Looking for ‘Lost’ Inca Palaces

By: Susan A. Niles

Originally Published in 1988

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The Incas, at the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1532, occupied the largest of the native Precolumbian states, with an empire that stretched from Colom­bia to Chile. At the top of a complex hierarchy of administrators was the king, the ruling Inca, who was divine. The capital at Cuzco was the ceremonial and religious center of the empire, and was the seat of the royal families. Each Inca had a palace there and also held land in the countryside outside the capital city. Although some of these royal structures have been located and studied, many remain to be iden­tified.

I report here on the way in which the researcher can find “lost” palaces of Inca kings. The story is about the process of discovery, and it shows how to use evidence­ ethnohistorical evidence and archae­ological evidence—to locate and identify royal Inca construction. In the case of the ruins of Huayna Capac’s palace it was possible to follow directions given in 16th-century sources to locate the site; in the case of Huascar’s palace his­torical sources documented ruins that had been found but not iden­tified. Both of the sites are examples of royal estates and as such are of particular interest for what they tell us about Inca court life just before the Spanish conquest.

Ethnohistorical Sources on Inca History

The Incas kept strict accounting of the deeds of their kings, re­cording all the tribes conquered and forts toppled by means of a knotted string cord called a quipu, which served as a mnemonic device for retelling epics in court. There was no native tradition of writing at all, and even the knotted cords that have come down to us cannot be deciphered.

We do, however, have a number of written sources that help us to understand the working of the empire (see box). The administra­tive strategy and military might used to govern this domain greatly impressed the European invaders, who left descriptions of the organ­ization of the Inca state. An over­view of native culture based on these sources is presented by Rowe (1946). Eyewitness accounts, some by soldiers and Spanish adminis­trators, and others by priests and court-appointed legal investigators, help us to understand the Incas’ culture, and to unravel their history. These documents, called ethnohis­torical sources, are useful, for they give us the ability to understand the history of a people who did not themselves leave any written re­cords, and they are particularly valuable for anthropologists who wish to supplement the archae­ological record in understanding the culture of the Incas more fully.

Inca Royal Estates

From the ethnohistorical record we know that much of the land around the Inca capital of Cuzco was devoted to royal estates. These properties were developed pri­vately by a ruling Inca to support him and his court in his lifetime, and to provide for the maintenance of his mummy after death. Buildings were constructed on most estates to house the Inca and favored mem­bers of the court. In addition to the estates that lined the Huatanay Valley around Cuzco, there were extensive royal holdings in the temperate Vilcanota- Urubamba Valley, or, as the Incas called it, the Yucay Valley. All of the Incas from Viracocha on (see Table 1) held land in or near the valley, where they built country palaces for their pleasure and for conducting state business while the king was in resi­dence (Rowe 1967, 1986; Niles 1987b).

Many of the archaeological sites that attract tourists today because of their spectacular locations and impressive architecture were once the estates of Inca kings. For example, Pisac was an estate built by Pachacuti, who also developed 011antaytambo (see Fig. 2). His son, Topa Inca, constructed the halls and terraces of Chinchero. Theruins of these and other palaces outside of Cuzco rarely show the carefully cut and fit masonry that evails in the capital, but they do exhibit other of the canons of Inca high-prestige architecture: multiple-­jammed doors and niches usually mark the royal buildings, and palace compounds exhibit large-scale and relatively complex arrangements of buildings (Niles 1982, 1987a, 1987b). Within these general guidelines, however, there is a great deal of latitude in the design of the country palaces, and identifying them on the basis of standing architecture alone is difficult.

A basic understanding of the organization and use of Inca estates, and the palaces on them, comes from ethnohistorical sources. From 16th-century accounts, we know that estates varied in what they produced and also in their size. In addition to the substantial agricul­tural developments of the Yucay Valley where maize was the chief product, there were also estates that served specialized ends. Some hold­ings were devoted to pasturage, some to the production of potatoes, and still others to the cultivation of hot peppers. Some lands were left wild as hunting preserves, and others were privately owned for­ests. There were fields devoted to salt production, and lakes and swamps in which reeds and fish were raised.

