The Great Inka Road

The Great Inka Road: The Integration of an Andean Empire

Tipon, near Cusco, a wonder of Inka irrigation and hydraulic engineering. Photo by Doug McMains

According to Andean legend, the ancient Inka would crack their whips and massive stones would miraculously fall into line and stack themselves into remarkable works of construction.

Sixty-four-year-old Nazaria Meza, from the Quechua community of Chawaytiri, related the story to me and a group of travelers as we hiked along one of the main trails leading out of the city of Cusco, Peru. “We don’t know anymore just how they made such a road,” said Nazaria, elder and grandmother, about her Inka ancestors. “But when we walk our llamas along the Inka Road, we feel strong in our hearts.”

Qhapaq Nan, the sacred road of the ancient Inka sovereign and an intricate system blanketing a 25,000-mile expanse, stands today as the physical remnant of a highly organized American empire, both politically and economically. Unparalleled in hemispheric history for its capacity to integrate a wide range of people and resources over a huge and difficult geography, the Qhapaq Nan still functions as a series of living roads traveled by indigenous peoples over long stretches of Andean landscape.

The magnificent Andean mountain ranges run the length of western South America, from southern Chile to Colombia. Dropping east to the jungles and west to the sea, the Andes are a monumental and aggressive terrain, difficult to traverse and even harder to integrate into large-scale human endeavor.

Altitudes in the Andes range from 11,000 to 16,000 feet above sea level. A vertical world of extensive, abrupt, often impassable ranges, it is also a world of great promise. The Andes enjoy many ecological zones. A great variety of horticulture is possible, if terraces can be built into landscapes and the transport of goods can be safely organized.

The great human effort required to organize the Andean world was most expansively and adeptly accomplished by the Inka Empire. On the heels of earlier civilizations the Inka created a great road network crossing high sierras, punas, deserts and coast – even penetrating deep into the jungle. As scholar Victoria Castro has written, theirs was an “ingenious humanization of a fractured geography.”

The Andes nurtured numerous nations and several civilizations before the Inka emergence. The Inka are particularly recognized for integrating knowledge from earlier civilizations, such as the Wari and Tiwanaku, for incorporating ancient trails into roads, and for concentrating the ancestral knowledge of many cultures in the Andean region. The integration took place at many levels: the interpretation and practice of cosmology, local social organization and state administration. A redistributive system, grounded in the principle of reciprocity, sustained the empire.

The Inka accomplished their feats of empire building by founding and expanding from a central administrative and religious center, the capital city of Cusco. The chawpi, or the center, of the Inka Empire is here. It is the home region, marked by a deep and abiding mytho-historical narrative and forever identified with the brilliant figure of the greatest of the Inka rulers, Pachacutic, who ruled from 1438 to 1471 AD.

The long-lived Pachacutic a legend in his own time, engineered much of the style and form of his world. Credited with saving Cusco from an invasion from the enemy Chanca, whom he later vanquished, Pachacutic went on to redesign the city and its valleys, forging rivers into water canal systems, carving horizontal terraces into steep mountains to recover agricultural land, and establishing an Inka mastery of engineering and architecture that organized the labor and military service of tens of thousands. 

The dynasty of Inka sovereigns begins in the mythological narratives of oral memory and bridges into modern history in the legend and physical presence of Pachacutic.

Jose Barreiro is assistant director for history and culture research, NationaI Museum of the American Indian, and co-curator of the exhibition The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.