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History of the Conquest of Peru

Edited by: Robert Guisepi



View Of The Civilization Of The Incas.

Author:      Prescott, William H.


Part IV

     The Peruvians had knowledge of one or two constellations, and watched

the motions of the planet Venus, to which, as we have seen, they dedicated

altars.  But their ignorance of the first principles of astronomical science

is shown by their ideas of eclipses, which, they supposed, denoted some great

derangement of the planet; and when the moon labored under one of these

mysterious infirmities, they sounded their instruments, and filled the air

with shouts and lamentations, to rouse her from her lethargy.  Such puerile

conceits as these form a striking contrast with the real knowledge of the

Mexicans, as displayed in their hieroglyphical maps, in which the true cause

of this phenomenon is plainly depicted. ^17


[Footnote 17: See Codex Tel-Remensis, Part 4, Pl. 22, ap. Antiquities of

Mexico, vol. I. London, 1829.]


     But, if less successful in exploring the heavens, the Incas must be

admitted to have surpassed every other American race in their dominion over

the earth.  Husbandry was pursued by them on principles that may be truly

called scientific.  It was the basis of their political institutions.  Having

no foreign commerce, it was agriculture that furnished them with the means

of their internal exchanges, their subsistence, and their revenues.  We have

seen their remarkable provisions for distributing the land in equal shares

among the people, while they required every man, except the privileged

orders, to assist in its cultivation.  The Inca himself did not disdain to

set the example.  On one of the great annual festivals, he proceeded to the

environs of Cuzco, attended by his Court, and, in the presence of all the

people, turned up the earth with a golden plough, - or an instrument that

served as such, - thus consecrating the occupation of the husbandman as one

worthy to be followed by the Children of the Sun. ^18


[Footnote 18: Sarmiento, Relacion, Ms., cap. 16.


     The nobles, also, it seems, at this high festival, imitated the example

of their master.  "Pasadas todas las fiestas, en la ultima llevavan muchos

arados de manos, los quales antiguamente heran de oro; i echos los oficios,

tomava el Inga an arado i comenzava con el a romper la tierra, i lo mismo los

demas senores, para que de alli adelante en todo su senorio hiciesen lo mismo,

i sin que el Inga hiciese esto no avia Indio que osase romper la tierra, ni

pensavan que produjese si el Inga no la rompia primero i esto vaste quanto a

las fiestas.' Conq. i. Pob. del Piru, Ms.]


     The patronage of the government did not stop with this cheap display of

royal condescension, but was shown in the most efficient measures for

facilitating the labors of the husbandman.  Much of the country along the

sea-coast suffered from want of water, as little or no rain fell there, and

the few streams, in their short and hurried course from the mountains,

exerted only a very limited influence on the wide extent of territory.  The

soil, it is true, was, for the most part, sandy and sterile; but many places

were capable of being reclaimed, and, indeed, needed only to be properly

irrigated to be susceptible of extraordinary production.  To these spots

water was conveyed by means of canals and subterraneous aqueducts, executed

on a noble scale.  They consisted of large slabs of freestone nicely fitted

together without cement, and discharged a volume of water sufficient, by

means of latent ducts or sluices, to moisten the lands in the lower level,

through which they passed.  Some of these aqueducts were of great length.

One that traversed the district of Condesuyu measured between four and five

hundred miles.  They were brought from some elevated lake or natural

reservoir in the heart of the mountains, and were fed at intervals by other

basins which lay in their route along the slopes of the sierra.  In this

descent, a passage was sometimes to be opened through rocks, - and this

without the aid of iron tools; impracticable mountains were to be turned;

rivers and marshes to be crossed; in short, the same obstacles were to be

encountered as in the construction of their mighty roads.  But the Peruvians

seemed to take pleasure in wrestling with the difficulties of nature.  Near

Caxamarca, a tunnel is still visible, which they excavated in the mountains,

to give an outlet to the waters of a lake, when these rose to a height in the

rainy seasons that threatened the country with inundation. ^19


[Footnote 19: Sarmiento, Relacion, Ms., cap. 21. - Garcilasso, Com. Real.,

Parte 1, lib. 5, cap. 24. - Stevenson, Narrative of a Twenty Years' Residence

in S. America, (London, 1829,) vol. I. p. 412; II. pp. 173, 174.


     "Sacauan acequias en cabos y por partes que es cosa estrana afirmar lo:

porque las echauan por lugares altos y baxos: y por laderas de los cabecos

y haldas de sierras q estan en los valles: y por ellos mismos atrauiessan

muchas: unas por una parte, y otras por otra, que es gran delectacio caminar

por aquellos valles: porque parece que se anda entre huertas y florestas

llenas de frescuras." Cieza de Leon, Cronica, cap. 66.]