The single most useful source in helping us to understand the organ­ization of Inca estates is a field-by­field description of royal holdings that covers roughly 15 km of the Yucay Valley, from an area below Calca to the region approaching 011antaytambo (Villanueva 1971). Two lists, one compiled in August of 1551 and the other in 1552, were the result of a visita made to the area by Spanish officials, in the company of several Inca nobles from Cuzco, to resolve a complicated land claim.

The officials visited the fields and interviewed people living there, including elderly men whose fathers had participated in the original con­struction of Huayna Capac’s estate (r. 1493-1525). They recalled that in the construction of that estate alone more than two thousand mitmaq­kuna (permanent colonists moved by the Inca) were brought in: one thousand had been brought from Chinchaysuyu and one thousand from Collasuyu, two of the four quarters that made up the Inca empire. There were also 50 special custodians who came from Tome­bamba, near the modern city of Quito, Ecuador, to care for Huayna Capac’s mummy after he died.

Within the portion of the valley that Iluayna Capac developed, there are over 40 named plots of land, ranging in size from 1 to 100 topos (the topo is the standard Inca unit of land measurement), devoted to the production of such varied crops as maize, sweet potatoes, and totora reeds, and exotic plots of coca, cotton, and peanuts. In addi­tion to his own many fields and gardens, Huayna Capac’s estate included both land and buildings belonging to Raba Ocllo, the mother of his heir, and to other women with whom he was asso­ciated. Nearby, there were grants to his mother and tracts farmed by the mamakuna, or Chosen Women. There were also lands and buildings dedicated to the cult of the Sun. Finally, there were parcels within the area under development that belonged to the original inhabitants of the valley, and which fell outside of any Inca private or religious claim.

The centerpiece of Iluayna Capac’s estate was a palace called Quispiguanca. There are references to its construction in the histories of Cabello Valboa, Sarmiento, and Cobo, and there is mention of its destruction by Manco Inca in his retreat from the Spanish (Rost­worowski de Diez Canseco 1970: 257).

The Palace of Quispiguanca

During the summer of 1986, I spent some time reading the Yucay document transcribed by Villa­nueva to see what information it contained on architecture. There were a number of references to buildings in the document, and none was more intriguing than the palace of Huayna Capac named Quis­piguanca.

The Yucay document gives extra­ordinary detail on the location of fields and buildings. The portion that refers to Quispiguanca begins with a listing of fields at the edge of the town of Yucay, heading down valley toward Urubamba. Much of the land described here is visible in On the other side of the tambo [of Yucay], between it and the terraces on the right hand there is a pleasure garden which abuts these terraces in which there are some fountains where the Inca had fish and totora reed which he used to pierce his ears . . . Going farther along, on the other side of a canyon there is a piece of land called Collabamba which be­longed to Iluayna Capac . . Next to this field on the right hand toward the mountains there is a town of Indians called the Chichos . . . to whom belong the lands of Chichobamba, which go as far as the mountains and as far as Quispiguanta [sic]. Beyond the lands of Chichohamba on the other side of a road there are some buildings called Quis­peguanca which were Huayna Capac’s. To the right of these buildings is a valley between two mountains called Chicon which was a garden of Huayna Capac…. To the left hand of the house of Quispiguanca alongside it there is a park and lake which be­longed to the Inca….(Villaneuva 1971:38, my translation)

From reading the list, it appeared that once one established the loca­tion of the witnesses who were identifying the fields relative to Inca and Spanish roads and to the river (the main landmarks used), one could fairly easily figure out where particular holdings were. After studying topographic maps of the Urubamba area and interviewing local people about place names, I was able to identify the ruins of the palace of Quispiguanca. The names and relative locations of nearby landmarks—Chichobamba, Paca­calle, Chicon Guayqo, and the named terraces—are identical to places mentioned in the 16th century document. The name Quispiguanca is no longer in use locally, but the palace itself was not lost at all: it is exactly where it had to be. The ruins stand in a carrot field on the north edge of Urubamba, and the current landowner refers to them as “the palace of fluayna Capac.”

