For Inca Road Builders, Extreme Terrain Was No Obstacle

Aug 29, 2015
Originally published on August 29, 2015 10:37 am

One of history's greatest engineering feats is one you rarely hear of. It's the Inca Road, parts of which still exist today across much of South America.

Back in the day — more than 500 years ago — commoners like me wouldn't have been able to walk on the Inca Road, known as Qhapaq Ñan in the Quechua language spoken by the Inca, without official permission.

Fortunately, I have Peruvian archaeologist Ramiro Matos by my side. He is the lead curator of an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called "The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire."

That's "Inka" with a K, as it's spelled in Quechua. And today, we're taking a virtual journey down what was once more than 20,000 miles of road traversing some of the world's most challenging terrain — mountains, forests and deserts.

The Inca road began at the center of the Inca universe: Cusco, a city in the Peruvian Andes, said to be built in the shape of a crouching puma. It actually was not a single road but a network of royal roads, an instrument of power designed for military transport, religious pilgrimages and to move supplies.

"As far as the road stretches, the empire stretches," says Ramos.

The road spanned modern-day Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. The museum exhibition's photographs of it are vertigo-inducing: Massive pathways wind up tall mountains and touch the clouds; sturdy staircases unwind into lush, green valleys, as if the brutal nature of the landscape had been just a small inconvenience to work around.

"The highest part of the road crosses from Argentina to Chile, nearly 20,000 feet high," Matos says.

How did they build this?

"Local experience."

The Inca were master engineers. But like most conquerors, they also tapped local experts. The exhibition highlights a long bridge made of woven plant fibers, still in use today.

"There's an inventory of over 100 bridges in all of the empire — this is one of the few which remain. It's made with icchu or puna grass," Matos says.

The Inca Empire only lasted about a century. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, that intricate road made it easier for them to move around and access precious mines that the Incas themselves had been exploiting.

Today, most of the old road has been destroyed — both by the Spanish conquest and by modern highways. Some parts remain and are still in use.

Schoolchildren around the world learn about the ancient Roman roads and the Great Wall of China — but most people have heard little about the great Inca Road. Kevin Gover, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, says the road is largely forgotten because it just doesn't fit into a typical Western narrative.

"Indians play one of two roles in that narrative," he says. "They are either the opponents of civilization or they are literally part of the nature that was there to be settled and conquered. We're not taught that some of these were very advanced civilizations, because that means this wasn't a wilderness. And that means somebody had to be displaced. And it wasn't necessarily a noble endeavor."

That's why the museum created the exhibit, which is on display till 2018.

The great Inca Road reminds us that, once upon a time, all roads led not to Rome — but to Cusco, Peru.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now a story about one of history's great engineering feats, a project that has slipped almost into obscurity, the Inca Road. Parts of it still exist today across much of South America, and NPR's Jasmine Garsd is going to take us on a virtual tour.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Back in the day, and by back in the day, I mean over 500 years ago, a commoner like me wouldn't have been able to walk on the Inca Road, or Qhapaq Nan, without official permission.

RAMIRO MATOS: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: Fortunately, I have Peruvian archaeologist Ramiro Matos by my side. He co-curated an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called The Great Inka Road: Building an Empire. That's Inka with a K, as it's spelled in Quechua. And today, we're taking a journey down what was once 20,000 miles of road.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

GARSD: The Inca Road began at the center of the Inca universe, Cusco, a city said to be built in the shape of a puma crouching up in the Peruvian Andes. It was a network of royal roads designed for military transportation, religious pilgrimages and to move supplies. The roads were an instrument of power.

MATOS: (Through interpreter) As far as the road stretches, the empire stretches.

GARSD: The Inca Road spanned modern-day Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. The photographs of it are vertigo-inducing. Massive pathways wind up tall mountains and pave the clouds, sturdy staircases unwind into lush green valleys as if the brutal nature of the landscape had been just a small inconvenience to work around.

MATOS: (Through interpreter) The highest part of the road crosses from Argentina to Chile, nearly 20,000 feet high. How did they build this? Local experience.

GARSD: The Incas were master engineers, but like most conquerors, they also tapped local experts. As an example, the exhibition focuses on a bridge of plant fibers which is still in use today.

MATOS: (Through interpreter) There is an inventory of over 100 bridges in all of the empire. This is one of the few which remain. It is made with icchu, or puna grass.

GARSD: The Inca Empire only lasted about a century. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the intricate Inca Road made it easier for them to move around and access precious mines the Incas themselves had been exploiting. Today, most of the road has been destroyed, both by the conquest and by modern highways. Some parts remain. Schoolchildren around the world memorize facts about the Roman roads and the Great Wall of China, but most people know so little about the Inca Road. Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. He says the road is largely forgotten because it just doesn't fit into the typical Western narrative.

KEVIN GOVER: Indians play one of two roles in that narrative. They're either the opponents of civilization, or they're literally part of the nature that was there to be settled and conquered. We are not taught that some of these were very advanced civilizations because that means this wasn't a wilderness. And that means somebody had to be displaced, and it wasn't necessarily a noble endeavor.

GARSD: That's why the museum created the exhibit, which is on display until 2018. The great Inca Road reminds us that once upon a time, all roads lead to Cusco, Peru. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.