From their humbling beginnings as a small nomadic tribe in the Cusco Valley, the Incas came up with numerous ingenious innovations which helped them expand their empire to cover almost the entire South American continent. Living in isolation from the great Asian and European civilizations of the time, the Inca’s ingenuity was undeniably impressive and their technology continued to improve right up until Spanish colonization. Here are the amazing things you didn’t know the Incas invented.
Discover more Inca history on our nine-day premium adventure around Peru – you’ll explore the Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley, see the iconic vistas at Machu Picchu and whip up traditional Peruvian cuisine at a cooking class in Cusco.
Technically speaking, the Romans had already built the world’s first roads on the other side of the world, although the Incas didn’t know that. These mountainous people didn’t have the wheel so they were forced to travel and carry goods either on the back of an alpaca or on foot. To facilitate more efficient transportation, a gigantic 25,000 mile (40,000 km) highway system was constructed which spanned the entire empire, much of which can still be seen today. This system, known as Capac Ñan, contained all type of roads including simple dirt tracks and extravagantly paved highways.
A communications network
They didn’t exactly invent the internet, but the Inca’s communication system was remarkable nonetheless! Citizens were employed by the state to take up positions every mile along major roads and work as relay runners to pass messages and deliveries across great distances. Historians believe the system could travel as fast as 150 miles (241 km) per day, meaning that the emperor in the eastern mountains could have fish delivered from the Pacific ocean in less than two days. A series of rest houses called Tambos were built along these routes to store food and provide shelter, something of utmost importance to the unlucky few who were chosen to carry nobles vast distances on their shoulders using raised platforms.
An accounting system
The Incas had an ingenious record keeping system known as Khipus which was unlike anything ever conceived by other civilizations. The system utilized a thick rope with a number of alpaca or llama wool strings of different colors and lengths tied into knots around it. This clever method is thought to have been used for keeping track of stocks, supplies, debts and population numbers, perhaps using the earliest ever form of the decimal system. Much is still unknown about this puzzling system, but ongoing research in top universities like Harvard hopes to shed more light on the mystery.
The Inca empire began in a mountainous region with limited access to flat land. To overcome this issue, they constructed terraces by carving out sections of the mountain into usable flat surfaces. This also allowed them to maximize the full potential of rainfall while simultaneously reducing erosion, a method that made their crops of potato and corn flourish. They also built irrigation canals to provide access to stream water along with retaining walls which deflected heat during the hot days but trapped it in at night, preventing crops from dying from frostbite during the bitterly cold highland evenings. The terraces of Moray in the Cuzco valley are thought to be something of an agricultural experimentation area, where ancient Incas would test out the viability of growing different crops in different micro-climates. Many of these early irrigation and terracing techniques have been adapted for use in modern industrial scale farming.
The Incas were the first recorded people to learn freeze drying techniques. They left potatoes under a cloth overnight in the freezing cold, returning the next day to trample over them to squeeze out any excess moisture. The process was repeated a number of times until they had made chuño, the Quechua word for freeze-dried potato. This groundbreaking discovery provided a number of considerable benefits to the Inca empire. It was much lighter therefore easier carry, it was more durable, lasting several years before going off, which was crucial in the event of a crop failure, and it actually improved the taste of some varieties of potato, which increased morale among the troops.
The Incas worked out that it was possible to save the lives of their injured men using a primitive form of brain surgery. The operations were designed to reduce inflammation caused by serious head injuries and incorporated basic anesthetics such as coca, tobacco and alcohol to reduce discomfort. Unsurprisingly, many of the early patients died from complications or in the operating theater itself. After several centuries of practice however, the Incas refined the procedure and were thought to have achieved a success rate as high as 90%.
An effective government
Upon conquering the Incas, the Spanish remarked that there were very few beggars or vagabonds and that everyone seemed to have a place in society. The Inca empire was exceptionally successful at mobilizing all members of society towards a unified goal, with everyone receiving shelter and food in return for their service. To achieve such control, they adopted a remarkable system of government based on the decimal system. A local ruler would control 10 families, while the next boss up controlled 100, and the one above him 1,000, and so on. The more important rulers were democratically elected every year and there was very little internal conflict until the very end of their reign.
The Incas had plenty of good roads, but how did they travel across the steep canyons or fierce rivers of their extensive empire? The answer is through an impressive rope bridge design that was terrifyingly perilous to construct. Inca engineers would shoot arrows across a canyon or river to a colleague waiting on the other side who then secured the rope into place. The colleague would then have the terrifying task of climbing down the treacherous precipice to ensure the structure was sound. Many died in the process, but where honored for doing so, as this infrastructure was instrumental in the empire’s expansion.
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