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The Eco-Incredible Incas
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/ Categories: Destinations, Ecuador, Cuenca

The Eco-Incredible Incas

Cuenca, Ecuador

Making their home in the South American Andes mountains, the Incas were incredible.

The Andes are, without a doubt, some of the most beautiful mountains in the world. But for all their glory, they are also some of the most stark and barren. Yet, the Inca were able to cultivate and reap immense harvests from the Andean sharp slopes and scattered waterways. They developed hearty varieties of crops, such as potatoes, quinoa, maize and corn. They built irrigation canals that wound around the mountains. They carved out terraces into the hillsides, so that no matter how much it rained (and it does rain A LOT here), each growing bed never flooded while maintaining the perfect amount of moisture. 

During the height of their civilization (the 1400s), their system of terraces covered about a million hectares (1 hectare = 2.47105 acres) throughout Ecuador and Peru and fed the entire Inca Empire! The Inca rulers knew that as long as they fed their people, there wouldn’t be social uprising. Wow! Since the Inca ate two meals a day, that’s a lot of fries (papas fritas) and fritters, folks!


Remember the museum, here in Cuenca, with the shrunken heads? The one we wrote about last week? Well Museo Pumapungo sits right atop the ancient Inca city of Tumipampa. In the 15th century, Tumipampa was founded by Tupac Yupanqui, the 10th ruler of the Inca Empire. In its heyday the empire extended from northern Chile to southern Columbia. Tumipampa was the second largest city in the Inca Empire.   


So, a few weeks back, we had three hours to kill and decided to wander over to the Museo and check it out. We had no clue about the ruins until we wandered towards the back display room and saw people exiting out the back door. So of course we had to see where the mysterious “portal” door led. Oh my! We were amazed! Dorothy’s first glance at Oz, Alice ogling Wonderland, and Charlie’s bewilderment at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory were nothing compared to what we saw as we exited the museo. Here’s what we saw:

Replication of Inca Crops at Museo Pumapungo, Ancestral Park, Cuenca, Ecuador


The Ministry of Culture of Ecuador has completely restored the main portion of Tumipampa and made it into an Ancestral Park, replicating what had been there, as well as representing the agricultural expertise of the Incas. Every part of the park is used for an agricultural purpose. This includes a vegetable garden, flowers (many of which we had never seen before), llamas grazing the hillside, eco-friendly ponds and a bird sanctuary. We had no clue.

 

Ruins of Inca Tiered Farming

Bird Sanctuary at Museo Pumapungo's Ancestral Park, Cuenca, Ecuador

Food Co-oping at its Finest


The Incas were, without a doubt, geniuses when it came to agriculture. The Inca Empire stretched over four climate zones, and yet these remarkable farmers managed to feed the entire population with their expert farming techniques. And to top it off, they were forward thinkers. They built a vast network of storage facilities, to house surplus crops, as a means to ensure that no one would go hungry in times of drought and disaster. 


Here is how it worked.


Each family produced their own food and were part of a larger collective (called ayllu) which farmed land, in both the highlands and lowlands, so that diverse crops could be cultivated. For example, the highlands had great pastures, which were good for potatoes and maize, while the lower altitudes were better for crops like coca. 


When a couple married, they were given a portion of land (roughly 1.5 acres), called a tupuso that they could be self-sustaining. When they had a child, they received another half tupu. If a landowner died without an heir, the property returned to the ayllu, so that it could be redistributed in the future. 


Working the land was a community practice. Men worked in teams of 7 or 8 for hoeing and tilling, and often sang as they worked. Women followed behind to break up clods and sow seeds. The children and teens were responsible for taking care of llamas and other camelids


With this system in place, the Incas were able to produce coca, beans, maize, grains, potatoes, sweet potatoes, ulluco, oca, mashwa, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, cashews, squash, cucumber, quinoa, gourd, cotton, carob, cherimoya, lucuma and avocado. Amazing!


The llama and alpaca herds played an integral part in Inca life, as well. They provided wool, meat, leather and transportation, especially for the army. The larger herds were often state-owned and consisted of tens of thousands of animals. And they were all counted and inventoried! Meticulously each critter was accounted for in a census conducted each November. 


Llamas Graze the Hillsides of the Ancestral Park. The Llama is on the Right.


Inca Grocery Stores


Surplus food was stored in storehouses called qollqa. There were thousands of these built all across the empire (think Starbucks!), and were arranged neatly according to population clusters. Officials kept careful accounts of what was stored, with the use of a quipu, which was a recording device of strings and knots. 


