Skip to content

Transcript of Episode 26: The Case of Ingapirca

(Ambient/Electronic-style theme music begins, then fades down and out under narration)

Welcome back to Art History for All! I’m Allyson Healey.

Imagine, if you will, the floor plan of your home. Just the floor plan, not the walls. On the floor plan it’s marked where the walls and doors are, where a staircase might be, where the windows sit and how many of them are in each room. No appliances or furniture. Would you be able to tell what each room is for just by looking at that floor plan? Could you tell where your bedroom was, and what made it different from the other rooms in the house? Could you tell which door was the front door, or the back? Maybe you could, and maybe you couldn’t. You’d just have to make your best guess.

Archaeologists have to perform this exercise all the time, sometimes even without the full floor plan of a building. Each site they examine presents unique challenges in mentally reconstructing the buildings and objects that once stood there. Some sites are unusually well-preserved, like the city of Pompeii. Others require a great deal more guesswork to understand what a complete structure looked like and the purpose for which it was used. Ingapirca, in Ecuador, is one such site. Despite being the largest archaeological site in Ecuador, and one of the northernmost archaeological sites of the Inka Empire, a great deal about Ingapirca remains a mystery, including the central purpose of the site. Historians and archaeologists have been studying it since after the Spanish invaded South America in the sixteenth century, but given the many obstacles in their way, the knowledge they have been able to glean about the site is limited. In this episode, I’d like to introduce you to both Ingapirca as a site, and Ingapirca as a problem or puzzle, and how various experts have attempted to solve it.

As you no doubt are aware, there’s been a bit of a global crisis going on for the past year or so. Nobody left 2020 without being affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and it will probably reverberate for many years to come. For me personally, among the many things the pandemic has affected in my life, I’ve been severely limited in how I am able to research these episodes, as I don’t currently have easy access to physical sources.  This was a particularly noticeable issue in researching Ingapirca because there were few resources on the site available online. I hope that if you’re more knowledgeable on the topic that you’ll feel comfortable contacting me to correct me if necessary, and I hope that if you’re less knowledgeable you’ll check out some of the sources I’ve cited in the transcript and learn what I learned. Another note: in the interest of keeping this episode at an accessible length (and preventing it from becoming hopelessly dry), I’ve limited the degree to which I discuss the history and culture of the Inka to what is directly relevant to Ingapirca. If you’d like to learn more, there is thankfully another podcast for that: A History of the Inca by Nick Machinski. I used a couple episodes to make sure I had a handle on some Inka basics, and I highly encourage you to listen—check it out by searching for A History of the Inca on your favorite podcatcher, or by going to

Now, get ready to climb high up into the northern Andes along the Inka trail, as we puzzle out the mysteries surrounding the site of Ingapirca.

(Musical stinger)

A description of the site of Ingapirca, based on maps and current photos, in Cañar Province, Ecuador. Date of construction unknown.

The plan of the site is irregular, designed around the contours of the mountain on which it sits. At the western end of the complex is an elliptical structure often referred to as the “templo,” or “castillo,” though it’s unclear what its actual function was. South of the Templo are a series of additional rooms. To the east of the Templo are a series of rooms referred to as “La Condamine,” after the French explorer of the same name whose account of the site has become the definitive touchstone for researchers. An arcing wall to the south stretches between the annexed rooms at the west and La Condamine at the east. The complex continues further southeast of La Condamine with an open terraced space, above which are situated “bodegas,” or cellars, and a plaza or “kichwa” that may have contained workshops or kitchens. The southeasternmost structure in the complex is called Pilaloma, which comprises several rooms situated around a patio. A large burial site was found at Pilaloma, not one for Inka, but for Cañari, the indigenous group that lived in the region prior to Inkan expansion.[1] The elements of the structures at Ingapirca that remain today are built of dry stone with no mortar. Only the Templo has any significant height remaining in its walls, thanks to the ravages of time and the removal of stones by locals to build or repair new structures. Looking away from Ingapirca itself, the landscape that surrounds it is mountainous, but not quite as extreme as that which surrounds a more famous Inka site, Macchu Picchu.