The ruins of Quispiguanca com­prise large open spaces surrounded by a tally wall, with formal entrance provided through gatehouses and monumental doorways as shown in the plan of the site, Figure 3. The walls have foundations of large blocks fitted together with abun­dant clay mortar, topped by sun-dried adobe brick. Several features of the site bear comment here.

Its best-preserved building, now called Cuichipuncu (A on Fig. 3; Fig. 4), was a gatehouse, providing access into and out of the walled compound of Quispiguanca through wide, double-jammed doors (double jamms on doors or niches are markers of prestige in Inca architecture). The interior dimensions of the structure are 3.55 m by 5.90 m, and there are sym­metrical arrangements of niches on the building interior. There are also paired harhold devices on the build­ing interior next to each doorway, probably to anchor a symbolic “no entry” cord across the opening. On the building’s exterior, facing to­ward the inside of the compound, there is an oversized doorway at ground level, and above it, a sym­metrical arrangement of windows flanking a double-jammed niche. Although easily accessible from the interior of the compound, the door­way to the outside of the sur­rounding wall stood several meters above ground level. Cuichipuncu was paired with an identical building, which is not as well preserved nor as photogenic (B on Fig. 3).

More practical, and even more impressive, access to Quispiguanca was provided by a tally, triple-jammed gateway through which the Inca road passed (C on Fig. 3). The gateway seen in Figure 5 is defined by a pair of tall towers, originally at least two stories in height, that had interior dimensions of about 2.5 m on a side. The paired towers are arranged to form a monumental doorway with jamms nearly 4 m thick. The use of towers to flank a road is without parallel in highland Inca architecture. Also unusual for Inca design is the asymmetrical placement of ornamental detail within the buildings, and the ex­tremely narrow doorways into the towers.

The arrangement of the paired towers and gatehouses in the eastern surrounding wall of the Quispi­guanca compound gives a feeling of great symmetry to the design of the place. I cannot yet comment fully on the buildings included within the walled area, but one set of ruins does merit discussion. In the part of the site called locally Putucusi (that is the long niched wall marked D on Fig. 3), there is a remnant of a huge hall measuring approximately 14.4 in in width and 43.8 m in length (E on Fig. 3). This particular structure also had openings on at least one of the long walls, and had paired double-jammed doorways on the other short end wall. The building was an example of a cuyus Banco, an Inca building type illustrated by Guaman Poma in the 17th century as an Inca palace (1980:236), and it is plausible to assume that this was one of the more important buildings at Quispiguanca.

There is a great deal more work to be done at the site, not only to understand its design more com­pletely, but also in order to establish its relationship to the monumental terraces and agricultural works nearby, some of which are semen in Figure 6, and to relate it to other architectural and natural features in the area. The work will he con­tinued in upcoming seasons.

The importance of the documen­tation of the palace of Huayna Capac at Quispiguanca is to show that the substantial ruins might not have been identifiable without such a rich ethnohistorical source as the of the royal holdings of Yucay. If we had stumbled across it, we might have inferred that the place was special because its design obeys many of the canons of high-prestige Inca architecture, but we would not have known what it was. The his­torical sources that attribute the construction to the first part of Huayna Capae’s reign further help to establish a date for the building in the early part of the 16th century, just a generation before the Spanish visitadores made their inspection of the site.

The Palace at Calca

In the case of Quispiguanca, ethno­historical references allowed us to look for—and to find—a “lost” palace. But it is also possible to trip over archaeological remains that look like palaces and then to turn to historical sources for identification. One such complex is in the town of Calca.

