The economy of the Inca Empire: a well organized trading system
21 January 2020
During the relatively short span of the Inca Empire, from 1438 to 1533, Inca society developed an impressive economic system, which allowed for extensive agricultural production, as well as for trade of goods between communities across vast distances.
An amazing empire
The Inca Empire, known in Quechua as the Tawantinsuyu, is estimated to have reached a population somewhere between 6 and 14 million people. It is remarkable that an ancient people who developed neither a written language nor use of the wheel were able to reach a relatively advanced state of economic and political cohesion.
They built cities and road networks, conquered and assimilated nearby tribes and kingdoms, and were able to expand and prosper, until becoming the largest unified empire in the world of that era.
How did this ancient society create an Inca economy that was able to accomplish all this?
First, we can look at the type of government that emerged from the Kingdom of Cusco at the beginning of the Tawantinsuyu. The Inca king was an all-powerful monarch, considered a sacred descendant of the sun god, Inti.
He, with support of his religious and military leaders, had hegemonic power to gather armies, as well as to control and administer a huge and highly skilled labor force of farmers and craftspersons. The land was rich in food and material resources.
And very importantly, complex systems of organizing labor at the local level had been in existence for hundreds of years.
Farm work was largely based on an ancient system called the ayllu, in which extended family groups with common ancestors worked the land together. In each valley or community, relatives gathered and distributed farming tasks.
The Inca trading system
Each nuclear family might have control over a plot of land. Each required additional labor of the extended family to plow, sow seeds, and later harvest the crops.
A related system called minka was also applied to communal work on a larger scale, such as the construction of buildings or other facilities. The participants were paid in kind. This system continues to exist in some Andean Quechua communities to this day.
The philosophical value system that formed the basis of ayllu and minka was known as ayni, a concept of mutualism and reciprocity that ancient Andeans practiced. Everything and everyone in the community was considered to be connected, and thus each member freely offered their labor and production. Expecting to also later be given something in exchange.
The concept of ayni could be extended to all reciprocal exchanges of energy and goods between people and nature, in a society that did not use monetary currency.
Additionally, control of production and a system of taxation was imposed by the central Inca government. Each citizen was required to offer a period of labor and a portion of their harvested crops as a tax to the Inca rulers. Thus, surplus crops were taken and distributed by the government to communities where food was most needed.
Transportation and conservation
Along with foods, other goods, such as ceramics, cloth and metal goods, as well as meats, wool, skins and feathers, were also traded. Pack animals, mainly llamas, were used to transport goods.
Across the Tawantinsuyu, ingenious storage granaries, called qollcas, were constructed of stone, adobe and other materials to help keep food supplies, and methods of food drying were used extensively.
To facilitate trade across the Empire, a huge and complex road network spanning over 35,000 km., the Qhapac Ñan, was built, which included hanging bridges over rivers and rest stops, or tambos.
And to keep track of all goods produced, stored and distributed, animals, labor expended and everything else in the Inca economy, the quipu, a system of counting with knots tied onto cotton strings was developed by the Incas.
The ancient accounting device was handled by a few chosen experts to keep a count of everything in the Tawantinsuyu. Today the quipu is not well understood; knowledge of how to interpret the beautiful string artifacts has largely been lost. Even so, they are beautiful and mysterious.
You too can witness the fascinating culture of the Incas on a journey to Cusco. Here, you’ll visit fascinating archeological sites and museums, which will make real for you the wonders of the ancient Inca Empire. Contact us at andeanlodges.com and we’ll help you plan your trip to Cusco, the ancient capital of the Incas, for the best time of your life!