Huáscar – Atahualpa: the decline of the Inca empire

The Inca empire expanded over a large territory, even reaching remote places such as southern Colombia and the north of present-day Chile. During its expansion, one of the great expansionist Incas, and perhaps the last legitimate one, died of a possible viral infection. It is presumed that the disease probably arrived on Spanish ships. This Inca is none other than Huayna Capac who died along with his main heir, who, for the most important historians and anthropologists regarding the development of successions, Ninan Coyuchi, would be the legitimate heir of the Mascaypacha. This break in the succession originated a political problem that derived from a war between two other brothers of Ninan Coyuchi. This battle for the mascaypacha generated one of the cruelest and most decisive civil wars of a people.


After the death of Huayna Capac and his son Ninan Coyuchi, the Tawantinsuyo split into two political forces. One of them settled in Cusco and the other in Quito. Huascar, who did not go on any conquest expedition with his father, stayed in Cusco to receive an education. While Atahualpa who did accompany his father in the expansionist campaigns through the central part of the current Ecuador, received the recognition of the main generals of the Tawantinsuyo. Both received the approval of the main nobles of their respective areas. However, only Huascar received the mascaypacha after the respective ceremony in Cusco.

It is important to specify that, although most of the nobles and main families were with Huáscar. The commanders and generals were on Atahualpa’s side. The great conquerors of Tawantinsuyo supported the still-young Atahualpa. Many theories handle that this was the main reason why, during the coronation ceremony of the new Inca Huáscar, in Cusco, Atahualpa did not make the act of presence. This infuriated the nobles of Cusco and Huascar himself, who were aware that his brother would look for a way to take over his position. With nothing more to say or to suppose, between the brothers, they declared war after 5 years of apparent peace.

At that time the Tawantinsuyo empire was developing a series of different warlike acts, in such a sense it was supposed that any disagreement, no matter how small, would end in war. In addition to this, it is possible and well recognized by many of the quarrels that were caused to the north and with other tribes. The violent wars generated a direct repudiation of the Inca dynasties. Sooner or later there would be uprisings against Inca rule.

The war between Huascar and Atahualpa begins.

The brothers of different mothers started a civil war. Huascar decided to send his army under the command of the Cusquenian general Atoq. Atahualpa counted on enough recognition after the battles that tube next to his father. For this war, he had great generals who would accompany him faithfully, besides that he counted on the presence of more specialized soldiers than those of Huáscar. Huáscar had to recruit forces of some ethnic groups, among these groups were the Cañaris. Ethnic group that later on, did not hesitate to ally with the Spanish forces to overthrow the royal families or panacas of the Tawantinsuyo.

The Cañaris were a tribe of the current Ecuador, after the first battles against the Inca Tupac Yupanqui they kept a deep resentment against the panaca of this Inca. They were united to Huáscar by marriage ties of one of the brothers of the new Inca with the daughter of the accuracy of the Cañaris. But then they were in charge of participating in the campaigns of conquest of the Spaniards. This new alliance arose precisely because of the hatred against Atahualpa.

Huascar’s forces achieved some victories. But with time, his army became weaker. On the other hand, the army of Atahualpa which was more experienced in wars, managed to impose itself until capturing the Inca Huáscar. This capture took place in the battle of Villcacunca about 30 kilometers from Cusco. Likewise, it is narrated that the conflicts would not cease and that Atahualpa had to appease different uprisings. According to some chroniclers Atahualpa carried out quite bloody acts in retaliation. Some important events of this battle and the civil war in general are the following.

Huáscar’s attack from Cusco

  • Huáscar decides to attack Atahualpa’s forces, winning the first battles.
  • A faithful army (According to some sources, they were the cañaris) to Huáscar. They managed to capture Atahualpa in Tomebamba in 1529.
  • After being captured in Tomebamba, Atahualpa manages to escape with the help of his supporters. He uses this feat to demonstrate his worth and to be recognized as the legitimate son of the sun since he said that he was able to escape thanks to the help of his father, who turned him into a snake (amaru) so that he could escape without any problem from his captivity.
  • After escaping to Quito, Atahualpa reorganizes his army.
  • Huascar, aware of these events, managed to make alliances with some peoples of the north, including the Chimúes, the Yungas, the Guayacundos, and the Cañaris. All the curacas of these towns swore loyalty to the Inca from Cusco.
  • In 1530 Huáscar managed to organize an abundant army of 30,000 men which would be under the command of the general Atoq and mobilize towards a definitive battle.
  • In this new battle, Atahualpa would count on the most experienced generals of the empire: Chalcuchímac and Quisquis.
  • These commanders achieved a crushing victory over the army of Huáscar capturing their generals, Atoq and Hunga along with the Cañari leader Ullco Colla.
  • According to some sources Chalcuchímac made a vessel to drink chicha from Atoq’s skull, which he gave to Atahualpa.
  • After winning this battle, a new strategy and war movement would begin. The destiny would be to carry out the conquest and capture of Cusco or Qosqo.