Each qollqa was ingeniously engineered and was placed on a hillside to take advantage of cool breezes. Every structure had gravel floors and drainage canals, as well as, roof and floor ventilation to keep the foodstuff dry. Generally, food could be stored for up to 2 years. Some of the food was even freeze-dried and had a qollqa “shelf life” of up to 4 years.


When crops failed or there was drought, food was doled out to the masses…and no one went hungry. 


Crops of Watermelons, Maize and Corn at the Ancestral Park

Spaniards…Go Home!  


Well, just like many good things that come to an end, such was the case for the Inca Empire. 

In 1532, a Spanish dude named Francisco Pizarro, sailed to South America and set his sights on conquering the Incas. And conquer he did. Within 20 years, the Inca Empire was in ruins and the Spanish took possession of the Inca cities and wealth. 

So if you are a history buff, you’re going to love this. Pizarro came to South America with only 160 Spaniards. The Inca Empire had millions. This is probably one of the greatest David and Goliath stories in history, and here’s how he did it (in 6 easy steps).

1. Spain Got Lucky 

So the ruler of the Inca Empire had died and his two sons both thought they should take over. A brutal civil war ensued and lasted four years. So much for the two-party system for the Incas! In 1532, Atahualpa (one of the two sons) was victorious, but the empire was in sad shape because of the struggle. It was at this exact time that Pizarro and his men showed up. Timing is everything!


2. Inca Made Mistakes


Once the Spanish arrived, Atahualpa agreed to meet with them, thinking they were no threat (160 to millions, remember). And they, the Spaniards, captured him. Wow! So much for diplomacy! The Inca generals were then afraid to attack, fearing for their leader’s safety. 


3. Silver and Gold


The Incas had been hording gold and silver for centuries and the Spanish got to it all. In fact, it was the huge amount of gold that the the Inca generals offered as ransom, for 
Atanualpa’s release, that clued the Spaniards to the riches that were available. So they said, "No deal." The Spaniards took the money and kept the ruler. 

The ransom “loot” was divided among the 160 Spanish soldiers, with each of them receiving what would equal about half a million dollars in today’s value. This doesn’t even include what they got from looting the cities.  The Spaniards definitely had incentive to stick around and give it their all!


4. The Incas were Not Popular


Although the Inca fought fiercely, there were neighboring vassal tribes that sided with and helped out the Spanish. By the time the Incas saw what was happening, it was too late.


5. The Pizarro Brothers Ruled Like the Mob


Okay, Francisco Pizarro didn’t come from such great roots. He was an illegitimate, illiterate, who took care of his family’s pigs. But he was sly, and cleverly saw where the Inca weaknesses were. And he had four brothers. Think about it, four guys you could fully trust. The Pizarro brothers became Francisco’s generals and were able to keep the greedy conquistadors, as well as, the Incas in line. Family is everything.


6. Spanish Tech Advantage


Even though the Inca had skilled leaders, soldiers and massive armies, the Spanish had armor and advanced steel arms, as well as, a secret weapon…the horse. Until the Europeans brought horses to South America, there were none, and the Incas were terrified of them. Gives new meaning to the Shakespearean line, “…my kingdom for a horse…”


So this is how it all ended. The Spanish all became very, very wealthy, and with their wealth they got very, very greedy. This led to disagreements about division of the loot and turf wars. But rumors of their wealth got back home and thousands of poor Europeans moved to South America to try their luck. 


A rumor soon began to circulate among them about a mountain kingdom that was even richer than the Inca Empire. So thousands of gold-hungry men set out to explore the Andes to find the place that haunted their greedy imaginations. But alas, it was just an illusion. None of them were able to find El Dorado.


Ruins of Inca Irrigation System

But What Happened to the Farms?


Over time, the cisterns fell into disrepair, the canals dried up, and the farming terraces were abandoned. The Spaniards imposed their own crops upon the locals. The Incas were not only devastated by war, but more significantly by disease. Some researchers estimate that over half of the Inca population died soon after the Spanish conquest. And just like that, most of the brilliant farming and engineering expertise was lost. 


Sad, huh? 


Today, with the threat of global warming, agricultural crises all over the world, and most importantly, hungry people, we could use a little of the Inca acuity. 


So it got me to thinking.


You know, while we were in Mexico and Belize, we wrote several articles about the Mayans and their masterful ingenuity. And now, learning all this about the Incas, it makes me think that if the two groups had ever met (they never did) and pooled their knowledge and resources, the Europeans wouldn’t have stood a chance in conquering the Americas...and the world would probably look very different today. 

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1 comments on article "The Eco-Incredible Incas"

Martina Roy

This is very really unique helpful information. keep it up. Thank you so much!

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