The Incans ruled a vast empire in western South America when the Spaniards encountered them in the sixteenth century. Although the Incas had no writing system of their own, historical information about Incas is available to researchers because early Spaniards wrote documents about them. However, there are drawbacks to use the written record. First, the Spanish writers were describing activities and institutions that were very different from their own, but they often described Inca culture in terms of their own society. As an example, consider the list of kings given by the Incas. As presented in the historical chronology, Spanish sources indicate there were thirteen kings who ruled sequentially. The names were given to them by Inca informants. However, one school of thought in Inca studies suggests that the names were not actual people, but, rather, titles filled by different individuals. Thus, the number of actual kings may have been fewer, and several titles may have been filled at the same time. The early Spanish writers, being unfamiliar with such a system of titles, simply translated it into something they were familiar with (a succession of kings). Given that the Inca empire expanded only during the time of the last four kings, or as a result of the actions of the individuals in those four positions, this question is not deemed significant for an understanding of the Incas. But the example shows that biases and inaccuracies may have been introduced inadvertently from the very beginning of the written Spanish reports about the Incas. Moreover, early writers often copied information from each other---so misinformation was likely to be passed on and accepted as true by later scholars.
Second, both Spanish writers and Incan informants sometimes had motives for being deliberately deceitful. For example, in an effort to gain status in the Spaniards' eyes, Incas might say that they formerly had been more important in the Inca empire than they actually were. Spanish officials as well were occasionally untruthful when it served their purposes. For example, Spaniards might deliberately underreport the productivity of a region under their authority so they could sell the additional products and keep the money, rather than hand it over to the Spanish Crown.
Third, it should be noted that the Spaniards' main sources of information were the Incas themselves, often members of the Inca ruling class. Therefore, what was recorded was the Incas' point of view about their own history and empire. Some modern authorities question whether the history of Incas happened as they said it did. Although some of their history is certainly more myth than truth, many, if not most, scholars agree that the history of the last four Inca kings is probably accurate. The same is true of other things told to the Spanish writers: the more recently an event is said to have occurred, the more likely it is to have actually happened.
A fourth problem relates to the nature of the Inca conquests of the other people in the Americas before the Spanish arrived and how accurate the accounts of those conquests are---whether related by the Spaniards or by theIncas on whom they relied. It was certainly in the Inca's interest to describe themselves as invincible and just. However, lacking accounts by conquered people about their interactions with the Incas, it is unknown how much of the information of the Inca conquest as related by the ruling class is factual.
Finally, there is a certain vagueness in the historical record regarding places and names. Many Spanish writers listed places they had visited within the empire, including both provinces and towns. However, other writers traveling along the same routes sometimes recounted different lists of places. In addition, it is difficult to identify the exact locations of towns and other geographic points of reference because of the widespread movements of people over the past five centuries.
For all these reasons, the historical record must be carefully evaluated to determine whether it is accurate and to verify the locations of past events. One approach is to cross-check information from a number of authors. Another approach is to conduct archaeological research. Regardless of the problems, historical documents review some important information about the Incas.