Ancient Inca Civilization, Culture, and Jewelry

Ancient Inca Civilization, Culture, and Jewelry

Gold, gold, and more gold, this is what the Incan civilization is known for. One of the three largest and most exciting societies of the Mesoamerican region lures people's curiosity and attention to how they live and what happened to them.

Incan Civilization

The famous Incan empire originated in ancient Peru extending to other South America sections from 1400 to 1533BC. Deep in the Llanganates mountain, the Incan tribe took refuge from the Spanish conquistadors' influence. They were known for their magnificent architecture and landscaping seen on Machu Picchu as well as their unique jewelry. They were brazen folks undaunted by the Andean climate's harsh environments, conquering and exploiting various landscapes from the desert, plains, and the forest.

The Incas were highly organized and compartmental with regards to governance commonly sectioned in tens. On the top tier, The king sits together with ten of his closest kins. It was common for a brother and a sister to wed to maintain the value of imperial blood, and marriage is accepted within social classes was practiced. The next level is another set of ten people who are faintly interrelated to the king. The third in line is another group of ten individuals considered noble but not of Incan blood. The last tier is composed of enlisted administrators to oversee each ayallu (small groups). Taxes were paid in kind or in labor. Possessions such as precious metals, fabrics, feathers were accepted, and manual labor where the ruler can relocate them wherever they are needed. Excellent examples are the finest weavers brought to the city to fashion textiles for the royalties and nobles. Production was also sectioned into three: One dedicated for the state and religious activities, one solely for the king, and the last fraction is reserved for the farmers. Basically, the Incan empire shares the community resources in exchange for their labor.

To the Incans, coca leaves are considered sacred, and magical offered to their gods. They were chewed on to lessen the hunger, increase energy, and as an anesthetic used during surgeries. Records of successful cranial surgeries were kept in Quipu shows that skull surgeries performed during their ear had an eighty to ninety percent survival rate.


Traces of Incans in Cuzco reveal a community of hunters and gatherers. Unification of tribes happened under the leadership of an Incan leader in the late intermediate era dating between 1000 and 1400 CE. The Incas extended their territories by conquering other clans such as the Chacas, Lupacas, Collas, Chimors, and Wankas. They called their parts the land of four quarters or tawatinsuyo. Led by their king or Sapa Inca, who live a life of luxury, drinking for cups made of gold, wearing shoes made from silver, and a palace to live in. Even after death, Sapa Incas were mummified and placed in the Coricancha temple. They would take part in ceremonies like the solstice, adorned with the finest ceremonial clothes and jewels, and offered with food and drinks to commemorate their achievements during their leadership.

Coricancha was also where deceased mummified kings and nobles were stored. Here is also where the priests lived together with a dedicated chamber to store objects taken for their conquests. Astronomical studies were also done.


Moche culture


Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA

Earflares depicting winged messengers

The Moche civilization flourished in Peru from the first until the eighth century. The Moche's built two temples. These are the temple of the moon and the temple of the sun. Upon study and excavation, high remains of priests and royalties were found in various burial chambers. Advanced water irrigation was seen under the temple for agricultural use.

The Moche clan was known for its pottery and water jars. Painted on the pots depicts their everyday life, nature, and ceremonial practices. Fabrics were made from alpaca and vicuna fibers. The Moche were advanced metalworkers who discovered E-plating and surface enrichment or depletion gilding. They coated copper with gold or silver metal.

Wari civilization


The Wari Empire predates the Inca civilization. They may have inspired the militaristic Empire like the leadership of the Incans. Even their roadways intersect that various Wari sites were found along the path. One distinct motif for the Wari's is called doorway god. Characterized by a rectangular head with protruding snakes around the head and clawed feet. They were also skilled in working with metals shown in some of their copper figures and golden masks.

Most artifacts coming from the Huari Empire are made from ceramics. A unique D-shaped pot was found dating back between 650 to 800 CE, where a face was painted. Large vessels were found shattered on the floor, which was a version of human sacrifice.



The Akapana pyramid represents the Tiwanaku civilization with a massive step pyramid made with a rectangular platform called kalasasaya. The gateway of the sun has an image of a  god carved from the rock representing the Viracocha with a squared head and sun rays shining from his head with his hands holding a thunderbolt, and animals coming out of his body. Beside him are engravings of unknown symbols assumed to be of calendar symbols or nature-inspired. Head distortion was also inspired by the Tiwanaku people as well as human sacrifices. Human sacrifice was made on top of the akapana where they were dismembered and left for the carnivores to feed on. Some remains found were not of Tiwanaku people suggesting that the sacrifices were non-natives.

