Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Roads in History: Incas

The Inca Empire was the greatest empire that known in South America. It covered more than half of the western coast of the continent. It covered different terrains, some of which were treacherous. Nevertheless, it flourished with its networks of roads and communication. Roads had been a way to connect lands, kingdoms, and empires. It brought great benefits to civilizations that created such networks. And on that part of the world, none than if best than the Inca Empire.

The Inca was known as the most powerful empire existing in South America when the Spaniards arrived during the 16th century. Its domain covered more than half of the Pacific coastline of continent. Today’s standard, it covered small parts of Colombia, then Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and some parts of Argentina. The Empire did not just have diverse group of people but also had different terrains and environment under its domains. It covered mountains, desserts, and jungles.

Because of this situation, the Inca developed different roads depending on the nature of terrains. For example, roads placed in the coastal desserts had only mud walls parallel to each other to mark the road. The road itself was made of dirt. In high plains, roads were made of cobble or flagstones. In swampy areas, the roads was an elevated causeway or viaduct. In mountainous areas, steps made of stones were placed. In some cases, bridges were laid in the mountains to connect two cliffs. These bridges were remarkable, innovative, and iconic. The famous suspended bridges of the Incas made of leather and ropes were strong and reliable.

The simplicity of the roads laid on the fact that the Incas did not have draft animals or wheels. They did not had horses or wheels. The main transport mode were either lamas or alpacas.

The roads of the Incas helped the Empire to be better connected. The main road that connected the Empire was called the Qhapaq Nan. It was a road the traverse the Empire from the north to the south. It started in Quito in Ecuador, passed to the capital Cuzco and then ended in Chile in the south. From this main road, other periphery roads were built. Some roads connected the coast to the inner lands. Some provinces constructed roads that linked villages together.

This network contributed to a faster messenger service and even to the growth of many towns and villages. The roads of the Incas were used by relay messengers called chaski or chasqui. They delivered the well-known quipus, or messages tied in knots, to the officials either in the local or to the capital of Cuzco itself. The roads helped the chaski to save time from the difficulty of navigation and trekking to the various terrains of the empire. At the main routes of the empire, for every 8 to 15 miles, a relay station with another chaski to take the message were placed. Besides the chaskis, the military, merchants, and commoners also benefitted from the roads. Faster mobilization, distribution, and travel time was achieved thanks to the roads of the empire. There were also communities that benefitted from the road systems. In the main roads of the empire, resting villages called tanpu or tampu were situated for every 25 to 30 mile interval along the roads. This villages provide lodgings and supplies. But most of them developed into major centers of trade and politics. They served as administrative centers as well as market places. Examples of these tampus in Vilcabamba and Cajamarca.

The roads of the Inca became useful for the existence of the Empire. It also amazed the conquistadores when they arrived to conquer the Inca Empire. The roads of the Inca showed the civilizations perseverance as well as flexibility to adapt into different terrains and situations.

See also:
Roads in History: Persian Empire
Roads in History: Roman Empire

Bullet, R. et. al. The Earth and Its People, Volume B. Massachusetts: Wadsworth, 2011.

Grimbly, S. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the Ancient World. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

Kolkata, A. Ancient Inca. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

Langmead, D. & C. Garnaut. Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats. California: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2011.

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