Calca is in the middle of the Vilcanota-Urubamba Valley. My attention was first drawn to the archaeological remains when I no­ticed fitted Inca stonework on a building that faces the main plaza of the town. After consulting with Peruvian archaeologists in Cuzco, who verified that there were Inca remains in the town, I returned to investigate further. In the course of several visits to the site, I found that most of the modern town is built on the foundations of an Inca grid-planned city.

The most remarkable aspect of Inca Calca is the absolute regularity of its plan, seen in Figure 7. This plan is based on regularly sized street blocks composed of the tall exterior walls that probably defined kanchas, or courtyard houses. The blocks are arranged on three sides of a plaza, which measured about 140 m by 320 m. The lower, or south, side of the plaza was defined by a retaining wall, seen now in the church playground at the casa cural, below the level of the plaza. North of the plaza there were Inca street blocks which measured 56 m by 80 m. There were no more than 24 such blocks north of the plaza, arranged in four tiers of six blocks each. Each block was separated from the next by a street 6.4 m in width. The north-south running streets are provided with water channels (Fig. 8), and the river that forms the westernmost edge of the Inca town is canalized. Within the blocks, there were narrow streets 3.2 m in width that provided access to the internal arrangements of buildings. Many of the narrow Inca streets have been remodeled as doorways on modern houses.

In the northernmost two and a half blocks, walls are composed of fieldstone set in clay, shown in Figure 9 and represented on the plan of Calca by shaded stippling. Many of the foundations in this part of town show evidence of Inca streets, now blocked, and some building interiors still have Inca niches (Fig. 9). The southern block and a half has walls of coursed stone foundations supporting less care­fully fitted upper walls. The coursed stone foundations are shown on the plan with solid black and are seen in Figures 10 and 11.

The two blocks that faced one another across the Inca plaza are larger than the other blocks, and both have fitted masonry. The walls that face onto the plaza also had two double-jammed doors sym­metrically placed, probably with respect to an opening in the center of the wall which is, in both blocks, destroyed (Fig. 12). All of these architectural features suggest that these were the most important Inca structures in Calca. The most in­formative block is that inside the municipal playground, the Parque Infantil. Ilere, the double-jambed doorway giving access to the in­terior is preserved on both the exterior (Fig. 12) and interior. The interior has paired barhold devices (Figs. 13, 14) that are similar to those seen at Quispiguanca’s gate­houses. The compound has suf­ficient interior detail to permit the measurement of niches and wall stubs, and to verify the presence of Inca buildings within the courtyard. Niches placed in the rear walls of these buildings are still visible in the surrounding wall.

Based on the design of other Inca towns (see, for example, the recon­struction of the kanchas of Ollantaytambo by Gasparini and Mar­golies 1980:190, fig. 179), it is most likely that the blocks defined by Calca’s streets were the exterior walls of courtyard houses. Groups of buildings within the blocks would have been separated by smaller streets or alleyways, the traces of which have now been obscured by modern construction.

Calca is altogether an impressive place and a remarkable example of Inca city planning. Clearly it was an important site, to judge by the quality of the stonework in parts of it and to judge from the size and scale of component buildings. Ilaving documented a fancy Inca site, it made sense to review the ethnohistorical sources to see if it could be identified.