Atahualpa begins sieges in his descent to Cusco

  • Atahualpa’s attack did not diminish at any time, easily seizing Tomebamba. He easily destroyed this place.
  • According to Agustín Zárate, Atahualpa when arriving in the Cañar, town of the Cañaris executed approximately 60 000 people.
  • Winning this territory Atahualpa saw the need to destroy any tribe or people who did not decide to support him.
  • Atahualpa, enraged, arrived at the lands of Tumbes where some other tribes joined him, in this expedition he tried to conquer the Puná Island, with the main help of his rivals the Tumbiz.
  • The punaeños resisted the attack, but later they would join Atahualpa who during this battle was wounded by an arrow in the leg.
  • After that Atahualpa decided to attack the rest of the tribes that were in his descent to the south, according to some chroniclers, he committed many massacres, especially those who did not want to join him.
  • Different battles and massacres take place on the part of the army of Atahualpa until he takes Cajamarca where he keeps shelter and rests his troops.
  • Atahualpa stays in Cajamarca and precisely the sighting of strange beings with giant llamas is announced.
  • Meanwhile, the army of Huáscar continued diminishing.
  • The majority of elites and Inca nobility faithful to Huáscar saw a way to defeat Atahualpa by joining these new strange men.

Capture of Huáscar and triumph of Atahualpa

  • According to some sources Huáscar was too foolish to govern. He imposed himself in some decisions and among some reforms was to get rid of the mummies of ancient Incas.
  • These mummies were the living presence of the ancient panacas of the ancient rulers. In such a sense, they required constant care and expenses to the Inca state.
  • The bad character of Huascar and the decisions he took were not well seen by the nobility of Cusco, who began to take away his support.
  • After the next and imminent arrival of Atahualpa to Cusco. Huascar forms an army together with other generals. Together with them and as a leader in the battle, he would command the counteroffensive in the battles.
  • The army of Huáscar achieves again a victory on the bank of the river Apurímac. Happy with the victory they let escape many soldiers confident of their prowess.
  • The following day, the army of Huáscar, continues with the attack. This time they would be surprised by the flanks when crossing the river.
  • After this ambush, general Chalcochímac, disguised as Huáscar, manages to approach his army to unleash a slaughter against the Huascaristas.
  • The army that stayed with Huáscar did not have any chance against the Atahualpistas soldiers.
  • Finally, Huascar is captured. At the same time, Atahualpa orders the assassination of all the high commanders and direct relatives of Huáscar.
  • During this victory, Atahualpa was still in Cajamarca.
  • Chalcochimac takes over the whole of Cusco plundering it. The city of Cusco does not present any resistance.
  • It happens a slaughter against the direct relatives of Huáscar, given other nobles and of the population in general.
  • The allies of Atahualpa that came from the north plundered the temples of Tupac Yupanqui, burning his mummy given all. They were ethnic groups that kept a grudge against the father of the brothers.
  • Huáscar was forced to see how they massacred all his family.
  • Atahualpa from Cajamarca enjoyed the triumph believing himself invincible.
  • It is for that reason that he falls naively captured in Cajamarca.
  • After this capture, he did not manage to escape. Being this act one of the most memorable and at the same time mysterious for the little clarity of the facts.
It is speculated that Atahualpa was overconfident after winning the civil battle so he decided to confront the Spaniards with unarmed soldiers and without obeying his general Rumiñahui who proposed to attack without mercy while the Spaniards rested at night. After this innocent attack, Atahualpa is captured. This was the beginning of the end of the Inca dynasty.

After the victory of Atahualpa and Huáscar being captured, the next coronation of Atahualpa was inevitable. To avoid reaching Cusco, the victorious brother decided that Huáscar should be transported to Cajamarca at the request of his captor Francisco Pizarro. Atahualpa fell prisoner for the Spaniards, probably supported by some ethnic groups that continued being faithful to Huáscar or for the excessive confidence of their past prowess. During his imprisonment and for fear that Huáscar would join Pizarro or offer a greater ransom reward, he decided to kill him secretly. Huáscar’s body was thrown into the Yanamayo river or the Andamarca River. There is no clear indication of this fact. After what happened, Pizarro initiated the campaign to crack the Tawantinsuyo. A vital moment for the whole universal history and humanity in general.


By Imachupicchu – Last updated, April 9, 2024

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