(Musical stinger)

The Inka began to conquer what is today Ecuador around the last half of the 15th century. With this move they expanded upon an empire that dated back to a noble family from around Cuzco in the 12th and 13th centuries, but had only begun to expand in earnest with the ascension of emperor Pachacuti to the throne in 1438.[2] The Inka ultimately conquered nearly 100 nations, also establishing Quechua as the empire’s official language, building 14,000 miles of roads, and establishing an official religion focused on the sun.[3] It was Pachacuti who initiated the conquest of what is today Ecuador around 1463, with his son Tupac leading the conquering army.[4] Tupac’s son, Huayna Capac, fully integrated Ecuadorean peoples and regions into the Empire around the turn of the 16th century, and established Quito as a sort of second Inka capital in the final years of his reign.[5] Not too long after Huayna Capac’s death, Spanish explorers led by Francisco Pizarro took advantage of the war of succession between Huayna Capac’s sons, Atahualpa and Huáscar. Pizarro and his troops ultimately captured both successors and executed Atahualpa, installing Atahualpa’s brother as a puppet ruler and effectively ending Inka sovereignty. The Inka Empire, known as Tawantinsuyu, or “four parts together” in Quechua, was thus entirely overtaken by the Spanish colonial machine.

Ingapirca, or at least parts of it, no doubt existed before Tupac Inka Yupanqui led his troops through Ecuador and conquered it, as Cañari people had long inhabited the region and established their own architectural traditions before being colonized by the Inka. Ingapirca, with its mountaintop location, is one of a number of quote-unquote “santuarios de altura,” or high sanctuaries of the Cañari, that fall into the category of Huaca, or in Quechua, “sacred places.”[6] María Enriqueta Carvajal and Daniela Hidalgo Molina, who wrote a formal analysis of the site, note that evidence of Cañari architecture at Ingapirca is visually distinct from Inka architecture, consisting mainly of round houses with partitions and shelves at either end.[7] Carvajal and Molina also note that Cañari architecture frequently also featured, quote, “elliptical platforms surrounded by rectangular constructions and sometimes protected with walls and terraces attached to the slopes.”[8] End quote. Notably, Cañari also built their larger structures with round stones and mud mortar, while the Inka used dry masonry and much more precisely cut stones.[9]

We know that the Cañari were very resistant to Inka conquest, though information as to how stern the Inka ultimately were in imposing their rule once they conquered the Cañari is somewhat inconsistent. That there is still evidence of Cañari architecture at Ingapirca suggests there was some degree of integration of the two cultures, rather than complete conquest. An interview with current-day Cañari anthropologist José Antonio Quinde Buscán suggests that after the Inka invaded Cañari territory, the Cañari maintained the rights to their land,[10] but this conflicts with other scholarship that holds that, quote, “all land and resources [in conquered areas] became the property of the Inca state.”[11] End quote. Whatever the case, in terms of Ingapirca as a site, it appears that the Inka adapted an existing site to their purposes, rather than raze it and build anew.

The historiography of Ingapirca—the history of the scholarship and writing about it—seems to truly begin with Charles-Marie de la Condamine, the first European to create detailed drawings and descriptions of the site when he visited it on an expedition in 1739.[12] La Condamine, along with fellow Frenchman Pierre Bouguer, concluded from their observations that, quote, “the site functioned as a fortress of the Inca empire, whose purpose was to protect the imperial frontier.”[13] End quote. After La Condamine, a number of other scholars also attempted to determine Ingapirca’s function, but never really reached a consensus. According to Monica Barnes and David Fleming’s overview of La Condamine’s work, some of the general functions attributed to Ingapirca include: a palace, a temple, a fortress or castle, an observatory, an administration center, and a former Cañari moon temple that was transformed into an Inka sun temple. Some scholars proposed combinations or variations of some of these—Carvajal and Molina, possibly the most recent authors on the topic in 2018, still do not attempt to definitively name the primary function of the site, though they do mention it was probably the site of Hatun Cañar, a sort of local provincial capital in the Inka Empire.[14] Barnes and Fleming partially attribute the lack of consensus to confirmation bias, as, quote, “there has been a certain predisposition for persons with a particular non-archaeological background to see Ingapirca as a monument of their individual professions.”[15] End quote. Barnes and Fleming themselves concur with the fortress theory, hypothesizing that Ingapirca was part of a “control apparatus” for the Inka Empire’s northern expansion. Barnes and Fleming elaborate on this theory in the following excerpt:

