Impressions of the Road

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Impressions of the Road

When the Spanish conquerors first saw the Great Inka Road, they were amazed by its size and complexity and the ability of the Inka to manage and maintain such a massive road network. To this day, scientists and engineers marvel at the sophistication of the Inka road system and the fact that it has survived for over five hundred years.

Guaman Poma Lithographs

Lithographs from Guaman Poma de Ayala illustrate who used the Great Inka Road and for what purpose. Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, (ca. AD 1535-1616) was a Quechua Indian known for chronicling and denouncing the ill treatment of the natives of the Andes by the Spanish after their conquest. His drawings constitute the most accurate graphic depiction of Inka and colonial Peruvian material available.

All drawings from The First New Chronicle and Good Government. Courtesy of The Royal Library, Copenhagen (GKS 2232 4º).

A chakacamayuc, 1615. Awe-inspiring suspension bridges enthralled Spanish conquistadors and later visitors alike. The chakacamayuc is the bridge master, responsible for the construction. This specialized, highly respected job is usually passed from father to son.

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A chaski, 1615. News traveled fast along the Qhapaq Ñan. Chaski (official messengers) carried khipu (string devices for recording information), verbal messages, and small packages across the empire. They ran in a relay system, trading messages and goods at stations called chaskiwasi, which stood approximately 5-7 miles (10-15 kilometers) apart.

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Governor of the Royal Roads. Inspector of the Qhapaq Ñan, 1615.

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Portrait of Huayna Capac, 11th Shapa Inka (1493–1527). The empire grew to its greatest size under Huayna Capac. He extended the empire and the Qhapaq Ñan southward, into Chile and Argentina. While trying to pacify rebellions among conquered peoples in the north, he died of smallpox.

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Inka road surveyors, 1615. The Qhapaq Ñan is an engineering marvel: 24,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) of roadway across grasslands, rainforest, desert, valleys, and mountains. Its builders did it all without wheeled carts, iron tools, or large work animals. Inka engineers tailored their design to the landscape, drawing upon the expert knowledge and labor of local populations.

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A llama herder, 1615. Great herds of llamas and alpacas provided wool, meat, and, most importantly, transport. At harvest time, the Road was especially busy with llama caravans. Before a caravan departed, the lead animal was blessed, and every llama was decorated.

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The 10th Colla, whose name was Mama Ocllo, 1615. She is shown with a chuspa (bag) in her left hand, walking among a group of women with a man setting the pace.

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The Shapa Inka and his wife traveling the Qhapaq Ñan, 1615. The Shapa Inka (ruler) was regarded as a god. When he traveled on the Qhapaq Ñan, he made it sacred. Servants brushed the road clean before him. When he was on the Road, the full grandeur of the Inka state was on display. His entourage numbered several hundred people, including singers, dancers, guards, warriors, and servants.

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Portrait of Tupac Inka Yupanqui, 10th Shapa Inka (1471–1493), 1615. His name translates as "noble Inka accountant." He extended the Inka Empire northward through Ecuador.

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Quotes from a Spanish Chronicler

Quotes and Paraphrased Quotes from Spanish chroniclers, a Quechua bridge master, and an MIT engineering professor who researches Inka bridges with their impressions about the unique and innovative qualities of the road.

"I believe since the history of man, there has been no other account of such grandeur as is to be seen on this road, which passes over deep valleys and lofty mountains, by snowy heights, over falls of water, through the living rock and along the edges of tortuous torrents."

- Spanish Chronicler Pedro Cieza de León, 1548

I think there has never been a road as awesome as this, which passes over deep valleys and high mountains, by snowy peaks, over waterfalls, through mountain tunnels, and along the edges of rivers with great currents.

- Spanish Chronicler Pedro Cieza de León, 1548

Read additional quotes and paraphrased quotes from Spanish historians, contemporary engineers, and cultural experts to get insights about the innovative engineering qualities of the Inka Road and the Q'eswachaka bridge.

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