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The Ancient Americas
Pachacuti, Inca Empire Builder
by walter hazen



The story "Pachacuti, Inca Empire Builder" tells of the first Inca ruler whose life and actions can be verified historically. Pachacuti (also known as Pachacutec), was the ninth emperor of the Inca people. He has been compared to Philip II of Macedonia in the way he expanded the Inca Empire.

The Inca were South American Indians who came to rule the Pacific Coast of South America from the northern border of modern Ecuador to central Chile. In the 12th century, legend says that the founder of the Inca dynasty, Manco Capac, threw a spear into the air. It landed in the valley where the city of Cuzco, Peru, now lies. Manco declared that this would become the capital of the Inca empire. The word Cuzco means "navel" because the Inca believed that it was the navel of the world.

In the 14th century, the Inca began to attack and loot neighboring villages and under Viracocha Inca, Pachacuti's father, they began expanding beyond the Cuzco Valley. They maintained control by setting up garrisons in the conquered territories. In the thirty-plus years that Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui was in power (1438-1471) the Inca expanded their territory northward as far as Quito, Ecuador, and south to Lake Titicaca near present-day Bolivia.

Pachacuti is credited with laying out the present city of Cuzco in the shape of a puma. Although the Spanish looted all of the gold that the city originally contained, the stonework of the city is as impressive as any precious metals. Throughout the city there are examples of Inca stonework—huge mortarless, stone walls that fit together so tightly that not even a piece of paper can pass between them. One of the most remarkable is a twelve-sided stone measuring several feet in each direction. Each of the twelve sides fits perfectly with the surrounding stones.

Qoricancha—the Temple of the Sun—was built under the direction of Pachacuti. Its walls were covered in hundreds of silver and gold plates, and the thatching on its roof contained gold "straws" that glittered in the sun. After they had conquered the Incas in the 1530s, the Spaniards removed the gold and silver from the walls of the Inca temples, but were unable to tear down the stonework. Therefore, the Inca walls are still visible in the churches built over them.

The walls of Inca rooms leaned slightly inward at the top. This was no mistake, but a masterful engineering feat. Because the weight of the walls rested against one another at the top, they withstood the earthquakes that sometimes occurred. More modern buildings have collapsed, while the Inca walls remain.

The most famous of the Inca cities, Machu Picchu, is attributed to Pachacuti because of the similar stonework and construction methods. Few can agree on why Machu Picchu was built. Some think it was a hidden city where the wealth of the Inca was stored. Some believe it was a fortress and others think it was a university where young Inca were educated.

Preteaching the Story

As background, direct students to pages 19-20, Inca. Use the story title as a starting point for students. Ask students what they think "empire builder" means. What do students think the story will be about? What do they expect to learn from the story? Record students' predictions and expectations.

Tell students the story is about an Inca leader named Yupanqui (yoo•PANG•kwee), or Inca Pachacuti. Inca was the title given to the emperors and refers to the sun god. The Inca believed that their emperor was an incarnation of the sun god on Earth.

Fact or Fiction?

The narrator is a fictional character but Yupanqui Inca Pachacuti was an historical figure—the first Inca leader verified by historical records. Earlier Inca leaders existed, but their stories are largely legendary. The descriptions of Cuzco are also accurate. Whether or not Pachacuti actually built Machu Picchu and for what purpose is a matter of debate. The stonework and construction methods are similar to those used by Pachacuti in Cuzco, but the use of Machu Picchu as a fortress is not universally accepted. It may have been a spiritual center or a university for the empire's young people.

Students will find sources for this story at the back of their book, on page 184.

Tie-in to History and Geography

One of the Incas' greatest achievements was their agriculture. Cuzco is built at an altitude of 11,152 feet surrounded by mountains that rise well above 17,000 feet. Because the country has little flat land, the Inca created terraces on the mountainsides on which they grew literally hundreds of varieties of corn, potatoes, and other crops. The terraces were watered with irrigation systems and each terrace had its own microclimate, allowing for the development of a wide variety of crops. The mountainsides between Cuzco and Macchu Picchu are covered with these terraces. Even today, in the colorful markets, it is common to see kernels of corn in many colors, some as large as a nickel. One variety of purple corn is used to make a flavored soft drink.

Have students locate Cuzco and Machu Picchu on a map of Peru. Ask them to study the map and explain why the Inca didn't just plant their crops on flat land.

People and Terms to Know

  1. Cuzco—name of both the capital city of the Incas and the valley in which their civilization developed.
  2. Yupanqui (yoo•PANG•kwee)—Inca ruler credited with founding the Inca Empire; also known as Pachacuti (PA•chah•KOO•tee).
  3. Machu Picchu —fortress/city built high in the Andes Mountains of what is now Peru.
  4. terraces —series of flat areas cut from slopes that are used for planting. Terraces at Machu Picchu were used to control erosion (washing away of the soil), for farming, and for ornamental gardens.
  5. aqueducts —large stone structures through which water flows from mountainous areas into cities.
  6. puma —large wildcat found in many parts of North and South America.
  7. trapezoid —four-sided figure having two sides that are parallel and two sides that are not.


Use the STUDY GUIDE below as a way to work through the selection and improve your comprehension of the essay.


Answer the Questions to Consider questions in the book as a way to deepen your interpretation of the selection.

Why do you think Yupanqui took a name that meant "destroyer"?

How did he treat the people he conquered who offered no resistance?

Why were the prisons of the Incas such terrible places?

What made the great square of Cuzco a great place?

What present-day leaders act similarly to Yupanqui? Give examples.


Pachacuti and Cuzco

Ellen M. Dolan. The Coming of the Sun: An Inca Indian Legend (1987). An Inca legend explains how the city of Cuzco was founded and how the people were drawn together to form a real kingdom.

Dennis Nishi. The Inca Empire (2000). Discusses the Incan empire, including their traditional way of life; the reign of King Pachacuti, the last of the great kings; the Incan civil war; and the end of the empire.

The Inca

Janet Buell. Ice Maiden of the Andes (1997). Discusses the discovery of the 500-year-old frozen body of a young girl on a mountain top in the Andes and how this discovery has increased our knowledge of the ancient South American civilization of the Incas.

Jane Kurtz. Miro in the Kingdom of the Sun (1996). A young Inca girl succeeds where her brothers and others have failed, when her bird friends help her find the special water that will cure the king's son. (Fiction)

Melinda Lilly. Huatya Curi and the Five Condors: A HuarochirÝ Myth (1999). Huatya Curi, also known as Potato Eater, son of the mountain spirit Paria Caca, challenges a greedy king and wins a worthy bride, releasing his father from his icy mountain prison.

Hazel Mary Martell. Civilizations of Peru Before 1535 (1999). An examination of several of the more important ancient civilizations of Peru with particular focus on the Incas and the effects of the Spanish conquests.

Patricia McKissack. The Inca (1985). Traces the rise of the Incan civilization with emphasis on their culture, social structure, government, economy, and the fatal encounter with the Spanish conquistadors which brought about the end of their society.

Machu Picchu

Elizabeth Mann. Machu Picchu (2000). Describes the history of the Inca civilization and the construction of the city of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains.

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