     Most of these beneficent works of the Incas were suffered to go to decay

by their Spanish conquerors.  In some spots, the waters are still left to

flow in their silent, subterraneous channels, whose windings and whose

sources have been alike unexplored.  Others, though partially dilapidated,

and closed up with rubbish and the rank vegetation of the soil, still betray

their course by occasional patches of fertility.  Such are the remains in the

valley of Nasca, a fruitful spot that lies between long tracts of desert;

where the ancient water-courses of the Incas, measuring four or five feet in

depth by three in width, and formed of large blocks of uncemented masonry,

are conducted from an unknown distance.


     The greatest care was taken that every occupant of the land through

which these streams passed should enjoy the benefit of them.  The quantity

of water allotted to each was prescribed by law; and royal overseers

superintended the distribution, and saw that it was faithfully applied to the

irrigation of the ground. ^20


[Footnote 20: Pedro Pizarro, Descub. y Conq., Ms. - Memoirs of Gen-Miller,

vol II p. 220.]


     The Peruvians showed a similar spirit of enterprise in their schemes for

introducing cultivation into the mountainous parts of their domain.  Many of

the hills, though covered with a strong soil, were too precipitous to be

tilled.  These they cut into terraces, faced with rough stone, diminishing

in regular gradation towards the summit; so that, while the lower strip, or

anden, as it was called by the Spaniards, that belted round the base of the

mountain, might comprehend hundreds of acres, the uppermost was only large

enough to accommodate a few rows of Indian corn. ^21 Some of the eminences

presented such a mass of solid rock, that, after being hewn into terraces,

they were obliged to be covered deep with earth, before they could serve the

purpose of the husbandman.  With such patient toil did the Peruvians combat

the formidable obstacles presented by the face of their country!  Without the

use of the tools or the machinery familiar to the European, each individual

could have done little; but acting in large masses, and under a common

direction, they were enabled by indefatigable perseverance to achieve

results, to have attempted which might have filled even the European with

dismay. ^22


[Footnote 21: Miller supposes that it was from these andenes that the

Spaniards gave the name of Andes to the South American Cordilleras.  (Memoirs

of Gen. Miller, vol II. p. 219.) But the name is older than the Conquest,

according to Garcilasso, who traces it to Anti, the name of a province that

lay east of Cuzco.  (Com. Real., Parte 1, lib. 2, cap. 11.) Anta, the word

for copper, which was found abundant in certain quarters of the country, may

have suggested the name of the province, if not immediately that of the



[Footnote 22: Memoirs of Gen. Miller, ubi supra. - Garcilasso, Com. Real.

Parte 1, lib. 5, cap. 1.]


     In the same spirit of economical husbandry which redeemed the rocky

sierra from the curse of sterility, they dug below the arid soil of the

valleys, and sought for a stratum where some natural moisture might be found.

These excavations, called by the Spaniards hoyas, or "pits," were made on a

great scale, comprehending frequently more than an acre, sunk to the depth

of fifteen or twenty feet, and fenced round within by a wall of adobes, or

bricks baked in the sun.  The bottom of the excavation, well prepared by a

rich manure of the sardines, - a small fish obtained in vast quantities along

the coast, - was planted with some kind of grain or vegetable. ^23


[Footnote 23: Cieza de Leon, Cronica, cap. 73.


     The remains of these ancient excavations still excite the wonder of the

modern traveller.  See Stevenson, Residence in S. America, vol. I. p. 359. -

Also McCulloh, Researches, p. 358.]


     The Peruvian farmers were well acquainted with the different kinds of

manures, and made large use of them; a circumstance rare in the rich lands of

the tropics, and probably not elsewhere practised by the rude tribes of

America.  They made great use of guano, the valuable deposit of sea-fowl, that

has attracted so much attention, of late, from the agriculturists both of

Europe and of our own country, and the stimulating and nutritious properties

of which the Indians perfectly appreciated.  This was found in such immense

quantities on many of the little islands along the coast, as to have the

appearance of lofty hills, which, covered with a white saline incrustation,

led the Conquerors to give them the name of the sierra nevada, or "snowy



     The Incas took their usual precautions for securing the benefits of this

important article to the husbandman.  They assigned the small islands on the

coast to the use of the respective districts which lay adjacent to them. When

the island was large, it was distributed among several districts, and the

boundaries for each were clearly defined.  All encroachment on the rights of

another was severely punished.  And they secured the preservation of the fowl

by penalties as stern as those by which the Norman tyrants of England

protected their own game.  No one was allowed to set foot on the island during

the season for breeding, under pain of death; and to kill the birds at any

time was punished in the like manner. ^24


[Footnote 24: Acosta, lib. 4, cap. 36. - Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte 1, lib.

5, cap. 3.]


