The abandoned Inca city of Huanuco Pampa sprawls across a bleak plateau in the Andes some 12,000 feet above sea level. Its miles of stone ruins, remains of structures built by the Inca at the height of their empire, rise above waves of overgrown golden ichu grass. Huanuco Pampa is “the most completely preserved of the cities built by the Inca,” wrote Craig Morris of the American Museum of Natural History, who excavated the site for more than 20 years beginning in 1964. It may lack the sublime setting of Machu Picchu or the imperial grandeur of the Inca capital at Cuzco, but Huanuco Pampa bears witness like no other site to the twin conquests that convulsed the central Andes within less than a century—the Inca state’s subjugation of the region’s warring tribes in the mid-1400s, and the invasion of Spanish conquistadors in the 1530s.
The Inca were the last of a long succession of pre-Hispanic civilizations that extended their power and their culture throughout the Andes and along Peru’s Pacific coast. They left no written records of their history. Thus, to tell the story of their rise from a pastoral tribe based near Cuzco to a formidable people who established the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas, historians have relied largely on Spaniards’ accounts of testimonies given to them by Inca elders in the sixteenth century. These texts are secondhand and colored by the Spaniards’ own assumptions about the Indians. They nevertheless reveal how the Inca folded the inhabitants of conquered regions into their empire through a combination of military conquest, reciprocal trading relationships, and marriages between their own elite and leaders of other ethnic groups. Civilizations across the Andes fell under Inca rule, and while some accepted the new order, others chafed. In the rugged highlands around Huanuco Pampa, the Inca strove to bring local peoples under their dominion, but never completely subdued them.
Huanuco Pampa features often in the prolific chronicles of conquest left by the Spaniards, who seem to have been fascinated by the site, even as they found it inhospitable and did not settle there permanently. At nearly every other major Inca settlement in Peru, the Spaniards built their churches and red-tiled houses on top of Inca foundations, but they found Huanuco Pampa too cold and too remote, and, after a half-hearted attempt at occupation, abandoned the city in 1541. It has stood almost completely uninhabited ever since.
Few sites demonstrate so vividly how the Inca used urban planning, public ritual, and even storage of massive amounts of food to win the allegiance of conquered subjects. At Huanuco Pampa, people of now forgotten cultures such as the Chupaychu and the Huamalies, who had been either crushed or co-opted by the Inca, were made to feel like part of the Inca system, which was based on a complex mix of obedience to the lords of Cuzco, worship of the Inca sun god, Inti, and strict social hierarchy.
Perhaps as many as 30,000 people lived in Huanuco Pampa and its surrounding areas at the time of the Spanish conquest, wrote the conquistador and author Pedro Cieza de León in a 1553 book called Chronicles of Peru. According to Morris, in its heyday, 15,000 people may have lived in the city itself. But Morris also noted that many buildings were unfinished and that a few stone carvings of animals that adorned some structures were only half-completed. The Inca, he believed, were still expanding Huanuco Pampa when their society collapsed in the face of the Spanish onslaught. Many sites in Peru have half-finished Inca buildings, points out Luis Felipe Mejía, head of archaeology at the Peruvian government’s Ministry of Culture. Yet only Huanuco Pampa shows the collision of the rapidly expanding Inca Empire with the Spanish invasion so clearly, and on such a large scale. “What makes Huanuco Pampa different is that it was an important administrative center with monumental architecture at the crossroads of major Inca roads,” says Mejia. “It was a major site that crashed, and nothing replaced it.”
Huanuco Pampa is bisected by the main Inca Road, the source and sustenance of the city’s importance. The Inca built this winding 15,000-mile, north-south road, which anchored their far-flung transportation network, along the spine of the Andes, from modern-day Ecuador to Argentina, with wide flagstones, terraces to control erosion, and an iron will to tame the forbidding Andean landscape and turn it to their advantage. The main Inca Road, much of which is intact today, was once the central artery of Inca commerce and conquest, the route along which the state moved its armies to distant corners of the empire and used llamas to transport prestige goods including salt, tropical bird feathers, and precious stones and shells. As the road approaches Huanuco Pampa, it descends a mountain pass in steps embedded in the slope and then crosses a pond via an earthen causeway rather than simply going around it, an example of how the Inca often seem to have built just to impress. Spectacular views open up at every turn. To the city’s recently conquered peoples, the road would have served as a reminder of Inca might and engineering prowess, as well as a link to the home of their masters in Cuzco.
The archaeological record at Huanuco Pampa shows how the city became an outpost of Inca urban culture grafted onto an isolated farming region of llamas and potato plots. Even its name refers to pastoral life. “Huanuco” is an alternate spelling of guanaco, a llama-like animal, and “pampa” means field in the indigenous language Quechua. No traces of any pre-Inca civilization have been found at Huanuco Pampa. Excavations conducted by U.S. and Peruvian archaeologists at the site until 2015 exposed a city carefully planned as a kind of provincial replica of Cuzco. Huanuco Pampa’s civic buildings, dwellings, and urban layout follow the style of the imperial city, as does much of its material culture. Most of the pottery that has been found at Huanuco Pampa, for example, is identical to that uncovered in Cuzco. Morris also identified evidence of Inca-style gender separation at Huanuco Pampa, where one area of the city was reserved for female weavers and cooks, as evidenced by the number of spindle whorls for spinning, large ceramic pots for preparing and serving food, and brooches for holding shawls.