(Background music begins, then fades down)

“What we know now of the Inca expansion into Ecuador suggests that such a fortress would have been quite necessary. Military use may have subordinated all other purposes and was probably the primary consideration of  the imperial Inca planners. The fineness of the construction shows that there was some sense of a need for splendor to mirror the importance of the empire that built it. By analogy, this kind of deliberate show is often seen in imperial building—and the Incas were definitely ‘imperialists’ in that they sought deliberately to impose their political control by military force over independent, self-contained, and unrelated peoples. In this connection, we believe that the site served as the army headquarters and residence of a senior, local administrator, responsible for managing a very turbulent part of the imperial frontier. This conclusion derives from what we know of the creation of the northern Inca empire: the expansion was a supremely military endeavor, vigorously opposed and sullenly accepted by the local inhabitants. The Inca rulers found it particularly necessary to use here their administrative practices of the transplantation of populations thorough the mitimay [mitma, forced resettlement] and yanacoma [yanakuna, servitude to the ruling class] systems, in an attempt to control the countryside, both politically and ecologically.”[16]

(Background music fades up, then fades out)

Although the purpose of Ingapirca may have been primarily military and administrative, it would also make sense for an imperial outpost to provide spaces of other kinds for modeling the state religion and facilitating trade and artisanship. This explains one of the possible functions of the Templo as well as the plaza or kichwa. The burial site found under the patio in Pilaloma, the southeastern most structure, could possibly be evidence of hybridization of Inka and Cañari religion and ritual. As Carvajal and Molina write, the main skeleton found at this site may be that of a Cañari priestess, as it is accompanied by other skeletons as well as, quote, “a mortuary trousseau, made up of objects such as cashaloma ceramics (ceramics that characterized the Cañari culture…), tupus (large pins…[which] served to hold the anaco [a garment] on the shoulders), and Spondylus shell. According to studies, it is believed that Pilaloma could have been a place of sacrifice and was occupied until a few years before the Spanish conquest.”[17] End quote. Ingapirca makes further sense as a site for Cañari ritual as its position between two rivers made it both well-fortified and fertile, and therefore an appropriate central location for the Cañari, who worshipped the maize goddess Mama Zara, to bring harvests of various crops, as well as the fermented maize drink chicha, as offerings to her.[18]

There may have also been some recreation that took place near Ingapirca—north of the ruins lies an area called Ingachungana, or “Inka Game” in Kichwa, which features recessed “tubs or seats” embellished with serpent reliefs.[19] It is possible that these cavities are baths, or alternatively a ritual space, although the reference to a “game” also implies it could be a sporting site. Near these seats there is a standing stone that may be an intihuatana, a ritual stone that aligned with the sun on the equinoxes and was associated with Inka astronomy. It is disparate elements like these that lead scholars to believe in the palace or observatory theories of Ingapirca’s primary function, but other empires have also historically made their outposts multipurpose as well. Imperial Roman castra, or military camps, sometimes included sacrificial altars and spaces for priests to practice augury, or the interpretation of omens.[20] European castles began their life primarily as fortifications but became better known as the residences of monarchs or regional rulers. In the same way, Ingapirca may have been primarily a military outpost and administrative center, but also a center for other functions, first for the local Cañari and later for imperial Inka subjects.

