The Incas lived in an empire called “The Four Parts Together,” or Tahuantinsuyu. A quick google search brings up a lot of information about them but it’s all basic and repetitive. I decided to spice things up with some little-known facts about them that make them stand out and help us realize how incredible and interesting these people were. I am writing short stories about the Incas where you can experience what it must have been like for them in everyday life in a place where these 7 Unique Facts About Incas were considered normal.

As a quick note, all of these facts are from reliable sources, typically Inga Garcilaso de la Vega, or Pedro Cieza de Leon. There may be a couple facts from Guaman Poma de Ayala. Also note, a lot of similar lists online are punking you. Don’t be punked.

1)The dead were preserved and went to social parties

A drawing of a mummy being carried on a litter.

Poma de Ayala image of a mummy being carried through town as was the custom.

When an Incan Nobleman or woman died their living ancestors took possession of their body and mummified it. But they didn’t bury it like the Egyptians did, no, they treated the mummy as if it were still living. One member of the family would act as an oracle “speaking for the dead.” There wasn’t anything mystic about it, the Spaniards report that the oracles didn’t claim they spoke with the dead, only for it. Meanwhile, the rest of the family would care for the body going as far as to have a fulltime worker to keep the flies away.

The dead would visit the dead, and the living. They would hold parties that would be attended by the living and the dead as well. Plenty of food and drink would be given to them as if they were alive. They were carried around town in a litter by their living family.

But wait, you may be wondering, how did they eat and drink? The mummies were fed the same foods that they enjoyed when they were alive. How this was done was by using an unusual ritual of lighting special wood on fire and then burning the food in it. This was done in front of the mummy and when the food was fully burned it was said to have been consumed by the dead. To provide the drink, they would dump the libation into a special well-like hole in the ground.

The mummification process was very good, the Spaniards saw mummies hundreds of years old and remarked about how remarkable they were.

2) The Inca were pretty advanced, I’d say as much so as the Ancient Greeks

An Incan Golden Attire

This is a reconstructed golden outfit in the Museo de Oro in Lima, Peru

And in some respects, they were as advanced as the Romans.

This can be controversial. On one hand, they didn’t have the written word as the Greeks did, but they had better accounting and agriculture. They didn’t have the arch, but they could construct bridges that spanned unsurpassable gulches that could hold 100 horses and fully armored Spaniards. They didn’t have the wheel and axel, but they had the Qhapaq Ñan: the most advanced roadway in the world spanning 40,000kms. It is quite difficult to compare them, but from what we see, should the Ancient Greeks and Inka’s go to war, or even the Incas and the Roman’s, the outcome would have been uncertain. It is of interest to note that the Andean cultures only had their own innovations to draw upon; whereas, Europe and Asia had all of Eurasia with whom to co-innovate. The Book, Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond provides great info on the matter.

3) At 10 years old, pretty girls were taken away from their family to be acllas

Inca Inspectors would tour the empire every few years to find young girls, usually around the age of 10, of exceeding beauty, promise, or talent to make into Acllas. To be chosen as an aclla was supposed to be a high honor, it was one of the only ways to ascend the social ladder. I have a feeling that telling a young girl and her mother at the moment of separation that their alienation was an honor might not have been received very well. Off to the acllahuasi, these young girls went. The acllahausi was the Inca version of a convent of the Roman Catholic church.

At the acllahuasi, the young girls could be expected to learn how to weave, make chicha (corn beer), and other womanly duties. After years of learning most would leave the acllahuasi. At best (or worst) they were selected to be a wife or concubine of the Sapa Inca or other affluent noblemen as a reward. At worst they were sacrificed or used as household servants. The most beautiful were kept at the acllahuasi as mamacuna who trained the younger ones and were considered to be married to the sun. Not even the Sapa Inca was allowed to see them.

4) Those in the Inca Empire (Not all Incas) grew over 400 varieties of potatoes

Yup, that’s right. There are more than the 5 varieties of potatoes you see at a typical store.

