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

Wrote the earliest Spanish chronicler, Pedro Cieza de Leon: “The Christians were amazed to see such great reason in the Indians, the vast amounts of provisions of all kinds that they had, and the extent of their highways and how clean and filled with lodgings they were.”

Pachacutic took his conquests first west and then far to the north and south. He fully consolidated Inka hold of the sacred Urubamba River valley, the agricultural bread basket. Countless caciques fell to his campaigns as he punished all weak and treacherous neighbors. He saw and took the ancient complex of Tiwanaku, subjugating “all the towns and nations surrounding the great Lake Titicaca,” and sent expeditions north to the region of present-day Cuenca, Ecuador. Colonial-era chronicler, Father Bernabe Cobo records that so quick and efficient were his bridge-building engineers that at least once their wondrous constructions impressed resisting nations into surrender. Vast herds of llama and alpaca, major agricultural valleys, rich mining and salt deposits, and other economic rewards raised the power of the Inka sovereign.

 Pachacutic’s sucession was as orderly and efficient as his reign. As he aged, he slowly introduced a favored and proven son, Topa, to the reins of government. Topa Inka Yapanqui, who ruled from 1471 to 1493, consolidated his father’s dominions, quashing rebellious provinces along the way, as he expanded the empire to the north and east, traveling and building on the Antisuyo road to secure precious woods, fine feathers, coveted plant medicines and gold of the tropical Amazonian foothills. He next went north beyond his father’s Tomebamba to the “Edge of the Kingdom of Quito,” which he besieged and conquered. He consolidated the central coast by a negotiated conquest of the Empire of Chimu.

Topa Inka took his exploits south to the Maule River, building roads deep into today’s central Chile. At the Maule, the Inka army met its match in the fierce resistance of the Mapuche warriors, defining “the edge of his [Topa Inka]’s empire; and the dominions of the Inka never passed that line, then or after.”

Topa Inka’s son, Huaynacapac, “the last true Inka,” according to Cobo, took seriously the patrilineal mandate to expand his own portion of the Empire. He did so by “incorporating much of what is now modern Ecuador as well as the northeastern Peruvian Andes,” writes Gordon F. McEwan. A brilliant general, Huaynacapac spent so much time in his northern military campaigns that the central governmental fabric was seriously strained. The now vast empire suffered from his distance from Cusco, while the Inka appeared to set up a rival court in the northern Inka center of Tomebamba.

Huaynacapac’s absence from Cusco – sacred city and center of administrative equilibrium – signaled a power vacuum that would usher the empire’s destruction. In 1527, a new disease (likely smallpox) reached his northern court, just ahead of the Spanish conquistadores. It rapidly killed the Inka along with many high-ranking generals and officials, and most tragically for the empire, his designated heir. The lack of orderly succession opened doors to chaos and a ruinous civil war into which walked the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizarro and his band of soldiers.




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.