The Astronomy of the Incas
  1. Geography and History in a nutshell

The Inka Empire is considered the largest ancient civilization in the southern hemisphere of the planet. During its peak, in the 16th century, it reached an area of ​​almost two million square kilometers and extended north from the Ancasmayo River, in Colombia; to the Maule River, in Chile, to the South. In the East it reached the Amazon jungle and in the West it was limited by the Pacific Ocean. To the Southeast it reached the northwestern region of Argentina. Almost all of the Inka territory was located along the Andes Mountains and therefore had a very varied geography, full of high mountains, deep valleys, deserts, plains, snow-capped mountains, tropical jungle, etc.

Cusco (The city of Cosmopolitan, in Quechua) was the great capital of such an extensive territory and was believed to be the center or navel of the world. Cusco is located at more than 3,300 meters above sea level, its climate is temperate and dry, several small rivers cross the city and it has fertile lands for agriculture and livestock. According to Andean mythology, it was chosen according to a divine design of the gods and for that reason it was considered a sacred city, temple city and religious capital. In addition, it was the political, social, military and economic center of the empire.

The story of the Inkas is legendary, and according to which, a group of people chosen by the Sun god arrived in the Cusco region looking for new and better agricultural lands to settle and found an empire. The head of government of the empire was the Inka, considered the son of the Sun and therefore with a divine character. After subduing the people of the region and affirming their dominance, they extended their territory to the limits that the Hispanics found when they invaded it. Four large geographical regions made up the empire and that is why it was calledTawantinsuyu which means “the four parts of the world united”:Eastern Province, to the north;The Qollasuyu, to on;Anti-State, To the East; andContinental, to West.

The fall of this vast empire was due to a bloody civil war between the heirs of the Inka Wayna Qhapaq: Waskar and Atawallpa, who disputed the empire that had been divided by their father into two parts. Each of the heirs believed they had rights over territories that had not been clearly delimited. It was at that critical moment that the Spanish arrived on the coasts of theTawantinsuyu. Taking advantage of the political and social disorder of the empire created by the civil war, they were subdued in a short time using military force and cunning to divide the fighting peoples. Thus began the fall of the Inka empire, changing its political, social and economic system in a short time; destroying its temples and its great palaces, replacing its religion, modifying its economic system based on agriculture, and putting an end to a long original and autonomous history.

  1. The Inkas and their worldview

Andean man was the product of a long adaptation process of more than ten thousand years since his appearance on the continent. The difficult geography, as varied and difficult as the Andes mountain range is, the variety of climates and altitudes contributed to shaping the character of the Andean man who is introverted and calm, but also very happy when he celebrates his festivities, and rebellious when abused. of his generosity.

These people, identified with nature, had a deep respect for the world around them. He proclaimed as main gods the Sun and the Moon, the stars in the sky and natural phenomena such as lightning or rainbows. Called Mother Earth orPachamama to the soil that produced food; He had a special adoration for the water that fed people and plants, and he was a hard worker who used the labor force based on the mutual or reciprocal collaboration of people and which he calledExactly

It is said that they also came to believe in an invisible god and creator called Wiraqocha who also lived in heaven. Their interest in knowing their relationship with the gods led them to carefully observe the movements of the Sun, the Moon and the stars in order to create their calendars with them and look for the links that unite them to them. Calendars helped organize their world and make their work more useful and productive. They also believed they saw representations of animals and people in the sky, whom they elevated to the status of protective deities.

They had two clearly differentiated worlds; heHeavenly Earth or heaven, place for deities; and theKay Pacha OSouthern Earth, down here, on Earth, place of humans. Some modern researchers speak ofDeep Time or underworld as a third world within their worldview; others prefer to consider it as a sublevel of theKay Pacha. The ancient Andeans also believed in the existence of protective entities of people calledsunset; They are the great mountains that surround the cities, they are considered tutelary gods, and in our days they are still honored with offerings in ceremonies of gratitude to the Earth. A peculiar feature of the Andean culture was the veneration of the mummified bodies of their ancestors, whom they called Mallkis(ancestor, family tree), and those they considered as connectors and intermediaries before the power of the gods.

