to the new, and their places supplied by an equal number of those whose habitations they occupied. The language of the conquerors was everywhere introduced, and its use encouraged until, with the lapse of years, a complete assimilation was brought about.

All this complete course of despotism was said by the Spanish historians, who wrote from observation, and be fore the old order of things was entirely overturned, to be precisely that which was best adapted to the Peruvian race, and to the country and climate which they inhabited. The people were contented with their lot, and looked upon their priests and rulers with the utmost reverence. “No man could be rich,” says Prescott, “no man could be poor, in Peru; but all might enjoy, and did enjoy, a competence. Ambition, avarice, the love of change, the morbid spirit of discontent, those passions, which most agitate the minds of men, found no place in the bosom of the Peruvian. He moved on in the same unbroken circle in which his fathers had moved before him, and in which his children were to follow.”

We cannot help a feeling of natural regret that the ruthless invasion of the Spaniards should have uprooted all these ancient and venerated customs. There was not, as with the Aztecs, a bloody system of religion, whose annihilation could reconcile us to almost any violence on the part of those who came to overturn it. There were, indeed, occasional scenes of human sacrifice at the great religious solemnities; but these were the exception, not the rule. The people at large lived on in peace and quietness, con tented with the government and institutions under whose influence they lived, and by whose care they were secured in the possession of the competencies of life.

We have already mentioned the successes and conquests of Tupac Yupanqui, and his son Huayna Capac. The latter prince, having reduced the kingdom of Quito, the modern Equador, took up his residence at its capital, and devoted his attention to beautifying his acquisition, and establishing the Peruvian policy upon a firm basis through out its limits.

Division Of The Empire

The first expeditions of the Spaniards to the Peruvian coast, took place during the latter years of this monarch, and the accounts are said to have filled his mind with gloomy forebodings of the overthrow of his empire. His sagacious perception readily recognized the vast superiority over his own nation, evident in the vessels, arms, intelligence, and enterprise of the strangers. Huayna Capac died about the year 1525, leaving his only legitimate son, Huascar, the regular successor to his throne. Instead of confirming the old order of descent, the king s fondness for another son, named Atahuallpa, (Atabalipa, as spelt by many old writers) led him, upon his death-bed, to bestow upon his favorite a portion of his kingdom. Upon the sub version of the ancient dynasty at Quito, Huayna Capac had taken the daughter of the last native prince as one of his concubines. From this union sprung the prince of whom we are speaking. The share of empire bequeathed to Atahuallpa was that of his maternal ancestors, in which his father had so long resided, and to whose improvement he had devoted his declining years. The rest of the wide domains of Peru were left in possession of Huascar.

Huascar And Atahuallpa

This new order of things produced no evil effects for about five years. Huascar maintained his court at the old capital, Cuzco, while Atahuallpa remained at Quito; neither interfering with the other s rights of jurisdiction. Their respective subjects readily acquiesced in the new arrangement.

Different accounts are given of the first causes of rupture between the brothers; but whatever occasioned it, the contest which ensued was bloody and disastrous in the extreme. But for the disturbed and distracted state of the empire consequent upon this civil war, it would have been utterly impossible for the Spaniards, with the insignificant force, which they finally brought into the field, to have overcome and subverted such an immense and powerful empire.

Contest For Supremacy

The first important engagement between the armies of the contending princes took place at Hambata, about sixty leagues south from Quito. In this battle, Huascar s forces were utterly defeated, and his victorious brother pressed onward to Tumebamba, no great distance from Tumbez. This city belonged to Atahuallpa s kingdom, but the inhabitants had taken up arms in favor of Huascar. In vain did they sue for mercy from the conqueror: the whole district was ravaged, and all male adults were put to death. Proceeding on his march, Atahuallpa reached Caxamalca, where he took up his quarters, and sent forward the chief portion of his army to meet the forces prepared for the protection of the ancient capital of Peru.

A bloody and desperate battle was fought near the city, in which the invader was again completely victorious. Huascar was taken prisoner, and placed in close confinement, but his brother had enough of natural humanity to order that all respect should be shown him in his fallen fortunes. If we are to believe some accounts, Atahuallpa sullied the fame, which his successes might have acquired him, by acts of the most unheard-of barbarity. It is said that he put to death, and that too by lingering tortures, all of the royal family upon whom he could lay his hands, including the female branches of the family, that he might cut off all possibility of a rival appearing to contest his right to the throne. Modern historians have pointed out so many discrepancies and improbabilities in the details of this transaction that they must be now considered as grossly exaggerated, if not utterly false.

Atahuallpa, now claiming the title of Inca, and rejoicing in the possession of the whole of the immense empire of his father, held his court at Caxamalca. In the midst of his exultation and triumph, news was brought of a fresh arrival of Spanish ships upon the coast.

Peru South America,

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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