Cusco – History

Cusco is a region steeped in history. From pre-Inca times to the present, several glorious centuries have passed. As testimonies of what happened today you can see the very strong Inca walls and the majestic colonial temples. For this reason, the historic center of Cusco is considered a Cultural Heritage of Humanity, according to UNESCO.

Cusco Main Square
Cusco Main Square

Cusco, before the Incas

All the investigations maintain that the Incas came from the cold plateaus of the Peruvian highlands, settling around 1230. Before, the Cusco territory was the scene of various human groups such as cultures: Marcavalle, Chanapata, Lucre, Cotacalle, Wari and Killke. Many of the Inca customs were taken over by these cultures, such as the Quechua language.

In Cusco, the oldest settlements date back to 5,000 years before the Christian era. One of the cultures that most influenced Cusco were the Wari (mainly from the current department of Ayacucho). As a testimony Wari in Cusco until today survives the citadel of Pikillaqta. According to research, the first Inca was Manco Cápac who ruled in Cusco from 1200 after the Christian era.

The first men of Cusco (5000 BC)

The Marcavalle and Chanapata cultures (1,000 BC – 700 BC)

The Cotacalle and Lucre culture (600 AD – 1000 AD)

The Wari culture (600 AD – 1200 AD)

The Killke culture (1,000 AD – 1,476 AD)

The Incas (1438 AD – 1533 AD)

The origin of the Incas

The Incas came from the peoples of the Altiplano (current plateau of Peru and Bolivia) seeking a new territory after the invasion of the Aymara peoples. After many years of wandering life, they settled in the Cusco valley where, after several centuries, they would found the largest empire in South America.

However, the Inca oral tradition explains this historical process with 2 very famous legends today: a) the legend of the Ayar brothers and b) the legend of Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo. Both narrate the journey that the first Incas (children of the Sun) made to find a sacred place to settle. Thus, the gods (Sun, Moon, Mountain) took them to Cusco where they would create a new civilization.

Origin of the Incas
Origin of the Incas

The Inca origin according to history

The legend of the Ayar brothers

The legend of Manco Cápac and Mama Ocllo

The Inca rulers

The Inca empire lasted only 2 centuries, however, its rapid expansion reached the current territories of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador as well as part of Chile, Argentina and Colombia. Its first governor was Manco Cápac (ruled approximately from 1150 AD to 1178 AD) who is the protagonist of the legends about the origin of the Incas. His continuing successors reorganized life in the Cusco Valley and made alliances with neighboring ayllus.

The true Inca expansion occurred during the government of the Inca Pachacutec (ruled from 1430 AD to 1478) who defeated his rivals Chancas and founded the new Inca empire. The continuous governors continued with the expansion as well as the Inca architectural development. However, during the civil war between the Huáscar brothers and Atahualpa, the Spanish invaded and killed the last Imperial Inca.

After the Spanish invasion, the last rebellious Incas took refuge in the Vilcabamba jungle since they ruled in parallel with the invaders since 1533 AD. to 1572 AD). The wars for the reconquest ended with the death of Túpac Amaru and the imposition of the Spanish viceroyalty. However, many of the Inca traditions continued and continue to this day.

EL Inca
The Inca

According to the Peruvian chronicler Inca Garcilaso, these were the Inca rulers:

Pre-state epoch:

Imperial Epoch:

Rebel Incas of Vilcabamba:

Pachacutec and the Inca Empire

The Incas lived their best development and prosperity during the government of the Inca Pachacutec, the ninth and first imperial Inca. In addition to expanding the territory in all directions (creation of the Tahuantinsuyo), the Inca organized the new state and ordered the construction of huge buildings such as Machu Picchu.

Pachacutec was a great statesman. Some chronicles also point out that he was an administrator, a philosopher and even an observer of human psychology. He assumed power in the middle of a war against the Chancas and managed to create the largest empire in South America. He died in Cusco naturally, after more than 30 years of government, approximately.

The Inca Pachacutec
The Inca Pachacutec

Inca War vs. Chancas

Creation of Tahuantinsuyo

Reorganization of the Inca State

Construction of Machu Picchu and more

Death and succession

Huáscar and Atahualpa

Huáscar and Atahualpa starred in the Inca civil war that ended with the death of Huáscar and the capture of Atahualpa by the Spanish, which would later cause the death of the Inca and the conquest of the Inca empire.

