We see history through our own experiences. Or through the eyes of people similar to us.
Anyone who has ever traveled with a group recognizes the refrain. "That looks just like the grain yard in Calgary."
What we descendants of Europeans see, for example, in the Inca Empire is often a Spanish story. The Indians of Peru see it differently.
Most of us learned about the empire through textbooks that told a tale of how, in 1523, Francisco Pizarro and his army of 168 men, 27 horses, and one cannon defeated the Inca, the greatest empire of the early 1500s.
Arrayed against Pizarro were thousands of battle-hardened Inca warriors fighting to defend their own land. But, the Spanish won every battle, even when the odds were 100 to 1 against them.
Western historians attributed the fall of the Inca to several causes, ranging from European supremacy, to technological and superiority of the Spanish.
The ethnic supremacy argument is pure bunk. The type of tripe Robert Spencer flogs to the minds of teenage boys.
But there is some truth to the military superiority argument. Pizarro, the Spanish commander, brilliantly deployed his troops, horses, and cannon with battlefield flexibility. But there are other compelling reasons to explain how the Spanish had fortunate timing in attempting to conquer the Inca empire.
We first need to understand who the Inca were before we can understand Spain's good fortunes. And how that affects who we are today.
Let's talk about names. If you were to wake up in Cuzco of 1520 and ask a random person if he was an Inca, he would think you had gone mad. There was only one Inka -- the demigod-king who presided over the empire. The term applied to the aristocracy, as well. About 15,000 souls out of a population of about 10 million.
The confusion came about because the Spanish failed to draw the distinction between the people and their divine leader. To the Spanish, they were all Incas. And there was no Inca empire. The Incas lived in what they called "Tawantinsuyu," the land of four regions.
But, because we have been taught to use the term "Inca," we will use it here to describe the people of the Inca Empire. For the leader, we will use "The Inka."
When Pizarro arrived, the empire stretched from southern Colombia south to northern Chile, and east into Bolivia and Brazil. It was the largest empire in the world in the early 1500s, covering a population of 10 million.
We tend to think the empire was there forever. Probably, because it was the only civilization the Spanish knew. But, it wasn't.
The Andes had spawned several precursor kingdoms that had left their marks on history. Some of them going back to 1800 BC The Chivas. The Pukaras. The Wari. The Tiwanakan. The last two faded out around 1000 AD.
The Inca were arrivistes. No one knows exactly where they came from. Linguists believe Bolivia. We do know they settled near Lake Titicaca in the 1200s. And then, for some unknown reason, they had an Abraham moment and headed off to Cuzco, where they settled as a minor tribe amongst stronger tribes. No one would have expected much of the clan.
That changed in 1438 when another tribe, the Chanka, attacked Cuzco. A younger son of the Inka stood and fought while his father and three brothers ran away, "like women," as he put it.
His victory gave him a taste for power. He exiled his father, and renamed himself Inka Pachakuti, declaring his line was descended from the sun. He was very successful in building up the core of the empire through cajolery, threats, and war.
Until, in 1493, on the death of his son, the empire had grown to the limits Pizarro would discover thirty-nine years later
And quite an empire it was. With 25,000 miles of paved roads through some of the most treacherous areas on earth. An empire built of stone buildings adorned primarily with geometric forms that have fascinated modern artists. And temples whose interior walls were covered with gold to reflect the empire's glory.
At the top sat one man. The sole leader. The Inka. The divine embodiment of the sun.
Because The Inka was divine, only his body died. His demigod essence survived eternally.
When each Inka died, his body was mummified, and stored away for special occasions. Each year, on the festival of the sun, they were all paraded in public through the streets of Cuzco, the capital of the empire, and placed on thrones, where women mediums would advise those assembled what The Inkas counselled.
The Inka owned all of the property in the empire, including the labor of his subjects. He periodically assigned tasks for his subjects, such as building roads, constructing temples and palaces, and other similar works for the benefit of the empire. In turn, while the conscripts were at those assigned tasks, he fed, clothed, and housed them -- from the work of other conscripts. Those hands have left us the wonders we can still see.
The Inka's bureaucrats carried out his wishes in a society that had neither money nor markets.
The army was as command oriented as was the economy. The Inca warriors were a powerful force. The proof was the fact that they had conquered most of Andean South America. But, it was a top down system. If a general died in battle, the warriors were so accustomed to following orders, they would disperse.
To avoid any of the new subjects of the empire rising against The Inka, large portions of these newly-acquired lands were uprooted and moved far away. Often, to places where they could not speak the local language.
But, The Inka allowed the old ruling classes to remain in place as long as they were loyal to him. It was a win-win for The Inka. He required the old ruling class to raise funds and provide defense, while he told them what to do.
One of the most effective tools of building unity was language. A good portion of the empire spoke Quecha. But there many dialects of the language -- many of which could not be understood by other Quecha-speakers.
The Inka decreed that everyone in the empire would be required to speak the language he spoke. Cuzco Quecha. He fully understood that it is next to impossible to create a thriving imperial economy when people cannot speak the same tongue -- or to understand what The Inka demanded of them.
And, it worked. The empire was the first civilization that defeated famine within its borders through a system of warehouses. Command economies are famous for oversupply and undersupply of products. The Inca solved that problem by storing the excess in warehouses and calling on it when it was needed. It may be the only example of a command economy that worked -- for a brief time.
As would be expected, the line of succession to be The Inka was more byzantine than in Constantinople itself. The Inka designated his successor, often leading to to strife amongst royal brothers. The worst conflict (an outright civil war) began in 1498 on the death of Pachakuti's son, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of Inca warriors on both sides. When Pizarro arrived, the war was still raging.
This was the world Pizarro marched into in 1532. A devastating civil war. Local tribes unhappy with authoritarian Inca rule. A top-down social and military hierarchy vulnerable to the death of leaders.
He would put each of those vulnerabilities to use in his desire to obtain fame and a title in the New World.
But that is a tale for another day.