  1. Your culture

The Inkas were the final stage of a long succession of cultures and regional states that developed in these territories over thousands of years, cultures that reached a high development and then declined and disappeared. Witnesses of this long development are the thousands of archaeological remains that have remained of ancient towns along the Andes, the desert coast and the jungle fringe. Among these we have Caral, on the Peruvian coast, and considered the oldest city in America; Chanquillo, the oldest solar observatory in America; Chavín, Mochica, Nazca, Paracas, Tiawanaku, Wari, and many other cultures predated the Inkas. All of them contributed culture and knowledge that remained in villages and towns known as “lordships” or small kingdoms, which would later be wisely used by the Inkas.

The fame of the Inkas as brilliant builders and engineers has transcended time, and their great works, masterfully using stone, have not yet been surpassed in all of America. The city of Cusco,Ollantaytambo, Pisces, Typhoon, and the great wonder calledMachu Picchu, preserve, despite their destruction, the perfection of a work that is difficult to imitate and surpass. Many of its temples and palaces, streets and squares, were aligned with the rising or setting points of the Sun, the Moon, or bright stars on the horizon. In short, astronomy put at the service of architecture to raise its quality, harmonize with its spiritual world by adding greater meaning and symbolism, and to contact divinity.

Many languages ​​were spoken in the area of ​​the empire. The official language imposed by the Inkas in the Tawantinsuyu it was the Quechua, calledQuechua which means “the human language.” But other languages ​​were also spoken in the dominated territories such asAymara and thePukina, as well as other minor languages. During the colony there were attempts to ban and disappear the Quechua language but fortunately it was able to survive over time. Today efforts are made to not lose it, but people’s apathy, pragmatism and globalization play an important role in the risk of its disappearance.

  1. The chroniclers

When the Hispanic invaders arrived at Tawantinsuyu, they brought with them people dedicated to recording the events that occurred during their exploration trips, their military actions, and everything that was important to record. They were the secretaries or scribes, soldiers with little training and without the ability to describe in detail and rigor the experiences of their adventures. They were also the first to describe what they saw in the Inca empire. Then came the religious (priests and clerics), people with a level of education much higher than that of the soldiers, but closed in their religious dogmatism that made them see a world of demons and idolatry. All of them described in their writings or chronicles the events that occurred in those days, the new geography they were observing and the narratives of the customs and history of the Inkas, according to their limited understanding, their superficial observations and taking care of the interests of the invaders. Their racial and religious prejudices come to light when they compare the history of the Inkas with European stories. Their objective was to exalt their “epic” as victors and dominators of an entire vast empire subjected to their power. According to them, a sacred “evangelizing mission” was being fulfilled in the name of a God who had to destroy “idolatry” and impose Western religion. They belittled the defeated and never recognized the value of the culture they were destroying. That would have been why the Spanish Pedro Cieza de León wrote:

“…I have laughed at what I have described about these Indians; I tell in my writings what they told me, but first I remove many things they told me and only add a few…”

No chronicler was a cosmographer, an ancient term by which geographers and astronomers (astrologers, in those times) were known, which is why they could not understand the astronomy that the Inkas created, they did not understand their calendar, much less their worldview that reduced it. to “naive and stupid” ideas. All the information that exists in the chronicles about Inka astronomy is insufficient, confusing and biased.

  1. Andean oral tradition

The Inkas did not develop a writing of popular or general use for all the inhabitants of the empire. Perhaps it existed, but we do not know due to the hermetic nature of the political and governmental management of its leaders. Thekhipus or knotted ropes that they used for their accounting and statistics, it is said that they also served as a mnemonic means to tell stories and stories. Until now it has not been possible to completely “read” the content of the khipus due to the small number of them that have survived, a consequence of their massive destruction in the colonial era. We hope that the few that have been found or recovered will give us greater insight in the near future. Due to the lack of writing to accurately record the history and facts of interest, they used the oral tradition that encompasses the descriptions, legends, songs, stories and myths that generated the historical facts and that were told by the teachers calledAmautas, and by the older people in each community orfamily so that the people have memory and it is transmitted from generation to generation.

From that oral tradition we have taken stories that speak of the stellar world and its relationships with our world. Stars, constellations, planets, comets, meteorites, etc. They have their own way of being told by current farmers following that old oral tradition. Many stories have been almost forgotten, others modified, and others syncretized by the influence of other cultures. However, pieces of those old and almost forgotten stories still survive in the Andes.

