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July 14, 2011

Peru: Lima, Ancash, and Cusco

Ramiro and people along the road_2 
Ramiro Matos talking with travelers along the Qhapaq ñan in Andahuaylas, Peru

Last summer, Dr. Ramiro Matos (Quechua), an archaeologist and curator on the staff of the National Museum of the American Indian, conducted field research to document archaeology, oral history, and contemporary life along the Qhapac ñan, or Inka Road. More than 40,000 kilometers of roadways, traversing more than 3 million square kilometers of land and linking the modern nations of Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, the Qhapac ñan, is one of the great infrastructure achievements of history. “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.”

Megan Son Ramiro was assisted by Dr. José Barreiro (Taïno), NMAI assistant director of research, whose posts appear under the heading Andean Journal; Dr. Carmen Arellano Hoffmann, director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, Arqueologia e Historia, in Lima, Peru; writer and photographer Megan Son; and their colleagues in research institutions and Native communities in the United States and South America. The fieldwork described in this blog is part of a multidisciplinary research initiative at the museum to better understand the world of the Inka and its reflections in contemporary Andean society. “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.” 

In terms of specific research results, over the course of the summer, the team identified five longitudinal roads linking the Inka world from north to south; until now, literature about the Inka road system has described only two north–south roads.

Above: Writer and photographer Megan Son

The Inka Road 

The main road has almost disappeared under the modern roads and towns. It connected all the main cities from Puno in Peru to Mendoza in Argentina, where the road turns toward Santiago, Chile. In addition, secondary roads run parallel. The lowlands road to the east, goes probably from Cochabamba over Samaipata to Salta, connecting the Yunga (transitional Amazonian-to-Andean) and savanna (grassland) ecologies. The so-called “barren road,” which was also built for economic purposes, connecting salt pans with major mineral production centers, runs over the altiplano. On the coast there are two roads. One runs through the villages and towns located over 2,000 meters above sea level in the upper coast. The other runs along the littoral, another barren road, for there are almost no human settlements along it, with the exception of a few fishing villages.

The importance of east-west bound routes has been recognized. There are multiple ecologies and the resources were well exploited. The east-west roads allowed the vertical economy to take advantage of the resources from 4,000 meters to ecologies located at sea level. The history of the Collasuyu, for example—the southernmost of the four Inka provinces—shows that for thousands of years political and economic macro areas developed naturally based on the resources and trade. This development was supported and advanced by roads. Three such regions were identified during our research: Salta–Atacama, Arica–Lluta–La Paz, and Puno–Moquegua–Tacna region. 

Today the Inka roads are mainly used for short travels within an area. They are used for economicand religious reasons (for trade and for pilgrimages to make offerings). People in Bolivia still use the Qhapaq ñan for longer travels—not for trips outside the country (with the exception of crossing the border to Argentina or Chile), but to go from one region to another to gather special resources. 

Peru: Lima and Ancash

Leonardo Alcayhuaman, the dean of Faculty for Civil Engineering at the Universidad Ricardo Palma, was invited by the Inka Road Project consultant on engineering to give a two-day workshop on the Inka road network. In the next two days, we worked with Jose Pino on the Inka road maps.

NMAI 24-7646 On Saturday, we participated in a coordination meeting with a group of engineers sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) before they travelled to Huaraz (3,100 meters above sea level) to begin adapting to the high altitude. Before we joined the engineers group in Huari, we first travelled to Chavin, near Huaraz, accompanied by two Peruvian archaeologists, Jose Pino and Eberth Serrudo. Both have extensive experience in the Inka archaeology of Ancash and the nearby province Huanuco. They have been working there for four years as members of the Qhapaq Ñan Program, for the Peruvian National Institute of Culture. With their help we saw portions of the main Inka road.

The engineers dedicated their time to study the road portion they were shown. It was interesting to learn about the engineers’ work methodology (describing, photographing, and drawing the roads) and how they identify the empirical evidence of the road in order to explain or define Inka engineering.

Our field research with the two archaeologists brought interesting results. There is a network of roads along and around the ancient, main temple of Chavin in Ancash. We identified an Inka bridge and a branch of the Inka road that comes from Huanuco Pampa on its way to Cajamarca and Quito, and gathered oral information from the local people.

Our next stop was San Francisco de Yanapot and on to Soledad de Tampo, an administrative center built on the Inka road. The engineer group went to Huanuco Pampa, and we returned to Lima where we continued our research on a map on the Inka network that lies in the Peruvian territory using the resources of the Instituto Geográfico Militar.      

—Ramiro Matos, NMAI 

Above: Recuay effigy vessel depicting an Andean leader and a llama, AD 900–1300. 
Recuay, Ancash, Peru. Clay, paint; 18 x 10 x 19 cm. 24/7646. Photo by Ernest Amoroso, NMAI


The Cathedral of Santo Domingo, built on the foundations of the Inka palace Kiswarkanchar. Cusco, Peru.


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.

Stone walls in Cusco_2 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 

Above: Inka stone masonry, Cusco.

All photographs are by Megan Son, unless otherwise credited.


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Congratulations on a wonderfully written article thanks for sharing this valuable material

Peruvians are extraordinary nation. They love to celebrate, no matter the occasion. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins all hanging out together talking, eating, drinking, and dancing on Sundays, Saturdays, Holidays, any day. So friendly they are, in fact, Peruvians don’t drink their own bottle of beer, but share one at a time amongst everyone, filling small glasses over and over again. Like I said, some customs are annoying, and being German I like to have my own bottle of beer so I can decide just how fast the bottom appears.

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