Cusco was once the capital of the world.

As the seat of power, it was quite literally the center of the Inca universe. All roads to the four quadrants of the Inca Empire led to Cusco.

Now, Cusco is the tourist capital of Peru. And probably all of South America. Arguably the world, even.

I passed a gate on the bus ride from Puno. It was an architectural feat–like many Inca structures–built high in the mountains to control entry to the capital. The road now winds around the gate, making it little more than a reminder.

For one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known, the Incas had a fairly short reign. What is commonly thought of today as the Inca Empire lasted less than 100 years.

Maybe the Incas didn’t do a good enough job raising their children.

Nobility in Inca society was marked by cranial deformation. A baby’s head was placed in a sort of vice to elongate the skull. This splint was worn until the child was nine or ten years old, at which time their head was pyramid-shaped.

The prefrontal cortex was the last part of the human brain to evolve. It’s the region that allows for predicting the future; humans are the only species on Earth that can make educated guesses about what will happen next. Squishing the part of the skull that houses the center of “executive function” seems like a bad idea to me.

Then again, the pyramid shape supposedly increased brain capacity and intensity of feeling. So the Incas could have been better at math and being in the present.

An important Inca ritual was the capacocha. The best-looking children were sent from the four regions of the Empire to Cusco. They were paraded around and given gifts. Then the adults got the kids drunk.

After the children passed out, they were buried. Alive. At least they got to keep the gifts.

Incas believed this sacrifice would appease their gods. I wasn’t alive then, so what do I know?

I know that the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, during the middle of an Inca civil war. And the tribes conquered by the Incas were so eager to be free of Inca rule that they sided with the Spanish.

Perhaps, with a little foresight, the Incas could have realized the threat the Spanish presented, and put aside their petty squabble.

Maybe, if the Incas weren’t so keen on sacrificing future generations, they would have developed leaders who could unite the different cultures under the Empire.

There’s a lesson here: I don’t know what I don’t know. The Incas knew the limits of their rule. They did not know the Spanish were out there. Catholics believed the Earth was the center of the universe, and the sky was heaven. Now, the Earth is an object in space, orbiting the Sun, in the Milky Way Galaxy, of the Universe.

The Universe is always expanding. Into what, I wonder?


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