Posted by: Ali | March 22, 2010

What is an Inca?

In the past week, while attempting to write about Cusco and the ruins there, I ran into a serious difficulty:

Contrary to popular belief, the term “Inca” does not refer to the civilization that existed in Peru when the Spanish arrived.  Nor does “Inca” refer to a member of this society.  “The Incas” does not refer to the group of people who built all the ruins in Peru… well not really anyways.

So what does the word mean then, you ask?  “Inca” was actually a title, a title that was applied to the person in charge of the Empire.  Famous Incas include Inca Pachacutec, Inca Manco Capac, and Sapa Inca Yupanqui.  Although “Inca” literally meant something like king or prince, it also meant “son of the sun” because the sun was the main deity and the Incas claimed power because they said they were descendants of the sun and therefore had a right to rule.

Interestingly, many of the Incas were not content to call themselves simply “Inca”; they would often add “Sapa” to their name, “Sapa Inca.”  Sapa means “the only one,” so even this title itself demonstrates that there is only one Inca!

That being said, I know that in common usage to refer to the people as “the Incas.”  It’s technically incorrect, but still used, so in my writings I didn’t want to confuse my readers.  But now you know!


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