Social Hierarchies in the Incan and Spanish Empire (photo credit: elisa jimenez)


A Quechua women with her alpaca portraying the Incan social hierarchy (photo credit: Cassiana Sosa)

Tenth grade students from Colegio Menor San Francisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador, worked in an academic research paper. Students created a question that sought to improve the understanding of the Spanish and Incan civilization. In order to answer the research question, students went in an academic field trip for a week in February to the center of the Inca empire, Peru. Here students visited numerous sites to gather information from a variety of sources. Students gathered photographic evidence and asked questions to the tour guides in Peru. Additionally, students conducted research in the internet to find academically legitimate articles to complete their investigation. This research paper focuses on the similarities and differences between the Incan and Spanish social hierarchy prior to their encounter. By conducting the academic field trip and the internet research, similarities and differences between the Inca and Spanish empires were compared. A profound analysis of the information gathered enabled a well-thought conclusion which answered the question. Furthermore, the research concluded that numeral similarities and differences in relation to religion and leadership are the main reason why both civilizations are both distinctive and similar from one another.

Research Question: What were the similarities and differences between the social hierarchies within the Spanish and Incan Empires prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the Americas?

The Incas were a civilization which flourished in America during the pre-Columbian era. In the 1500’s, upon the arrival of the Spanish, their civilization ended due to conquest. Social classes can give valuable insight of daily life in civilizations. Through our research we will explore the differences in lifestyle of the social classes experienced in the Incan and Spanish civilizations prior to their encounter. Through a comparative analysis of social organization in both cultures, we will look into aspects such as social hierarchy and religion. Answering this question will help us better understand the merging of the Spanish and Native American cultures, yielding insight about why Latin America has developed differently than other parts of the world.

The Quechua children in Ollantaytambo portray the Incan middle class (photo credit: Elisa Jimenez)

Hypothesis: We expect to find important similarities between the Spanish and Incan social hierarchies, as both were motivated by conquest and their social classes were based on religious authority.

When comparing the Spanish and Incan social hierarchies, we predict there will be similarities such as strong religious grounds upon which monarchs held power, colonist aggression, and social divisions based on religion. However, we also expect to find important differences between the ways these monarchies organized their societies, their motivations for social organization, and how religion worked to support the monarchy. Our hypothesis may be confirmed or rejected by finding evidence of the social classes in both civilizations and understanding the role of religion and their desire for conquest.

The last Incan emperor Pachacuti which describes the Incan highest social class (photo credit: Maria Emilia Andrade)

Research Methods: Examining academic websites, books, and journal articles as well as primary resources including photographs, museums, and information provided by tour guides enabled a meaningful analysis of the question.

To make sure the articles we used were reliable, we searched online sources via Google Scholar and used academically legitimate information published by professionals in their fields. We also used online books including the “Penguin History of Latin America” which portrayed the history of Spain prior to the conquest and related this to Latin American civilizations.

During our week in Peru, we visited museums and churches where we collected photographic evidence and asked our tour guides about the importance of social classes which provided insight on the way the Incas organized their society.

The Quechuas in Ollantaytambo portray the Incan middle class within the empire (photo credit: Elisa Jimenez)

Conclusions: There exists important religious, leadership, and colonial similarities and differences between Incan and Spanish social hierarchies, which show how leaders play important roles in civilizations and provide evidence that confirms our hypothesis such as the struggle of conquest that both civilizations faced.

A Quechua standing along the fabric and the clothes his family makes to subsist (photo credit: Maria Emilia Andrade)

We confirm our hypothesis because the similarities and differences between the Inca and Spanish Empires are related, as both monarchies were sustained by religion since the Sapa Inca in Peru was believed to be descendant from God (Cartwright, 2016, para. 5), and the Catholic Monarchs in Spain also believed they were appointed by God to rule the people (Williamson, 2009, p.63). We also hypothesized that both civilizations had colonist aspirations since they wanted to conquer land and consolidate their Empires. Spain went through centuries of Inquisition and Reconquista before initiating colonization. The Moorish Caliphate and the Catholic kingdoms, such as France and Italy, were both strong civilizations fighting for power over the Iberian Peninsula.

The Reconquista or the period of war and struggle of the Iberian people when regaining territory from the Moors (photo credit: Valdoria)

The Reconquista was the period of war and struggle between 722 and 1492 in which the Iberian people retook lands that had been colonized by the Moors. Throughout these centuries, the Muslim Caliphate, an Islamic kingdom led by a religious representative of Islam, fractured (Williamson, 2009, p.56). The Reconquista took a deeply religious tone through the rule of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Once the Catholic monarchs succeeded in reconquering most of the peninsula, they established the Spanish Inquisition to persecute all who did not convert to Catholicism (Williamson, 2009, p.63). In contrast, the Incas did not fight other civilizations over religion. Instead, they conquered weaker civilizations, making them victors who imposed their religion.