Chimu culture


Lombards Museum / CC BY 

The Incan empire conquered Chimu in 1470CE. Their king was kept prisoner in Cuzco to warrant the cooperation of his people. They have adapted various values from the Chimu peoples, such as the inheritance of title, arts, and ruling policies.


No machine-readable author provided. Manuel González Olaechea assumed (based on copyright claims). / CC BY

The high priest wore tunics decorated with braided gold sheets sewn on to fabric. Warriors wore a nose ring made from gold, called nariguera. A nariguera may be in a regular ring shape, laminated circle, or an inverted fan. The nobles also used gold pendants in the form of animals and deities.

Folklore / Origin

The tale of the origin of the Incan society's roots from their belief in Viracocha was believed to have created the sun and humans in Lake Titicaca. He initially created humans by breathing life on stones; however, he had to destroy them for they were useless giants. He then made another batch in smaller forms. Incans believe that Viracocha disguises himself as a beggar and is roaming the world to impart knowledge and perform miracles.

The Incan folk's or the children of the sun, were brought to life by the sun God, Inti in Tiwanaku. Incan rulers were believed to be the personification of their maker Inti.

Another tale about the beginning of the original Incan ancestors came out of a cave known as Tampu Tocco. A set of for brothers and four sisters. Ayar Cachi, was tricked and trapped inside the cave by his brothers due to being boastful about his strength and power. Another brother named Ayar Uchu turned into stone upon speaking of staying on top of the cave so he can look over the people. The third brother Ayaw Acua decided to travel alone. The last brother, Ayar Manco, together with the four sisters, traveled to Cusco, where Ayar Marco's golden staff sank into the ground. It was believed that people will live wherever the staff landed.

Mama Ocllo was the first woman who bore Away Marco's child named Sichi Roca. Later, Ayar Marco became Manco Capac, who founded the Incan empire. After his reign, his son Sinchi Roca became the second emperor of the Empire.


Based on the folklore, Incans built shrines in Tiwanaku. Next to the king, they revere the high priest of the sun, locally known as Willaq Umu. The core of their belief is to avoid natural disasters and death. They build holy places in mountains and caves, maximizing its location to study astronomy. There are three realms in Incan belief. The Hanan Pacha or the heavens, the Uku Pacha or the underworld, and finally, the cay Pacha or the Earth we live in

They believe in reincarnation. A black dog serves as a guide for their spirits as they travel to the underworld. It was important for their human form not to be incinerated or die of burning, for this would release their souls vital for them to pass to the next life.

The three Inca moral codes are do not lie, steal, nor be lazy. When obeyed, their spirits would live under the warm sun, while non-followers would spend their eternal life residing in cold Earth.


The Incans practice cranial deformation of the nobles. The head's shape is altered by tightly wrapping a cloth strap wound the head of a newborn resulting in a flat forehead with an elongated top.

They also practice qhapac hucha or child sacrifices during their king's deaths and tough times like in famine cases. It was believed that when the third ling died, four thousand sacrifices were made, including servants, concubines, and officials.

Religious Locations

The temple of the sun

Coricancha is a religious site located in Cuzco, the capital of the Incan empire. The temple of the sun is a holy place believed to be the core of the world. The area was said to have walls covered with gold sheets, and some were encrusted with emeralds dedicated to worshiping their Gods, particularly Inti, the sun god. The carefully planned architecture, when seen from above, depicts sunrays called ceque lines. These roads 41 roads lead to 328 Incan sacred locations. Cuzco itself is fashioned to look like a jaguar where the sun temple was located on its tail, while another sacred site Sacsahuaman was situated on the head.

A gold statue of a young Inti (Punchao) was housed inside the temple described having a hollow stomach to place internal organs of the deceased king, sunrays shining around his head with snakes and lions coming out of his body. The punchao was placed outside of the temple during the day and brought back inside at night.

The Inca gold sun mask was with zigzag points representing sunrays, which is a depiction of the sun god, Inti. It has its own location in the temple, together with the statue.

