Inca takeovers not usually hostile

Bloodless takeovers built ancient New World empire

South America’s ancient Inca rulers didn’t establish the largest empire in the New World by being sweethearts. But their reputation as warmongers, at least according to some influential 16th- and 17th-century Spanish accounts of Inca history, appears to be undeserved, a new study of skeletal remains suggests.

FACE OF WAR A missing piece of bone above the left eye socket and adjacent fracture lines likely represent war wounds suffered by this man when the Inca conquered his settlement sometime between 1400 and 1532. Skeletal evidence of imperialistic Inca warfare is rare, a new study finds. V. Andrushko and E. Torres/American Journal of Physical Anthropology 2011

It’s more likely that Inca bigwigs adopted a range of largely nonviolent takeover tactics starting around 1000, say anthropologists Valerie Andrushko of Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven and Elva Torres of the National Institute of Culture in Cuzco, Peru, once the capital of the Inca empire. Head injuries suggestive of warfare appear on only a small proportion of skeletons previously excavated at Inca-controlled sites located near Cuzco, the researchers report in a paper published online September 30 in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

“It appears that the Inca relied less on warfare to conquer other groups and more on political alliances, bloodless takeovers and ideological control tactics,” Andrushko says.

An Inca conquest gambit mentioned in some Spanish accounts involved sending a diplomatic team to offer local groups gifts and military protection. Accepting this proposal required groups to submit to Inca rule. The Inca army waited nearby to make clear what happened to those who declined the offer.

Andrushko and Torres’ findings “add to growing evidence that violent conflict was not the only means for spreading Inca power, although we need skeletal data from other areas that the Inca claimed to have conquered by force,” comments anthropologist Alan Covey of Dartmouth College.

Over the past century, Covey says, archaeologists have chipped away at myths told to Spanish chroniclers by Inca informants, who portrayed the Inca as great civilizers responsible for ending several centuries of regional warfare by conquering all groups engaged in hostilities.

Many local leaders throughout the Andes region probably cemented their power by allying with the Inca, remarks anthropologist Steven Wernke of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. In cases of local resistance, “the Inca generally opted for overwhelming and unsparing use of force,” Wernke says.

Few battle wounds appear on 454 adult skeletons from 11 sites located within 150 kilometers of the Inca capital, Andrushko and Torres report in the new study. These sites date to between 600 and 1532. The investigators looked for head injuries likely to have resulted from clubs, battle axes and other Inca weapons. Such wounds include radiating and concentric fracture lines due to forceful impact.

Before the Inca came to power, from 600 to 1000, only one of 36 individuals in the sample suffered war-related head injuries. As the Inca empire grew from 1000 to 1400, five of 199 individuals, or 2.5 percent, living near Cuzco incurred likely battle wounds. During the Inca heyday, from 1400 to 1532, war injuries affected 17 of 219 individuals — 7.8 percent of the total.

Despite an increased rate of serious head wounds after 1400, such injuries remained sporadic, Andrushko says, indicating that the Inca had a long history of nonviolent takeovers.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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