Where have men ever seen the things they have seen here?
Where was it known that so much wealth could come from one land?

—Pedro de Cieza de León, Chronicle of Peru, 1545

  • More

    An Inka road with sidewalls, Colca Canyon, Peru, 2014. Photo by Doug McMains, NMAI.



  • More

    Select highlighted words to hear them spoken in Quechua.

    The Inka spoke the Quechua language, which is still spoken today in the Andes.


Spanish invaders destroyed the system that maintained the empire and its road. They imposed a new religion and tried to erase traditions. They imported plants and animals that altered the environment. Within 100 years, nearly 80 percent of the Native population died of European diseases.

The Spanish admired the Qhapaq Ñan, but soon many of its roads were abandoned, destroyed, or transformed. Heavy-footed horses and wheeled carts damaged roads built for foot traffic and llamas. Maintenance declined. Erosion took its toll.

The road over the mountains is a thing worth seeing.... [S]uch beautiful roads could not in truth be found throughout Christendom.

—Hernando Pizarro, letter to the Royal Audience of Santo Domingo, 1533

New Animals and Crops

The Spanish brought cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs into regions where llamas and alpacas traditionally grazed. The Spanish planted their imported crops in the most fertile areas, leaving poorer land for Andean people and displacing native crops.

Pillaging the Sacred Mountains

Spanish explorers were driven by a thirst for gold and silver. The mountains of Tawantinsuyu were rich with mines, which soon became Spain’s principal source of wealth.

The Spanish manipulated the mit’a system, compelling indigenous people to provide labor. Unlike the Inka, the Spanish gave nothing in return. Many people died working these dangerous mines.

If I were to recount all the different varieties of golden objects, my story would never end.

—Francisco de Xerez, Reports on the Discovery of Peru, 1534

mining map
  • More

    Silver from Potosí

    The Potosí silver mine was a sacred site for the Inka. Later, it became the chief supplier of silver to Spain. The dangers of the site have earned it the name "the mountain that eats men."

    Aymara model of a ship

    Aymara model of a ship, 1880–1920. Bolivia. Silver alloy. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI. (22/5025)

  • More

    Mercury from Huancavelica

    The Spanish established a mercury mine at Huancavelica. Mercury was used to extract silver from ore. Mining here was extremely dangerous, and the death rate was high.

  • More

    Gold from Copiapó

    The Copiapó region was a source of gold for the Inka Empire. Under Spanish control, its mines were exploited for ever-increasing amounts of gold and copper.

    Huayna Capac and the Spaniard Candia

    Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (Quechua, ca. AD 1535–1616). Huayna Capac and the Spaniard Cadia, 1615. The First New Chronicle and Good Government, The Royal Library, Copenhagen, GKS 2232 4°.