     With this advancement in agricultural science, the Peruvians might be

supposed to have had some knowledge of the plough, in such general use among

the primitive nations of the eastern continent.  But they had neither the iron

ploughshare of the Old World, nor had they animals for draught, which, indeed,

were nowhere found in the New.  The instrument which they used was a strong,

sharp-pointed stake, traversed by a horizontal piece, ten or twelve inches

from the point, on which the ploughman might set his foot and force it into

the ground.  Six or eight strong men were attached by ropes to the stake, and

dragged it forcibly along, - pulling together, and keeping time as they moved

by chanting their national songs, in which they were accompanied by the women

who followed in their train, to break up the sods with their rakes.  The

mellow soil offered slight resistance; and the laborer, by long practice,

acquired a dexterity which enabled him to turn up the ground to the requisite

depth with astonishing facility.  This substitute for the plough was but a

clumsy contrivance; yet it is curious as the only specimen of the kind among

the American aborigines, and was perhaps not much inferior to the wooden

instrument introduced in its stead by the European conquerors. ^25


[Footnote 25: Ibid., Parte 1, lib. 5, cap. 2.]


     It was frequently the policy of the Incas, after providing a deserted

tract with the means for irrigation, and thus fitting it for the labors of the

husbandman, to transplant there a colony of mitimaes, who brought it under

cultivation by raising the crops best suited to the soil.  While the peculiar

character and capacity of the lands were thus consulted, a means of exchange

of the different products was afforded to the neighbouring provinces, which,

from the formation of the country, varied much more than usual within the same

limits.  To facilitate these agricultural exchanges, fairs were instituted,

which took place three times a month in some of the most populous places,

where, as money was unknown, a rude kind of commerce was kept up by the barter

of their respective products.  These fairs afforded so many holidays for the

relaxation of the industrious laborer. ^26


[Footnote 26: Sarmiento, Relacion, Ms., cap. 19. - Garcilasso, Com. Real,

Parte 1, lib. 6, cap. 36; lib. 7, cap. 1. - Herrera, Hist. General. dec. 5,

lib. 4, cap. 3.]


     Such were the expedients adopted by the Incas for the improvement of

their territory; and, although imperfect, they must be allowed to show an

acquaintance with the principles of agricultural science, that gives them some

claim to the rank of a civilized people.  Under their patient and

discriminating culture, every inch of good soil was tasked to its greatest

power of production; while the most unpromising spots were compelled to

contribute something to the subsistence of the people.  Everywhere the land

teemed with evidence of agricultural wealth, from the smiling valleys along

the coast to the terraced steeps of the sierra, which, rising into pyramids of

verdure, glowed with all the splendors of tropical vegetation.


     The formation of the country was particularly favorable, as already

remarked, to an infinite variety of products, not so much from its extent as

from its various elevations, which, more remarkable, even, than those in

Mexico, comprehend every degree of latitude from the equator to the polar

regions.  Yet, though the temperature changes in this region with the degree

of elevation, it remains nearly the same in the same spots throughout the

year; and the inhabitant feels none of those grateful vicissitudes of season

which belong to the temperate latitudes of the globe.  Thus, while the summer

lies in full power on the burning regions of the palm and the cocoa-tree that

fringe the borders of the ocean, the broad surface of the table land blooms

with the freshness of perpetual spring, and the higher summits of the

Cordilleras are white with everlasting winter.


     The Peruvians turned this fixed variety of climate, if I may so say, to

the best account by cultivating the productions appropriate to each; and they

particularly directed their attention to those which afforded the most

nutriment to man.  Thus, in the lower level were to be found the cassava-tree

and the banana, that bountiful plant, which seems to have relieved man from

the primeval curse - if it were not rather a blessing - of toiling for his

sustenance. ^27 As the banana faded from the landscape, a good substitute was

found in the maize, the great agricultural staple of both the northern and

southern divisions of the American continent; and which, after its exportation

to the Old World, spread so rapidly there, as to suggest the idea of its being

indigenous to it. ^28 The Peruvians were well acquainted with the different

modes of preparing this useful vegetable, though it seems they did not use it

for bread, except at festivals; and they extracted a sort of honey from the

stalk, and made an intoxicating liquor from the fermented grain, to which,

like the Aztecs, they were immoderately addicted. ^29


[Footnote 27: The prolific properties of the banana are shown by M. de

Humboldt, who states that its productiveness, as compared with that of wheat,

is as 133 to 1, and with that of the potato, as 44 to 1.  (Essai Politique sur

le Royaume de la Nouvelle Espagne, Paris, 1827, tom. II. p. 389.) It is a

mistake to suppose that this plant was not indigenous to South America. The

banana-leaf has been frequently found in ancient Peruvian tombs.]


[Footnote 28: The misnomer of ble de Turquie shows the popular error.  Yet the

rapidity of its diffusion through Europe and Asia, after the discovery of

America, is of itself sufficient to show that it could not have been

indigenous to the Old World, and have so long remained generally unknown



[Footnote 29: Acosta, lib. 4, cap. 16.


