The term Incas, also spelled Inkas, has multiple meanings. Most commonly, Incas is used to refer to the people of the Inca civilization as a whole. It is also used to refer to the supreme rulers of the Inca Empire, the so-called Sapa Incas. Less commonly, it may refer to a particular tribe, or to the ruling aristocracy of the Inca Empire, which was mostly (but not completely) made up of members of the original Inca tribe. Strictly speaking, the people of the Inca Empire actually came from many different tribes -- Incas, Chancas and a number of others.
The original Inca tribe was a minor Andean tribe whose expansion began with a successful campaign against its more powerful neighbours, the Chancas, in the 1440s. They subsequently established an empire which they called Tahuantinsuyo or Tawantin Suyu ('the four regions'). By the time of the Spanish invasion it stretched from southern Columbia to central Chile, a distance of some three thousand miles. The nobility of Quechua-speaking tribes assimilated into the empire were absorbed into the ruling aristocracy. The position of Inca (or Sapa Inca), the supreme ruler of the empire, was a hereditary position although strict precedence was often waived in favour of superior political or military ability.
If the military victories of the 1440s marked the beginning of the Inca Empire, then the Spanish Conquest of 1532 marked its effective end. All told, it lasted less than a hundred years. Official Inca history liked to portray the Incas as a unique civilizing force: in fact, there had been large empires in the area before, and the rapid spread of the Inca Empire and its architectural and artistic achievements probably owed a lot to the fact that they were able to build on the political, social and artistic achievements of their predecessors. The Inca policy of absorbing rather than destroying the cultures that they encountered was probably a key factor in their success.
- The Inca Empire (Wikipedia)
- Wikipedia article about the Inca Empire