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Of Summits and Sacrifice

An Ethnohistoric Study of Inka Religious Practices

By Thomas Besom

Publication Year: 2009

In perhaps as few as one hundred years, the Inka Empire became the largest state ever formed by a native people anywhere in the Americas, dominating the western coast of South America by the early sixteenth century. Because the Inkas had no system of writing, it was left to Spanish and semi-indigenous authors to record the details of the religious rituals that the Inkas believed were vital for consolidating their conquests. Synthesizing these arresting accounts that span three centuries, Thomas Besom presents a wealth of descriptive data on the Inka practices of human sacrifice and mountain worship, supplemented by archaeological evidence. Of Summits and Sacrifice offers insight into the symbolic connections between landscape and life that underlay Inka religious beliefs. In vivid prose, Besom links significant details, ranging from the reasons for cyclical sacrificial rites to the varieties of mountain deities, producing a uniquely powerful cultural history.

Published by: University of Texas Press

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xii

First I would like to thank my family; the completion of this book is a testament to their support and encouragement through the years. I also am indebted to my friends and colleagues in the Department of Anthropology at Binghamton University, and to my housemates (past and present) at 3-

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pp. 1-3

Exhausted, the young woman stopped and gasped in the rarified air. Once she had caught her breath, she turned away from the slope and toward the boundless space surrounding her. At this altitude, almost 6,700 m,

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1. Ethnohistory and the Inkas

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pp. 4-24

In the middle of the fifteenth century, a small kingdom in the highlands of southern Peru began to expand. Within one hundred years, it had become the largest state ever formed by an indigenous people anywhere in the Americas. At the height of its power, the Inka Empire stretched about 4,000 km from the Ancasmayo River that marks ...

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2. Qhapaq Hucha Sacrifice

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pp. 25-43

Much of the information on the important practice of human sacrifice in the Inka Empire comes from the Spanish and indigenous chroniclers of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. According to some sources, a particularly notable type of immolation involved the qhapaq huchas (often written capacocha or capac hucha). These children and ...

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3. Other Types of Sacrifice

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pp. 44-63

The Inkas practiced not only qhapaq hucha sacrifice, but at least four other types of human immolation. According to the ethnohistoric sources, they put runas (male “citizens”) to death, ritually slew captive warriors, carried out necropampa sacrifices, which consisted of burying victims with a deceased ruler, and performed “substitute immolations.” The ...

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4. Mountain Worship

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pp. 64-93

As I state at the outset, I believe—based on the ethnohistoric sources and the work of Andean scholars—that the Inkas manipulated two types of ritual to unify the southern part of the empire. The first was human sacrifice, which we have examined in detail. The second type of rite was mountain worship, the subject of this chapter.¹ Mountain veneration ...

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5. Mountain Offerings

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pp. 94-116

People were frequently immolated on summits around Cuzco. Cobo and Polo state that children were ritually slaughtered in honor of Mantocallas Hill, which was greatly venerated.

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6. Reasons for Worshipping Mountains

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pp. 117-145

The chroniclers give numerous reasons for worshipping mountains. For the most part, the explanations fall into fifteen categories: (1) the extraordinary nature of peaks; (2) their prominent role in Andean mythology; (3) their role as “stepping stones” to higher gods; (4) their capacity to control meteorological phenomena; (5) their association with ...

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7. Material Correlates of Mountain Worship

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pp. 146-156

As an archaeologist, I am interested in the following questions: How would we recognize a site where a mountain was worshipped in the past? What are the distinct features of this practice, and what are its material correlates? What remains might we find in the archaeological record that would give us a hint as to why a summit was venerated? I ...

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8. Conclusions

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pp. 157-163

According to Rowe, in the 1470s Emperor Thupa Yapanki led a large army down to southern Peru, northern Chile, and northwestern Argentina,

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pp. 164-166

Thirty minutes later, a slow procession made its way from the stone hut to the top of the lofty peak, following a trail delineated by rocks.


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pp. 167-201

Glossary of Andean Names and Terms

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pp. 203-208

Reference List

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pp. 209-223


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pp. 225-230

E-ISBN-13: 9780292797628
E-ISBN-10: 0292797621
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292719774
Print-ISBN-10: 0292719779

Page Count: 244
Illustrations: 25 line drawings, 3 maps, 7 tables
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mountains -- Religious aspects.
  • Peru -- Antiquities.
  • Incas -- Antiquities.
  • Human sacrifice -- Peru.
  • Incas -- Rites and ceremonies.
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