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Rise and Fall

of the Incan Empire

Llamas and Alpacas are great for carrying heavy loads and for their wool but they don't make good farm animals. This gave the Spanish yet another advantage over the Incas.
The Conquest of Peru

High up in the Andes, where the air is thin, the climate harsh, and the soil is rocky, live a group of people who are descended from the Inca who carved out a mountain empire five centuries ago until it was overthrown by the Spanish.

You might be thinking that Hernan Cortez (the guy who conquered Mexico in 1517) just got lucky with the whole God legend, the small pox, and having an emperor who was indecisive. Surely, that wouldn't happen again! The year is 1532, and another Conquistador named Francisco Pizarro is about to make his debut into history.


In 1513, Pizarro is a young man when he joins an expedition led by Vasco Núñez de Balboa who trekked through the jungles of Panama to become the first European to catch sight of the Pacific Ocean. Pizarro had heard rumors from other explorers (this is why you shouldn't gossip) of a vastly rich and sophisticated empire high up in the Andes Mountains called Viru (Peru). 


Pizarro was born in Spain, the illegitimate son of a soldier. His family was too poor to send him to school and so he never learned to read nor write. Also, being illegitimate in those days meant you did not inherit your father's property (not that there was much to inherit). Pizarro set out for the Americas and he became as a brave and ruthless soldier.

Pizarro is so inspired by the story of Cortez that he decides that he too will set out on the American mainland to find another city of gold like Tenochtitlán. In 1524 he tries to trek down Central America to find this city of gold. Bad weather, a lack of food, and skirmishes with hostile Indians (one soldier had his eye shot out with an arrow) forced him to turn back. Pizarro, tried a second time and this too failed. His third attempt in 1532 would be the one that lands him in the history books.

He and a small band of 200 conquistadors (among the group was another famous name- Hernando de Soto) who would terrorize (explore) the Southeastern United States. The group landed on the coast of Ecuador. From there they made their way into the rugged Andes Mountains, one the tallest in the world. Like Cortez, Pizarro's timing could not be more perfect (for him, but the Inca). The Inca are recovering from a civil war fought between two brothers after their father (the former Inca) had died. Atahualpa came out the victor and claimed the throne of the Inca Empire which was seated in the city of Cuzco.

The people of the Americas did not ride animals and so trained runners carried messages through the mountains. This is how news of the Spaniard's arrival reached Atahualpa's camp in 1532. Some claim that these strangers with fur on their faces (beards), wearing pots of their heads (helmets) and riding strange beasts (horses) were gods come down on earth. Legend says that bad omens were predicted by Incan priests of disaster and the end of the empire. Atahualpa, by historical accounts, knew that these men were not gods. Atahualpa was camped in a valley with 80,000 men and so he told his messengers to invite the strangers to meet him. He sent them gifts of foods, gold, and silver. Atahualpa was not being generous; he was luring Pizarro into a trap.

After all, what could 200 men do against the mighty Incan army?  Atahualpa arranged a meeting place at a nearby town where 35,000 of his soldiers waited in the mountains. When Pizarro greeted the emperor he told him (through translators) that the Spanish King Charles was the only true King, that the Christian God was the only true God, and Pizarro then handed the emperor a copy of the Bible. Atahualpa threw the Bible to the ground and the Spanish fired their muskets (harquebusiers) and the two cannons that they brought with them. The Inca army became confused and frightened and in the chaos Pizarro had his horsemen charge the fleeing soldiers who had never seen such strange weapons and animals. It must have been a terrifying experience for Indians armed with arrows and spears.

The success of the Spanish was in their weapons which were foreign to the Inca. Even though the Spanish had superior technology like canon, crossbows, guns and horses, what won the battle was fear. By the end of the battle, 1,500 Incan soldiers lay dead while the Spanish suffered only a few minor wounds. Most importantly, Atahualpa had been captured and was now held hostage by Pizarro and his men. For months Atahualpa was held captive, giving orders under Pizarro's direction. The Incan generals were too afraid for their emperor's safety to attack. Atahualpa gave Pizarro 13,000 pounds of gold and silver in exchange for his freedom. After getting the gold Pizarro went back on his word (shocking I know) and put the emperor on trial for treason and worshipping false gods. He was sentenced to be burned alive unless he converted to Christianity and then he would only be strangled to death. Atahualpa converted and was strangled in front of his subjects. The Incan Empire fell quickly thereafter, as gold-seeking conquistadors and colonists rushed in to settle the new colony of Peru.

Atahulalpa at his execution
Atahulalpa meets Pizarro
Guns, Germs, and Steel. Ep 2

Pizarro and the Spanish wasted no time melting down the idols of the Incas into movable Spanish Pieces of Eight.  In modern money, the Spanish  netted over 1.5 TRILLION in melted down idols!

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