Reading Inca History

By Julien, Catherine; Vincent, Susan | Anthropologica, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Reading Inca History


Julien, Catherine, Vincent, Susan, Anthropologica


Catherine Julien, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

Reviewer: Susan Vincent

St. Francis Xavier University

This is a fascinating book. The project Julien embarks upon is a valuable and timely one: she works toward uncovering the genres the Incas used in constructing their own histories of themselves and then considers the information about the Incas that can be derived in this way. To do this, she carries out an archaeology of the texts written by Spaniards about the Incas within about the first century after the Spanish arrival in Peru. The project is based on the premise that the construction of history is culturally situated and politically mediated. Thus, the Spanish chroniclers developed their histories by gathering information from Inca sources and then reformulated the information to make sense of it in terms of Spanish notions of history as well as to satisfy their own reasons for writing. By comparing the Spanish versions of Inca history, one can uncover the form and content of the material on which it is based. Julien relies specifically on Spanish narratives that drew on Inca sources from the Cuzco area. These works range from the well-known Cieza de Leon and Cobo, to the more recently published complete manuscript of Betanzos.

In searching for a distinctively Incan historiography and what it can tell us, Julien challenges Reiner Tom Zuidema's claim that the Incas were not interested in history and had only shallow memories of the past. In contrast, Julien projects backwards the idea that history is a cultural and political product of a specific moment. Thus, the Incas, just like modern historians, were involved in an ongoing revision of the story of their past in order to fit the information available as well as the political goals of the historians. In particular, Julien argues that Pachacutec, the ninth Inca, created a version of the rise of the Incas which was essentially the story of the winners of a regional power struggle: it emphasized their special and unique right to power, as against any claim to importance of other similar peoples with whom they had had alliances or conflicts in the past.

First, Julien is interested in identifying the genres of history that the Incas recorded. These include genealogical and life history information, on which she concentrates her attention, as well as stories of military campaigns, the development of ritual, and the building and organization of the Inca political realm. After identifying the genres, Julien explores why these were important to the Inca and what information can be gleaned from them.

This process of establishing genres and interpreting them necessitates an understanding of Inca values and cultural patterns in order to read these stories. For example, Julien begins by examining the notion of "capac." While she admits defeat in arriving at a clear definition of the term, which relates to an elite Inca status, she argues that the genealogical affiliation of both mother and father are important in establishing the position of their children. This is a significant discussion, relating as it does to Zuidema's contention that the Incas followed a pattern of parallel inheritance. …

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