Grand symbolism of Inca power through art, architecture, textiles and livestock held little sway over the artillery, guns and cavalry of the Spanish army.

SMU pre-Columbian expert Adam Herring takes a new look at Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro's 1532 attack on the Inca Empire. (Hillsman Jackson, SMU)

SMU pre-Columbian expert Adam Herring takes a new look at Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s 1532 attack on the Inca Empire. (Hillsman Jackson, SMU)

Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro’s 1532 attack on the Inca empire during a two-day conflict in Cajamarca, Peru is an infamous episode in history.

But efforts by the pre-contact Inca to display their power and authority to the Spanish through architecture, landscape, geoglyphs, textiles, ceramics, feather work and metalwork failed to stop Pizarro.

“The Inca were overconfident,” says SMU pre-Columbian expert Adam Herring. “They didn’t understand the tactical violence of horses and metal weapons. Destruction always carries the day.”

Twenty-four hours after Pizarro confronted the Inca empire, which covered most of South America’s Andean region, the royal Inca leadership was shattered.

Herring, associate professor of art history in SMU’s Meadows School of Arts, takes a new look at Pizarro’s attack in his book, Art and Vision in the Inca Empire.

The book was one of four finalists for the 2016 international Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, the College Art Association’s highest distinction awarded to a scholarly work.

Nestled amongst a rocky outcrop atop Mount Huanacaure in the Peruvian Andes is an important Inca religious site.

Nestled amongst a rocky outcrop atop Mount Guanacaure in the Peruvian Andes is an important Inca religious site.(Adam Herring, SMU)

Instead of studying the battle, however, Herring is the first scholar to examine the event as an art historian. As Pizarro’s 180-man army crested the mountains surrounding Cajamarca, they first saw thousands of llamas grazing in the valley.

“The Spanish interpreted the sight as a pastoral scene, something out of an Iberian romance of chivalry such as the Song of Roland or El Cid. In fact those animals were the fist of Inca power,” Herring says. “Llamas served as pack animals for the Incas’ army of 70,000 soldiers. The great herd was also an inducement to surrender, for the animals could be bestowed as gifts—a payoff, essentially—to an enemy who surrendered and swore fealty to the Inca ruler.”

When Pizarro invited Inca ruler Atawallpa to a feast in his honor, Atawallpa spoke to Pizarro behind a transparent screen of woven fabric, theatrical staging in a politically charged context, Herring says. “They were presenting the Inca ruler as a divine apparition, less a living person than a disembodied visual experience.”

The Spanish tradesman, foot soldiers and notaries who comprised Pizarro’s rag tag army struggled to find the words to comprehend the grandeur of the Inca empire.

“Their words are unvarnished and honest, unlike accounts written later by men of letters,” Herring says.

Pedro Pizarro, a teen-age pageboy to his uncle Francisco, wrote, “And they bore so much gold and silver – what a strange thing it was as it glinted in the sunlight.”

The grand symbolism of Inca power through art, architecture, textiles and animals held little sway over the artillery, guns and cavalry of the Spanish army. Pizarro ambushed Atawallpa at their meeting, taking him captive and killing thousands of his retainers and soldiers. Within a year, the Inca dynastic regime had been toppled, reduced from its former status as an empire that stretched the length of the Andes from Ecuador to Patagonia.

“There is still much to learn about the role of Inca visual expression in Inca ritual and politics,” Herring says. “At Cajamarca, Europeans witnessed Inca art in motion and in the political moment.”

Last year alone over 1.5 million tourists traveled to another remote Inca site, Machu Picchu, Peru, abandoned after Pizarro’s conquest. Inca art, architecture and displays of power continue to fascinate visitors.

Besides the Charles Rufus Morey Book Award, Art and Vision in the Inca Empire also received an honorable mention PROSE Award from the American Association of Publishers.

A specialist in the art of the pre-Columbian Americas, Herring studied at Princeton University, the University of California at Berkeley and at Yale University, where his dissertation in art history received the 1999 Frances Blanshard Fellowship Award.

Herring is the author of numerous journal articles and a 2005 book on ancient Maya calligraphy, Art and Writing in the Maya Cities, AD 600-800: A Poetics of Line, published by Cambridge University Press. At SMU Herring teaches courses on Inca, Aztec and Maya art. He has led student groups to study architecture in Italy; Inca sites at Machu Picchu, Peru, and art at SMU-in-Taos, New Mexico.

“My teaching, research and scholarship inform one another,” he says. “I couldn’t do one without the others.” — Nancy George

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