High, sparse, cruel, and cold—cut off to the east by desperate jungles and to the west by deserts, swamps, and the vast Pacific ocean—the altiplano of the Andes range seems like grim country to serve as the cradle of a great civilization. Yet 500 years ago the imperial socialist state of the Incas flourished here, till its extinction by the Spanish marauders of Pizarro. In the minds of South Americans it still lives, providing for modern nations an example of indigenous culture and economic self-sufficiency. Whether this is an inspiring or a delusive idea depends on a great many complex judgments, which change from day to day. Peru, the center and original source of Inca power, has been the chief country to feel this influence from the past. It is also now in an anxious halfway stage with its own revolution, which is moving either forward or backward, nobody can be sure, but certainly precariously, along a path lined with more than Andean declivities.
Ancient Inca society has its own fascinations, one of which is the intense difficulty of reaching a balanced judgment about it. For example, it was a culture that created giant cities, splendid roads, superb palaces and temples, magnificent works of art. Yet in some respects it was very backward. The Incas made no use of iron or steel, had no wheels of any sort, consequently few tools and no machinery; they had no glass, no wheat, no horses, cows, or pigs, they did not know the arch, and had no writing. They invented little, and did without a great many of the things that we consider physical necessities of life.
It was a social order without poverty and without crime, which sounds idyllic; but this statement means something special. There was no particular poverty, because among the hatunruna, the common people, everyone was poor, far below what we should consider subsistence level. This was a result not of bad farming practices (though much of the land was infertile, the Incas were superb agricultural engineers) but of deliberate policy. Every Indian was entitled to his tupu, a piece of land, just about large enough to keep a man and his wife alive during an average year. If the year was better than average, the Inca took the excess; if it was worse, he made up the deficiency from his granaries. “Keeping alive” meant just that. No Indian ate meat except on festal days; his standard diet was ground corn and small dehydrated potatoes, with fruits in season and hot peppers for flavoring. (The potatoes were dehydrated by freezing them on cold winter nights, as is still customary in the Andes.) Strict laws prevented dietary excess, unusual dress, and anything but the traditional huts for common people. And the marginal diet had its effect: to this day, most Indians are very small people, a few inches on either side of five feet.
Every aspect of life was strictly controlled. Men and women were limited to two …