The Inca civilization, at its height, extended as far as the Roman Empire did - 4023 kilometers in length. The Inca emperor ruled over 12 million subjects. They accomplished all of this without horses, without wheels, and without a written language. How did they do this? By using the power of food.
More specifically, they used very efficient food distribution and preservation techniques. The Inca worshipped the god of the sun, mostly because he gave them light and heat - necessary for food. The Inca emperors were believed to be sons of the sun. In 1408 Pachacuti, the ninth Inca emperor, expanded their empire from the central capital Cuzco. His son, Tupa Inca, succeeded him and his rule led to the expansion of the Inca Empire almost beyond belief.
How can food be the cause of this? The Inca were very ingenious, and they would maintain storehouses of food scattered around the empire, so that when the army traveled there, they would always have food available.
You ask yourself: how can that be - wouldn't the food rot or waste away? But that was another of the ingenious inventions of the Inca. They developed the earliest type of freeze-drying. Potatoes, the staple of the Inca diet, would be left out at night, to freeze in the frigid weather. During the day, when the temperatures rose, the water evaporated. After a matter of days, this dried potato pulp, known as chuño, was able to keep for up to one year. A similar process was executed on beef - it was freeze-dried and called beef charqui. It now is popular as beef jerky.
Another popular modern food came from the Inca - popcorn. But in those days, popcorn had a very practical use. It was used because it also did not spoil. Everything having to do with Inca food was efficient. The llama, a creature we associate with South America, was used widely by the Inca. Not only was its meat eaten, it was used as a beast of burden, transporting food and supplies among the Inca. Its dung seved as fertilizer, and its wool was woven into clothing (much more prestigious individuals had wool from the alpaca or vicuña). However, llamas were almost always domesticated. The vast majority of the Inca diet consisted of domesticated livestock or garden-grown plants, not edibles collected from the wild.
Mealtimes were taken at nine or so in the morning and at around four in the evening. At these meals, a mildly alcoholic drink, chicha, was consumed. This chicha was so prominent that one Inca researcher noted that water was hardly ever drunk, unless there wasn't any chicha around. The actual substance of a meal usually consisted of soup or stew. Anything in season was added to the stew. Coca leaves were chewedafter meal times as a mild narcotic. Coca, although it has been transformed into cocaine in modern times, was used by the Inca to soothe and to be used as medicine.
Celebrations involved somewhat of a potluck ritual. The families would each come with their own stew. The invited participants sat down in two long lines facing each other to share in their dinner. Chicha, of course, was an almost religious part of any celebration.
The actual production of food was problematic because they lived on the steep slopes of the Andes. The Inca solved this problem by skillfully creating terraces on the slopes of the mountains. They were kind of like steps going upwards. Not only did this give farmers a flat growing surface, but it also increased the area of the land available for farming.
The absence of any farmland was not the only problem that existed for the Inca farmers, who were considered the lowest rank of the social pyramid. The high mountain peaks had poor soil, nightly frosts were a constant threat, and droughts were commonplace. The first problem they could not do much about, but for the second problem, the Inca had a solution. They planted potatoes, which, for the most part, were resistant to multiple frosts. As per the third problem, the Inca crafted a complex irrigation system not unlike the Roman aqueduct system. Stone canals were woven among the summits and through the Inca cities.
The Inca civilization, however complex, was bound for disaster. After the death of Tupa Inca, his son, Huayana Capac, came to power. It was during his reign that the first Spaniards arrived in South America, bringing diseases like smallpox. Numerous people, including Huayana Capac was soon to die of this disease. No one was spared. Within a century of the Spanish arrival, 80 percent of the Inca people had died.
The Inca civilization maintains an influence on the South American Culture of today. For example, their language, Quechua, still is spoken among indigenous peoples of the highlands. Still, the condition of the Incas today is eclipsed by the glory of the sun god of Inca of the past.
|Make Inca chuño.|
|Learn some food terms in Quechua, the Inca language.|
|Find out more about Inca food.|