Not just there to be sacrificed: What was life like for an Inca child?

Everybody knows that the Inca sacrificed children to their gods. Just last year, the internet was all over a study suggesting that the mummified corpses of sacrificed children from 15th-century Peru retained traces of alcohol and drugs–often with lurid titles describing the children as “stoned” and “drunk” before dying. A lot of people find the subject of human sacrifice captivating, myself included–perhaps because people enjoy reading about gruesome things (gruesome things, in this case, which actually happened, which must add a certain extra frisson of excitement) while in the relative comfort and safety of their homes or offices. And, really, there’s nothing wrong with that–if they help us understand past cultures, we shouldn’t avoid discussing certain topics simply because they have popular appeal. But, in the case of the Inca, I think all this attention towards child sacrifice has ended up making us forget that there were loads of other children, all across the Inca empire, who were not sacrificed. What was life like for them?

It turns out almost nothing has been written on this subject. With a few notable exceptions, archaeologists tend to neglect children as a demographic. This might be due partly to the fact that Westerners, and therefore Western archaeologists, tend to think of children as carefree beings who do nothing but play all day and whose actions have no consequence on wider social or cultural phenomena. Or, alternatively, they tend to think of children as passive recipients of the cultural norms and rules that their parents, teachers and other elders transmit to them. But children are people, no matter how small or strange they might be, and they have agency, thoughts and opinions about things–which are just as interesting and informative in the study of past cultures as those of adults.

So how do we start trying to figure out what life was like for little Incas*? Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle and Good Government (which is also known by other titles) is probably a good place to begin. Guaman Poma was an Inca nobleman who lived at the time of Spanish rule, and left a written account, in Spanish, of Inca life both before and after the Spanish conquest. The Inca Empire was absolutely massive, and Guaman Poma tells us that one of the ways its rulers tried to control it was by regularly gathering data on its population. Once every six months, officials would be sent to all corners of the empire to perform a census–apparently, each time it took about three days to count all the males in one particular ethnic group, and three more days to count all the females. The numbers would be recorded through a system of knotted strings known as quipu, and which is still largely undeciphered today.

What does this have to do with Inca children? Well, each ethnic group was divided into ten classes. These classes were based on economic productivity and social consequence–so 25- to 50-year-olds came first, 60- to 70-year-olds second, the extremely elderly third, the disabled fourth, 18- to 20-year-olds fifth, and then, successively, teenagers, 5- to 9-year-olds, toddlers, and babies.

Not much use? A toddler (right) and a "playful little boy of five years" (left).

Not much use? A toddler (right) and a “playful little boy of five years” (left) (Poma 2009: 160-161). What kind of object is that boy playing with? It doesn’t look like any toy I’m familiar with. And what of his animal hat? Animal headdresses in other Pre-Columbian cultures are often believed to have something to do with shamanism (i.e. they connect the wearer with some kind of spirit animal), but that was probably not the case here. These and the following drawings were all done by Guaman Poma himself.

This might seem to suggest that children were seen as of no consequence in Inca society, and indeed Guaman Poma only talks about what is done to toddlers and babies, rather than what they do–they are breastfed by their mothers, they are rocked in their cradles and generally taken care of by their parents and elder siblings. And the first thing Guaman Poma says of 5- to 9-year-olds is that they are disciplined by their parents through frequent beatings**. But then, beginning from this age, kids also started gradually accumulating a broad repertoire of skills that would serve them well as imperial subjects.

This drawing depicts a "playful little girl of five", but she's already helping with household (?) chores.

This drawing depicts a “playful little girl of five”, but she’s already helping with household (?) chores (Poma 2009: 176).

Girls would be the first to learn new skills: 9-year-olds probably already knew how to spin thread, gather herbs, and brew beer. Between the ages of 9 and 12, boys would learn to trap birds (whose skin was made into leather, whose flesh was cooked and eaten, and whose feathers ended up ornamenting shields and weapons), while girls gathered flowers in the fields, and used the pigments in the petals to dye the turbans and other precious garments worn by the nobles. Teenage boys would mostly tend to herds of llamas and alpacas up in the higher altitudes, but they would also learn how to use lassoos, traps and slings to hunt and kill animals. Occasionally, they would be picked to serve their betters. Teenage girls were expected to be “submissive and respectful”, to cook and clean, to obey their elders’ orders and stay away from men until they were given one to marry. Apparently, they also kept their hair short and their feet bare.

Flower Picker

A 9-year-old flower-picker (Poma 2009: 175).

herder

A 12-year-old boy herder, carrying birds he probably killed himself (Poma 2009: 157)–possibly after having trapped them in that big net he’s holding? The only context I’m aware of in which similar nets are used is bird- and bat-catching for the purpose of wildlife studies.

Girl herder

Girl herder (Poma 2009: 173): short-haired but not barefoot. And accompanied by a dog. Interesting that Guaman Poma only says that boys herded llamas and alpacas, then shows a 12-year-old girl performing this very thing (while he male counterpart is more interested in bird-trapping).

In order to prepare the boys for war, and the girls for married life, both were kept away from fatty, sugary or greasy food, honey, vinegar, hot condiments, and beer.

The Spanish also left behind a few texts that help us learn more about Inca childhood. A Jesuit priest by the name of Bernabe’ Cobo, in particular, gives us a bit more information on the lives of babies than Guaman Poma does. Cobo tells us that a freezing bath in a mountain’s stream was one of the first things an Inca baby would experience. Soon after, the baby’s head was bound so that it would assume a more attractive shape than boring old usual head shapes. Cone shapes were popular among some highland communities, for example. Four days after the bath, the baby, who had presumably spent those four days naked, was finally wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a cradle. The latter was a small board with four feet, equipped with a blanket for padding and some light restraints to prevent the child from falling off; it was also designed so that the mother could walk around with it strapped to her back.