Among Huanuco Pampa’s 3,700 structures, archaeologists have also found evidence of the rigid class stratification that characterized Inca society. Successive emperors are believed to have stayed in an elite residential quarter facing the plaza during stopovers on journeys from Cuzco. This sector’s precisely cut and fitted stonework proclaims that it was intended to be occupied only by the very privileged. Spanish colonial accounts suggest that the Inca populated their new city in part with migrants from the capital known as mitmaq. All across the Inca Empire, these colonists were tasked with strengthening Inca control by bringing customs from the capital and diluting those of local populations. At Huanuco Pampa, distinctive pointy-bottomed pots and drinking vessels with an Inca-style flaring rim and incised geometric decoration provide archaeological evidence confirming the presence of these people.
At the center of Huanuco Pampa is a huge plaza where, in Inca times, the region’s peoples gathered to participate in what archaeologists believe was a mix of coercion and spectacle orchestrated by their new Inca overlords. At 47 acres, the plaza was larger than the one in Cuzco, and it was dominated by Huanuco Pampa’s most distinctive feature—a huge, rectangular ceremonial platform, covering nearly half an acre. Inca stonemasons, likely from Cuzco, built this platform, the largest in the empire, with dressed stones perfectly fitted into four mortarless walls. From atop this platform, Inca elites would act out rituals or shout out harangues to the assembled crowds. Spanish colonial texts suggest these assemblies were both celebrations and military rallies. Sometimes they were presided over by the visiting Inca emperor himself, known simply as “the Inca.” Relaying accounts of people who had witnessed the ceremonies, a Spanish chronicler wrote in 1553: “The Inca and three of his lords ascended [the platform] to speak to the people, and to see the army when they made their reviews and assemblages.”
With its transplants from Cuzco and visits from imperial elites, Huanuco Pampa operated as an outpost of Inca culture and pageantry centered on the extravagantly large plaza. “A plaza like the one at Huanuco Pampa would have been vacant for most of the year,” says archaeologist Alan Covey, an expert on Inca urban planning at the University of Texas who surveyed the site in 2015. “But then it was activated during the imperial festive cycle when the Inca would bring tens of thousands of provincial people to the site for feast days.” These cycles were associated with important astronomical dates, such as the equinoxes and solstices, which marked the beginning or end of planting cycles. On those dates, in Cuzco and in provincial cities alike, the Inca would invite delegations of conquered peoples to file into the central plaza in a specific order according to the date of each group’s subjugation, acting out the history of conquest. Covey believes there is no question this happened at Huanuco Pampa. “Each group had its designated spot in the plaza, so the gathering became a map of the provinces,” he says. Inca governors would then move between among provincial groups, designating local chieftains as representatives and obtaining commitments from them to send tribute in the form of food or manufactured goods. “The procession of entry into the plaza recapitulated the history of the province,” explains Covey, “and the spatial order in the plaza created a sort of living map that helped imperial governors to rule in real time.”
A softer kind of power was also exerted in the plaza by the Inca governors of Huanuco Pampa through the performance of mass weddings. In 1562, a Chupaychu man named Juan Xulca told the Spanish chronicler Iñigo Ortíz de Zúñiga that an Inca high official would come once a year to visit for this purpose. “In the plaza, in front of everybody, he gave each Indian man his Indian woman,” Xulca reported, “and when he gave it, he told him to take her for his wife and treat her well and don’t lie down with another, and the woman would say the same.” Murderers and adulterers endured public trials in the plaza and, according to Xulca’s account, unrepentant killers would be taken from the plaza a short distance away and executed. Adulterers were stoned or beaten.
Performance and music occupied vital roles in Inca civic life, and, at Huanuco Pampa, they were on full display in the plaza. In 2015, Miriam Kolar, a visiting scholar at Amherst College who works in the field of archaeoacoustics and examines how ancient societies employed sound in rituals and performance, led a team that measured how sound traveled across the plaza in order to discern how Inca lords might have communicated with the masses. Judging from colonial accounts, public events in the plaza probably included seasonal ceremonies and community-building rituals, such as competitions and songs and dances by regional ethnic groups. Using recording devices mounted on tripods, Kolar found that the sound of a trumpet fashioned from a conch shell of the genus Strombus, a type of instrument widely used in ancient Andean ceremonies, carried clearly across the plaza, even in strong winds. The shell’s sound traveled much better than human voices, or Inca-style whistles, or wooden clappers. Even if the plaza were filled, a conch shell blast would have demanded everyone’s attention. “People were being integrated into the Inca system at this time, and sensory communication was an important part of that,” says Kolar. “The plaza operated as this dynamic, experiential space, and the platform was an ideal setting for the imperial elite to stage and disseminate state messages through sound and spectacle,” an essential task as the Inca consolidated their control over restless locals.
