In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Preconquest Incas

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Textbooks
  • Reference Works on Colonial Sources on the Incas
  • Primary Sources
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Language
  • The Archaeology of Inca Origins
  • Inca Mythology and the Mytho-History of Inca Origins
  • The Inca Dynasty/-ies
  • Cusco—The Capital of Tawantinsuyu
  • Inca Political Organization and State Administration
  • The Provinces
  • Inca Religion and Cosmology
  • Funerary Practices, Mummies, and the Capacochas
  • Astronomy, the Calendar, and Mathematics
  • Inca Art
  • The Spanish Conquest

Latin American Studies Preconquest Incas
Gary Urton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0125


The most critical circumstance to bear in mind regarding our attempts to understand the pre-Columbian Incas is that we do not have available any firsthand written accounts of Inca life and culture from before the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire, beginning in 1532. This is so because the Incas did not invent a system of writing—at least, not one that we have succeeded in deciphering. This leaves us with two principal sources of indirect testimony on the Incas: written accounts produced after the conquest and archaeology. From early colonial times until the middle of the 20th century, the former had priority in reconstructions of Inca civilization and culture. However, since the middle of the 20th century, archaeology has played an increasingly important role in investigations of the pre-Columbian Incas. The Inca Empire was the largest, most expansive polity of the ancient Americas, with territory organized into four parts—hence, the designation of the empire as Tawantinsuyu (the four parts intimately united)—stretching across some five thousand kilometers, from the border between modern-day Ecuador and Columbia, in the north, extending southward along the spine of the Andes Mountains to what is, in the early 21st century, central Chile. The Incas brought together myriad peoples throughout this vast territory to form a unified state characterized by a highly efficient administrative system centered in the capital city, Cusco. Inca state policies aimed at capturing the wealth of the population, primarily by demanding a portion of the labor time of all adult male (and, some argue, female) subjects as a form of tribute as well as by moving groups of people from their places of origin to some distant place, where they were set to work in service to the Inca. State policies and programs were enforced in the far-flung provinces by cadres of administrative and religious officials who transmitted powerful ideological and religious messages centering on the notion of the Inca king as a divine being, a descendant of the sun. That such messages were not wholly convincing to populations throughout Inca territory is indicated by the high rate of defection of native peoples in support of the Spanish conquistadores, who entered the Andes under the banner of Spain and behind the leadership of Francisco Pizarro, in 1532.

General Overviews and Textbooks

Modern overviews of Inca civilization began with the still useful works Rowe 1964 and Brundage 1985. Patterson 1991 is a sustained argument on the nature of Inca political economy, based on a Marxian analysis. Covey 2008 provides a good, brief overview of the archaeology of the Incas, whereas D’Altroy 2002, McEwan 2006, and Morris and von Hagen 2011 are excellent textbook-style overviews of Inca civilization drawn from ethnohistorical and archaeological sources.

  • Brundage, Burr Cartwright. Empire of the Inca. Civilization of the American Indian. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

    A highly accessible account of the lives of elites and commoners in the Inca Empire, including a description of the Spanish conquest and the destruction of core institutions of Inca life. Originally published in 1963.

  • Covey, R. Alan. “The Inca Empire.” In The Handbook of South American Archaeology. Edited by Helaine Silverman and William H. Isbell, 809–830. New York: Springer, 2008.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-387-74907-5

    A short but well-written account of the Incas; one of the best overviews available on the archaeology of Inca civilization.

  • D’Altroy, Terence N. The Incas. Peoples of America. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002.

    This is a broad and well-documented overview of Inca civilization and one of the most valuable books for use as a textbook for college-level classes.

  • McEwan, Gordan F. The Incas: New Perspectives. Understanding Ancient Civilizations. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006.

    A well-written textbook-like account of Inca civilization that is best informed on the archaeological (rather than ethnohistorical) information on the Incas.

  • Morris, Craig, and Adriana von Hagen. The Incas: Lords of the Four Quarters. Ancient Peoples and Places. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2011.

    A lively, highly readable account that is an excellent selection as a textbook on the Incas. Unlike the other accounts of Inca imperial organization, the discussion of the provinces here is organized by quadrants (suyus).

  • Patterson, Thomas C. The Inca Empire: The Formation and Disintegration of a Pre-capitalist State. Explorations in Anthropology. New York: Berg, 1991.

    The author’s main concern is with examining and explaining the forces behind class formation in the Inca Empire and the consequences for the structures of authority and the exercise of power.

  • Rowe, John Howland. “Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest.” In Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 2, The Andean Civilizations. Edited by Julian H. Steward, 183–330. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. New York: Cooper Square, 1964.

    Although an older source and therefore not having the advantage of more recent research and publications, this is still a valuable, highly readable, and informative overview of archaeological and ethnohistorical information on the Incas. Originally published in 1946.

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