The Archaeology of Complex Societies: A project presented by the graduate students of The Ohio State University Department of Anthropology


The Cusco Valley is a region in Peru, South America that served as the core governing center for many different populations including the Wari and the Inca. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, the largest pre-Columbian polity in the New World. The Inca Empire (1438-1532 CE) conquered and ruled over a vast area encompassing parts of modern day Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia. It is estimated that 40,000 Inca governed a territory spanning thousands of square kilometers and included close to 10 million people.

The Cusco Valley is a whopping 3,450 meters above sea level and surrounded by mountains. The Urubamba River arises in the Andes Mountains and continues its course through the Cusco Valley. The portion of the river that passes through the Sacred Cusco Valley is referred to as the Wilcamayu (Sacred) River.
For best utilization, rivers were canalized and rerouted to make room for the growing capital and to supplement farmland with irrigation systems. These features provided reliable farming grounds as well as pastures for domesticated animals. The Inca Empire expanded beyond the Cusco Valley, and included coastal, mountain, and forested environments. These areas increased the diversity of resources at the hands of the Inca.
Economy and Food Subsistence
The Inca economy required tribute from periphery settlements and newly acquired settlements in order to support the growing state. This is evident from the storage granaries (qollqa) found throughout the region. Archaeological evidence shows that primitive forms of currency as well as prestige items were exchanged within the Empire as part of their economy. The environment was well suited for agriculture and raising domesticated animals. Outside of the valley, seafood was an essential aspect of subsistence.

The Inca were very technologically advanced, despite not having a formal written language. They used quipu, a system of elaborate knot tying, to indicate dates and events, as well as ceramics and spoken language to keep records.  Their technological prowess was evident in their monumental architecture (like Machu Picchu), irrigation, arts, astronomy, and medical treatment. Inca artwork used mediums of highly polished metal, jewelry, pottery, and textiles. Trepanation was a common medical practice in the Cusco region. Its intention was to alleviate headaches and other maladies by removing a circular section from the bone of the cranium. Inhabitants of the region were so advanced at this practice that the procedure had an 83% survival rate.

Social Organization
The Inca Empire underwent rapid expansion. In order to maintain a peaceful transfer of power, practices of conquered groups were maintained and appropriated by the Inca. Because of this policy, social structures varied in the periphery settlements, while the core Inca Empire held an overarching social structure that ultimately held power. The ruling elite of the Inca Empire would intermarry with elites of local settlements to aid in their integration and loyalty to the Empire. There was one sole leader, the Sapa Inca, who was believed to be "The Son of the Sun", and other elite members of society like royalty and nobility governed beneath him.

The Inca were polytheistic, having several deities responsible for varying aspects of their existence. Each deity even had a correlate to a celestial body, and many temples were built with this in mind. Aside from formal temples, gods, spirits, and ancestors could manifest themselves at various natural formations like mountain peaks, springs, and peculiar shaped stones. Huacas (similar to shrines) would be built at these areas to accentuate natural features of these sacred areas. Offerings and sacrifices of llamas and guinea pigs were left at these locations. Humans, including children, were also sacrificed, especially at times of crisis, and also after victory in war. After death, many were placed in tombs, mausoleums, or sacred caves and were brought precious goods and food. For more prominent community members, mummification was a common practice.

Do the Inca and Cusco fit into Morgan’s criteria for “civilization?” Knowing the achievements of the Inca, how would you support  the claim that Cusco is neither at the “Savagery” or “Barbarism” level of unilineal evolution? What role did the environment have in the Marxist interaction between economy, ideology, and social structure? If the role of the environment were to be reversed, what effect would that have on complexity?

Header image by: McKay Savage (

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