The highways of an ancient empire
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.
“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.