Atahuallpa was the ruler when the conquistadors arrived. The Spanish were under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro. There were a total of 168 Europeans in this group, and they challenged an empire of 6 million people. The Indians were puzzled by the importance Europeans placed on gold, but avarice was only one of the compulsions pressing the Spanish onward. The Inca empire was still relatively new in the early sixteenth century, and at the time of the arrival of the Europeans, it was undergoing a severe internal crisis, a civil war between two rival heirs for the chieftainship. This dissension facilitated the Spanish conquest. Pizarro negotiated with two factions at once and played them against one another. He captured Atahuallpa and ransomed him. The Spanish collected Atahuallpa's treasure, but they then refused to free him as promised. Instead, they tried him, charged him with usurpation, idolatry, polygamy, and other crimes, and executed him. These "crimes," of course, were an imposition of the Europeans -- they were not crimes in the Inca empire. This is how the Spanish imposed their culture, as if it were given to mankind by divine prerogative and now had to be imposed on other cultures.
Much has been made of the practice of human sacrifice on the part of the Aztecs, as if the Spanish under Cortes decimated the population and destroyed the civilization only because of the prevalence of human sacrifice. Actually, the motives here were mixed as they had been in Peru. The celebration of human sacrifice did inflame the conquistadors, for they were men with a mission, "intent upon saving Indian souls from hell by forced conversion, while extracting from their converts their every ounce of gold." To accomplish this, the Spaniards were willing to destroy every vestige of the existing civilization:
No quarter was offered to the old idols, usually termed devils: such demons, with whom compromise was unthinkable, had to be swept from the face of the earth. Their images were smashed, their scriptures burned, and their temples razed; on their sites rose Christian churches and cloisters, built by the same hands out of the same stones. (Davies 199)
There can be little doubt that the effect of the coming of the conquistadors on the civilizations of the Incas and the Aztecs was devastating. The prevailing culture was largely wiped out overnight, along with much of the native population. There as a terrible decline in the native population by the middle of the sixteenth century. Vicente de Valverde wrote to the King in 1539:
moved across a good portion of this land and saw terrible destruction in it. Having seen the land before, I could not help feeling great sadness. The sight of such desolation would move anyone to great pity. (Hemming 347)
Valverde would add a few years later:
There has been and still is a great decline of the Indian natives, which I have seen with my own eyes on the road from Quito to Cuzco. (Hemming 347)
The depopulation in the coastal plains of the Incas was considerable, and many Europeans viewing the situation were alarmed at what had taken place. Actually, the Indian population had diminished less in the mountain areas to which the Indians had repaired in the face of the Spanish, but there was some decline even there.
The reasons for this depopulation begin with disease, since the people of the region had been isolated for centuries and had no immunity to European diseases. While there was no mention of any epidemic in the early years of the occupation, it seems likely that there was one. The first reported epidemic was in 1546 when something like typhus or plague spread across the land. However, the real cause of the depopulation was cultural shock and chaotic administration as the people of Peru lived through a number of catastrophes:
Their calm, rigidly organized society was shattered in quick succession by a ferocious civil war, a bewildering conquest by foreigners totally alien in race and outlook, two mighty attempts at resistance, and a devastating series of civil wars among the invaders. (Hemming 350)
Many of the natives were so profoundly demoralized by these events that they lost the will to live, and this remains a serious threat to primitive peoples who witness the collapse of their way of life. There was an accompanying decline in the birth rate as a result. Another problem facing the native population was simply that it was being ignored by the Spanish conquerors:
The Spaniards, preoccupied with their personal fortunes and embroiled in passionate civil wars, neglected the public works of the Inca regime. Precious irrigation canals were allowed to fall into disrepair, agricultural terraces that used to climb in neat ranks up Andean mountainsides crumbled and became overgrown, roads and bridges that had been built for runners were pitted by heavy horses and wheeled traffic. (Hemming 350-351)
The stores that the Incas had preserved as well as the llama herds they kept were dissipated by the conquerors, and the plundering that took place caused local famines.
In the new regime, the Incas were legally free men, but they were also overworked, underpaid, and overtaxed. They had lived under the Incas in a society that was paternalistic, without money, personal property, or writing. They now had to face the fact that the authorities regarded them as free individuals who were expected to earn money, compete, and stand up for their rights. They were also expected to learn the Spanish language and, if they were actually going to stand up for their rights, how to read the Spanish law. Once the initial rebellions were put down, the Indians accepted their lot subserviently.
Conditions in the region of Mexico were much the same. After the era of the conquistadors, control passed into the hands of the bureaucracy. The Indians here as well were legally free people, and forced labor was prohibited. The death penalty was instituted for the branding of slaves. The region would become more and more important to Spain, and by the end of the sixteenth century the whole economy of Spain was dependent upon the bullion sent back from the New World:
By then the rigidity of the colonial system was such that the colonies were virtually sealed off, not only from foreign countries, but also from each other. A mass of laws denied them the right to trade, to grow certain crops, even to manufacture for themselves. Raw materials had to be dispatched to Spain in Spanish bottoms. It was only the Spanish colonists' intense loyalty to the crown that enabled such bare-faced exploitation to continue for three centuries. (Hemming 351-352)
The great civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Andes had taken centuries to develop and build, and they were destroyed in only a few years.
Coe, Michael D. And Rex Koontz. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1994.
Coe, Michael D. The Maya. London: Thames and Hudson, 4th ed., 1987.
Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice. New York: William Morrow, 1981.
Hemming, John. The Conquest of the Incas. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.