Review of ‘The Incas’ by Terence N. D’Altroy

17th November 2013

The Incas book cover‘The Incas’ by Terence N. D’Altroy, 2003, Blackwell Publishing, Maiden/Oxford/Carlton, xv+391 pp. ISBN 1-4051-1676-5 (pbk).

Reviewed by David Bulbeck

The author Terence D’Altroy belongs to the Realpolitik school of anthropological archaeology, and this perspective comprehensively informs his representation of the Inca empire, through his selection of which historical events to relate and which socio-political aspects to emphasize. The result is a wide-ranging and sophisticated description of the Incas which is, however, readily accessible to the general reader and specialist alike through a neatly organized chapter structure and avoidance of unnecessary jargon. Still, the book would disappoint readers who had been hoping for a romanticised account. Carving out a vast empire in a matter of decades, and consolidating imperial rule over a geographically and ethnically diverse realm, were hardly pretty affairs, and D’Altroy’s work gives political intrigue and military might equal billing with the marvellous accomplishments of the Incas in record keeping, road works, and integrating the technological and agricultural skills previously developed by the Incas’ subject societies.

Chapter 1 introduces the available sources on the Incas, and discusses the author’s intention to combine the historical and archaeological evidence to a degree not hitherto achieved. Chapter 2 briefly describes the central Andean belt and its coastal and jungle fringes in terms of physiography, geography and society, including a few pages devoted to pre-Inca prehistory. The Killke antecedents of the Incas, in the Cuzco basin (Chapter 3), appear quite unremarkable in this context, and D’Altroy wisely avoids looking for root causes to explain the Inca expansion. The expansion of the empire is recounted in chapter four, and the political organization of the empire, both in its consolidated regions and in the borderlands where Inca armies continued their conquests at a retarded rate, is the concern of Chapter f. Chapter 6 covers Cuzco and the sacred Urubamba Valley, and the question of whether the imperial expansion was fuelled by the prerogative to accumulate further estates for deceased rulers with each passing emperor.

Chapter 7 describes the Cuzco-centred state ideology, with the ruler as the sun god’s living representative, as well as the belief systems of the subject societies and how they fitted uneasily with the Incaimposed religion. In Chapter 8 we learn how people made a living, and how the Incas controlled the central Andean surplus both to feed their armies and to host sumptuary feasts (associated with state construction works and Inca festivals). The following chapters provide a more detailed summary of the organisation of the empire in terms of its army, provincial rule, food production and storage of surplus, and the superlative accomplishments of Andean and coastal Peruvian societies in textile production, metal work, ceramics and masonry. The book finishes with a succinct account of the Spanish invasion at a time of civil war, the Inca resistance even after the Spanish had occupied Cuzco and established a new capital at Lima, the tragic depopulation (through disease and harsh Spanish rule) in the aftermath of the invasion, and the maintenance of pre-Spanish traditions amongst many Peruvian and Bolivian communities to this day.

Each chapter contains sufficient background information to allow a reader who wishes to learn about a particular topic to dip into the relevant pages. The book also works as an integrated whole with later chapters providing the detail on topics raised in earlier passages. D’Altroy, whose background is archaeology, combines history and archaeology as well as can be achieved. Even when the primary evidence is one or the other, it is set in the context of its complement; for instance, knowledge of the initial imperial expansion may rely on early colonial records, but archaeological evidence is the critical source on the size and organisation of the societies which were conquered. Technically, the writing style is informal to the point of seeming almost whimsical on occasions, but always crystal clear, and the illustrations are nicely prepared, even if they sometimes require good eyesight or spectacles to appreciate the detail. The final pages of the book include a useful glossary and a large bibliography which, it should be noted, gives more space to many of D’Altroy’s colleagues than to his own publications.

Overall, this is a very successful book on the Incas which is destined to replace standard academic overviews (e.g. Anne Kendall’s Life of the Incas). It is written in layers of meaning, so that first-year archaeology students, and other readers seeking a bird’s-eye view, can scan it for a quick appreciation, while more specialist readers can also extract useful nuggets for their purposes from the detail. That said, it may be inferred that D’Altroy’s book would also serve as an excellent later-year textbook, as well as a useful ‘Inca thesaurus’ to adorn the bookshelves of post-graduate students and academics.

Bulbeck, D.
Review of ‘The Incas’ by Terence N. D’Altroy
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