Incan Life and Society - The Peasants/Family Unit
The Incas claimed a large part of the flocks of llamas and alpacas, which were the wealth of the inhabitants of the high-lands. Only the animals consecrated to the religion were as numer-ous as those of the Inca. Shepherd communities had only small numbers as their own property. Reads of families had the right to only about a dozen beasts in all. According to the services he gave, or the favor in which he stood, the curaca received a greater or lesser number of beasts as a present.
The communal flock was shorn at the appropriate time and the wool distributed to the villagers, each receiving the amount fitted to his condition, his needs, and those of his wife and children. Inspections were made to see if they had spun the wool and made clothes, and those who had been neglectful were punished.
All the members of an ayllu received the same amount, even those who, owning a flock of llamas, could have done without, which proves that the family rights could not be prescribed, even though this made for inequality among them.
The wool from the state flocks was spun and woven by the community, who made cloth and garments for the sovereign and for the sacrifices, "for large quantities of the kumbi quality (that is, the best) were burned."
The Incas, as owners of part of the land, naturally had to look to collective cultivation of the land by the community. Without peasant manpower, the lands brought into their estate would be valueless. The emperor's corvee was imposed on every married man. All labor dues for the state were carried out by the hatun-runa, that is, the "adults," only married men being considered as such. It was thus in the state's interest to see that the young men did not delay too long in getting married and establishing a household, or take advantage of their celibacy to avoid their obligations. Possibly this explains the more or less regular visits of inspectors to the villages, when they called together the young men and women who ought to be united in marriage by their authority. These officials no doubt ratified decisions already taken by the interested parties themselves, or by their families. It does not seem that they enforced any arbitrary decision or that they went against individual likings, unless there was rivalry for the hand of a young woman. In such a case they would interfere only as an arbiter or judge. After this official betrothal the official wedding took place, celebrated according to the customs of each region. It was not easy to get rid of a wife who had been bestowed in marriage by the Inca or his representative. Monogamy was the rule for the common man. Only the Inca caste and the imperial officials had the right to several wives, polygamy being a status symbol, a symbol of rank and prestige.
From the point of view of the state the household, not the indi-vidual, was the basic economic unit. Though young people, the aged, and women were not counted when tasks were given out, they nonetheless took part, as far as their strength permitted, in the work in the fields. Each household liable to service had to till a section of the Inca's field, or the Sun's. "He who is assisted by a large family and finishes the task before the others is called a rich man." Work on the Inca's and the Sun's fields was thus a periodic duty, whose length varied from region to region. The order in which the field work was done, according to different types of soil, has given rise to contrary assertions. Garcilaso de la Vega, in a much quoted passage, asserts that the peasants started with the Sun's fields, then went to those of the widows and orphans, and of soldiers away at the wars, ending with those of the curaca and the Inca. Other texts of a less apologist nature inform us that the Inca had priority. The produce from the Inca's and the Sun's fields was stored in granaries situated along the roads or in easily accessible places. Part of it was sent to Cuzco, to serve the needs of the sovereign and the noble families. The remainder was used for the officials, the army, and the gangs of government workers. Finally, supplies could be drawn from these granaries to feed the population in case of a crop failure.
Dependent peasants were formed into gangs, not only to till the fields of the poor and the infirm but, in addition, those of families whose head was serving in the army or the Inca's gangs. Lastly, the rural community repaired the roads and saw to the proper working of the irrigation system.
Tribute was also levied in the form of mita, forced labor, when the Inca or local governors had special need of abundant manpower. In this way war was comparable to labor service for the state. The guarding and supplying of the resthouses, tambos, along the imperial roads fell to the local communities, as did the responsibility for the provision of two relay runners at the post house always ready to carry a message. In the stock-raising areas, the ayllus had to take care of the Inca's and the Sun's flocks. They no doubt appointed the shepherds who took turns to carry out these duties.
Women were not subject to labor service or tax, but in practice they did not escape it since a part of the field work fell to them and they spun the thread and wove the cloth taken by the state for its stores. Sometimes they accompanied their husbands to the wars, carrying provisions and preparing the food.
The villages supplied servants for the chiefs or the Inca's court, and were obliged, in addition, to bring before an Inca official all the young girls from eight to ten years old. The prettiest were sent to a "convent," where, under the control of an elderly woman, they carried out various tasks, in particular the making of fine cloth from vicufia wool. They were again inspected at the age of puberty. The most beautiful were reserved for the Inca's harem or given as concubines to the nobles or important officials. The others were put to serve in a temple and became the priestesses' servants. Finally, a few were set aside for human sacrifice.
The peasants who cultivated the fields belonging to the Inca and the Sun, as well as those employed on public works, received their food free from the state granaries for the duration of the work. It was the same for the soldiers, "who left for war supplied with food, arms, shoes, and clothes all coming from the Inca's depots; they lacked for nothing." What has often been interpreted as an example of Inca paternalism is no more than the applica-tion, on a governmental scale, of the rural tradition of helping one another, as strong today as it was four hundred years ago: the individual who benefits from the help of his neighbors is willing to supply their wants as long as they put themselves out for him. Custom requires that he should be generous and make quite a celebration of the work from which he will profit. The compulsory work for the Inca can alone be considered, to some extent, as mutual aid among the peasantry. It was also carried out with songs and dances and a cheerful atmosphere which the Spaniards, quite mistakenly, saw as the result of wise measures taken to keep the people contented.
Among a community's obligations to the Inca was the supply of various handicrafts. Each household had to deliver to the tax collector a certain quantity of articles it had made: stuffs, clothes, shoes, rope. The raw materials came from regional depots. Time and trouble were the sole contribution of statute laborers. The wealth and luxury of the Incas, a subject which never ceases to be commented upon in the accounts of the conquests, as well as the high technical and artistic qualities of the exhibits in our museums, presuppose numerous craftsmen-jewelers, weavers, potters, and sculptors. While a large part of the everyday articles were made at home by the peasants, the luxury goods-fine cloth, jewelry, ceramics-were the work of specialists. Some craftsmen worked directly for the court, while others were stationed in the workshops of provincial governors or local princes.
Interpret the following statement:
"What has often been interpreted as an example of Inca paternalism is no more than the application, on a governmental scale, of the rural tradition of helping one another, as strong today as it was four hundred years ago: the individual who benefits from the help of his neighbors is willing to supply their wants as long as they put themselves out for him."
Back to Guatemala Lessons