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Incas sacrificed little girls and displayed their skulls. Source: dk_patt / Adobe Stock.

Inca Elites Displayed Young Women's Skulls To Gain Power


The Inca Empire was the largest and most extensive ancient society that ever lived in the Americas. However, government of such a vast community is not without its issues. A new report examines skulls from what was one of the far reaches of the empire, and says there is evidence showing some of the Inca elites maintained control through the threat of extreme violence.

In author Kim MacQuarrie’s book Los últimos días de los incas it is said “Pizarro and his men had achieved a new milestone of violence in the New World with the killing of nearly seven thousand indigenous people in just a few hours”. Nevertheless, once you’ve read this article you might agree that long before the Spanish arrived, Inca rulers had become highly-experienced themselves, when it came to brutally murdering innocent and defenseless Inca youth.

Young Women’s Heads Chosen As Trophy Skulls

At its peak the Inca Empire ranged from modern-day Colombia in the north all the way south to Chile, and the new study which was published by a team of researchers, from the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural in Chile, in Latin American Antiquity set out to answer ‘how’ exactly Inca rulers maintained control over such a vast territory. The ‘Late Horizon’ defines a period in Inca history between the years 1476 AD and 1534 AD and the new scientific paper presented evidence in this time frame of “new forms of ideological violence emerging at the fringes of the Inca Empire”.

A Science Alert article discussing the new paper says anthropologists Francisco Garrido and Catalina Morales analyzed “four severed and fragmented skulls dated to the Late Horizon era”, that were found in 2003 buried without their bodies in a prehispanic village called Iglesia Colorada, the largest settlement in the Copiapó Valley, in northern Chile.

A fragmentary trophy skull with drilled hole modifications. (F. Garrido & C. Morales / Fair Use)

A fragmentary trophy skull with drilled hole modifications. (F. Garrido & C. Morales / Fair Use)

Citing the new study, Nature reports that “four skulls were found, three of which were from young women and the other was from a child” and holes had been punched into the skulls. These puncture wounds indicated the skulls may had been strung together on a rope and they were ultimately “thrown onto a trash pile”.

The skulls had been modified in several other ways including “orifices in the cranium vault and defleshing marks in the mandible” and these specific wounds can be accounted for if the skulls had been ritually mounted on sharpened poles as trophy heads, projecting fear and therefore power over the people living in a remote village at the very fringes of the Inca Empire.

In a comment to Ancient Origins, Francisco Garrido emphasized the following regarding the study:

It is important to emphasize that the research about Inca violence published in Latin American Antiquity is about an exceptional case and does not represent a generalized practice by the Incas. Diplomacy was the main Inca political tool of imperial expansion, and this case of violence does not represent a “reign of terror”. It is likely an ideological effort to deal with social unrest in the periphery of the empire in very particular situations.

Researchers found markings that suggest the skulls were mounted and used as trophy heads in ritualistic displays of power over newly conquered areas. (F. Garrido & C. Morales / Fair Use)

Researchers found markings that suggest the skulls were mounted and used as trophy heads in ritualistic displays of power over newly conquered areas. (F. Garrido & C. Morales / Fair Use)

Chopped, Mounted, or Drilled. Decisions, Decisions…

Supporting their idea that the distinctive modifications are “strongly indicative of their use as grim trophies” the team of researchers argue that the pattern of severed head modification may represent new ideological efforts for controlling possible social unrest, which was especially likely “considering the distance of the site from major imperial centers”. This shocking performative application of hyper-violence may have been a tool of maintaining political control to ensure “compliance with Inca rule”, according to the paper.

Inca Murders With Tax Benefits

There is a high chance at this stage of the story that any past-perceptions of ‘all’ Incas being mountain dwelling spiritualists has been tainted and if not you had better brace yourself, for in asking ‘how’ the Inca legal administrators selected their victims brings about some really quite dark and stirring answers, that goes directly against all modern liberal values.

The researchers point out a distinctive lack of ritual offerings and Inca pottery in the graves which suggested a resistance to domination may have occurred in Iglesia Colorada and it might have represented what is described in the paper as “a pocket of resistance to Inca rule”. To quash these rebellious tendencies, it seems, local Inca lords directly targeted the weaker members of the village including ill women and children whose bones contain indicators of nutritional deficiency over young healthy males.

In a heartbreaking and disturbing conclusion, the scientists think the reason this demographic was chosen rather than males was to “support the state's interest in not affecting the labor structure of the population serving as taxpayers in their corvée labor system” (ie. the periodical free labor ordered by the leadership).

When the Spanish showed up in the 1530’s with their new brand of violence, it in some cases would be merely displacing older and more primitive forms of violence that had emerged from the jungles of South America to terrify, tax, and control the massive Inca population, taking as another example, the Chimú culture  of Peru, where in one sandy graveyard the toll of sacrificed children found has now amounted to 227.

Top image: Incas sacrificed young women and displayed their skulls. Source: dk_patt / Adobe Stock.

Editors note: This article was edited on 29-8-2019 to remove the incorrect statement that the Inca engaged in head shrinking and images associated with that statement, and has been adjusted to better reflect the claims of the study in consultation with researchers.

By Ashley Cowie



Gary Manners's picture

Thank you for your comments. You are correct, and the error came form a confusion of 2 completely unrelated studies by the same researchers. The author of this piece incorrectly stated that the Inca engaged in head shrinking, which was definitely not stated by the researchers in the study. The Inca never shrunk heads, only tribes from the Amazonas, namely Shuar, Achuar, Huambisa and Aguaruna of Ecuador and Peru. Thank you for all your comments. The article defintely benefitted from them and included misinformation that has been removed. Apologies for the errors.


And finally, I don't know what the shrunken heads of the Jivaro tribe (literally the only ones in the world who came up with it) have to do with this, they are completely unrelated to this subject.

Nor they were insurgents themselves, probably the wives of one, similar to what happened to Huascar, forced to watch his harem and mother being tortured and assassinated by Atahulpa’s warriors.

And these weren’t sacrifices as Garrido himself states.

Now the rope thing is just Garrido's guess, while there are no mention ropes being used in the old Spanish accounts, is very well known Incas severed the heads of revolters and placed them on pikes for everyone to think twice before rebelling.


ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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