What is really needed - for a topic which may be somewhat unfamiliar to many History teachers - is one of those textbooks that are ready-made lessons!
At the moment I don’t think the publishers are prepared to invest in one. What I have concentrated on here is providing a way through the most difficult obstacle in teaching the Incas - the lack of a clear narrative. So here you have it, some (fairly) pupil-friendly text and some accompanying maps.
Why Incas are a good topic to teach
The Inca empire lasted only about 100 years, and 6 emperors. It is possible to understand its outline without knowing a huge number of names, dates and facts.
‘Incas’ are an ideal topic for a Depth Study. There are sufficient websites for you to find well-presented illustrated notes on a wide variety of Political, Economic, Social, and Cultural topics.
The Inca Empire is different as a topic for the KS3 History Programme, because it looks at the world from a non-European point of view.
The Inca Empire provides useful material for considering the idea of ‘empire’ , especially since pupils may already have looked at the contemporary Aztecs as part of Key Stage 2 History.
A narrative of the main events of Inca History is provided in the ‘Downloads’ section of this site, and is suitable for classroom use with good readers and, with some help, with average readers.
Incas and other History topics
1. The Ancient Civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome are very popular in Primary schools. The ‘Incas’ taps the romance of History, but is also suitable for developing an analytical approach.
2. It is strong on Geography, with plenty of opportunities to consider how geographical factors influence History. On a practical level, if you are combining History and Geography in KS3, South America is as good as anything!
3. The absence of too many ‘given’ historical facts about the Incas encourages pupils to assign their own significance to events. Inca experts still have widely different interpretations of the empire (although they are coming together more). Pupils can engage in thinking through whether the Empire was a Totalitarian State or the first Welfare State; or whether the Incas ruled the distant parts of their empire directly or indirectly. There’s not much worry about there being a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer (for either teacher or pupils) because no-one, at the moment, can give you a definitive answer!
4. Until the Conquistadors arrived (a different World History story) this civilization owed nothing to Western Civilization. So what do pupils make of it? This is an opportunity for them to find their way between the approach that says it had no mobile phones and is therefore unworthy of consideration to deciding that it had an integrated approach to life which we have lost.
5. Much of the evidence for the modern understanding of the empire comes from archaeologists. This topic offers many opportunities to consider archaeological and other non-written evidence.
6. Sometimes the absence of a link to the mainstream of Western Civilization is seen as a problem. But then South American politics, and the political resurgence of South America’s ‘Indian’ cultures, is increasingly in the News.
I think that one of the reasons why ‘Incas’ works particularly well in Year 7 to 8 is that it makes use of ‘romantic’ history. One of the strengths of the ‘Incas’ is that it appeals to the imagination, and also lends itself to a creative response such as the making of golden masks, coloured woollen quipus and models of Inca masonry. Haunting Inca pipe music and Quechua poetry offer other possibilities for empathising with Incas.
There is no doubt that all this cutting and pasting can make History Heads of Department nervous as they consider their GCSE grades. However, it needs to be understood that while ‘Incas’ offers a deliberate return to some of the themes pupils have experienced in Primary School, the level of work can be pitched as high as you wish.
For example, the problems of evidence associated with the study of the Incas are highly complex. This actually forces pupils to consider the context in which the sources were produced, and therefore move beyond dismissing sources as ‘biased’. An example of how the consideration of Inca sources can be used to encourage this sort of Progression is included among the Downloads - it’s the one called ‘Sources of Inca History’!
How to teach Incas without a textbook
The lack of an accurate, detailed, narrative of Inca History can actually be used as an advantage in the classroom. (However it should be pointed out that in the last 20 or so years archaeologists and other experts have increased our detailed knowledge considerably, and the results can be seen, for example, in ‘The Incas’ by Terence N. D’Altroy, Blackwell 2003, from their ‘Peoples of America’ series.) ‘Incas’ particularly lends itself to Project work. This is because academically it is very much a ‘work in progress’, and therefore pupils and teacher are more able to approach it together in a genuine spirit of open enquiry. However, because it is a relatively easy topic on which to make quick judgements, the teacher needs sometimes to point out where more information is required.
‘Incas’ can be studied in the form of an Individual Project, or Projects produced by pairs or small groups. It lends itself to the making of oral presentations to the class as well as finished written work. In my own History Department we made use of pupil documentation, such as Project Logs, to keep track of individual progress.