The Spanish Inquisition and the persecution of the people who did not convert into Catholic. (photo credit: Groupsixty)

Our research demonstrates that the Incas and the Spaniards had similarities in their social hierarchies. The Incas had three main classes. At the top were the Incas, or nobles, led by the Sapa Inca, the ruler of the Incan civilization. The equivalent of the Sapa Inca in Spain was the King. Below the Incas were the Quechuas or working class, who worked in communities and traded goods (Inca society, n.d, para. 2); they were mostly farmers and craftsmen. The Spanish middle class also consisted of farmers and craftsmen. Finally, at the bottom were the Yanakunas, or lower class, who were usually prisoners of war and had to pay taxes or perform labor duties (Inca society, n.d para. 2). In Spain, the lower class consisted of peasants who worked land.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (photo credit: Sir Gawain)

The Incas conquered other empires in Latin America, including the Quitucaras of Ecuador (Bernabe, 2012, p.79) using warfare and mitimaes, a method used to assimilate conquered people into Incan culture (Bernabe, 1982 p.189). Like the Incas, the Spanish were no strangers to conquest since they had fought for the Iberian Peninsula and, “had deeply marked . . . Iberian peoples” (Williamson, 2009, p.55). Furthermore, both the Incas and the Spanish were ruthless civilizations with strong armies that desired conquest.

Incan religion portrayed through the house of a Quechua in Ollantaytambo (photo credit: Elisa Jimenez)

In Spain, commoners could become noblemen through conquest, which granted them land as well as rights. During the reconquista, the territorial expansion was headed by warriors who in turn were lead by caudillos, who became wealthy and gained social status from military enterprises against the Muslims (Williamson, 2009, p.56). Another way to rise in society was to populate the dry, arid lands of southern Spain, granted as latifundia or estates. Muslim peasants who continued to live on this land had to pay tribute to the crown. Christian peasants who needed military protection would pay for protection through labor (Williamson, 2009, p.56).

The crucification of Jesus in Cusco (photo credit: Elisa Jimenez)

Christianity played an important role for the Spanish society as the Church had power over the people, using it to control Spanish society through a system of patronage. Catholic clerics created a theory of absolutism, “which exalted the king’s God-given authority above the rights of the nobles and other states of the realm” (Williamson, 2009, p. 59). Furthermore, monarchs provided lands and honors to nobles and controlled most of the church's finances. For example, Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand had the right to appoint ecclesiastical offices in their territories, allowing them to impose Christianity on a diverse population, “religion, then, was to become the vital binding force” (Williamson, 2009, p. 62). Furthermore, the practice of Spanish monarchs appointing Church officials demonstrates their involvement in religious affairs. In conclusion both the Spanish and the Incas used religion to become more powerful since the higher positions in society were directly related with religion.

Finding similarities and differences between the Incas and Spaniards helped us further understand that most civilizations organize themselves around a leader and social classes. Leaders “motivate us to go places that we would never otherwise go. They are needed both to change organizations and to produce results” (Maccoby, 2004, para. 1). Leaders help people stay together through adverse times leading their communities to success. As a result, both civilizations had a supreme leader that gave prosperity to the empire and religion was an important influence.

A Quechua women in her home tinting wool to make fabrics (photo credit: Camila Baraya)

The encounter of the Spanish and Incan civilizations played a fundamental role in the cultural and socioeconomic history of the region. From the hybridization of these two civilizations came the mestizo culture. Many of the traditions remain after the colonization in America as a heritage of that merger. In conclusion, the fact that the Spanish and the Incan Empire had important similarities in their social structure provides insight into why and how the Spanish conquered the region.

Work Cited

Bernabe, F. C. (1983). Historia Del Nuevo Mundo. Retrieved March 14, 2017, from

Cartwright, M. (2016). Inca Religion. Retrieved from

Inca Society. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Maccoby, M. (2004). Why People Follow the Leader: The Power of Transference. Retrieved from

Williamson, E. (2009). The Penguin History of Latin America. United Kingdom: Penguin Random House

Andrade, M. (2017). The last Incan emperor Pachacuti which describes the Incan highest social class. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published.

Andrade, M. (2017) A Quechua standing along the fabric and the clothes his family makes to subsist. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published.

Baraya, C. (2017). A Quechua women in her home tinting wool to make fabrics. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published.

Gawain, S. (2013). Ferdinand of Aragon, Isabella of Castile [Online Photograph]. Retrieved March 28, 2017 from,_Isabella_of_Castile.jpg`

Groupsixty. (2014). The Inquisition [Online Photograph]. Retrieved March 28, 2017 from

Jimenez, E. (2017). The Quechuas in Ollantaytambo portray the Incan middle class within the empire. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published.

Jimenez, E. (2017). The Quechua children in Ollantaytambo portray the Incan middle class. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published

Jimenez, E. (2017). Incan religion portrayed through the house of a Quechua in Ollantaytambo. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published.

Jimenez, E. (2017). The crucification of Jesus in Cusco. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published.

Jimenez, E. (2017). Social Hierarchies in the Incan and Spanish Empire. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published

Sosa, C. (2017). A Quechua women with her alpaca portraying the Incan social hierarchy. [Cell Phone Photograph]. Self- Published

Valdoria. (2006). Escenas de la Reconquista por las Ordenes Militares. Spanish Reconquest [Online Photograph]. Retrieved March 28, 2017 from

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