II. Cultural astronomy

In this context, those of us who investigate the so-called “Cultural Astronomy” of the Incas, use archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy as main tools, and with which we have been able to elucidate many aspects hitherto unknown, and open the doors to others that have yet to be discovered.

Astronomy, today, is a science that deeply and systematically studies the celestial bodies in the sky following the rigorous steps of the scientific method. This knowledge, in the time of the Inkas, did not have the current connotations. For them, a farming people par excellence, the observation of the celestial vault meant an encounter with their deities, with celestial objects visible in the sky, but materially unattainable, inexplicable in their physical characteristics and their enigmatic purposes, a world different from the one that had to be give it a location within its ideological and conceptual scheme, as well as in its daily life, especially relating to its main activity: agriculture.

As a result of this situation arose a feeling of respect and veneration for the supernatural, the ‘catasterization’ of beings in their environment such as the spirit of a flame or a snake elevated to the sky in the form of constellations, the search for encrypted messages or oracular in unusual celestial manifestations such as the appearance of comets or the movement of wandering stars (planets), the magical-religious rituals dedicated to the stars to obtain their favors in their agricultural activities. Furthermore, the factual verification of the infinite power of the Sun (Inti) on the Earth led them to consecrate him as the main god, and putting into practice the principle of duality (yanantin), they made the Moon (Killa) your heavenly companion. The stars (the star) filled other spaces in their imagination, turning them into protective deities of their livestock and agriculture. To carry out a more rigorous control of their observations, people specialized in these tasks were chosen, experts dedicated to recording inkhipus(ropes with knots) all the important astronomical events that had to be communicated to the Inka and the people.

  1. Archaeoastronomy in the Tawantinsuyu

In accordance with their ideas and beliefs, they aligned their temples,finally (adoratories), theirk’iqllus (streets) and even its irrigated canals, with positioning of celestial objects on the horizon during their sunrise or sunset, on special dates. We are not exaggerating when we say that there is not a singlevehicle, of the few that remain as almost unrecognizable ruins, not one city (people), that is not connected to some celestial object. They point with the axes of their temples, palaces, streets, platforms and canals to the rising or setting of the Sun, or the Moon, or some bright star, or a dark constellation. All this has been demonstrated and perhaps the most illustrative examples where these alignments are found are those found in different places in the empire. Among the best-known archaeological sites that contain astronomical alignments widely studied by world experts, we have, in the Cusco region:

Machu Picchu, with its famous Temple of the Sun, theIt’s intimate (the cave or cavern of the Sun), theIntiraqay (sun shed), etc., whose windows or observation holes, depending on the case, point to the sunrise on the solstices or to important stars.To the Sacred, in the surroundings of Cusco, is a mixture of temple and fortress where theMuyuqmarka(circular building) whose architectural layout, its canals and water moats, were all aligned with important astronomical events, until now, the layout of its enigmatic moats remains a challenge for researchers. Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley, with its multiple carved stones that cast shadows on precise dates of astronomical events.

Fish, Typhoon, Moray, Raccoon, Chinchero, Moonstone, “Old Church”, Chokek’iraw, and many other archaeological sites near Cusco each contain alignments that have been recently studied. Outside the Cusco area, it is also worth highlighting such emblematic places asHuanuco Pampa, in the northern mountains of Peru; the temple of the Sun in Pachakamaq (Hand),Saywite, in Apurim;Pura andSillustani on the plateau near Lake Titicaca. Further away, in the territories now occupied by neighboring countries, a strong influence of Inka astronomy has also been found.Ingapirca, in Ecuador;Call in, in Bolivia,The Shincal of Quimivil, in Argentina and many other places that continue to be discovered. In each of these settlements you can still see observatories and buildings aligned with astronomical events.

The discovery of regular cycles in nature, such as the seasons, and their predominant role in agricultural and livestock activities, forced them to carry out continuous observations of the cyclical movement of the stars in the sky to achieve, with much effort, an efficient and original calendar. with which they were able to manage time and better organize their world. To control time and use them as agricultural calendars, they used large stone columns or towers that, strategically placed on the top of the hills surrounding Cusco, marked the position of the Sun during sunrise and sunset on key dates such as solstices, equinoxes. , day of the Sun’s passage through the zenith, etc. These markers were calledsaywas, sukanqas, the creator of the world, etc., and whose semantics are still a matter of research because, due to its destruction and disappearance, more than 400 years ago, it ended in confusion and oblivion.

