Rating: 4 out of 5.

When I was doing my literary tour of the ancient world, I visited Iceland with The Story of Burnt Njal, Persia with the Babur Nama, India with the Bhagavad Gita, China with The Diamond Sutra, Mesopotamia with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Mediterranean basin with Herodotus’s Histories, but when I turned my attention to the ancient Americas, I struggled to find texts to read. While I eventually found and read an interpretation of the Popol Vuh, I resolved to return my attention at some point to the ancient Americas, for they were home to many fascinating civilizations that were allowed to develop independently for thousands of years. And yes, I am also still struggling to find authentic texts from ancient Africa, so let me know if you have any suggestions on that count.

Compared to reading a piece of writing that hails from the culture in question, reading a history is a far less immersive experience, but it provides a different level of insight. I might learn less of what daily life was like and how the Incans thought and believed, but I’ll learn a lot more about their economic practices, their technological abilities, and their food choices. In that sense, I would call Kevin Lane’s The Inca a broad overview that is ideal for dipping your toe into the sea of information we have on the Incan Empire.

Alas, that is a shallow sea. The Incans left few records, and those they did leave, in the form of knotted cords, we cannot interpret or read. Lane therefore leverages ‘ethnohistories’ in order to fill the places normally filled in these studies by preserved writings. Unfortunately, ethnohistory consists of a lot of interpretation, hearsay, and storytelling passed down from centuries past, and thus is a tenuous guide to reality. Even basic questions, like how many Incan kings there were and in what order they ruled, are currently unanswered.

Archeology helps fill in the gaps, especially when it comes to the structure of the empire, its roots in other ancient peoples of the region, and its economic and technologic capacities. It can tell us, for instance, about a method of preserving potatoes that involves taking them to high altitude, stomping on them, letting them freeze overnight, and repeating the process. Or about the suspension bridge technology that the Incans employed centuries before it was developed in Europe.

What neither of these sources is able to tell us is answers to questions like whether the Incans practiced monarchy, diarchy, triarchy, or some even more complicated system of rulership. For some of these answers, Lane turns to a field he identifies as ‘theoretical archeology,’ which I call ‘historical fiction writing.’ While many of the theories presented are fascinating, there is really little evidence to point us one way or the other, so any conclusion is just guesswork. Fortunately, Lane mostly admits to the lack of concrete resolutions.

Of course, no discussion of the Incan Empire’s history can be complete without addressing the arrival of the Spanish. This is where so many historical pieces I’ve read on the Americas tend to falter, their authors’ biases and narratives supplanting serious, scholarly inquiry on the subject. To his credit, Lane navigates these treacherous waters without running aground; he keeps to reporting of such facts as are known, and does not extrapolate beyond reason in his interpretations, or force moral judgements. That might be among the book’s strengths, actually, since it manages to acknowledge the complexity of the situation that is so often lost in discussions of the ‘evils’ of colonialism.

If you’ve already studied the Inca in any kind of depth, you probably won’t derive a lot from this book, since it really does serve as a more of a survey piece, and it is relatively short. It is also part of a series of books (not all by the same author) examining ancient civilizations (called Lost Civilizations) – I’m not sure yet if I’ll pick up others in the series, but they might be a useful starting point for investigations into their respective subjects. The Incan Empire is fascinating, and one of the more unique states to arise in human history. Whether you’re looking to start an in-depth study of ancient South American peoples, or you just want to be inspired to write a book involving alpine archipelagoes, I recommend you check out Kevin Lane’s The Inca.

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