The Incan Empire: Wealth Without Money

picchuFor students of economics and ancient civilizations alike, the strange economy of the Incan Empire is fascinating. Annalee Newitz writes for io9:

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Inca Empire was the largest South America had ever known. Rich in foodstuffs, textiles, gold, and coca, the Inca were masters of city building but nevertheless had no money. In fact, they had no marketplaces at all.

Centered in Peru, Inca territory stretched across the Andes’ mountain tops and down to the shoreline, incorporating lands from today’s Colombia, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina and Peru – all connected by a vast highway system whose complexity rivaled any in the Old World. The Inca Empire may be the only advanced civilization in history to have no class of traders, and no commerce of any kind within its boundaries. How did they do it?

Many aspects of Incan life remain mysterious, in part because our accounts of Incan life come from the Spanish invaders who effectively wiped them out. Famously, the conquistador Francisco Pizzaro led just a few men in an incredible defeat of the Incan army in Peru in 1532. But the real blow came roughly a decade before that, when European invaders unwittingly unleashed a smallpox epidemic that some epidemiologists believe may have killed as many as 90 percent of the Incan people. Our knowledge of these events, and our understanding of Incan culture of that era, come from just a few observers – mostly Spanish missionaries, and one mestizo priest and Inca historian named Blas Valera, who was born in Peru two decades after the fall of the Inca Empire.

Wealth Without Money
Documents from missionaries and Valera describe the Inca as master builders and land planners, capable of extremely sophisticated mountain agriculture – and building cities to match. Incan society was so rich that it could afford to have hundreds of people who specialized in planning the agricultural uses of newly-conquered areas. They built terraced farms on the mountainsides whose crops – from potatoes and maize to peanuts and squash – were carefully chosen to thrive in the average temperatures for different altitudes. They also farmed trees to keep the thin topsoil in good condition.

Incan architects were equally talented, designing and raising enormous pyramids, irrigating with sophisticated waterworks such as those found at Tipon, and creating enormous temples like Pachacamac along with mountain retreats like Machu Picchu. Designers used a system of knotted ropes to do the math required to build on slopes.

And yet, despite all their productivity, the Incas managed without money or marketplaces…

[continues at io9]


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8 Comments on "The Incan Empire: Wealth Without Money"

  1. Charlie Primero | Aug 27, 2013 at 6:00 am |

    “They had no markets and no money”. Then, the article goes on to describe the markets and money the Incas employed to make their racist military dictatorship run. Very sad.

    • atlanticus | Aug 27, 2013 at 6:53 am |

      “Then, the article goes on to describe the markets and money…”

      • Charlie Primero | Aug 27, 2013 at 7:03 am |

        In the Gordon Francis McEwan quote, and further in his book where he discusses colonial resource exchange.
        This is the type of economic ignorance which allows kids to support nonsense like the Zeitgeist Movement. The schooling system ensures that ignorance persists into adulthood. It teaches that cops are heros, Big Daddy stops discrimination, and war spending creates jobs.

        • Ted Heistman | Aug 27, 2013 at 12:37 pm |

          So how did you escape it?

          • Charlie Primero | Aug 27, 2013 at 1:21 pm |

            At university I got a minor in Keynesian economics,so I was already familiar with the terminology and concepts. Then I spent thirty years studying and reading more about it. Today because of the internet kids can accomplish the same exact thing in about three years. Thirty years from now they will be light-years ahead of us.

        • atlanticus | Aug 27, 2013 at 7:18 pm |

          So, you’ve actually read the book, but you’re still going to mock me and imply that I support the Zeitgeist movement? By the way, I don’t know what school you went to, but no one in my public high school would have supported that…they would have burned that dude as a witch for saying mean things about Jesus.

          I think it’s quite a leap to claim that this article is somehow leading children to support the Zeitgeist Movement…

          Furthermore, I’m going to agree with BuzzCoastin that what is described *in that quote* is trade economy, not money, not markets…please show me *within this quote* where it says that they used money?

          It’s cute that you think that the internet will teach children anything at all and not just further their ignorance by locking them into self-made prisons…

  2. emperorreagan | Aug 27, 2013 at 8:22 am |

    They discuss labor being obligated to the state in the Incan empire.

    In modern economies, the state obliges you to fund it by issuing money and requiring taxes be paid in the coinage which the state issues.

    The former is more direct and requires state management of resources. The latter allows the state to be more selective in what it chooses to manage (e.g. why manage the farm when you can leave it up to the farmer and punish them/take their property if they don’t produce enough to pay their tax bill).

    The net effect is the same. The state extracts what is required to sponsor its armies, police, etc. Nobles, whether they try to couch their legitimacy in heredity, deities, or a myth of meritocracy, amass wealth and power.

  3. BuzzCoastin | Aug 27, 2013 at 4:02 pm |

    markets are created by money
    no money, no markets

    there have been many civilizations that have lived without “money”
    and still had economies
    in Asia & Polynesia there existed economies based on gift giving
    & I’m not aware of any money being used in pre-Genocide America

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