There are, in the standard his­tories of the Incas, references to the Calca area, which according to both Betanzos and Sarmiento was used by royal families as early as the reign of Viracocha (see Table 1). Calca itself is mentioned in con­nection with the life of fluascar. He succeeded to the throne quite sud­denly around 1525 A.D. when his father, fluayna Capac, died in an epidemic. The ill-fated fluascar’s claim was disputed by his brother, Atahualipa, who put him to death in 1532, just as the Spanish entered the realm. Huascar commissioned pal­aces during his brief reign, a stan­dard act for an Inca assuming rule. Amarokancha was built for him in Cuzco, along with Coilcampata on the edge of Cuzco, and an estate at Muina in the Lucre Basin. One of the Spanish chroniclers, Murüa, says that Iluascar built a palace in Calca, for which he brought in “an infinite quantity of Indians for its service” (Muráa lib. 1, cap. 46; 1962- (64, vol. 1:132-133, my translation). Only Betanzos describes Huascar’s building activity at Calea as founding a town (Betanzos parte 3, cap. 3; 1987:211). We also have indirect evidence of his residence there: Murüa tells us that the ambassador from Quito sought fluascar while he was at Calca (Murua cap. 46;1962-64, vol. 1:133), and Cabello Valboa adds that four messengers from the ambassador were put to death in Calca by fluascar (Cabello Valboa cap. 26; 1951:414). In the case of Calca, Huascar’s palace was lost because we hadn’t really thought enough about the few references to it in the chron­icles. The recognition of substantial archaeological remains in the town suddenly made sense of the his­torical references to Calca, and helped us to rediscover one of the “lost” palaces. Once identified as the handiwork of Iluascar, the archaeological remains of Calca can be better under­stood. In a general way, one can see its resemblance to places that fluas­car would have known. There is a reminder of the grid plan of the archaeological site of Kanaraqay near Lucre, which is probably where Huascar was born and where he lived prior to the completion of his city palaces. Further, there is a comparison to Cuzco, both in the grid plan and in the names of buildings and of natural features that surround Calea. Finally, there is a general similarity to the broad open spaces and low buildings of his father’s pleasure palace at Quis­piguanca, which may have been a close-to-hand model of how to organize a country estate.

More on Ethnohistorical Sources

Much of the important informa­tion on the deeds of Inca kings is recorded in histories elicited from Inca nobles and set down by Spanish scribes. While their testimony is often partisan, giving special prominence to those royal families with whom they were themselves affiliated, it is usually possible to compare the narratives offered by dif­ferent chroniclers to reconstruct the truth. Among the histories most important in understanding the royal estates are the earliest ones, especially the accounts by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (written in 1572), Juan de Betan­zos (written in 1551), Martin de Murua (written around 1615), and Miguel Cabello Valboa (writ­ten in 1586). Also useful is the 17th-century history by Bernabé Combo which draws from earlier—and some now missing—sources. Accounts of Huayna Capac’s construction activity in the Yucay Valley are found in Sarmiento (cap. 58; 1960: 260), Betanzos (primera parte, cap. 43; 1987: 187), Cabello Valboa (tercera parte, cap. 21; 1951:361-362), and Cobo (lib. 11, cap. 16; 1964:89). The Calca region is mentioned by Betanzos (cap. 6; 1968:17) and Sarmiento (cap. 25; Iuascar’s building activities are described by Sarmiento (cap. 63; 1960:265), Murua (lib. 1, cap. 39; 1962-64, vol. 1:110-111), and Betan­zos (parte 3, cap. 3; 1987:211).

Another kind of ethnohistorical source is the legal document, sometimes made at the request of the Spanish crown to bolster land claims of the conquerors, other times made by com­munities or by citizens of Inca descent to prove their right to royal land. These archival sources generally give quite de­tailed accounts of land boun­daries and the economic poten­tial of the holdings, and often include historical details in the rationale for the claim. The estate of Huayna Capac is described in most detail in the visitas tran­scribed by Villanueva (1971). Some cross-checking for Huayna Capac’s lands is possible on the basis of a document transcribed by Rostworowski (1970), and verification of Huascar’s interests in Calca and Muina can also be found there (1970:254). The range of uses to which royal lands were put is shown in other claims published by Rostworow­ski (1962: especially pages 152­153; 1988:84-291, which deals with a dispute over coca fields).

Cite This Article

Niles, Susan A.. "Looking for ‘Lost’ Inca Palaces." Expedition Magazine 30, no. 3 (November, 1988): -. Accessed June 24, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/looking-for-lost-inca-palaces/


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