Potatoes were domesticated in the Andes thousands of years ago from a small poisonous plant that doesn’t come close to the resemblance. Since then hundreds of verities have been domesticated and they are a staple of the Andean diet even until today. The Andes are the king of potatoes, not Idaho or Ireland.

The reason for the hundreds of unique verities is given the different elevations and climates of the Andes. One potato doesn’t fit all. The Incas had a potato variety for high altitude, low altitude, dry climate or wet. They had an expansive empire so what grew in certain places wouldn’t grow in others. All in all, their diverse potato base provided all the disease resistance they needed.

After the potatoes were harvested they were typically freeze dried and stored for soups and other dishes.

I have a very informative post about potatoes and how the European Potato Famine could have been avoided if you’re so inclined.

5)Midgets married midgets

Midget servants of a Coya

The midgets were considered a huaca, or a sacred thing. This Coya felt blessed with their service.

 

Disability wasn’t really a thing in the Inca Empire, and midgets were not considered disabled, not even in the least. The Incas were innovative in how they used human capital and work. One way of doing this was to pair jobs with those that could do them accordingly: the deaf could work with their hands and weave; those with arthritis would be tasked with such tasks as an oversight; the deaf were used for accounting. When midgets were to be married they were paired with another midget to ease living difficulties such as if they were left single or wed to a tall person. After they were married they were apportioned the same lot of land as a family with normal height and had the same responsibilities. Midgets likely were not discriminated against but admired and could be considered as huacas.

A huaca is a sacred object, anything that is out of the ordinary. It is believed to have had special powers or was owed homage.

6)The Inca didn’t have the wheel, or any pack animal

If Incan architecture is known for any two things it’s Machu Picchu and enormous stones used in their construction. See the pictures above. What is not as well known is that they were moved by humans without the assistance of wheels, pack animals or pulleys. They created ginormous ropes made of hemp and leather and had hundreds of people pull and push them. There is one story that Sapa Inka Huayna Capac ordered a stone as large as the picture above brought from Cusco to southern Ecuador. If it was the order of the Sapa Inca it probably happened but has yet to be confirmed.

But this wasn’t all that they did without pack animals or wheels. They created a message delivery system that spanned the empire. Men “chasquis” around 20 years old were selected to man certain outposts every 1.2kms along the 40,000km Qhapaq Ñan. When a message or small package needed to be sent it was given to the first one of these chasquis who sprinted to the next outpost. From there another chasqui resumed the sprint. The processes repeated itself until it reached its destination. It is much like the Pony Express in the American Wild West.

The farmers plowed and harvested enough food for millions of people without the assistance of oxen. They delivered the food to the millions of people without the use of carts or horses. The Inca were incredibly stout and strong people, much of that strength is still manifest in their descendants today in the Andes.

And the final of the 7 Unique Facts About Incas is the most fun. Because they had to work so hard…

7) The Inca were CRAZY alcoholics

A basin of chicha

This is chicha or maize beer. It was drunk in all festivals, during work, and rituals. It is a very sweet drink.

The Incas drank at every opportunity they could. They drank while they farmed, they drank at rituals and weeklong festivals which occurred sometimes several times a month. They drank with visitors, they drank to honor the dead and many other occasions. They would drink until they could hardly stand up. They drank so much that the Spaniards, who were also alcoholics, grew frustrated at their drunken habits.

Maize was the main ingredient in their choice drink called chicha. The majority of the maize that was grown through the empire was used for chicha. The acllas (remember from #3) were responsible for creating it. I haven’t found if they drank while brewing it, but who are we kidding. Of course, they did.

Conclusion

And thus you have it, 7 Unique Facts About Incas. As I perform my research I am equally amazed at what they had in common with the old world as what they different from them. As always, there’s more that unites even the most diverse people then what divides them. One such thing is their appreciation of beauty, which is manifest in their construction of Machu Piccu.

 

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