In the religious and ritual aspect, astronomical observation was also life support. Not in vain, the two biggest festivals inTawantinsuyu were celebrated on precise astronomical dates:The Sun Ray(festival of the Sun), on the winter solstice (June) and theThe Rich Ray(the other great festival of the Sun and the Inka), on the summer solstice (December), both during the extremes of the solar orbit during the year. Other celebrations, no less important, such as theI can’t (purification) andQoya Raymi (feast of the Inka’s wife) took place during the full moon phase. Furthermore, the beginning of sowing and the harvest period coincided perfectly with the position of the Sun during the so-called “Sun zenith” or “Sun nadir”, respectively. In short, religious rituals and agricultural activities impregnated with astronomical anniversaries.

In relation to the calendar (months, weeks, days, etc.) it is necessary to clarify that even though we do not have all the complete information to accurately reconstruct its functioning and its significance within the social, political and economic organization of the Inka state, we know that it It achieved such an important advance that it reflected its determining power for the success of its agriculture and with it the consolidation of its system. The main cause of the lack of information is due to the destruction of the so-calledkhipus(ropes with knots), registration system, mathematical computation and statistical archive, which the Hispanics burned massively in the early days of the colony to make us appear to the world as an ignorant people and thereby justify their barbarism.

  1. Stargazing and constellations

It was another great achievement of Inka astronomy. We are trying to rescue it with difficulty because, during the colony, in an attempt to impose the Catholic religion, all forms of belief and religiosity were persecuted and destroyed, in a process called ‘extirpation of idolatries’. Along with the worship of their gods, all ‘astronomical’ knowledge was prohibited because it was considered acts of idolatry. Little has remained of that knowledge.

Some stars and constellations were recorded by chroniclers, although so briefly and imprecisely that they did not detail their location in the sky, their meaning or their importance. However, we know that the stars and constellations were created as protective and/or propitiatory entities.

The chronicler priest Bernabé Cobo, in his book History of the New World (1653) says:

“The worship of the stars proceeded from that opinion that for the preservation of each species of things there was an appointed Creator and as a second cause they believed that of all the animals and birds of the Earth there was in the sky a simile that attended to the conservation and increase of them by attributing this office or ministry to each constellation of stars.”

With the help of the study of Andean oral tradition, the research of many specialists around the world, and our own, we have been able to rescue some stars and constellations that still survive in the Peruvian Andes. It is necessary to clarify that the Inkas knew two types of constellations: stellar or bright, formed by stars, just like in the West; and the so-called dark constellations, those dark spots that are seen within the Milky Way and are the accumulations of dust and cosmic gas in front of the bright stars in the background. There the Andeans saw representations of animals and humans.

  1. Stellar or bright constellations

Among the stellar or bright constellations, the best known are:

The Money: The Pleiades star cluster was known in the Andean world like the representation of a food warehouse in the sky,money, in Quechua. Its observation served to predict or forecast with great precision the rainy seasons, so important and basic for efficient agricultural planning. Their differences in brightness, caused by the effect of atmospheric phenomena, were the best signal to know if the agricultural year would be good or perhaps we would have to face a probable environmental catastrophe that is now known as the El Niño Phenomenon. The scientific explanation of this phenomenon has been widely demonstrated and published by the North American anthropologist Benjamin Orlove and his team of climatologists and meteorologists in the 1990s.

Just take it off (bright flame), stellar constellation that corresponds to the well-known Lyra, in Western astronomy. There, the Andeans saw a small flame whose shining eye is the star Vega. It was the constellation of the shepherds. In this regard, the mestizo chronicler Inca Garcilaso de la Vega says:

“…And so the shepherds worshiped and sacrificed a star that they called Urcuchillay, which they say is a ram of many colors, which understands the conservation of livestock and is understood to be the one that astrologers call Lyra.”

