Unlocking the secrets of the Inca civilization

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

The pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas are very much in the public’s mind this year due to the so-called Mayan Prophecy that suggests the world will end on Dec. 21. Perhaps any fear-mongering will have the positive effect of sparking increased interest in the region. Luckily, media company TBS has organized an impressive exhibition at Tokyo’s National Museum of Science and Nature that takes a detailed look at what is probably the most fascinating of these civilizations, the mighty Inca Empire. Its territory stretched along the mountainous spine of South America until it was conquered by the Spanish in the early 16th century.

“This is the culmination of a series of exhibitions organized by TBS over the past 18 years that have dealt with pre-Columbian cultures and civilizations of the Andean region,” curator Izumi Shimada explains. “Each time we have selected a single culture to focus on, and have gradually worked up to more recent times, so the Inca is the logical conclusion. This is why we are doing this exhibition now.”

The show includes hundreds of artifacts, including several mummified corpses and a 3-D film that gives visitors an aerial view of the stunning ruins of Machu Picchu, the famous “Lost City of the Incas” in Peru, which wasn’t as lost as formerly believed before its rediscovery in 1911 by Yale Professor Hiram Bingham.

Thanks to the fame of Machu Picchu, and history-and-travel-themed TV quiz shows such as TBS’s “Sekai Fushigi Hakken” (“World Mysteries Revealed”), the Inca Empire has a high profile in Japan. But just what is it that makes this particular civilization so fascinating? Shimada, who is a professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University in the United States, has several ideas.

“The Inca Empire and Andean civilization as a whole presents a very interesting situation,” he says. “There are hardly any examples of a civilization existing south of the equator in the tropical zone, high in the mountains. It’s a very unique situation. The civilizations that we tend to think of are found in the fertile plains at a lower altitude.”

Another distinguishing point is that the civilization lacked a writing system, a fact that clashes with our default concept of what a civilization actually is. The Incas, like other previous Andean civilizations, were able to record some numerical information by using a system of knotted strings called quipu. The exhibition includes several examples, which look more like hippie accessories than an efficient system of bookkeeping. Indeed, their ability to store and convey contextualized knowledge was very limited compared to the systems of writing that evolved further north in Central America.

This, along with other technological blind spots — a lack of hard metals, no horses or wheels — makes it all the more incredible that the Incas were able to create such a far-flung empire. At its height in the early 16th century, their rule stretched 3,000 km north to south, and covered around 2 million sq. km, an area slightly bigger than modern-day Mexico or Indonesia. Most of the territorial expansion took place in the century preceding the Spanish conquest.

The Incas were also an ethnic minority within their empire. So how were they able to bring such a large and disparate area under their control in a relatively short space of time? According to Shimada, one reason was statecraft.

“It really is a combination of factors, one of which is what may be called statecraft, knowing how to do things politically,” he says. “I think what we’re talking about specifically is anything from actual physical military conquest to threats of military conquest, as well as the clever use of negotiation.”

Based on his studies and his experience of the Andean peoples, Shimada believes the Incas astutely used what he describes as a “culture of reciprocity,” in which a favor begets a favor and loyalty is rewarded with loyalty.

“Even to this day, there is a very strong notion of reciprocity,” he explains. “You don’t have to write these implicit, silent contracts that you establish. There is a very strong social principle that binds people, and which goes back to the Inca and probably before the Inca.”

Symbolizing this reciprocity at the exhibition are kero cups. The exhibition includes several examples, including one produced after the Spanish conquest, showing that the Spanish used existing customs and practices to help establish their own power. These cups, richly decorated with the geometric designs popular among the Incas, were employed in rituals, in which aqha, a kind of maize beer, was drunk as a symbol of reciprocity.

“There were a number or rituals that they conducted at the time of conquest or negotiations that clearly cemented the allegiance of the new group or the alliance,” Shimada explains. “One of those is the public ritual of what they themselves called ‘sharing cups.’ The cups were actually used to toast each other. It’s a very public gesture.”

Such rituals were an aspect of how the Incas subsumed local elites into their power structure, retaining them and allowing them to save face as long as they were willing to collaborate with the “new order.”

“You have, in a sense, a strange juxtaposition of a welfarelike system and a totalitarian, abusive system, and what separated it was a very thin veil. If you fail to do what you’re supposed to do, you could be killed or punished in a very severe manner, but at the same time if you do what they wanted, then you are effectively treated quite well.”

One of the strengths of the exhibition is that it brings together many separate academic disciplines. Shimada mentions archaeology, art history, historical linguistics, architectural studies and physical anthropology — the last of which seeks to shed light on the past through the study of DNA and human remains. Such research reveals that the benefits of greater unity did not just extend to the co-opted elites, but also to commoners. Studies of bone tissues indicate improved diets among the empire’s subjects.

In addition to warfare, diplomacy and establishing networks of allegiance, the Inca’s power was also underpinned by impressive roads, which conquistadors compared to those of the Roman Empire. Equally impressive was their remarkable stonemasonry and architecture. An attempt is made to evoke this at the exhibition through a full-scale recreation of a wall segment and scale models of Inca architecture, including an impressive mock-up of Machu Picchu.

While the rise of the Inca Empire is interesting, its fall is even more fascinating. A parallel can be drawn with Japan in the Edo Period (1603-1867). In both cases you had delicately balanced systems, involving a central power elite and a complex network of feudatories of varying degrees of loyalty. Both systems existed in relative isolation: the Andean culture cut off by the Pacific Ocean and the sparsely inhabited jungles and plains to the east; Japan a group of islands that, as a small nation, had shut its doors to the world.

In both cases the arrival of a small group of seaborne Westerners led to the destabilization of the complex, isolated mechanism, resulting in radical change.

The arrival of Francisco Pizarro with a small army off the coast of Peru in 1532 was something akin to a Black Ship moment. Perhaps such similarities explain the heightened Japanese fascination with the Inca Empire and the popularity of this exhibition.

At this point, however, the similarities end. The Americans were not interested in conquest, nor would other Western powers have acceded to this if they had been. Also, Japan was not engaged in a debilitating dynastic war, as the Incas were on Pizarro’s arrival. Japan had time to replace its inherently unstable feudal system with something more centralized, and to narrow the technological gap by cultivating relationships with several Western nations.

By contrast, the Incas faced the Spaniards alone. Their habit of using diplomacy and seeking a kind of reciprocity also played into the hands of their rapacious and fanatical enemies when the Emperor Atahualpa (1492-1533) was seized as a hostage during a conference in the town of Cajamarca, Peru.

With the head removed, the system of fragile alliances unraveled, while the excellent road system helped the Spaniards complete their conquest — which was also facilitated by the spread of disease.

So, what legacy have the Incas left us? Shimada points to the globalization of Andean vegetables, including the humble potato, and the vast influx of precious metals into Europe, which helped establish a mercantile global economy. Culturally, through the writings of Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman, the notion of the Inca Empire as an earthly Utopia has also taken root.

“He was very much influenced by the writing of Sir Thomas More and the notion of Utopia,” Shimada says. “He presented Inca society as being what we would think of as a socialist empire, as a society that very much looked after its subjects. This was one way that the Inca Empire impacted on European thinking and literature: the idea that something Utopian existed or could have existed in a distant land.”

The Inca Empire Revealed: Century After the Machu Picchu “Discovery,” runs from March 10 till June 24 at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Taito-ku, Tokyo (9 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Mondays). Tickets are ¥1,400 (¥1,200 in advance) for adults, ¥500 (¥400 in advance) for elementary, junior and senior high school students. For more information, visit www.kahaku.go.jp.