Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire for Kids

Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, long before the Europeans arrived, millions of people native to the Americas lived in North and South America. In the Northwest part of South America, was a group of people called the Killke who later became known as the Incas. Eventually, the Incas became the most powerful empire in South America, but they weren’t always this way. At one time they were made up of small villages and tribes with no single leader and unified civilization. 

During the 1400s the people of this area were under the threat of nearby tribes. The kind at the time decided to turn and run, but fortunately one of his sons, a bold leader, decided to face the enemy instead. His name was Pachacuti (Patch-a–KOO-tee) and he quickly went to work uniting the nearby tribes in a large army to face the invaders. Pachacuti led the Incas into battle and after fierce hand-to-hand combat, they won! After becoming king and providing safety for his people, Pachacuti went to work on the new kingdom of united tribes. He organized the building of roads and city centers to improve the economy, temples to worship their gods, and stone walls and buildings to keep the people safe. And instead of being on the defense, he instead attacked nearby tribes who he worried might threaten their safety. After defeating other tribes, he added their soldiers to his army, and their people to his growing empire. They helped build new roads and cities, temples, and defenses. But if he could avoid battle, he would do just that and instead offer them gifts, so they would join his empire instead. The conquered tribes then paid taxes and little by little the Inca Empire grew. Eventually, Pachacuti’s empire spread into six countries that we know today as Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Chile, and Argentina. 

At the center of the empire was the capital city of Cuzco, in what is now known as Peru, with around 40,000 citizens and another 200,000 in surrounding areas at the time. The city was located high in the Andes Mountains and had a ruling class led by Pachacuti and a priestly class who organized the worship of their gods. The Incas were skilled farmers and artisans who mined gold, silver, copper, bronze, and other precious metals and used them to craft beautiful jewelry and bowls, and other tools. They also used these metals to decorate their buildings, many of which were covered in gold. They were also very advanced at designing fabrics and used them to make strong and colorful clothing. 

Skilled Inca engineers used advanced engineering to design their buildings. They were made of stone blocks and were often so perfectly measured that they didn’t need any kind of cement to keep them together. The rulers and priestly class used advanced math to keep track of the stars and other planetary bodies. They used astronomy to design their buildings, which meant different windows and features faced planets and stars according to the time of the year. The Incas worshipped the sun and build stone temples and in honor of the sun god, decorated their buildings with gold.

As Pachacuti conquered new tribes across South America, he got to work building palaces in all of the new lands. One of these new territories was high in the Andes Mountains and overlooking the Urubamba River Valley. Pachacuti decided this mountaintop would be the perfect place to build a palace for his family, so he could retreat there and enjoy some quiet away from busy cities like Cuzco. Basically, like a vacation home for a celebrity or the President in our day and age. From the top of the mountain, Pachacuti would also be able to view his empire in all directions and the tall peaks would keep him safe from his enemies. This is the palace that later became known as Machu Picchu which means “old peak.” 

Together with his engineers, Pachacuti figured out how to build a home in this very high, very steep place. Workers dug into the sides of the mountain and flattened it out into a series of large steps, known as terraces, where they could plant crops and build buildings. Peasants worked hard to clear and farm these terraces and planted maize (what we know as corn), beans, potatoes, and other crops on these wide steps or terraces. They also worked tirelessly to haul huge stones up the mountain to build walls and the palace itself. 

Of course, without water, the visitors to the palace wouldn’t survive, so the brilliant Inca engineers found a spring and designed aqueducts to move the water around the mountaintop and into fountains which the king, his family, and servants could use to drink and cook and bathe.

Once the construction project of Machu Picchu was complete, the king and his royal family often made the long trek from Cuzco to vacation there. Sometimes he had up to 100 family members and 500 servants living at the palace!

