Administration of the Inca Empire

Learning Objective

  • Understand the importance of the governing bodies, road system, recording tools, and social hierarchy of the Inca Empire

Key Points

  • The Inca Empire utilized a complex road system with about 25,000 miles of roads that relayed messages and goods throughout the society.
  • Inca administrators used brightly colored knotted strings called quipus to keep precise records of labor, taxes, and goods.
  • The Inca had no written legal code, but relied on magistrates and inspectors to keep people in line with established social customs.



Brightly colored knotted strings that recorded numerical information, such as taxes, goods, and labor, using the base number of 10 to record data in knots.


Distinct districts of the Inca Empire that all reported back to the capital of Cusco. There were four major districts during the height of the empire.


A clan-like family unit based upon a common ancestor.


The Inca Empire was a hierarchical system with the emperor, or Inca Sapa, ruling over the rest of society. A number of religious officials and magistrates oversaw the administration of the empire directly below the emperor. Kurakas were magistrates that served as the head of an ayllu, or clan-like family unit based on a common ancestor. These leaders mitigated between the spiritual and physical worlds. They also collected taxes, oversaw the day-to-day administration of the empire in their regions, and even chose brides for men in their communities. Some of the privileges kurakas enjoyed included exemption from taxation, the right to ride in a litter, and the freedom to practice polygamy.

Society was broken into two distinct parts. One segment was comprised of the common people, including those cultures that had been subsumed by the Inca Empire. The second group was made up of the elite of the empire, including the emperor and the kurakas, along with various other dignitaries and blood relations. Education was vocationally based for commoners, while the elite received a formal spiritual education.

There was no codified legal system for people that broke with the cultural and social norms. Local inspectors called okoyrikoq, or “he who sees all,” reported back to the capital and the emperor and made immediate decisions regarding punishment in cases where customs were not honored. Many times these local inspectors were blood relatives of the emperor.

Road System

The Inca civilization was able to keep populations in line, collect taxes efficiently, and move goods, messages, and military resources across such a varied landscape because of the complex road system. Measuring about 24,800 miles long, this road system connected the the regions of the empire and was the most complex and lengthy road system in South America at the time. Two main routes connected the north and the south of the empire, with many smaller branches extending to outposts to the east and west. The roads varied in width and style because often the Inca leaders utilized roads that already existed to create this powerful network. Common people could not use these official roads unless they were given permission by the government.

These roads were used for relaying messages by way of chasqui, or human runners, who could run up to 150 miles a day with messages for officials. Llamas and alpacas were also used to distribute goods throughout the empire and ease trade relations. The roads also had a ritual purpose because they allowed the highest leaders of the Inca Empire to ascend into the Andes to perform religious rituals in sacred spaces, such as Machu Picchu.


Chasqui carrying a quipu on official state business. Chasquis were highly agile long-distance runners who used the complex road systems to relay messages and goods between cities. 

Record Keeping

The Inca utilized a complex recording system to keep track of the administration of the empire. Quipus (also spelled khipus) were colorful bunches of knotted strings that recorded census data, taxes, calendrical information, military organization, and accounting information. These “talking knots” could contain anything from a few threads to around 2,000, and used the base number of 10 to record information in complex variations of knots and spaces.


Inca quipu. These complex recording devices allowed officials to keep track of taxes, labor, and goods in a precise fashion.

The Spanish burned the vast majority of existing quipus when they arrived in South America. However, there is some evidence to suggest that these tools were also used to record stories and language for posterity, and were not only numerical recording devices.


Trade and Economics

Trade and the movement of goods fed into what is called the vertical archipelago. This system meant that all goods produced within the empire were immediately property of the ruling elites. These elites, such as the emperor and governors, then redistributed resources across the empire as they saw fit.

Taxes and goods were collected from four distinct suyus, or districts, and sent directly to the ruling emperor in Cusco. This highly organized system was most likely perfected under the emperor Pachacuti around 1460.


The Four suyus of the Inca Empire. The economic system linked together four large suyus, or districts, that all reported back to the capital of Cusco.  

This system also required a minimum quota of manual labor from the general population. This form of labor taxation was called mita. The populations of each district were expected to contribute to the wealth of the empire by mining, farming, or doing other manual labor that would benefit the entire empire. Precious metals, textiles, and crops were collected and redistributed using the the road system that snaked across the land, from the ocean to the Andes.