September 05, 2013

Inka Road Research 2013

The Inka Road crosses the mountainside below Machu Qolqa, a storage point. Urubamba Province, Cusco Department, Peru. 

Dr. Ramiro Matos (Quechua), senior curator for Latin America at the National Museum of the American Indian, has been working for five years on the project Qhapaq Ñan: The Inka Road. In July he and a very small team of museum staff traveled across Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, completing the research needed to present the Inka Road in a major exhibition scheduled to open at the museum in Washington, D.C., in June 2015, and via a symposium and other online events open to a worldwide audience.

The Inka Road is an engineering and distribution marvel. The road system spans more than 24,000 miles, greater than the distance between Florida and Washington State. The Inka used the road to move natural resources from one area to another, transport armies, see to the needs of their citizens, and develop new and sophisticated methods for administering their empire. The forthcoming exhibition will showcase the museum’s stunning collection of objects as it explains the origins of the Inka Empire, details the four expansion areas of the empire (called suyus), and highlights why the road is still relevant today.

Qorichancha, the Inka Temple of the Sun. Cusco.

Archaeologists from throughout Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Colombia—the six countries that today comprise the region covered by the Inka Road—are key partners in the project. This summer, Dr. Matos and project team spent two weeks in Cusco, Peru, working with consultants on ethnohistoric data for a 3-D model of the Inka capital that will serve as the centerpoint of the exhibit. They then journeyed to Lima for a series of meetings with museum professionals, government agencies, and government representatives. Onward they went to Ecuador, to work with partners in both Cuenca and Quito, and from there to Pasto, Colombia. The research is now close to complete, and the production work is about to begin. 

A young Quechua girl posing with her baby llama, or cria. Cusco.

In addition to research, the team began scouting for production for photography, video, and 3-D modeling, which will occur next summer if funding permits. Team members have been gathering information for potential cultural arts programs, as well as for the museum shop. They have also been purchasing objects to create “discovery boxes” in the museum’s two imagiNATIONS Activity Centers (open in DC, forthcoming in NY). These boxes will feature hands-on objects that children can explore to learn more about the communities that today live along the Inka Road.  

Please join us in Washington, D.C., on November 14 for a symposium on the engineering principals of the Inka Road. This program will bring together ten of the project’s consultants to discuss the wide range of innovations achieved by the Inka, from the hydrology of Machu Picchu to the model reconstruction of Cusco. The symposium also will be webcast.

Stay tuned for updates about this blockbuster exhibition. In the meantime, here are a few more photographs to give you a sense of what we saw during the research trip.


Cusco was the capital and center of the Inka Empire and remains central to the Quechua people, descendants of the Inka. Archaeological evidence of the Inka abounds in Cusco, and Quechua can be heard throughout the city.



It's astounding how Inka stonework still stands and is being used today. Clockwise from upper left: Pavement of an Inka road. Inka walls—yes, those carvings represent serpents. An Inka doorway, now the entrance to a hotel.

Inti Raymi

The festival Inti Raymi occurs every June around the time of the solstice and marks both traditional and modern governing authority. In the festival, the Inka takes his place in the center of Cusco, and delegations from the four suyus pay him homage. Part of the ceremony takes place at the Plaza de Armas, where the current mayor of Cusco is presented with symbolic control of the city from the Inka. Part of the ceremony takes place at Saqsaywaman, the ceremonial sight at the northwest end of the city; Saqsaywaman serves as the head of the puma, the symbolic shape of Cusco.


Inti Raymi. Upper: The Inka arriving in the Plaza de Armas, Cusco. Lower: The Antisuyu dance at Saqsaywaman.

Beyond the capital 

Each of the suyus brought different economic and cultural resources to the empire. For example, sites near the coast were important for spondylus shell, which was used as currency as well as in jewelry. Northern sites are famous for the engineering of rope bridges.


