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15 Curious Facts About The Incas

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The Inca civilization was amazing in many ways. In little more than 300 years, the Incas created an empire that stretched from present-day Colombia through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia to northern Chile and Argentina. In the 15th Century the Incas ruled over 250 separate peoples, and nine million people! Even more astonishing is that the Incas constructed 30,000 km of roads and all their majestic buildings without using animals, or even basic technology such as pulleys or wheels.

Quite something, I’m sure you’ll agree. And now, 15 more curious facts about the Incas:

1: Skull deformations

deformed Inca skull

Deformed Inca skull – Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Did you know the Incas considered deformed skulls beautiful? They would wrap bandages tightly  around the heads of their children to purposefully deform their skulls by limiting growth in one direction. The Incas were not alone in this practice: ​​other cultures such as the Mayas, Makrokephaloi, Huns, Alemanni, Thuringians and Burgundians also deformed skulls for aesthetic purposes.

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2: Worn once, then burnt

burning clothing

Burning clothing – Photo Credit: imagebroker.net / SuperStock

Once upon a time the Sapa Inca, the king of the Incas, was traveling in a sedan chair through his kingdom. All those who appeared before him had to be barefoot; even the highest dignitaries had to bring symbolic gifts, to show deference. The Sapa Inca showed his indifference by sitting behind a barrier and refusing to address his audience directly. He only ever wore the same clothing once: After wearing, the used garments would be burned in a ceremony.

3: Guinea pig – an Inca speciality

Cuy - roasted guinea pig

Cuy – roasted guinea pig

Did you know that in addition to llamas, alpacas and ducks, guinea pigs were also kept as pets, and eaten too? This traditional dish has survived to this day: Cuy, grilled guinea pig, is still a popular dish in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

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4: Skull surgery

Cranial surgery by the Incas

Cranial surgery by the Incas – Photo Credit: Tulane University, John Verano

In 15th Century Europe, kills were often quick and clean. Death by the hand of an archer was often so swift, the victims never felt a thing. Likewise, a powerful blow with a sword could lead to a quick demise, assuming the swordsman knew his craft. In South America, however, the forging of iron was still unknown: Death came mostly via clubs or slingshots. Often a dispute between Inca warriors ended not with death but severe head trauma, leading to prolonged agony. For this reason, the Incas developed the practice of opening skulls of the living to heal wounds.

Interesting fact: A study examining Inca skulls revealed that every sixth skull had a hole! It seems that most patients survived this surgery without major complications, thanks to the Incas’ remarkable skill in this unique type of treatment.

5: The Inca bone

The Inca bone

The Inca bone – Photo Credit: E. Barclay-Smith: A Rare Condition of ossifications Ossifications. J Anat Physiol, 277-278 (1909)

Another interesting bit of trivia: Did you know that there is a bone in the human body that not everyone has? It’s called the Inca bone.

6: Loyalty through education

In order to retain the loyalty of subjugated tribes, the Incas implemented a similar policy to the Romans: Children of the conquered tribes’ leaders were moved to the capital, Cusco, where they were educated in elite Inca boarding schools.

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7: Skulls as drinking vessels

skull used as drinking vessel

Skull used as drinking vessel – Photo: Natural History Museum London

Did you know that the skulls of defeated chiefs were used as drinking vessels? The best known victim of this practice is Atahualpa, who after a long and violent power struggle against his brother Huascar in 1532, had his skull transformed into a drinking jar.

8: Earlobes to the shoulders

The long earlobes of the Incas

The long earlobes of the Incas – Photo Credit: Superstock

Did you know that Incas stretched their earlobes so much, they hung down to their shoulders? Interestingly, the Spanish name for the Incas at the time was Orejones, which means “big ears”.

9: Polytheism

Inti and Quilla

Inti and Quilla – Copyright Dietrich Ortega among others: An Inca drama, Vienna 2007

The Incas were polytheists, which meant they had several gods. The most important was Inti, the Sun God. His wife, the Moon Goddess, took over his duties by night.

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10: Inca Whispers

An Inca road through the Andes

An Inca road through the Andes – Photo Credit: American Museum of History

Did you know that the Incas developed a sophisticated postal system? They used chains of runners to relay messages. These fast-footed news couriers were stationed in pairs, one sleeping while the other awaiting news, so somebody was always on duty. Since the Incas had no writing system, the runners had to learn the messages by heart, like a story being passed on from one person to the other. You might call it an early form of Chinese Whispers!

11: Good Nutrition

Did you know that one study found no sign of deficiency or malnutrition in Inca corpses?

12: Quipu


Quipu – Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons

You may have heard that the Incas developed a form of communication called Quipu, which was woven into textiles. But did you know that it’s still unknown whether it was used to convey information in writing, numbers or both?

13: No Taxes

Did you know that the Incas and no money and therefore no taxes? Instead, they developed a system to distribute all their resources, and allocated value instead to the hours they worked.

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14: Polgamy

Polygamy of the Inca nobles

Polygamy of the Inca nobles – Photo Credit: Baya.tn

Did you know that while Inca nobles were allowed many wives, farmers had to be monogamous?

15: Qeswachaka- the 1500-year-old suspension bridge

the Inca-built suspension bridge, Qeswachaka

the Inca-built suspension bridge, Qeswachaka – Photo Credit: REUTERS

Did you know the Inca-built suspension bridge, Qeswachaka, is rebuilt every year? All local communities help out, as they did in Inca times – the women weaving the grass ropes, the men using the ropes to construct the bridge. While the bridge is built, women are not allowed nearby, as this is considered bad luck!

Original article by Benno Schmidt. Translated by Alistair Moore.

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64 Responses to “15 Curious Facts About The Incas”

  1. Maggie says:

    This was so helpful! I’m working on a project about the Incas and this helped a ton:)

  2. Hi Maggie, glad you found the article useful.The Incas certainly make for a fascinating topic. . Good luck with your dissertation!

  3. rachel says:

    thanks! Im looking for facts about the incas to wow my social studys class! The facts will be a total “WOW”

  4. Kavi Nightshade says:

    This was AWESOME! I am doing a project in my Social Studies class also, so this is perfect for my fun fact area. My only suggestion is that for not having taxes, they did in a way have taxes. The taxes were payed in food or clothing. That may be what it means, but you may want to make that clearer.

    • Deepa says:

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      Waiting for your reply

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    • Pep Sarro says:

      Hi Callym,

      Thank you for the kind words, we are so glad we could help you with your social studies project. We hope you got the A+ you were looking for :)


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  18. Julie says:

    Thank you for these facts. I wanted to do more research on the Incas, since it is my heritage, and these are great. It makes since now why my older cousins and grandmother have stretched ears that they said were for cultural reasons (they never really explained why). I’ve started stretching my ears as well since reading this a while ago, although I don’t plan to go anywhere close to my shoulders, haha.

  19. Kyle says:

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  26. liz says:

    I really didn’t know that the had odd shaped skulls. Thanks for the info.

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  44. Anonymous- says:

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Born and bred in London, UK but is now based in Berlin, Alistair is Viventura's resident Englishman with responsibility for marketing to Viventura's English speaking customers. His professional ... Read Full

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