The Great Inka Road
This summer, Ramiro Matos, an archaeologist and curator on the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian, is conducting field research to document oral histories and contemporary life along the roads that traversed, and united, the Inka Empire. “Through the engineering of the roads,” Dr. Matos explains, “the Inkas and their subject peoples established the best system for communication, trade, and long-distance political integration in the pre-Columbian world. The road network connected hundreds of settlements, provinces, and regions of Tawantinsuyu, the four regions, or suyus, of the empire, with Cusco, its capital city, the center of the universe.”
Writer and photographer Megan Son will be reporting regularly on Dr. Matos's fieldwork, which is supported in part by an award from the Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center. “Instead of presenting the Inka Road as a system of linear routes connecting spaces for the purpose of travel and trade,” Dr. Matos writes, “I hope we will be able to convey a sense of the road in the framework in which it was created and within which it still shapes life in the Andes—as threads interwoven to form the fabric of the physical and spiritual world. The role of the Inka Road as a protagonist in the history of indigenous people in the Andes is the central focus of this work.”
Ramiro Matos (2nd from left), speaking to people along the Inka Road
From the humid coastal desert of Lima, the plane ascends with the Andes as it flies inland to Cusco, the religious–political seat the Inkas and former capital of Tawantinsuyu. From the main plaza of Haukaypata, roads lead to the four provinces. Now covered in asphalt, the original stones were laid for pedestrians. The city has seen upheaval. Stripped of its wealth and splendor by the conquering Spanish beginning in 1533, Cusco went through a colonial transformation. The cathedral replaced a palace; monasteries, temples. The stately architecture that housed Inka rulers now contains restaurants and shops, and the smooth pillowed stones of ancient Inka walls stand behind neon signs.
Often called “the archaeological capital of the Americas,” the sites of Cusco and its region—the walled complex Sacsayhuamán, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, the Inka estate of Tipón, the sacred site of Koricancha—are a backdrop to the ethnographic investigations that are the point of this trip. Over seven weeks, Dr. Ramiro Matos and I will travel in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, talking to the people who live along the massive network of Inka roads, researching the traditions that persist and the culture that continues. —Megan Son