Traveling north in Chinchasuyu. Upper: The Inka Road winds up a hillside. Lower: The foundation of a chaski wasi, one of the houses where messenger runners were stationed. 


At Pachacámac, near Lima, el templo del Sol (the Temple of the Sun). Sections of the temple are original, others are being restored. Detail: Some of the temple's red paint survives; the use of adobe makes construction here very different from the methods and materials seen in Cusco. 



P1000657a P1000658a
In southern Ecuador the road meets the Rio Jubones. Imagine a cable rope bridge here; you would cross underneath the bridge, perhaps in a basket. Concrete abutments anchored the bridge in recent times. You can also see the Inka Road along the hills on each side of the river.

All photos were taken in July 2013 by Amy van Allen, NMAI.


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March 08, 2012

Andean Journal: Chawaytiri Energy

Potato planting in Chawaytiri
Potato planting in Chawaytiri, 2010. Chawaytirinos sustain a traditional agricultural practice depicted in the early chronicle of Guaman Poma, 1613.

Jose Barreiro (Taíno), assistant director for research and head of the NMAI’s Office of Latin America, offers this dispatch on his recent fieldwork in Chawaytiri, Peru. Barreiro is collaborating with the people of the community on Chawaytiri on the Road, part of the museum's research and exhibition project on the Qapaq Ñan (Inka Road).

Back Sunday afternoon from Peru, after a long delay in Lima. The oil truck pumped too much oil into the plane, and so I was bogged down by excess petroleum and missed my next connection. I got a kick out of that—dogged by over-abundant oil, even as the world supply dwindles.

I spent a few days this time in Chawaytiri, a strong Quechua community on the Antisuyo Road between Cusco and Paucartambo. I was first in Chawaytiri, and captured by its people, in 2008 while passing through studying the Inka Road for an upcoming exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian. The Inka Road—the Qhapac Ñan—runs through the Chawaytiri community for several kilometers and then out for hundreds kilometers in a northeasterly direction, linking Cusco to Antisuyu, one of the quarters of the Inka Tawantinsuyu, "the four-part empire."

Chawaytiri has a strong leadership, largely under the system of warmi–qari, the woman–man kuraq authority and foundational duality of the Andean Native (originario) communities. The kuraq families of Chawaytiri have become our relations and coöperants over the past four years. The traditional bases Chawaytirinos retain resonated with me that first time—their strong practice of cultivating potatoes and many companion plants, their rational use of water; their sense of long-term sustainability, their food self-sufficiency; their appreciation and spiritual "payment" ceremonies to Pachamama, to the mountain apus; the continuity of their wachu, the traditional village government of the kinship-based community called ayllu.

Two years later, we produced a documentary by and with the community, one that the elders' group is using as a sort of manifesto or message to their generations. This trip we reviewed and critiqued our four-year production. I had a chance to show a PowerPoint of themes for our Qhapac Ñan exhibition, and the kuraq requested a group review of their inspired documentary Chawaytiri Strengthens: Message to the World. This kind of encounter is integral to our museum methodology, to check our thinking and production against the intelligence of the indigenous community.

Harvesting Lucio's garden
Barreiro picking habas (lima beans) in Lucio Illa's field. A community leader, Lucio grows a very nice garden of potatoes, quinoa, and habas.

The Chawatiri elders as always bid us welcome with speeches and song, lots of food, and serious discussions. They are a people of the llama, master herders and weavers of uniquely Andean textiles. The elder kuraqs drive an agenda of respect for Andean traditional skills and a way of life. They keep and guard patrimonial sites in their community, such as at Llamayoq Qaqa, at the base of the Apu Muruwiksa, where pictographs are estimated to be 5,000 years of age. The kuraqs also collectively keep up their stretch of the Inka Road, and Llama Tinkay, the Andean ceremony toasting the llama and other domestic animals, is active.

Lagoons at Paro, Peru
Excursion to the lakes at Paro. These beautiful lakes are kilometers long, clean, bountiful, and in the hands of a Native community.