Guamam Poma's drawing of a baby girl in her cradle.

Baby girl in her cradle (Poma 2009: 180). You can see the bindings around her head, that were meant to shape her cranium in an aesthetically pleasing way.

Freezing baths continued, and the mother would never take the baby into her arms or on her lap, for fear of spoiling her. Once she reached the venerable age of two, the child was finally named, during an elaborate hair-cutting ceremony called the rutuchicoy, which I think is still practiced in certain Andean communities today. The likely reason why people waited so long before naming the child was because infant mortality was so high.

Guamam Poma's drawing of a baby boy.

Baby boy (Poma 2009: 163).

Of course, not all children were the same. A half-Spanish, half-Inca chronicler by the name of Garcilaso de la Vega recalls that boys of noble blood, both Inca and non, went to school in Cusco, the capital, for four years, and there they were taught Quechua (the empire’s official language, still spoken today in some Andean communities), Inca religion and history, quipu accounting, and the proper use of weapons. As for girls, the prettiest ones were taken from their families at the age of ten and sequestered inside so-called Houses of the Chosen Women (aqllawasi). Here, after four years of learning about Inca religion, weaving, cooking and beer-brewing, these “Chosen Women” (aqllakuna) would either go on to become priestesses, or be given as trophy wives to men who had curried the Emperor’s favour. Much work has actually been written on the aqllakuna.

Finally, it’s worth saying that I also found some information on the way illness was cured in kids. Fevers, apparently, were cured by bathing the child in a large pot filled to the brim with the entire family’s urine. And many other diseases were believed to be cured by giving the child his preserved umbilical cord to suck on–the act of sucking would, apparently, ensure that the cord itself would absorb all the evil that the child’s body contained. My source for these two nuggets of information is Terry Deary’s The Incredible Incas, from the Horrible Histories series of books, which unfortunately lack bibliographies, so this last paragraph may not actually be that reliable.

It seems, then, that we actually do know quite a lot about childhood in Inca times, even without archaeology. Should archaeologists bother to try to find out more? I think they should. If we want to find out what children’s lives were like in the past, we should go directly to the children themselves, and not just what adults said about them. And Inca children didn’t express themselves through writing, but through the objects they used in play, and in their household chores, and in their jobs out in the fields. Looking at these objects, both by themselves (the kinds of material they were made out of, how often they were used, how they were decorated, how they were discarded when broken or no longer needed) and within the context of archaeological sites (the kinds of spaces they tend to be found in, whether they were buried with children at death), would give us the closest thing to an insider’s perspective on the lives of children in the Inca Empire.

A potentially interesting question to investigate: can we distinguish slings used by children to trap birds and small animals from those used by adults in hunting and warfare? If so, what could the differences mean? Ancient South American slings are actually a pretty common find in a lot of archaeological sites and museums.

9-year-old hunter (Poma 2009: 158). A potentially interesting question to investigate: can we distinguish slings used by children to trap birds and small animals from those used by adults in hunting and warfare? If so, what could the differences mean?

There’s also the fact that Guaman Poma, and to a large extent Cobo and Garcilaso, both give us a pretty monolithic idea of Inca childhood. The Inca Empire covered a spectrum of languages and cultures, and it seems unlikely that children in all corners of the empire were treated and behaved in the same way. We know some groups were unhappy with Inca rule (for example, the Chachapoya of Peru’s cloud forests), and they may have encouraged rebellion in their children as well, lest they grow up as obedient imperial subjects. And we know some groups were favoured by the Inca (for example, the Chincha of the southern coasts), and it is possible that in many areas of their lives and cultures they were allowed to keep their old customs, which may or may not have included different notions of childhood and children than the ones the Inca had. What is needed here is a comparison of children’s material culture from disparate parts of the empire.

Of course, though I make it sound easy, none of this probably will be. But then, that’s what people used to say about the archaeology of women–there used to be an argument that, because women in the past were often confined to humble, domestic duties, it would be very difficult to “find” them in the archaeological record. Decades later, such a position would be derided–the literature on women’s lives in the past is staggering in its richness and complexity. So I am optimistic that something similar can be done with children’s lives in the Inca empire, as well.

If anyone has any comments or questions–if you know something about Inca childhood, or have seen objects associated with Inca children in museums, or want to know about the stuff I left out (mainly, initiation rituals), or anything else–I’d be very happy to hear from you!

Notes

* By which I mean children in the Inca empire–the Inca themselves were simply the dominant ethnic group, and they were in the minority.

** Guaman Poma provides a pretty vivid description of a child’s reaction at the pinching of his ears on the part of long-nailed elders–“the children’s eyes started out of their heads, tears came to them and they cried with the pain”. Guaman Poma also adds that the elders often grew their fingernails to be long and sharp, which would result in the punished children’s ears being pierced side to side. And at one point, Guaman Poma also says that children were flogged at the first disobedience, and sent to the gold or silver mines at the second, but I think he might be referring to very specific circumstances–though it’s not very clear.

References

D’Altroy, T. 2002. The Incas. Oxford: Blackwell.

Deary, T. The Incredible Incas. London: Scholastic.

Poma, G. 2009. The First New Chronicle and Good Government: On the History of the World and the Incas up to 1615. Translated by R. Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Poma, G. 1978. Letter to a King: A Peruvian Chief’s Account of Life Under the Incas and Under Spanish Rule. Translated by C. Dilke. New York: E.P. Dutton.

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