King Pachacuti loved nature and the stars, so when he designed Machu Picchu with his engineers, they included many works of art that reflected the beauty of the local nature and the animals of this region. They also designed a temple on the mountain and many of the buildings with the stars in mind, meaning certain windows faced certain stars or the sun and moon at different times of the year. Beautiful flowers and other plants were also cultivated on Machu Picchu to celebrate Pachacuti’s love of nature. 

During their time at the palace, the king and his family also spent time capturing and hunting animals. Some of these included deer, alpacas, and llamas. If you’ve ever seen a llama or alpaca they are a very funny-looking creature with a wooly body, long neck, and tall ears. They live and are able to climb and survive high in the mountains of Peru. The royal family feasted on the meat of deer and used the wool of llamas and alpacas for their beautiful clothing. But of course, Pachacuti wasn’t always at Machu Picchu. It was one of his many palaces and often he lived at Cuzco, the capital from which he ruled his growing empire.

As I mentioned earlier, people native to the Americas lived in North and South America for a VERY long time without anyone in the rest of the world, Europe or Asia, and beyond, even knowing they existed. This is what we sometimes call the New World, which the Old World didn’t know about. It wasn’t until Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492 that the knowledge of this new continent became really well known to Europeans. This was a time when the Incan Empire was thriving alongside major European empires like Spain, France, and England. 

After Columbus’s voyage, powerful empires like Spain decided they wanted in on the New World, too, so they immediately sent explorers to find out how to better their own situation. This era was called The Age of Discovery. The Spanish explorers who journeyed to the New World were called conquistadors and traveled there in search of new land, gold for their empires, and people with which to share their religion. 

The Conquistadors had heard about the Inca Empire and knew they had access to many mines. Especially mines containing their favorite precious metal, gold! They heard that the Incas had so much gold that they used it to decorate their temples, and other buildings, and to make beautiful jewelry. 

Francisco Pizzaro was one of the first conquistadors who wanted some of this gold to enrich himself and his beloved country of Spain. Upon landing, he declared the land of South America the property of Spain with no consideration for the people who already lived there – such as the Incas. And as you can imagine, the Inca Empire and its hoards of gold were immediately in his sights. 

At this time, Pachacuti was no longer the king of the Incas. Instead, they were ruled by a king named Atahuallpa (ah-ta-HUAL-pa), who had weakened the Incan Empire during a war with his brother. But Atahuallpa still had a very large army and seeing that Pizarro’s was very small, he assumed to defeat them very easily. He brought a small part of his army, 5,000, to the fight and didn’t even arm them. But what he didn’t know is that numbers aren’t the only important part of a battle. Technology made all the difference in this age, and he wasn’t prepared for Pizzaro’s more advanced weapons of war, such as guns, armor, and horses. 

Atahuallpa and the Inca soldiers had never seen a gun before. How did a device like this hurt someone from a distance? Why did it make such a loud, booming noise, and fire smoke and fire? For centuries, they’d only used spears and swords in battle. Needless to say, they were very unprepared to take on Pizzaro and his better-armed soldiers. When the Conquistadors started firing their weapons, the Incas were frightened and many were injured or died. Very quickly the battle was over and Atahuallpa had been taken captive by Francisco Pizzaro and the other conquistador soldiers. 

With Atahuallpa as his captive, Pizarro forced the Incas to bring him gold and they did for a very long time. The Spanish melted the beautiful gold jewelry and cups and bowls and other fine materials down into gold bars, which they sent back to Spain as a tribute to their own king. Pizarro took over the government in Peru and set up his own king, who followed his orders. Over time, the Incan Empire faded in power and glory. But back to the grand palace of Machu Picchu. By this time, the mountaintop vacation home had already started to lose its magnificence since no kings after Pachacuti lived there or took care of it as its creator did. Vines and moss grew over the stone walls, no one cultivated the terrace farms, and the beautiful buildings fell into disrepair and began to crumble with weather and age. Most Incas forgot it even existed, although the tales of this glorious mountaintop palace were still passed on, perhaps even treated as legend.