How did 168 conquistadors take down the Incan empire?

The Inca

Machu Picchu, the Inca citadel, shortly after it was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in June 2007.
Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

To understand how 168 men destr­oy­ed an empire of more than 1 million, we first have to understand what the Incan civilization was like.

The Incan society used an inflexible class system. At the pinnacle was the high ruler, the Inca. His people believed he was a descendent from the sun god, the most-worshipped of their deities. Below the Inca were his royal family and advisors, and so on, down to the commoners -- farmers, laborers and military.


The Inca came out of nowhere, founding their capital city Cuzco around A.D. 1100. They were expansionists, and they were good at it. In some areas, they used military might to crush resistance among tribes they sought to bring into their fold. In other cases, the Inca handsomely rewarded groups who agreed to join them. After a few centuries, the empire included hundreds of formerly separate tribes in the interior and west of South America. They were all joined under the common banner of the Incan ruler, and the common language, Quechua.

Since the Inca had no written language, it's difficult for anthropologists and historians to accurately discern what kind of economic model the Incan society used. Early in the 20th century it was viewed as a welfare state that made sure its citizens had what they needed or a despotic regime that harnassed the power of the people's labor for its own use [source: Beyers].

Whether the economy followed one of these models or an entirely different one, it's clear that the central government played a substantial role in the lives of its people. In return, these people benefited from Incan technology. They were protected by expertly crafted stone fortresses. They easily navigated the Andes using the Incan roads. Their crops grew because of the Incan irrigation systems; they were harvested on time because of the Incan calendar.

Amazingly, all of this progress and the expansion of an empire to an area 2,500 miles long was carried out without the benefit of the wheel. Considering what the Inca were able to do without the wheel, it's staggering to wonder what they may have accomplished with it. In lieu of the wheel, the Inca employed runners -- people trained to run long distances in short times -- to carry out the business of communication throughout the empire.Using a relay system, these runners could travel as far as 250 miles in a single day [source: Fowler].

A boom in expansion seen in the Incan empire during the 15th century made it too big for the central government to properly support. It had become unwieldy; the supply chain was suffering. Rebellions among scattered tribes were too far off to squelch. The reach of the Incan ruler wasn't long enough.

The stability of the empire only suffered further when Incan emperor Huayna Cupac and his chosen successor died within days of each other in 1525, creating a vacuum of power which two remaining sons fought to fill.

This was the state of the Incan civilization when the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro arrived. He dealt the fatal blow to a society that may have soon died regardless. But the political and economic state alone doesn't explain Pizarro's success with so few men. Find out about the rest of the factors involved in the Incan downfall on the next page.