During our meeting the kuraq group announced the decision that they would institutionalize the Llama Tinkay Ceremony and Feast Days to be an annual public event, where Chawaytiri would host the twelve other communities of the Pisaq valleys. "We want to continue with our agriculture, our own foods," said don Lucio. The ceremony in August 2011, the first community-hosted Llama Tinkay in half a generation, had been a success. There had been many suggestions for expanding the event to develop an agricultural fair.

"We have a fine community, and can host people with our culture, with our dances and feasts," said Lucio. The documentary—the "giving ourselves to get known"—all goes to build "a good marketplace for our people," reiterated Ermogenes Baca, another kuraq. Like so many traditional American Indian community leaders, the Chawaytiri elders seek to improve their capacity in the marketplace, but also continually point out the value of the independent sustenance provided by healthy local agricultural life. One subject was the price of transportation: Rather than transport their own goods, they sought to bring people, including international tourists still flocking to the region of the Inkas' origin, to Chawaytiri's own community market.

In Lima, on the way out of the country, we broached the subject of oil depletion, which clearly signals an age of global energy scarcity, with Leonardo Alcaywaman (Quechua), dean of engineering at Ricardo Palma University. Science holds many promises, but salvaging land for local, regionally consumable agricultural production is a premium strategy for all societies. Dr. Alcaywaman likes to point out the long-term principles of Inka civil and social engineering. Of that old Andean tradition, consciousness of long-term inhabitation, the Chawaytiri elders are clearly keen observers.

Watching the community documentary "Chawaytiri Strengthens"
The children's showing of the documentary Chawaytiri Strengthens: Message to the Future, February 27, 2012.

It was great to be in Chawaytiri again. The community had good questions and new suggestions for the museum's exhibition and documentary. They reiterated that the exhibition needs to show how "grand"  their ancestor Inka were and that they, the people, still remember them. We had some great laughs watching the documentary as people who appeared in it kidded each other. For the children, it was a powerful experience to see their own parents seriously and interestingly representing themselves in a medium that usually depicts silly entertainment, cheap violence, and confusing sexuality. 

—Jose Barreiro

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I appreciate that these ethnic groups help each other in their agricultural activities and they were able to preserve their natural resources. Thanks.

Those days are still upon us we just have to be as caring as the ethnic groups are.

July 18, 2011

Peru: Andahuaylas

Road to Huancaray
The road to the Huancaray district, in the province of Andahuaylas, Peru.

To follow the museum's research in the Andes, and staff members' experiences along the Inka Road, see the ongoing blog Qhapaq ñan: The Road of the Inka.

The road to Andahuaylas is long. Eight hours to be exact. It takes us across the plateau west of Cusco before winding its way down past Limatambo—an ancient tambo, or way station—to the milder temperatures of the Apurimac River Valley. Bougainvillea and orange trees flank a tributary of the river as snow-covered mountains soar above us. The paved road gives way to gravel as we pass Abancay, and we climb slowly, treacherously, out of yet another temperate valley, the landscape yielding abruptly to golden puna—Andean montane grasslands—and a patchwork of fields before descending slightly into the narrow valley of Andahuaylas.

This is the land of the Chankas, a people thought to have defeated the Wari around AD 1000. Their own defeat 500 years later by the young Inka Yupanqui, also known as Pachakutec, was followed by the methodological expansion of the Inka Empire. Here we meet Lic. Enmanuel Gomez Choque, archaeologist and director of the Casa de Cultura, and Danielle Kurin, a PhD student in archaeology. In their studies of Chanka tombs in the area, they have come across several roads which they would like to show us.

“There are at least three roads that go to Ayacucho,” Enmanual tells us. “One goes through Talavera to cross the Pampas River at a bridge called Incachaca. A second travels through Huancaray and San Antonio de Cachi, and a third goes through Sondor.”

