Cusco: the plentiful land the Incas chose to build their empire
23 January 2020
The Andes Mountains form a very large mountain range, stretching the entire length of South America, from Colombia and Ecuador, to Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, with its central heartland in Peru. All along its extension, the Andes are extremely rich in natural resources, with water, fertile soils, edible plants, animals, minerals. Cloud forest covers the mountains along the eastern flanks.
With such a huge and rich land open to settlement, why did the Incas, the greatest empire builders in South America’s pre-European history, chose Cusco as the center of their civilization and the capital of their empire?
The exact reasons for the establishment of Cusco are complex; it’s partly due to migrations of ancient people, and to the moderate Andean weather and ample resources found in the Cusco region’s valleys and high mountains.
But, of course there is the legend, and there are the historical accounts. First, the legend.
An ancient legend
The ancient legend of the founding of Cusco tells of the first Inca, Manco Capac and his sister/wife Mama Ocllo, sacred children of the sun god, Inti. In different versions, either they emerged from Lake Titicaca’s Island of the Sun, or from the cave at Pacaritampu.
They wandered across the land to find an ideal location, carrying a golden staff and testing the land. When they finally reached the Cusco Valley, the staff sank into the ground, and there they settled and founded what was to become the Inca Empire. Such accounts are celebrated in Cusco’s festivities, especially during June’s Inti Raymi sun solstice festival, one of the many great yearly pageants that take place in Cusco city. It’s really worth being here during that time!
Myth and legend aside, Manco Capac probably existed as the important early chieftain who first settled in Cusco. The likely scenario for the early settlement, supported by archeological and ethnographic research, is a process of gradual migration and warfare.
Founding of the empire
Based on Andean oral history, and on Spanish and Indian chronicles from the 16th centuries, it is believed that Cusco was founded in the early 13th century by tribal groups who had gradually migrated from the south. They were probably descendants of the earlier Tiahuanaco civilization, which had thrived along the shores of Lake Titicaca for about 900 years, but had gradually declined.
These nomads were likely organized as a large ayllu, a group of dozens of related extended families. As they moved north in the early 13th century, the warrior nomads searched for new lands to settle, fighting local tribes along the way.
In the Cusco Valley, at the source of two large streams, they conquered three smaller tribes, and settled into a precarious existence of constant battles with larger neighboring tribes. Somehow, the hardy settlers held on to their land, which gradually became the Kingdom of Cusco.
The fertile lands of the nearby Sacred Valley, with irrigation water provided by the mighty Vilcanota River, became an extension of the up-and-coming empire.
For a hundred years, the Kingdom of Cusco existed as did other large kingdoms of that era in Peru, such as the coastal Chimu and the central highland Wari. By the beginning of the 15th century, the kingdom was becoming stronger and outgrowing its borders.
Expansion of the empire
At that point, around 1438 A.D., the greatest Inca king, Pachacutec (or Pachacuti, the “earth shaker”), inherited the throne. Then began the amazing period of Inca expansion and development. Pachacutec conquered his way across the Andes, expanding the kingdom into what became the Tawantinsuyu, the huge Inca empire that eventually extended from Colombia to southern Chile and Argentina.
For all that expansion, Cusco (the “navel of the world” in Inca cosmology) remained the spiritual and administrative center of the Empire. The Inca universe radiated outward from Cusco. Here, the Coricancha, or Temple of the Sun was built- the most important religious center for the Incas. In Cusco, succeeding Incas each build their huge palaces, and the huge ceremonial center of Sacsayhuaman was constructed on the mountain above the city.
The Sacred Valley and the surrounding region, all the way to Machu Picchu, was settled and extensively farmed. Temples and fortresses, hundreds of terraces, waterworks, roads and many other splendid examples of Inca architecture are found still today in Cusco, and attract visitors from around the world.
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