Review of The Incas by Pamela Kyle Crossley

Eras Journal – Woodruff, P: Review of “The Incas”, Terence D’Altroy

Terence D’Altroy, The Incas,
Blackwell Publishing, Carlton, Vic., 2002
Isbn 0 63117 677 2

Since the Incas left no written records, the telling of their story is no easy task. Terence D’Altroy has tapped into a plethora of both historical and archaeological scholarship to paint a fascinating picture of the development of the Inca empire, the way of life of the Incas and how they left their mark on the peoples who came under their rule. The bibliography occupies 40 pages and throughout the text the author refers constantly to the opinions and contributions of other scholars. However, the book does not read like an extended literature review and the bulk of the text will interest and inform the non-specialist. The clarity and simplicity of the text is complemented by figures, photos and tables that summarise or present in another way the content of the text.

The author has not set out to write a thesis but rather a story – the story of the Incas – so the style is more descriptive and narrative than driven by argument. D’Altroy has drawn together the work of numerous scholars on many aspects of the Incas and their empire and each chapter contains copious references to scholarly works. I do not think that this book is attempting to break new ground or promote a significant reinterpretation of the workings of Inca society, but rather present an excellent summary in one volume of what is presently known about the Incas.

Provided one begins by reading the introductory chapter the remaining chapters could be read and appreciated individually. While all the chapters are in some way inter-related and there is an obvious logic in the chapter order, each one could stand alone. Each chapter takes up a topic and develops it as would a journal article and ends with a conclusion. Obviously, one author could not possibly be an expert on all the topics covered in this book, a fact that is explicitly acknowledged in the text as the author constantly refers to a myriad of scholars with expertise in the many areas he covers. In general, the author does not enter into polemics, but rather draws on the findings of others in order to develop a comprehensive picture of many aspects of Inca life.

D’Altroy places the beginning of Inca expansion early in the 15th century, entailing in turn that their empire lasted somewhere close to a century (p. 47). It is not clear what drove Inca expansion other than the desire for power and wealth. Initially, it may have been a case of conquer or be conquered. Any visitor to Cuzco and its environs can see that the valleys and hills of the area are a magnificent agricultural resource, from which an early bronze age people might have wished to expand their dominion over their neighbours. The development of a sophisticated social organisation must have been a significant factor in making the ongoing expansion possible.

Everyone knows that empire comes with a price and the author offers a graphic picture of the devastation caused by internecine strife in the struggles for succession to the imperial throne. I found Chapter 6 one of the most fascinating parts of the book, with its detailed description of life at the heart of the empire. It relates how life was for the elites of the empire, how political power, land-grabbing and estate building were intertwined.

In the following chapter on Inca ideology, perhaps the most telling point is that Inca state-ideology was not the religion of the people.”In many regions, it was an alien and unwelcome presence. As soon as the empire disintegrated, Sun worship and use of the solar calendar quickly abated outside Cuzco” (p. 176). Also, the inclusion of mummies of ancestors in religious rites stopped, mainly due to Spanish prohibition. The Andean interest in their dead relatives seems to go back beyond the Incas and has endured to this day, encouraged by the Catholic belief in the power of prayer to alleviate, after death, sin-induced suffering.

The peoples of the Andes have a lot in common, so the way of life of one people is, in many ways, similar to that of others. The chapter on family, community and class could be, for the most part, about Andean peoples rather than just the Inca people. In fact, it might serve as an introduction to another recent book: Mayer, E., The Articulated Peasant – Household Economies in the Andes (2002).

All empires depend on military power for their expansion and survival. The Incas combined armed force with diplomacy, with a strong emphasis on the latter, to establish their rule. D’Altroy describes how Inca military power was developed over time, how it was deployed to threaten in the hope of avoiding armed conflict, and how it operated in conjunction with agreements with local rulers. While the Incas did develop an elite administrative class they did not remove the leaders of subject peoples, but ruled through them, and so the status of local leaders was respected and the basic social order of the peoples of the empire remained intact. The exceptions were those who resisted Inca expansion, and were subsequently massacred or removed en masse to another part of the empire. Inca control was facilitated by 40,000 kilometres of road that crisscrossed the conquered territories, with storage depots in strategic places.

Chapters 11 and 12 offer a brief and clear overview of the organisation of economic activities under the Incas. There was no monetary taxation, nor did households pay tax in kind, but were recruited to work for a period of time on state or royal properties. The main enterprise was agriculture, involving crops, especially maize, coca and potatoes, and pasturing of animals, the most significant being the camelids of the Andes. Then there was the elaborate state storage system to provide for the military, state officials and those employed by the state in non-agricultural activities. Such were the miners and metal workers, the spinners and weavers of clothe, the potters, the stone masons and builders, and so on.

One might expect the book to end on a sad note, the title of the final chapter being ‘Invasion and Aftermath’. While the destruction of Inca power, the rape and subsequent colonisation of the Inca lands were brutal, bloody and thorough, something endured. D’Altroy recognises this and concludes his book with a brief description of the Inca legacy. It is alive and well.

Peter Woodruff

Department of History, Latrobe University