The Garden of the Temple of Inti

 A venerated place dedicated only for Inti was made of gold and silver with life-sized replicas of animals such as jaguars, guinea pigs, butterflies, and others. Gold was primarily used to worship Inti for to was believed to be the sweat of the sun. There were also golden jars encrusted with gemstones and filled various gold forms proven by few gold corn artifacts found in the location.

Quilla's Temple

While Inti's temple was made of gold, the sanctuary dedicated to Quilla, the moon god, was made of silver. This is due to the belief that silver is the tears of the moon.

Pachacamac temple was constructed in honor of the God of the earthquake, Pachacamac. A wooden figure of him associated with oracle was often visited in the worship of him.

Machu Pichu


We cannot speak of the Incas without mentioning the famous world heritage site, Machu Pichu. Geographically located in the northwest section of Cuzco, Machu Pichu remains a testament to the Incan's architecture. Here, they built a whole city with temples, terraces, quarry, and plaza and more using stones without using the wheel. The Incas were knowledgeable about the concept of the wheel; however, their animal was not strong enough to pull heavy loads. What is impressive about the buildings' structure is that they remain standing all these years despite frequent earthquakes. Machu Pichu's use is still unknown. It is assumed a religious site, a military zone, or a refuge for the nobles. It was hidden from the eyes of the public that the Spaniards were not able to find it.

Hiram Bingham, the third, only rediscovered it in the 1911 century with the help of a local named Melchor Arteaga. However, by the time Bingham discovered Machu Pichu, grave robbers had ransacked and took jewels and possession that may have been buried with the dead. He initially thought that the mummies found inside the temple belonged to the imperial family. However, upon studying the remains, the bones showed distortions caused by heavy labor. A sealed vessel was also found by Bingham with silver tupus, which was not what the royals would wear. In 1912, Bingham brought all his collected artifacts to Yale for further studies. The relics were only transferred back to Peru in 2012 after Peru built a new museum in Cuzco to properly house and protect these precious artifacts.

The reason why Machu Pichu was abandoned may have been droughts. Scholars believe that the structure serves as a sacred site for Inti based on its location.

Based on its structure, scholars believe that the site was built for astronomical studies. The building is described to have a D-shaped tower built with a single-window facing the Pleiades stars. There was a temple made with three windows, also thought to be a place for astronomical observation. 

In the Temple of the Sun, there were two trapezoidal windows described by Bingham as the solstice window and the Quallqa window.

The site may have also been chosen due to the cave located on the eastern section of Machu Pichu, where it is only illuminated during the December solstice. In this cave, the royal feast occurs, and young nobles undergo initiation by having their ears pierced.

Today, thousands of people travel to Machu Pichu to get a glimpse of history. However, tourism has degraded the site, and the government decided to limit the number of visitors that can enter the site. Form 2,500 a day, it was cut down to four hundred visitors per day.

Intihuantana Stone

By Jordan Klein from San Francisco, USA - Flickr, CC BY 2.0

An extensive set of stones accurately pointed towards the sun during the winter solstice. The Incans believed that the hitching post would fix the sun in its place. This was also thought of as a calendar or a clock for the Incas.


Incans believe in multiple gods (polytheists).



Believed to be the originator of all things. Depicted as a god with a sun crown, a thunderbolt pair in his hands, with tears on his face, symbolizes the rain. He was also associated with Saturn, a planet with the lengthiest rotation around the sun.


The sun God and the patron of the Inca state. In some myth, Inti ordered his children to build an empire where the golden staff would sink, which was Cuzco. This is why the kings were highly worshipped, for they believe that they were descendants of God. The Incans would dedicate a third of their land,   produce, and animals for Inti, and each region is required to build a sun temple lead by a female mamakun, who was a member of the aqllakuna (chosen women) or women weavers. She is to weave high-end fabrics and brew cincha in preparation for sacrifices for the sun god.

Inti Raymi

The sun festival is still celebrated in honor of the Inti. It was traditionally celebrated in the southern section or the winter solstice to mark the start of the planting season. The winter solstice has the shortest daylight and the longest night of the whole year.