Throughout Inca history, there have always been social conflicts over command control. However, the civil war between Huáscar and Atahualpa (from 1529 to 1532, approximately) marked an important break in the hegemony. Huáscar represented the power of the armies of Cusco while Atahualpa, the forces of Quito in the north of the empire.

At the end of the war, historians report that there were between 60,000 and 1,100,000 deaths on both sides. This radically weakened the forces of the Inca empire who were finally subdued by the Spanish, leading to the conquest and the end of their empire.

Death of Huascar
Civil war between Huascar and Atahualpa

Causes of the conflict

Major Battles

Death of Huáscar and capture of Atahualpa

Consequences of war

The Spanish conquest in Cusco

The Spanish conquest of Cusco occurred at a time of the Inca civil war. The powerful Inca empire was fragmented into sides in favor of Atahualpa and Huáscar. The Spanish took advantage of this event to negotiate with the Incas of Cusco (in favor of Huáscar) their trip to the imperial city. On the way he had to face the rebellious Incas. However, thanks to the help of the Cañaris, Huancas and Chachapoyas peoples; they finally managed to besiege the Cusco city. Finally in 1524, after looting the city, they founded the City of Cusco to perpetuate themselves in power.

The Spanish conquest
The Spanish conquest

The capture of Atahualpa and the march to Cusco

The sacking of Cusco

The foundation of Cusco

The Inca rebellion

After the conquest of Cusco, the Spanish sacked the city. The Cusco Incas, seeing the true intentions of the foreigners, decide to fight them. However, seeing themselves at a numerical disadvantage, they flee into the jungle and take up residence in the town of Vilcabamba. For almost 40 years, the Incas reigned in this inaccessible place. At that time, 4 governors succeeded each other: Manco Inca, Sayri Túpac, Titu Cusi Yupanqui and Túpac Amaru. The latter lost control of Vilcabamba, was captured and executed in the Main Square in Cusco. With him ended the rebellion and the Inca genealogy.

Rebelion Inca
The Inca rebellion

The rebellion of Manco Inca

The Rebel Incas of Vilcabamba

Túpac Amaru and the end of the Inca rebellion

Cusco during the Spanish colony

On June 19, 1540, the city of Cusco was founded in the midst of a tension for the control of the wealth of the city among the Spaniards themselves. The first years of the Spanish colony in Cusco were marked by the wars against the rebellious Incas of Vilcabamba. Then, after the death of Túpac Amaru I and the end of the rebellious Incas, there was a period of prosperity where imposing churches were built on the ancient Inca temples.

However, the abuses against the indigenous people of Cusco continued for many years. Faced with this, uprisings occurred, of which the most important was the one undertaken by José Gabriel Condorcanqui (Túpac Amaru II) in 1780. Despite his death, which occurred a year later, in the Main Square of Cusco; the pro-independence voices sounded louder. Finally, after several libertarian struggles, such as that of Mateo Pumacahua in 1814, Cusco was part of the independence of Peru proclaimed in 1821, after almost 300 years of Spanish rule.

Clashes between Spaniards

The colonial splendor in Cusco

The uprising of Túpac Amaru II

The struggle for independence in Cusco

Cusco during the republic of Peru

After the independence of Peru in 1821, Cusco was for three years the seat of Spanish government throughout the continent. Viceroy José de la Serna moved the Casa de la Moneda and the official printing press of the state there. After the battle and capitulation of Ayacucho in 1824, the Spanish abandoned Cusco and the ancient Inca capital finally gained its independence.

The first years of independent Cusco were marked by the reforms undertaken by Agustín Gamarra and Simón Bolívar. Forced labor was abolished and lands were given to indigenous people. Later, Cusco was a central point of the Peruvian-Bolivian confederation in 1835 as well as the War with Chile in 1879. The industry brought negative consequences for Cusco during the 20th century.

Cusco in the first independent years

Cusco during the Peru – Bolivia confederation

Cusco in the 20th century

Cusco today


By Machupicchu Terra – Last updated, July 19, 2021

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