Inca History: The Inca Empire – Tawantinsuyu

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The Inca Empire at its greatest extent

The Incas divided the Inca Empire, or Tawantinsuyu, into four parts: the Chinchaysuyu, Antisuyu, Cuntisuyu and Collasuyu regions of the Inca Empire map.

Western historians often refer to the Inca realm as the Inca Empire. The Incas, however, referred to their lands as Tawantinsuyu, or “The Four Parts Together.” They divided their realm into parts, or suyus, along the cardinal points, each extending from the capital city of Cusco (the so-called “navel of the earth”).

Until the arrival of Old World colonists, the South American continent had developed in isolation from the rest of the world. Boundaries and borders, therefore, were not quite the same for the Incas as they were for many contemporary empire builders. The Tawantinsuyu encompassed the known world; its four suyus extended from Cusco until the edge of the civilized and habitable physical realm.

Chinchaysuyu – Northwest Inca Empire

The northwestern suyu of Chinchaysuyu took its name from the province, or ethnic region, of Chincha. Chinchaysuyu was the second largest of the four quarters, encompassing both the Peruvian coastal strip and Andean highlands north of Cusco, as well as much of modern-day Ecuador. The qhapaq ñan, or Inca royal road, ran the length of Chinchaysuyu, connecting the Inca capital of Cusco with Quito (the capital of modern-day Ecuador) in the far north.

According to Tamara Bray in the Encyclopedia of Prehistory, the ecological and ethnic diversity of the Chinchaysuyu region “engendered a very heterogeneous approach to imperial Inca rule.” The region contained distinctly different, geographically defined cultures from the coastal lowlands, the Andean highlands and the tropical eastern foothills of the Andean range. The Incas maintained control over the region, at least in part, by allowing these different ethnic groups to retain many of their own beliefs and traditions.

Antisuyu – Northeast Inca Empire

Antisuyu spread out to the north and northeast of Cusco. The suyu took its name from the Anti region and the similarly named ethnic group that inhabited it (Anti, in its Hispanic form, was Andes).

The vast Peruvian Amazon served to restrict the eastern expansion of the Antisuyu region. The Incas made few attempts to penetrate beyond the ceja de selva, the “brow of the jungle” that lay on the eastern foothills of the Andean range. They saw the deep jungle as a savage land populated by equally savage people. As such, Antisuyu remained a comparatively small region with a distinct lack of infrastructure (in terms of roads and major settlements).

Cuntisuyu – Southwest Inca Empire

Cuntisuyu (or Contisuyu, Kuntisuyu) was the smallest suyu in the Tawantinsuyu. It extended southwest from Cusco until it reached the Pacific Ocean (Cunti was a province within the suyu, after which the region was named). Geographically, Cuntisuyu was dominated by the dry foothills of the western highlands and the arid desert plains that stretched from modern-day Arequipa to the southern Peruvian coast.

Collasuyu – Southeast Inca Empire

Collasuyu (or Kollasuyu, Qullasuyu) was the largest of the four quarters. Named after the Colla peoples located on the northern shores of Lake Titicaca, the suyu encompassed Peru’s southern highlands and the Bolivian altiplano before pushing all the way south into central Chile and a large strip of northwestern Argentina.

The Collasuyu covered much of the Aymara and Uru territories. It also contained a number of major holy shrines, most notably those found in the Titicaca region. As such, Collasuyu held a special place within Tawantinsuyu, being both an important spiritual and political region of the Inca Empire .

Sources:

  1. Tamara Bray – “Inca,” Encyclopedia of Prehistory: South America, Volume 7; ed. by Peter N. Peregrine and Melvin Ember; Human Relations Area Files, Inc; 2002.
  2. Garcilaso de la Vega – Royal Commentaries of the Incas and General History of Peru; trans. H. V. Livermore; Hackett Publishing; 2006.
  3. Terence N. D’Altroy – The Incas; Blackwell Publishing; 2002.
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