Mama Killa

The moon goddess of the Incan, she is the older sister and wife of Inti, worshipped mostly by the Chimu and other communities living in the coastal area of Peru. She was the patron saint of women and marriage. Tales of the moon circulates from the dark spots seen on the moon's surface to the lunar eclipse. The black markings were said to be the marks of a fox who fell in love with her. The spots were embedded when she hugged him tightly just before she rose to the sky. The act of making noise during a lunar eclipse is based on folklore that an animal was attacking mama killa. The Incans would make loud noises to protect her and scare away the predators to believe that the world will be in total darkness when the animals succeed. Silver was used for her statues, for there were stories of her crying silver tears.

Mama Occlo


The fertility goddess that is sometimes portrayed as a sister or daughter to Inti. Sister and wife to Manco Capac, the first ruler of the Incans. There were records that show of her and Manco Capac leading the Ayar tribe. She was also held to impart wisdom and had taught the women how to weave.

Manco Capac


The first-ever king of the Incan empire. He taught people about agriculture, weaponry, and the Gods. History shows that he was actually born in Tampitoco, son to a tribe leader. He had to assume the role after his father's death. The tribe conquered and defeated the small community living where they finally settled.


Known as the goddess of Earth and wife to the creator Viracocha. She was offered with various things from the sacred coca leaves, cincha, and animals such as llamas and Guinea pigs in exchange for bounty harvest. Like her husband, she was worshipped for various reasons. The goddess of fertile lands associated with planting and harvest. She was also believed to cause earthquakes and the power to sustain life on Earth. Depicted as a woman bearing coca leaves and potatoes carved on rocks and trees. She was associated with the Virgin Mary in the Christian religion and mother Earth as a general term.

She is celebrated in the feats called Martes de Challa where people would bury food offerings and sweet as a form of gratitude for a bountiful harvest. Coincidentally, this celebration is the same day as the Catholics Mardi Gras.


The weather god, the deity for thunder and lightning. He was the venerated in the kingdom of Quilla and was depicted to keep the Milky Way in a pitcher in creating rain.

Ayar Cachi

The God of earthquakes. He was one of the brothers of Ayar Manco that is superior in strength and was rude to everyone. Because of this, he was sealed in the cave they were came out with but his own siblings.


The God of death and the king of Uku pacha and demons.

Incan Art

Incans used various materials to showcase their high command with the arts. From prized metals such as gold and silver, they have also used copper, ceramic, and fabrics.


Rosemania / CC BY

The high command with the gold material of the Incan's root came for the Moche civilization. Gold was sacred to the Incas, for it is associated with their God Inti, believed to be the sun's sweat. They use blowpipes for smelting their gold. The wearing of gold accessories is exclusive for the king s proof of divine birth. A gold death mask was used for the deceased king, while regular individuals use wood or clay materials. What is distinct from the Incan death mask is that it has movable ears.

Golden Plume

By Jerónimo Roure Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0

Made from Incan gold, this plume-shaped ornament is characterized by a pair of stylized blades. The base of the shaft is designed with a hole where the material is inserted.


Jerónimo Roure Pérez / CC BY-SA

Silver was used on shrines of mama killa for her statues and moon disks. It was also used as silver shoes for the king, cups, and other figurines.


Much like other metal bases, copper was used to fashioning jewelry, cutlery, and others. Fashioned using methods such as alloying, casting, pounding, embossing, or gilding. They were sometimes encrusted with gemstones like emeralds and lapis lazuli.


Jerónimo Roure Pérez / CC BY-SA

An artifact necklace made from spondylus shell square beads and mother of pearl.


Using a combination of natural clay, mica, sand, and shells, they manually construct the base, followed by adding coiled clay until the desired size is accomplished. It is smoothened using a level stone and stamped, painted, or decorated before subjecting it to open fire.

The colors of red, brown, and cream (polychrome) were used in painting ceramics. Animal forms like camels and alpacas were the most common type of figurines used in rituals. Devotional objects buried as an offering for good harvest, prosperity, fertility and protection. These ceramics are molded with a hollow center to place offerings like coca leaves, maize, shells, and animal fat.


Sailko / CC BY

A vessel made with a ceramic base used to store maize. Built with a pair of small handles and a long neck sealed with a lug, a rope would go through the handles as a strap.


Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

Another famous ceramic artifact from the Incas is ceramic dishes with animal handles.



Incan Fabrics represents one's status and wealth. They created the most refined weave of one hundred and twenty wefts per centimeter. Excellent fabrics were deemed even with more value than gold and gemstone in contrary to what most believe. Finely woven fabric was given as the highest form of gift given to the royals and guests. Textiles were said to have been presented to the Spaniards prior to their invasion. Aclawasi was the place where female weavers were relocated to fashion imperial and warrior garments.