In studying Ingapirca we are sort of obligated to rely on a lot of educated guesses, not just because it’s such an old site that changed hands so much over time, but also because of the nature of imperialism and its tendency to impose power through the erasure of competing cultures. I’m referring here not only to the Inka conquest of the Cañari, but also to the Spanish conquest of the Inka—both civilizations cemented their hold over the regions they conquered by killing or dispersing people and supplanting existing religion and culture with either their own or some kind of hybrid of new and old that might seem more palatable to the conquered peoples. The Inka obscured traditional Cañari elliptical architecture with their highly skilled masonry and transformed sites of Cañari ritual into spaces for Inka sun worship. There is less physical evidence about the form that Spanish conquest may have taken at Ingapirca, but the following excerpt from La Condamine, in which he references the writings of the 16th century conquistadors Pedro Cieza de León and Garcilaso de la Vega, gives some indication as to what may have been lost between the arrival of the Spaniards in the region and La Condamine’s examination of the site:

(Background music begins, then fades down)

“Such are the ruins of the Castle and Palace of Cannar [sic], of which the Historians of Peru, among others Pedro de Cieza de León, report such marvels. He says, among other things, that it is impossible to describe the great riches one saw, the vases and vessels of gold and silver, the great numbers of costumes, covered with tiny grains of gold, finer than seed pearls, and which the Goldsmiths in Seville, according to Garcilaso [de la Vega], could not conceive of making…. The same Garcilaso and other Spanish Authors also mention the baths, in which the taps and tubs were of gold and silver, the parterres, and the gardens of the Inca royal palaces, where one would see trees and flowers of gold imitating nature, ears of Corn of silver, of which the husks were of gold…. Francisco Pizarro chose as General for his lot in the Ransom of Atahualpa Inca, king of Quito, the gold chair of the Inca and the table of the same metal which was for his feet, from among that great mass of gold which filled a great room up to the height to which a man could reach. It appears from what happened to all these riches that they esteemed the material more than the workmanship. One must not conclude that nothing deserved to be kept. If the Greeks had made only statues of gold and silver, it would be very likely that very few Greek Masterpieces would have come down to us….[21]

(Background music fades down, then fades out)

If La Condamine and his conquistador references are to be believed, then it’s possible the only material alteration made to Ingapirca by the Spaniards was the removal of decorative elements made of precious metals. But if we are relying on the theory that Ingapirca was a military outpost, or even just on what we know about how contentious the Inka’s relationship with the local Cañari was, it seems unlikely that there would be much in the way of valuable decoration here for the Spanish to loot. Without material evidence, however, it’s difficult to prove much of anything. We do have evidence that much of the degradation of Ingapirca as a site occurred as a result of local residents removing masonry in order to build new structures on their own parcels of land. This is a much more practical and less violent reuse of materials from a conquered site, but at the same time, it is also a form of looting that destroys the integrity of a historical structure and significantly impedes archaeological investigation. This phenomenon is not unique to Ingapirca—as recently as 2016, China began cracking down on local villagers who stole bricks from the Great Wall of China “to use as building materials or to sell.”[22] Depending on the degree of development of a country and its ability to financially invest in preserving its cultural heritage, however, there may be no substantial way to prevent looting from certain sites. In 2019 the United States and Ecuador signed an agreement placing U.S. import restrictions on “archaeological and ethnological materials representing Ecuador’s cultural patrimony,” but that only affects the trafficking of artifacts from Ecuador across U.S. borders.[23] The local quote-unquote “subsistence looting” that has affected the integrity of Ingapirca as a site for hundreds of years seems to have few legal obstacles in its way.

There have been recent measures that spell good news for future study and preservation of Ingapirca. When the Inka road network, or Qhapaq Ñan, was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, Ingapirca was included in that network and afforded the same protections.[24] As of August 2020, Ingapirca was one of three Latin American sites to receive funds from the United States Ambassador’s Fund for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.[25] This money will go toward the conservation of the ellipse and the ravine at the site, including correcting the slope of the ellipse and replacement of masonry and other building elements.