The Inca had another very effective tool for exerting power. They were experts at food conservation and built nearly 500 stone food storage towers called colcas on the hillside south of the city. Local Inca governors could give—or deny—food to subjects during times of drought. Morris, along with Donald Thompson of the University of Wisconsin, excavated 95 of these structures in the 1970s and found remains of potatoes, maize, and lima beans, as well as underground ventilation ducts designed to keep them fresh. The potatoes were lying between layers of straw that had absorbed moisture and preserved them for centuries. Morris and Thompson believed the Inca built more storehouses than a city the size of Huanuco Pampa would ever need, suggesting they may have been built to feed the masses at festivals and to impress local people with their control over food supplies.
Across the site from the food-storage units stands an unfinished Inca temple to the sun god, an eloquent testimonial to the sudden death of this city of great ambitions. To one side of the building, carefully quarried and polished stone blocks lie in a jumble on the grass. Some still have the protrusions quarry workers used to grasp and carry them. Once the blocks had been fitted into the building, those handholds would have been filed off to create the finished look a structure of its importance and elegance warranted. The temple’s front door still boasts the double jamb that the Inca reserved for high-status structures.
At some point, probably soon after the Spaniards arrived in 1532, the construction on the building abruptly stopped. The stoneworkers either fled or died in the ensuing epidemic of European germs to which they had no immunity. Their world would soon be eradicated.
In 1533, several dozen Spaniards under the command of Hernando Pizarro marched from the Pacific coast to the interior city of Jauja, where they knew the Inca commander Chalcuchima was garrisoned with his troops. Vastly outnumbered, Pizarro talked the commander into accompanying him and his men to the far-northern city of Cajamarca, where, unbeknownst to Chalcuchima, the last Inca emperor, Atahualpa, had been taken hostage by Pizarro’s brother. Heading north along the Inca Road, the Spaniards, who were riding horses that Chalcuchima’s own men had shod with silver and copper, would have seen Huanuco Pampa’s majestic, pointed roofs from miles away. They descended the same flagstone path where today shepherds tend their livestock and entered the city. “This town was big, and…there the people received well the captain and the Christians, and for two days they made many festivities,” wrote the Spanish chronicler Francisco de Xérez. Chalcuchima likely feted the Spaniards inside two lodges known as the kallanka, a Quechua word meaning “hall” where Inca authorities held banquets and received distinguished visitors. Each of these two buildings was more than 200 feet long and had nine stone-bordered postholes into which were fixed enormous timbers that once supported 40-foot-high thatched roofs, towering above the city. Nearby, through gates decorated with carved images of animals, perhaps pumas, the Spaniards would have seen the room where Atahualpa himself stayed when he visited and the skillfully carved stone bath reserved for his exclusive use.
Although the original walls of that small room still stand, in other places workers have been re-erecting fallen walls as part of a multi-year conservation and restoration project under the supervision of archaeologist and site director Luis Enrique Paredes. Often Paredes has had to use recently quarried stones to replace Inca blocks taken by local people to build their houses. He has found it challenging to re-create the Inca style using modern metal tools.
“The Inca used only stone tools to work stone,” Paredes says. “They had copper, of course, but that’s useless for cutting and polishing stone.” In some locations, researchers have shoveled out layers of post-Inca soil and carried out spot excavations, revealing floors and basic infrastructure such as drainage culverts, a small hint of the once-grand city’s infrastructure.
The Spaniards’ arrival that day in 1533 marked the beginning of the end of Huanuco Pampa, as the city would soon go from proud outpost of Inca power to ruin. One man told the chronicler Ortíz de Zúñiga that he watched the population in his district fall from 4,000 to 800 as “everyone” died from European disease. Others described to him their shock at how the Spaniards ignored Inca class distinctions and put all their new subjects to work, including the elderly, children, and local chieftains, “who were required to pay tribute like the rest of the Indians, which they had not had to do in the time of the Inca.” Paredes believes the city’s decline may actually have begun before the Spanish conquest, during a civil war between rival Inca leaders Atahualpa and Huascar that ended with the latter’s capture and murder in 1532. The following year it was Atahualpa’s turn—he was put to the death by the Spaniards on July 26, 1533. By then, smallpox was already making its death march down the Andes. “The calamities that ended the life of Huanuco Pampa came in a chain,” Paredes says.
A few years after Pizarro’s visit to Huanuco Pampa, Spanish settlers arrived and built crude stone houses in the plaza and turned the kallankas into horse stables. European animals grazed in the plaza where, only a few years earlier, the Inca had presided over thousands of his subjects. By 1541, the Spaniards had tired of the city. They built their regional capital, the modern city of Huanuco, in a valley about 120 miles east and several thousand feet closer to sea level. Thereafter, only shepherds and a few descendants of the inhabitants of the old Inca Kingdom occupied the site of Huanuco Pampa. Some may even have remembered this grand city and the fallen world it represented.