Battle Tactics of the Inca Civilization

Sound use of Inca warrior & weapon types made the armies of the Inca civilization effective against rival pre-Columbian tribes. Here is an overview of Inca war tactics.

At its height, the Inca civilization could amass armies of sufficient size and strength to force rival tribes into submission, or assimilation, without engaging in open battle. When their pre-Columbian rivals were less than compliant, however, the disciplined forces of the Inca army would readily demonstrate their superiority on the battlefield.

Inca Civilization Expansion and Defense

Ably supported by effective road and communication networks, Inca armies could be deployed swiftly in order to counter threats and expand the boundaries of their growing empire. Armies marching from Cusco could swell their ranks, if need be, by calling upon the militias of outlying settlements. With the maintenance of good order, Inca armies could take to the field ready for battle and in relatively fresh condition.

Inca Civilization Pre-Battle Tactics – A Show of Strength and Order

Sheer numbers alone could often dissuade a rival army from engaging with the Inca military. Historian Terence Wise states that “The size of an Inca army depended entirely on the campaign to be undertaken, and strengths from 70,000 to 250,000 warriors are recorded”. Such numbers, even at the lesser end of the scale, could pose an insurmountable challenge to lesser civilizations.

The Inca would often look to absorb other tribes if obedience could be assured; if submission could be achieved without battle then battle would often not take place (the cost of treachery, however, would often be bloody and relentless). Before battle, psychological warfare would begin in order to apply further pressure upon enemy ranks.

As an unsettling display of discipline, Inca armies would customarily approach the field of battle in silence. Troop maneuvers and military parades would then commence as a further show of order and ability. Once in place, it was typical for both armies to begin an exchange of songs, insults, taunts and general posturing. If enemy forces still stood firm, the commanding general (often the Inca himself) would signal the attack.

Attack and Engagement – Inca Warrior and Weapon Types

Inca tactics in open battle followed a basic yet effective strategy, one which can be seen throughout the history of warfare. The absence of mounted troops may have restricted the options available but, until the arrival of the Spanish, enemy armies were also limited to foot soldiers.

Inca formations were divided into ethnic groups, with each group specializing in one particular Inca weapon type. Standard attacks in open battle would commence with long range units (such as slingers, archers and spear throwers) peppering enemy lines with projectile weapons.

This initial softening of the enemy lines preceded a mass charge by Inca shock troops. Wielding spears, maces, chonta wood clubs and battle-axes, these troops would engage in a full-frontal attack. Spearmen would then join the fray in order to hold the line of battle. With hand-to-hand combat initiated, Inca generals would then look to expose the enemy flanks.

Inca Warfare Tactics – Feints and Flanking

While the frontal attacks were less than subtle, Inca generals demonstrated greater flair with their flanking maneuvers. As historian Terence N. D’Altroy notes, feigned withdrawals and pincer counterattacks were favored techniques for wrapping up the enemy: “Both approaches indicate that the Incas used surprise to their advantage and concentrated force on the vulnerable flanks and rear of forces”.

Discipline was vital for the success of these maneuvers. Unlike many of their adversaries, Inca warriors would rarely break formation, allowing for greater control and manipulation of the battlefield.
The Inca Civilization versus Spanish Conquistador Armies

However, these open battle tactics, combined with an overreliance upon sheer numbers alone, would not fare well against the armies of the Spanish Conquistadors. Inca tactics versus the Conquistadors showed an inherent lack of adaptability, and a fatal vulnerability to cavalry charges. While the armies of the Inca civilization had shown themselves to be a disciplined and highly capable fighting force, the Spanish would prove to be superior both strategically and technologically.

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