The Inca civilization dominated South America during the 15th and 16th centuries. Here is an overview of the weapons Inca warriors wielded in battle.
The Inca civilization was one focused on expansion through military power. Conquest through battle or the absorption of other tribes through displays of military supremacy helped expand the Inca realm. The Inca Empire was to become the largest in pre-Colombian America, and its military might unrivalled until the arrival of the Conquistadors.
Inca Warriors and the Inca Army
As a militaristic power, all young males were trained in the arts of war. Inca training would seek out each warrior’s strength, and they would then specialize in the use of one particular weapon. Specialized units would then be formed and used in battle for specific purposes such as ranged attack or hand-to-hand combat. Inca battle tactics relied heavily upon the combination of these distinct unit types.
Discipline was key, and a factor which set the Inca army apart from other civilizations. Supervision was strict and punishment severe. In The Incas: New Perspectives, historian Gordon Francis McEwan states that “Looting, pillaging and straggling were not tolerated. Cowardice or flinching in the face of the enemy could be punished by death”.
The ancient weapons of the Inca civilization were not advanced by global standards of the era. McEwan states that “Since they did not employ heavy artillery of any sort or use siege engines, all of their weaponry could be classed as light armaments”. However, combined with Inca discipline and training, they were put to great effect against other South American tribes.
Long-Range Inca Weapons
Inca warrior units were often divided up into weapon specific groups. Whole units comprising of a single Inca weapon type could be fielded in battle, be it for ranged attack or close combat. Here are the standard long-range Inca weapons:
Slings (huaraca) were common Inca weapons. Used for hunting as well as in battle, Inca slingers were excellent marksmen. A stone could be accurately thrown at great velocity, peppering enemy lines.
Bows and arrows were used mainly by Inca warriors from the rainforest regions due to the abundance of hardwoods, particularly chonta wood, suitable for bow and arrowhead construction.
The estólica was another ranged hunting weapon used predominantly in jungle regions. This device, similar in nature to the Aztec atlatl, was a spear or dart throwing device. The throwing-stick was used to launch short spears (or long darts) with greater accuracy and range.
Bolas, also known as ayllos, were used at closer range to entangle the legs of enemy soldiers (and later, horses). Bolas consisted of connected cords weighted at each end by stones or metal weights which were then flung at advancing enemies, bringing them to the ground.
Skilled spear or lance throwers were often recruited on the coast. The spears were tipped with copper or bone.
Close-Range Inca Weapons
After weakening an enemy with ranged attacks the close-combat Inca warriors would then engage. A wide array of weapons could be seen on the battle field, both one-handed and two-handed and of varying sizes. Here are some of the most common close-range Inca weapons:
Clubs were often used by Inca warriors, either made from bronze, stone or the hardwood chonta. A champi was a club normally one meter in length and weighted at the end. A macana was a chonta wood club, longer than a champi club, often weighted at the end and normally wielded with two hands. Both were used as bludgeoning weapons, capable of smashing bone even through armor.
Battle-axes (hachas) of various sizes were used, again made from chonta wood and bladed with obsidian or copper.
Bronze knives were used by Inca warriors on the battlefield. The Inca civilization did not have access to iron as did the conquistadors. Short bronze daggers were used more often than swords. Swords, when used, were often of chonta wood cut with serrated edges, sometimes bladed with bronze or bone.
Spears and scythes were also used as thrusting and slashing weapons. Enemies could be engaged at slightly increased distances with these longer Inca weapons.
Defensive Inca Weaponry
Most Inca warriors were protected by at least one shield and some form of helmet. A chonta wood shield usually protected the Inca warrior’s back, while a deerskin-covered wicker or wood shield was held on the arm.
Helmets were often of plaited wood, cane or quilted cotton. A woolen tunic called an onka was worn, reaching to just above the knees. Over this was often worn a cloak known as a yacolla. Both tunic and cloak were normally made from alpaca wool. Sandals were worn by all Inca warriors. As with Aztec defensive weaponry, these light-weight protective garments were perfectly suited for combat in hot and humid conditions.
Ancient Weapons of the Inca Civilization Versus the Conquistadors
Despite their military power in South America and the expansion of their empire, the Incas were no match for the Spanish Conquistadores in battle. Countless tribes and peoples of South America had fallen to, or been absorbed into, the Inca civilization. However, the arrival of the Spanish proved too much for Inca discipline, training and organization. Inca tactics against the Conquistadores also failed to adapt quickly enough.
The technological advantages of the Conquistadors were numerous. Spanish steel cut through Inca armor all too easily. Spanish horses terrified even the sternest Inca warrior initially, and still offered a great tactical advantage after the Inca had grown accustomed to cavalry. Finally, European diseases, brought to South America from the Old World, decimated the native population, including the mighty Inca Empire and its leaders.