The highways of an an­cient em­pire

The Washington Post Sunday - - THIS WEEK - BY ROGER CATLIN

In­fra­struc­ture was crit­i­cal to the suc­cess of South Amer­ica’s great­est em­pires. Built with­out the use of me­tal, wheels or draft an­i­mals in the 15th cen­tury, an im­mense sys­tem of roads united more than 100 na­tive cul­tures and mil­lions of peo­ple in the Tawantin­suyu con­fed­er­a­tion over a chal­leng­ing ter­rain along the north­ern and cen­tral coast of the con­ti­nent. Some seg­ments of this an­cient en­gi­neer­ing feat still sur­vive and are hon­ored as a sa­cred space. It’s be­ing cel­e­brated in a ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tion that opened last week at the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian. “The Great Inka Road: En­gi­neer­ing an Em­pire” shows that parts of the road— in­clud­ing some rope bridges across moun­tain val­leys— are still be­ing re­built, in cer­tain cases an­nu­ally, in the man­ner of their an­ces­tors. (The ex­hi­bi­tion ti­tle uses a less com­mon spell­ing of “Inca,” con­sis­tent with the tra­di­tional South Amer­i­can lan­guage of Quechua and the mu­seum’s pol­icy on na­tive lan­guages.) It was one of those achieve­ments where

num­bers re­ally do tell the story.

ERNEST AMOROSO/NA­TIONAL MU­SEUM OF THE AMER­I­CAN IN­DIAN

“Khipu,” made of wool or cot­ton strings, were In­can de­vices used to record in­for­ma­tion such as cen­sus re­ports, the move­ments of goods and peo­ple, his­tor­i­cal events and re­li­gious knowl­edge.

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