The ChakanasIn Inka astronomy there are several constellations formed by crossed lines that lead to meetings or meeting points of people.(fit), destinations, events, etc., others believe that they are stairs that connect heaven and Earth. The Indian chronicler Joao de Santa Cruz Pachacuti Yamqui Salcamaygua, in his famous bookList of antiquities from ancient Perumade a drawing of an alleged altar that existed in the Qorikancha, the most sacred and largest temple in the empire. There he drew four stars joined by crossed lines, which he calledretail in general’. Theretail The best known is the one that corresponds to Orion and the other popular one is the Southern Cross. Furthermore, in rural areas they also know otherchakanas located in different parts of the sky.

TheAmarus: Since the most ancient times, two mythical snakes have been known in the Andean world that unite various planes or levels of the religious world, according to the studies of the distinguished researcher Luis E. Valcárcel. These two snakes correspond to the western constellations of the Scorpion and the seven brightest stars of the Big Dipper.

Star Sirius (Can Major): known asWillkawaraor sacred star, was a star that encouraged and protected tuber crops in the Andes. It appeared during the sowing and remained in the sky until the harvest and its storage in the imperial warehouses. Ofunds.

Many other constellations and stars recorded by chroniclers have not yet been recovered due to oblivion and disuse for so many generations after the Hispanic invasion.

  1. The dark constellations

The Inkas saw in the Milky Way, which is prominent in the sky of the southern hemisphere, a celestial river calledMay, which in Quechua means river. A river that crossed the sky and within which, in the form of dark shadows, were its deities, protectors and breeders of its animals and plants. The chronicler Bernabé Cobo wrote about it:

“They said that a very large river crossed through the middle of the sky, which they pointed out to be that white ribbon that we see from down here, called the Milky Way.””.  

Likewise, Inca Garcilaso de la Vega noted:

“In the path that astrologers call milky, in some black spots that go along it in the long run, they wanted to imagine that there was a figure of a sheep with its entire body, which was nursing a lamb. They wanted to show it to me, saying: ‘You see the head of the sheep there, you see the head of the lamb suckling there, you see the body, arms and legs of both.’ But I didn’t see figures, but spots, and it must have been because I didn’t know how to imagine them.”

The pioneering studies of Leo Pucher de Kroll, Gary Urton and others have helped us deepen this knowledge and, currently, we have eight dark constellations rescued with the help of ethno-astronomical research. The photograph of the Milky Way with the location of these constellations and some stars will help us identify them.

Among these constellations we have the great black flame (Yakana or Cover), the breeding of the flame (a flame), a partridge (crush), a toad (give up), a snake (snake), A pastor (shepherd), a fox(atoq), a condor (rabbit), and others that until today have not been able to be identified. All of them with their own history and meaning. Suffice it to say that the black flame or celestial flame is the one that, it is said, regulates the seasons of the year and manages the waters that reach the Earth from the sky; the baby llama, which is nursing its mother; a shepherd, who takes care of the llamas and protects them from the attack of the fox, etc. A world of wisdom explained symbolically in wonderful myths that would not be envied in any way by others known throughout the planet. Unfortunately, the little that is known and has reached us is only a tiny part of what our ancestors knew.

And before concluding with this brief review of the cultural legacy, it is important to add, within astronomy, to the atmospheric phenomena considered celestial deities: Lightning and the rainbow, which played very important roles within their cosmology and to which they attributed supernatural powers. You can still hear interesting stories today in rural communities about the action of these natural phenomena in the lives of people and towns. Additionally, we will say that comets and meteors were also duly observed and interpreted, as in almost the entire world, as anomalous phenomena and heralds of disastrous events.

Finally, the Inkas also learned about the planets and observed them curiously, because it seemed unusual to them to see stars that moved in the sky, among the fixed stars. They called themthe walking star(walking stars) and, according to the chronicler Joseph De Acosta, who was the only one who recorded them, there were five known planets: Mercury (Qhatu Illa), Venus (Ch’aska) which is the best known and named by many chroniclers and who was considered the page or companion of the Sun, because sometimes he went in front and other times behind the sun. Mars (Awqayuq), Jupiter (Pirwa) and Saturn (Hawcha).

Final words

Everything mentioned above constitutes echoes of a distant and original way of seeing and interpreting the heavens and whose research continues by local, national and foreign scholars.

There is still a lot to rediscover and study. Hence the invitation to anyone who, using their knowledge of astronomy, archaeology, anthropology and any other valid discipline, can help complete this great project.

Erwin Salazar Garces

Scientific consultant for Planetarium Cusco

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