At its height, the Inca Empire covered a huge expanse of territory encompassing a number of different climatic zones. From the coast to the Andean highlands and the tropical jungles in the east, the Incas had access to a wide variety of food-types. The following is an overview of the most common Inca foods.
Inca Crops – Vegetables, Grains, Roots and Tubers
Inca farming techniques were quite advanced; the use of terraced fields in the highlands and irrigation systems in desert regions helped with the cultivation of crops throughout the empire. Basic but effective Inca farming tools helped with the overall farming process. A number of staple foods were commonly grown by the Incas:
Amaranth – a staple grain of the Incas. Known as kiwicha in Quechua (the Inca language still spoken in parts of Peru today).
- Chili peppers
- Maize – an important Inca cereal crop. The Incas used maize to make tamales, a snack still popular in Peru today.
- Manioc – also known as cassava or yuca (yucca), the Incas ate manioc root in much the same way as potatoes. Still consumed throughout Peru.
- Oca – a very resistant root vegetable.
- Potatoes – the Incas grew over 200 varieties of potato, a food unknown outside South America until the arrival of the Spanish. The Incas freeze-dried potatoes to make a long-lasting food known as chuño.
- Quinoa – grown primarily for its seeds, quinoa was seen as a sacred plant by the Incas. This important Inca food source was known as chisiya mama, or “mother grain”. Inca armies would often survive on quinoa while on long marches.
- Sweet potatoes
- Zapallo – a type of pumpkin
What Meat Did the Incas Eat?
The Inca diet, especially for the common man, was based heavily upon vegetables, grains and fish. However, the Incas did have access to a variety of meat sources (although the hunting of wild game was often heavily controlled by the ruling family):
- Alpaca – the Incas had two large domesticated animals, the llama and the alpaca. Like the llama, the alpaca was raised for its wool and its meat.
- Birds – hunted with bows, slings and bolas.
- Deer – wild deer where hunted for their meet, particularly the loyco and taroka. Deer hunting was often reserved for royalty.
- Duck – generally consumed by the emperor and his family.
- Frog – eaten in some parts of the Inca Empire.
- Guanaco – a wild relative of the two domesticated camelids, the llama and the alpaca, guanacos were hunted by the Inca for their meat.
- Guinea pig – the guinea pig, or cuy, was an important source of protein for the Incas. Guinea pigs were kept as domesticated animals by the Incas and are still consumed throughout Peru today.
- Insects – caterpillars, beetles, ants and mayfly larvae were all eaten by the Incas.
- Llama – farmed for its wool and its meat, the llama also served as a pack animal. The Incas dried strips of llama and alpaca meat to produce charqui, the predecessor of modern jerky.
- Viscacha – a rodent similar to the chinchilla, the viscacha was often hunted with lassos.
Inca Fish, Seafood and Other Coastal Creatures
Dried fish was particularly important to the Incas, especially for Inca armies on campaign. While the coastal regions provided a large proportion of this fish, the rivers and lakes of the region (Lake Titicaca in particular) also provided their fair share. The Incas, being originally a highland civilization, did not make full use of coastal resources. However, coastal groups were assimilated into the empire, helping to provide a significant amount of seafood and meat from other coastal creatures.
- Bonito – a salt water fish not dissimilar to tuna.
- Mussels – shellfish were an important part of the Inca diet in coastal regions.
- Penguins – hunted along the southern coast.
- Sea Lions
- Seabirds – the Incas hunted a variety of seabirds.
- Seaweed – eaten fresh but often dried.
- Sharks – coastal groups within the Inca Empire successfully hunted small sharks
Inca Food – Fruit and Nuts
As anyone who has visited Peru will know, the range of available fruits is seemingly endless, particularly in the tropical jungle regions. Fruits commonly eaten by the Incas included cherimoya, pepino, papaya, lucuma, passion fruit and a variety of berries. Nuts provided another valuable Inca food source and included peanuts, a type of Andean walnut and the nut of the Quito palm.