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WATCH: Inca Empire Overview

The Inca Empire, led by Pachacuti, grew from the kingdom of Cuzco into a large, powerful empire, despite lacking a written system. They used a labor tax system, the Mit'a, to build impressive structures like Machu Picchu. However, the empire fell to Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro after only 100 years.

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Video transcript

- [Narrator] What we're going to do in this video is think about the significant empires that formed shortly before the European colonization of the Americas. In particular, we're going to focus on the Inca Empire. In other videos, we have talked about the Aztecs. But what's interesting is this period of time in the 15th and early 16th centuries, when these empires form, but then shortly thereafter, about a hundred years after they form, they are conquered by the Spanish conquistadors. So let's focus on the Inca Empire, but keep it in comparison to some of the other significant empires and civilizations we know about. As we enter into the 15th century, we have the kingdom of Cuzco. What we now call the Inca Empire did not exist yet. The ninth ruler of the kingdom of Cuzco, a gentleman by the name of Pachacuti, he decides to go on a fairly aggressive effort of expansion. It is Pachacuti that takes the Incas from the kingdom of Cuzco, and creates an empire. Now as I mentioned, they did not call themselves the Incas. Inca was actually their word for ruler. So this was Pachacuti Inca. Their name for the empire that gets started by Pachacuti was Tawantinsuyu. What's it's really referring to is the four regions. You can see the four regions here that were conquered, with Cuzco at the center. One of the interesting things is that right around the same time, we talk about it in another video, you have the Aztec Empire forming. The Aztec civilization exists well before that, as does the pre-Inca Empire civilizations. But in the 15th century is also when you have the Aztec Empire form. The Mayan civilization, by this point, is in its post-classical period. It's classical period is in bold right over here. But there's still many independent Mayan city states in the Yucatan Peninsula. But the two notable empires here are the Aztecs and the Incas, which form in the 15th century. What makes them an empire is that you have one group, in the case of the Incas, the kingdom of Cuzco, conquering other peoples, and taking tribute from them. Now what was interesting about the Incas is that they were able to form this large empire, the largest empire in the Americas at the time of the European conquest. This empire had 10 million people in it. What's amazing is that you have this large, powerful empire with significant building projects. This is a picture of Machu Pichu. Historians believe that it was built as an estate for Pachacuti. So they were able to do sophisticated construction despite not having a written system as we know it. They had a system of knots for some forms of record keeping. But despite that, they were able to have a sophisticated society. Their way of taxing people was not through formal coinage. They didn't have a monetary system as we know it. Members of their society had to dedicate a proportion of their labor to the empire, to the emperor. This might seem different than what we do, but if you think about it, if my income is taxed at 30% or 35% in, say, the US, essentially what I'm giving to the government is 35% of the work of my labor. I'm just doing it through a monetary system. They did it directly. A certain percentage of my labor would directly have to be for the empire. That's how things like Machu Pichu actually got built. This was called the Mit'a system. Well, like the case with the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire lasts for about 100 years until the Conquistadors come into the picture. Francisco Pizarro in particular, on his third expedition, is able to conquer this powerful Inca Empire. He does this with only several hundred men. But they were far better armed than the Incas. But many historians believe there was also complacency on the part of the Inca ruler at the time. He didn't believe that these Conquistadors would be able to overtake his army that numbered in the tens of thousands.