Incan Roads in South America

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Incan Roads in South America


At the time of the Spanish conquest in 1532, the Inca civilization was one of the most advanced in the New World. One of their achievements was a marvelous system of roads that linked their empire together into a coherent whole. Because of these roads, the Inca were able to move supplies, messengers, and troops anywhere in their empire quickly and efficiently. In many ways, these roads helped to hold the Inca Empire together.


Civilization in the Andes is nearly 3,000 years old, beginning with the Chav'n culture of the Peruvian highlands which flourished around 1000 b.c. The Chav'n passed into history, as did several subsequent civilizations over the next 2,000 years. Around a.d. 600, the Tiahuanacan civilization arose near the shores of Lake Titicaca, in what is now Bolivia.

The Tiahuanacans were masters of the political and religious control of their population. A highly organized society, the Tiahuanacans also built impressive structures of stone to guard their civilization from the depredations of neighboring tribes. In some ways, these structures are the most impressive ever built in the New World, and the Inca built many of their own structures atop foundations constructed by the Tiahuanacans.

As Tiahuanacan civilization began to wane, the Inca (at that time only a minor tribe in Peru) were winning battles with the Chimu culture for control of Chimu territories, which stretched over 600 mi (965 km) of Peruvian mountains and coast. After assimilating the Chimu, the Inca turned their attention to the Tiahuanaca, and by somewhere around 1200 had conquered them as well. Although the Tiahuanaca lacked the Inca's drive to expand and conquer, they knew how to organize their population and harness their people for public-works projects. The Inca put this administrative expertise, along with the Tiahuanacan talent for engineering, to good use.

Over the next few centuries, the Inca continued to expand and assimilate new cultures. They eventually controlled a narrow strip of land that stretched nearly 2,000 mi (3,220 km) along the Andes mountains, from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern jungle. They instituted a system of political, religious, and administrative controls not unlike those used by the Romans to maintain their empire. Also like the Romans, the Inca maintained a system of roads that helped link their far-flung empire together into a coherent whole. Because the Inca never invented wheeled carts, their roads were never more than footpaths, but they were impressive technological accomplishments nonetheless.

The Incan road system linked together a geographically large and culturally diverse collection of cultures into a coherent political empire. To do this, the roads solved some interesting engineering problems, addressed some "human" needs, and served to highlight some of the most important administrative innovations of the Incan Empire.

The Incan roads were constructed only well enough that a man or a llama could walk easily, but this is not to say that the Inca merely built trails along the mountains. The Inca built nearly 15,000 mi (24,140 km) of roads. Nearly onequarter of this total was made up of two primary roads that ran the length of the empire, one along the crest of the Andes and the other along the coast. The rest of the road system consisted of either roads linking these two thoroughfares or "side" roads to various villages or other sites of importance.

For the most part, the Incan roads followed the terrain without many stone bridges or tunnels. In a few places, the Inca filled in small gorges with rock, but valleys and gorges were usually traversed by great swinging bridges built of vines or rope securely fastened to rock at either end. Although these bridges would sway greatly in the wind or beneath the weight of a person, they were secure, anchored by ropes that might be as thick as a person. Bridges of this sort are still used in the Andes today.

Another Incan innovation solved some of the problems of messengers or troops traveling long distances. These people needed places to stop for food, shelter, or rest as they traveled, and the Andes are not a hospitable mountain range for foot travel. The solution was to divide the road into sections that could reasonably be traversed by a person in a day's travel by foot and by llama. This distance varied depending on the terrain and other factors, and these variations were taken into account when establishing the length of a section. At frequent stages along the road, about a day's travel apart, the Inca built stone structures to hold food and provide shelter for travelers. In this way, messengers, soldiers, and travelers were assured of a place to rest and a meal to eat at the end of a hard day's hike. Many of these way stations, complete with warehouses and barracks, still exist. At greater intervals along the roads were fortifications and garrisons of soldiers for the protection of the empire. In addition to their role in fending off external attack, these soldiers could also protect travelers and enforce unpopular laws.

It is not certain whether the Inca actually built all the roads in their road system or if they "inherited" some of them from tribes and civilizations they conquered. However, there is no doubt that the Inca assembled these roads into a single network and subsequently maintained them.

There is also no doubt that the Incan administrative systems were responsible for much of the road system's construction and its continued upkeep. The Inca maintained records of population, productivity, crops, lands, and other important parameters. Villages were divided into working groups of 100 men. Each working group was given assignments, and each village was responsible for maintaining the road nearest them. This maintenance involved not only keeping the road smooth and repaired, but also maintaining the integrity of the way stations and stocking them with food as necessary. This concept of requiring communities to maintain the roads near them was a characteristic Incan innovation, as was the manner in which it was done. Of all the New World civilizations, the Inca alone organized and harnessed their entire population for work on behalf of the state.


The Incan road system bound together the Inca Empire. Like the Romans, the Inca grew by conquest and assimilation. After a century or so, their empire included any number of distinct cultures, each with its own history, traditions, and customs. In the absence of frequent contact with the central government, it would have been very easy for peripheral tribes to simply go their own way, gradually whittling the empire down to a much smaller size.

The roads gave the highest ruler (also called the Inca) the ability to maintain frequent contact with all his subjects. Some of this contact was direct, for the Inca constantly traveled throughout his empire. In addition, these roads made it possible for the leaders of recently conquered tribes to travel to the capital city at Cuzco, where they saw at first-hand the strength of the Inca Empire and were indoctrinated into Inca religion and culture. These visits not only helped make them more willing subjects, but helped impress upon them the futility of resistance to assimilation.

The roads also made it possible for those in the capital to spread news and proclamations throughout the empire and to receive news and statistical information from those outside the capital. This helped to make each tribe of the far-flung empire feel an integral part of the Incan Empire. In addition, this constant flow of information helped the Inca and his advisors to administer his empire.

Finally, these roads ran very near the borders of the empire, so troops could be easily mobilized to combat uprisings, protect the frontier, or subdue new tribes to add to the empire.

Like the Romans, the Inca realized early that good roads served political, military, and economic ends. Because of this, they designed an extensive system of roads that reached into virtually every corner of their empire, linking even the most remote areas to the capital and making the Inca Empire one of the New World's most advanced civilizations.


Further Reading

Crow, John. The Epic of Latin America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.