     The saccharine matter contained in the maize-stalk is much greater in

tropical countries than in more northern latitudes; so that the natives in the

former may be seen sometimes sucking it like the sugarcane.  One kind of the

fermented liquors, sora, made from the corn, was of such strength, that the

use of it was forbidden by the Incas, at least to the common people. Their

injunctions do not seem to have been obeyed so implicitly in this instance as



     The temperate climate of the table-land furnished them with the maguey,

agave Americana, many of the extraordinary qualities of which they

comprehended, though not its most important one of affording a material for

paper.  Tobacco, too, was among the products of this elevated region.  Yet the

Peruvians differed from every other Indian nation to whom it was known, by

using it only for medicinal purposes, in the form of snuff. ^30 They may have

found a substitute for its narcotic qualities in the coca (Erythroxylum

Peruvianum), or cuca, as called by the natives.  This is a shrub which grows

to the height of a man.  The leaves when gathered are dried in the sun, and,

being mixed with a little lime, form a preparation for chewing, much like the

betel-leaf of the East. ^31 With a small supply of this cuca in his pouch, and

a handful of roasted maize, the Peruvian Indian of our time performs his

wearisome journeys, day after day, without fatigue, or, at least, without

complaint.  Even food the most invigorating is less grateful to him than his

loved narcotic.  Under the Incas, it is said to have been exclusively reserved

for the noble orders.  If so, the people gained one luxury by the Conquest;

and, after that period, it was so extensively used by them, that this article

constituted a most important item of the colonial revenue of Spain. ^32 Yet,

with the soothing charms of an opiate, this weed so much vaunted by the

natives, when used to excess, is said to be attended with all the mischievous

effects of habitual intoxication. ^33


[Footnote 30: Garcilasso, Com. Real., Parte 1, lib. 2, cap. 25.]


[Footnote 31: The pungent leaf of the betel was in like manner mixed with lime

when chewed.  (Elphinstone, History of India, London, 1841, vol. I. p. 331.)

The similarity of this social indulgence, in the remote East and West, is



[Footnote 32: Ondegardo, Rel. Seg., Ms. - Acosta, lib. 4, cap. 22. -

Stevenson, Residence in S. America, vol. II. p. 63. - Cieza de Leon, Cronica,

cap. 96.]


[Footnote 33: A traveller (Poeppig) noticed in the Foreign Quarterly Review,

(No. 33,) expatiates on the malignant effects of the habitual use of the cuca,

as very similar to those produced on the chewer of opium.  Strange that such

baneful properties should not be the subject of more frequent comment with

other writers!  I do not remember to have seen them even adverted to.]


     Higher up on the slopes of the Cordilleras, beyond the limits of the

maize and of the quinoa, - a grain bearing some resemblance to rice, and

largely cultivated by the Indians, - was to be found the potato, the

introduction of which into Europe has made an era in the history of

agriculture.  Whether indigenous to Peru, or imported from the neighbouring

country of Chili, it formed the great staple of the more elevated plains,

under the Incas, and its culture was continued to a height in the equatorial

regions which reached many thousand feet above the limits of perpetual snow in

the temperate latitudes of Europe. ^34 Wild specimens of the vegetable might

be seen still higher, springing up spontaneously amidst the stunted shrubs

that clothed the lofty sides of the Cordilleras, till these gradually subsided

into the mosses and the short yellow grass, pajonal, which, like a golden

carpet, was unrolled around the base of the mighty cones, that rose far into

the regions of eternal silence, covered with the snows of centuries. ^35


[Footnote 34: Malte-Brun, book 86.


     The potato, found by the early discoverers in Chili, Peru, New Granada,

and all along the Cordilleras of South America, was unknown in Mexico, - an

additional proof of the entire ignorance in which the respective nations of

the two continents remained of one another.  M. de Humboldt, who has bestowed

much attention on the early history of this vegetable, which has exerted so

important an influence on European society, supposes that the cultivation of

it in Virginia, where it was known to the early planters, must have been

originally derived from the Southern Spanish colonies.  Essai Politique, tom.

II. p. 462.]


[Footnote 35: While Peru, under the Incas, could boast these indigenous

products, and many others less familiar to the European, it was unacquainted

with several of great importance, which, since the Conquest, have thriven

there as on their natural soil.  Such are the olive, the grape, the fig, the

apple, the orange, the sugar-cane.  None of the cereal grains of the Old World

were found there.  The first wheat was introduced by a Spanish lady of

Trujillo, who took great pains to disseminate it among the colonists, of which

the government, to its credit, was not unmindful.  Her name was Maria de

Escobar.  History, which is so much occupied with celebrating the scourges of

humanity, should take pleasure in commemorating one of its real benefactors.]

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