Similar to the Mayans, Incan weavers utilized backstrap loom for their smaller sized fabrics, while horizontal or vertical loon was used for larger pieces. Cotton and fibers from animals such as llama, alpaca were used, and excellent quality vicuna fibers were limited only for the noble's use. Three types of fabrics were produced base on their use. Maguey fibers were used to produce a rough material called chusi used as blankets. Semi-rough fabrics were used for warrior's clothing and everyday clothes. The fine fabric was used for gifts and royal ceremonies.

Inca bag

Metropolitan Museum of Art / CC0

An Inca bag made from beautifully woven patterned fabric with tasseled end. Believed to carry their coca leaves during journeys and work.

Patterns and Colors

Each colored thread has a special meaning behind them.


The color of death and creation.


The color of the rich forest, ancestors, and rain.


The color of victorious invasion, blood, and leadership.


The color used to represent their staple food, maize, and precious metal, gold.


 A magnificent shade representing a rainbow and Mama Oclla.

The Incans favored geometric and abstract patterns. However, each design represents a specific meaning that tells a complex woven based on the nature of the artist. A design may also be specific to a tribe or a community.

Jewelry and accessories

The king wore a headdress made from gold decorated with tall feathers. Heavy earplugs adorn his ears, golden are bands on his upper arm, while his clothes are embroidered with more gold and gems—a pair of shoes made from silver finishes off the elaborate outfit.

The nobles wore finely woven tunics and may have worn jewelry made from various material aside from gold.


Khipu (Quipu)


The record used by the Incans of the Ancient Andean culture to record and transfer information. Made from cotton or camel fibers, the string was used to record collected taxes and census.



A tool believed to have been used by the Incans for accounting together with the Quipu. Both systems are still subject to interpretation oh how the Incans managed to compute taxes without errors. Some friars described how the Incans sued various shapes of stones and corn on the compartmented board as they calculate. To add to the confusion, yupuna artifacts come in different forms. Some were described to have two towers, some three. Some with two shelves, while others have three.

Incan Weighing scale


By Jerónimo Roure Pérez, CC BY-SA 4.0,
An Incan artifact used to weigh coca leaves and gold. Made from a combination of silver, turquoise shells and fibers.

Golden staff


Jerónimo Roure Pérez / CC BY-SA

Representing the myth of Incan creation where Inti's children would build their Empire wherever the staff would sink.

Gold plate

By Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, España - Placa decorada, CC BY 2.0

Made from Incan gold engraved with a man worshipping the sun god, Inti.

King Atahualpa's Gold

It was in the 16th century when a Spanish chief captured King Atahualpa inside his palace in Cajamarca. The legend tells about the deal made by the Spaniard to release the king in exchange for a roomful of golden treasure. However, the king was slain prior the completion of the ransom. The Incans then buried the prize in an undisclosed location. It was years after the killing of King Atahualpa when a Spaniard known as Valverde went back to the forest and married an Incan woman who was believed to have shown him the way to the treasure. He became wealthy and created a map pointing to the said location of the gold.

In 1850, a botanist searching for the seeds of a cinchona tree traveled to Ecuador and said to have located a related map of Valverde's guide. As expected, tales of expeditions on finding the lost treasure have circulated that in 1886, a man who claimed to have located the treasure described a place with thousands of gold from small to life-sized gold figures were found together with emerald and jewelry. He took with him an amount he was able to carry with a plan to go back. However, it was said that he was pushed or disappeared on his way to New York.

A successful expedition led by an author Mark Honingbaum in his published book shared a tale where he and his comrades found a manmade lake where the gold was said to have been thrown. The story of the former's king gold is not a myth, for there were records made by the Spaniards showing a massive amount of gold being shipped from Ecuador. Even though the Incans were famous for their golden treasures, artifacts supporting these are rare. In fact, most gold found by the conquistadors were melted, while grave robbers collected some that may have remained. 

Whether the Incan gold treasure remains within the forest or someone has already taken it out, the story of a roomful of gold and jewels will forever live in the history of the great kingdom of Incan civilization. Even up to this moment, there are still Incan site beings studied to gain more understanding of their mysterious lives.

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