Learning About the Inca Empire

The Inca Empire was the largest empire in the Americas prior to the arrival of the Spanish. It spanned much of South America’s Pacific coast east to Bolivia. This mini lesson for children ages 9 to 12 is a resource for learning about the Inca Empire. It explores the Inca culture, and includes printables for personal and classroom use.

Learning About the Inca Empire

Who were the Inca?

The Inca empire developed quickly. In less than 100 years, the empire expanded along the Andes from present day Ecuador in the north to Chile in the south. At its peak in the 1500s, it is estimated that the population was around 12 million!

The Inca are believed to have been descendants of Asian peoples who migrated across the Bering Strait and down along the Pacific coast of the Americas. These groups settled and came to be known as the Quechua.

Master Builders

Although they did not have any iron or modern tools, draft animals, or even the wheel, this society built remarkable structures that have withstood earthquakes and harsh high-Andean environments. The most famous is Machu Picchu in Peru.

They also had large-scale road and canal systems throughout the empire. One of their most notable engineering projects were the remarkably strong suspension bridges that stretched over canyons, rivers, and gorges. All these contributed to the success of the empire by linking conquered cities back to the empire’s headquarters in Cusco.

The Emporer

One of the most famous emperors was Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the 9th Inca ruler. His military skill is credited with transforming his small chiefdom into the large Inca empire. Pachacuti turned Cusco into an imperial city and Machu Picchu is thought to have been built during his reign to be his personal estate.

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Pachacuti was a diligent ruler who built large store houses of food and supplies which he kept for times of need. These store houses were filled with the large harvests of crops grown in terraces on the mountainsides.

In exchange for the allegiance of conquered territories, the empire provided security, infrastructure, and supplies.

Inca Empire - quipu

An Inca quipu. Image by Claus Ableiter nur hochgeladen aus en Wiki, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Quipu

The Inca’s success is remarkable given that they had no writing system like the Maya and Aztecs. Highly developed in math, however, the Inca invented a unique system for recording numbers and possibly other information. The quipu is a device made up of a series of variously colored threads knotted in different ways (see image above).

NOTE: This system was not used to calculate math problems, but rather to store information.

The Inca empire had an efficient taxation system. They were masters of astronomy, administration, and architecture. Numbers played a huge role in all of these. So it’s not surprising that the Inca invented a way to organize and track them.

The Fall of the Inca

Many attribute the fall of the Inca to Francisco Pizarro and the conquistadors, but the decline of the empire began years before. When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they brought with them diseases that the native people had never experienced. These diseases made their way down south from the Caribbean and Central America to the Inca civilization. A lot of the people died, including warriors and rulers.

By the time Pizarro arrived with his army, the empire was already badly weakened and quickly fell to the Spaniard.

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To learn more about the Inca, check out this article from Live Science.

Activities for Learning About the Inca Empire

Here are some of our printable resources to help your young students explore this ancient society. 

The landscape played a huge role in the Inca empire. From towering mountains and active volcanoes to deep gorges and wide rivers, the Inca learned to navigate them all and use them to their advantage.

Print our Inca Geography Worksheets and follow the directions on each page. We’ve provided two versions of the map of Peru – you can choose the one that best suits your students.

The Inca were very skilled at domesticating animals. Llamas and alpacas were of particular value to the Inca as they provided food, fuel, clothing, and more. Did you know that they are related to camels?

Print our South American Camelids Activity Sheets. 

First, create a poster that gives fun facts about llamas and alpacas, and be sure to include information on how the Inca used these animals.

Next, create quick animal cards about all four camelids found in South America. You can print our template on cardstock, or make your own. If you use ours, cut along the dotted lines to separate the cards.

History & Science
Some of the most common foods that are placed on our tables originated with the Inca. Corn, potatoes, avocados, and even quinoa were all staples of the Inca diet. 

Print our page Foods Grown and Eaten by the Inca Worksheet. Research the foods listed in the table, then give a brief history of each one, and draw or glue an image of what they look like in the box with their name.

You might also like these other articles on Mesoamerican civilizations:

  • The Aztec Empire for Kids
  • The Maya Empire for Kids
Inca Empire - Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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About the author

Monica Olivera is a homeschooling mother of two and a freelance education writer. Her site, Mommy Maestra, helps Hispanic parents get more involved in their children's education by providing resources, tips, and opportunities.

View all articles by Monica Olivera

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