Part of Ingapirca’s value as a historical site comes from the fact that it is an example of one of the dualities of imperialism: how it both augments and destroys that which it touches. The Inka’s changes to the original Cañari site added something new to it, but also obscured or erased some of what made it a sacred place for the Cañari people. The Spanish invasion and conquest of South America had a more clearly deleterious effect on Ingapirca and sites like it, removing elements of value and destroying elements that were heretical or contrary to the Spanish colonial worldview. Ingapirca’s current state directly results from the actions of two very different occupying forces who happened to share an interest in absorbing other peoples into their culture and worldview through conquest. Considering that the Spanish were not the only people to enact an imperial agenda in this region complicates the ethics of the conqueror-conquered dynamic. If we consider conquest unethical, what happens when a conquering force like the Inka is itself conquered? Which is more egregious, the remodeling of a Cañari site by the Inka, or the further denuding and destruction of that site either directly or indirectly as a result of Spanish conquest? It seems to me to be an unanswerable question. What it highlights, however, is the significant and irreversible effect that imperialism of any kind has on the people, cultures, and lands it overtakes. The Ingapirca that the Spanish encountered was not the same Ingapirca that the Inka encountered. The Ingapirca that La Condamine studied in the 18th century was not the same as the one Pedro de Cieza de Léon might have seen. And the Ingapirca that one can visit while hiking the Inka trail today is not the same one that La Condamine or the 19th century scholars who followed him wrote descriptions of. In addition to physically excavating historic sites in order to study and understand them, it is sometimes also necessary to excavate the layers of cause and effect that led to the current state of the site.

(Theme music reprises, then fades down)

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as links to images and citations, at Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving us a tip on Ko-Fi, at This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. Main episodes premiere on the last Monday of every month, and bonus episodes will appear in your feed occasionally. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.

(Theme music fades up, then fades out)

Additional Music Credits:

Sardana by Kevin MacLeod

Tempting Secrets by Kevin MacLeod

[1] Based on descriptions from: María Enriqueta Carvajal and Daniela Hidalgo Molina, “Ingapirca: arquitectura y análisis formal,” Eídos, no. 11 (June 30, 2018), 9-10

[2] Liesl Clark, “The Lost Inca Empire,” NOVA, accessed December 22, 2020,

[3] Ibid.

[4] “History of Ecuador,” in Wikipedia, November 30, 2020,

[5] Angela Drake, “How the Incas Shaped Ecuadorian Culture and Landscape,” Culture Trip, accessed September 23, 2020,

[6] Carvajal and Molina, 3.

[7] Carvajal and Molina, 3.

[8] Carvajal and Molina, 3.

[9] Monica Barnes and David Fleming, “Charles-Marie de La Condamine’s Report on Ingapirca and the Development of Scientific Field Work in the Andes, 1735-1744,” Andean Past 2 (1989): 182-183.

[10] “Meet Native America: Antonio Quinde, Anthropologist and Member of the Cañari Community of Quilloac, Ecuador,” recorded and translated by Judy Blankenship, accessed December 22, 2020,

[11] George M. Lauderbaugh, The History of Ecuador (ABC-CLIO, 2012): 22.

[12] Barnes and Fleming, 184-85.

[13] Barnes and Fleming, 185.

[14] Carvajal and Molina, 11-12.

[15] Barnes and Fleming, 190.

[16] Barnes and Fleming, 191.

[17] Carvajal and Molina, 9-10.

[18] Carvajal and Molina, 11.

[19] Carvajal and Molina, 10-11.

[20] “Castra,” in Wikipedia, January 5, 2021,

[21] La Condamine, quoted in Barnes and Fleming, 212-213.

[22] Janis Mackey Frayer, “China to Crack down on Brick-by-Brick Theft of Great Wall,” The Guardian, July 28, 2016, sec. World news,

[23] “United States and Ecuador Sign Agreement to Protect Ecuador’s Cultural Heritage | Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs,” accessed January 24, 2021,

[24] UNESCO World Heritage Centre, “Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System,” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, accessed January 24, 2021,

[25] “Ingapirca Will Strengthen Its Conservation Thanks to International Cooperation – Ingapirca Archaeological Complex,” accessed January 24, 2021,