The Spanish were not the first to fail to conquer the Mapuche people. The Inca had invaded about a half century before them and their advance, south, was definitively halted at the Maule River….
As preface to that battle, allow me to lay the scene in this post by sketching out the expansion of the Inca empire. And let me begin this explanation by saying that one of the fascinating aspects of Inca hegemony was its brevity, for essentially it took only three generations of Inca “emperors” (sapa Inca) about a century to create the c. 2500 mile long empire (as measured along the coast), which totaled roughly 380,000 square miles … this empire the Spanish stumbled across in 1532, then despoiled and dismantled even more briefly.
The progress of the Inca conquest (depicted in the map below), extended from present day Colombia into the heart of Chile.
There are good reasons why the Inca grew their empire as they did–narrowly and north to south–for they never strayed far from their beloved (indeed, sacred) mountains, the Andes. The altiplano–that high plateau between the coastal mountains (the sierra negra) and the Andes proper (the sierra blanca)–was the Inca heartland. These were altitudes to which the Inca were physically accustomed and their culture (including warfare) adapted. And, as they were acclimated to great heights (Cusco lies at an altitude of c.11,500 ft.), the Inca languished, grew sick, and often died in lowlands– down toward the desert which runs along the Pacific Ocean, but especially east, in the jungles of the Amazon basin. Below, is a cross section of the Andes at the latitude of Cusco, clearly depicting the altiplano, with its relation to both the coastal desert and the Amazon.
Tupac Inca Yupanqui (depicted on the left), the indefatigable son of Pachacuti Inca, enormously built upon his father’s conquest, first extending it north, so that it reached far as today’s Ecuador. Then–taking time off from expansion–he consolidated Inca dominion, building aqueducts, storehouses, bridges, roads, etc., and completely recreating Cusco into the wondrous miracle of masonry and hydrology the Spaniards eventually rode into. He also ordered Sacsayhuaman constructed–that improbably immense fortress and ritual center whose remaining titanic stones still loom over Cusco.
After all this, seeing that what he had wrought was good, sometime around 1479 Tupac Inca Yupanqui decided to subdue rebellious southern vassals, and then continue his campaign to expand Inca dominion further in that direction. So, after assembling one hundred and thirty nine thousand warriors–as numbered in Juan Betanzo’s Narrative of the Incas–he set off on what would turn out to be a six year expedition (which annexed, more or less, the enormous territory depicted in bilious green in the map above).
The Inca were nothing if not organized, and this included their wars. When an an Inca army marched through its own territory it did so on roads and bridges built specifically for them–as well as for chasqui (messengers) and nobles and functionaries required to travel, for the common people of the empire did not leave their land (except when ordered to by the sapa Inca–to be relocated, for construction, or for war). The army ate food and resupplied itself from the myriad storehouses along the way. Below is a photo of such granaries at Ollantaytambo, high above the valley and difficult of access, but for good reason, as in this vertical land microclimate is everything, and at these heights the cold and wind better preserve the grain.
Where necessary, as they marched, they built spectacular bridges constructed entirely of fiber (except, of course, for the masonry piers). Here’s a link to a site describing one that has continued to be rebuilt into the present: The Last Inca Suspension Bridge. And below is a photo of that bridge….
When new territory was annexed through combat or persuasive threat of force, the Inca extended their organized system of storehouses, roads and bridges, for they brought with them the bronze age equivalent of a modern Army Corps of Engineers. They also built fortresses (pukara) to defend the territory they had acquired. Workers were levied from the conquered territories to labor on these public works, for in the Inca empire everyone worked for the sapa Inca, who owned everything.
Year after year the unstoppable juggernaut headed by Tupac Inca Yupanqui conquered its way south, eventually crossing the Atacama desert of what is now northern Chile, and then encountering a people which Betanzos calls “bellicose”–the Mapuche (meaning “people of the land” in Mapudungun, their language). The army of Tupac Inca Yupanqui advanced far as the River Maule, where the Mapuche decided to make their stand.
My next post will pit Inca against Mapuche at that river….