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

In the mythological creation, the original couples – the ayares, four couples from one panaka, or extended family – emerged from caves at Pacariqtambo and, before that (in a different version), from the waters of Lake Titicaca. These principals, Manco Qapac and Mama Occllo, gathered the ten first communities (ayllus) and began a journey, the first journey of the Inka Road. They came with a mandate from Inti, the Sun. Inka legend tells that before their emergence, chaos and violence ruled the Andes; people “lived like fierce and brutish animals.”

“Our Father, the Sun,” the Inka historian Garcilaso de la Vega recounted in 1609, “...having pity upon them sent from the sky to the earth a son and a daughter of his, to teach them...precepts and laws to live in reason.” The Sun instructed these primordial and mythic-historical Inka, according to Garcilaso, that they should conquer and incorporate the human beings to a “system of reason and justice, with pity, clemency and with tender and well-loved children.”

Garcilaso is not always the most accepted of early witnesses, writing some 60 years after the conquest, but the impetus to organization by the Inka state is widely acknowledged. Historians often comment on the Inka’s organizational skill. “In everything from the most important to the most trifling, there was order and methodical arrangement,” wrote the 20th century scholar Lewis Hanke. “Men had honorable and useful occupations…lands, mines, pastures, hunting lands, woods; and all kinds of employments were so managed that each person knew and held his own state.”

Through the Chaski or post “runner” system, and in the accounting of materials and people through khipu, the Inka imperial capital had accurate and timely intelligence. In this sense, all roads led to Cusco. “In each district of the four in which they divided their empire, the Inka had councils of war, justice, treasury,” wrote Hanke. “Each of these councils had their ministries and ministers and subordinates from major to minor...from decurions that handled ten to others who handled hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands. From grade to grade, these levels gave count of everything there was in the empire to the supreme councils. The council presidents of each district received the sum of reason of everything that happened in the empire, to give count of it to the Inka.”

Over time, from the primordial ayar couple, Manco Capac and Mama Occllo, and following the line of eight Inkas, there is a progressive conquest of the immediate Cuzco region, settling Inka dominance of its highly productive sacred valley. According to legend, through this first line of Inka sovereigns, instruction and organization of conquered peoples was integral to the expansion of Inka polity. Inka systematically integrated new populations, introducing standardization in their arts and trades, agricultural practices and crops, architectural skills and other knowledge.

With the advent of Pachacutic, and his two successive generations – son, Tupa Inka Yupanqui; grandson, Huaynacapac – an American indigenous polity of major proportions was integrated under a single political system, an empirical feat of governance unequaled in that vast region, before or since.

Pachacutic and his line of three generations – over one incredibly ambitious century starting around 1438 AD – organized and built the major urban centers, terraces, canals and aqueducts, storehouses and roads, built or rebuilt citadels such as Macchu Picchu, Ollantaytambo, Huanuco Pampa, Cajamarca, Tomebamba, Wakarapukara (the list is long). They deployed the most skilled diplomacy, directed the most strategic wars (excelling at provisioning troops), built countless bridges and roads, training and commanding administrators and engineers, huge numbers of skilled artisans, agriculturalists, construction workers. The three generations of Pachacutic’s line expanded to the four directions, the “four quarters,” or suyos, of the Tawantinsuyu, developing highly complex systems in architecture, agriculture and social organization.

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.