The paved road to Huaccoto beside an unpaved path

The ingañan, paved with stones, leads east to Andahuaylas and northwest to Ayacucho. 

Near a rocky outcropping called Huaccoto, a paved section deviates from the lower route with evidence of worked stone and drainage systems. A woman we talk to in passing confirms that this road, the ingañan, continues to Andahuaylas to the east and Ayacucho to the northwest, going through San Antonio de Cachi. The road’s importance is probably related to a salt mine that has been exploited for thousands of years. Workers chop blocks of “black salt” and carry them from the depths of the mine, their backs protected by sheepskins. The chunks are then sold, broken into smaller pieces, and submerged in water. The sediment that forms is collected and used in cooking. Alternatively, a small block can be placed in the cooking pot and removed when the desired flavor is reached. But caution: a salty soup does not win the cook any favors!

Entrance to the salt mine

A miner caaries blocks of salt from the mine, his back padded with sheepskin and cloth

A chunk of rock salt.





Top: The entrance to the salt mine; left: a miner carrying blocks of salt on his back; Above: a chunk of "black salt."

Learning of the ingañan’s link to salt, I wonder about the significance of the other two roads. By speaking to people along the way and using the information early chroniclers left behind, we can ascertain the functions of some of these roads, but in truth, we will probably never know all. The network is too enormous.

—Megan Son


Ramiro Matos and colleagues on the ingañan near Huaccoto The aim was to see sections of one of the four main roads that began in Cusco. This is the main road to the northwest, called the Chinchaysuyu road. This road ends in Pasto, Colombia. Interviews with people still using the Inka road confirm that the local people know about the road and where it leads. We also learned that this portion of the road goes through important resource centers. There is research to be done to understand about the use and importance of the other road branches. The road is not known locally as the Qhapaq ñan (Royal road), rather as the hatun ñan (main road), ingañan (Inka road), and chaski ñan (pedestrian road).

—Ramiro Matos

Ramiro Matos (left) and colleagues on the ingañan near Huaccoto.


All photographs are by Megan Son unless otherwise credited.

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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.

July 13, 2011

Engineering the Inka Road: Join in the discussion

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian is hosting a series of satellite discussions with a multinational team of researchers, engineers, and archaeologists currently in Peru to study the origins and engineering of the Inka Road of South America. 

Four conversations will take place via satellite link from the field to the museum’s fourth-level classroom Friday, July 15; Sunday, July 17; Tuesday, July 19; and Wednesday, July 20, from 12:30 to 2:30 PM. Tuesday and Wednesday's discussion will also be webcast live. You are invited to join people from around the world in submitting questions for the research team via the museum’s Facebook page and Twitterfeed

Landscape kallawaya One of civilization’s most impressive engineering achievements, the Inka Road, or Qhapaq ñan (royal road) was built without the use of iron, the wheel, or stock animals. While much has been written about the Inka Empire as a whole, little has been published on how the Inka planned and built the road, which united the four regions of the ancient empire that encompassed large territories of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina and Chile. At its height, the Inka Road and its attendant chaski (runner) system was the fastest communication network in the New World, and the system of roads remains an integral part of infrastructure for present-day indigenous communities. 

The research team in Peru is led by the museum’s Latin America scholars Ramiro Matos (Quechua) and Jose Barreiro (Taíno), and joined by Cliff Schexnayder, Eminent Scholar Emeritus at Arizona State University; Ed Jaselskis, the inaugural Jimmy D. Clark Distinguished Professor in Construction Engineering and Management at North Carolina State University; Wu Chueh Hung, professor of civil engineering at National Taiwan University; Manop Kaewmoracharoen, professor of engineering at Chiang Mai University in Thailand; and students from the Universidad de Piura in Peru, the Universidad Nacional de Cordoba in Argentina, the Universidad Catolica de Chile, the Universidad Tecnica Particular de Loja in Ecuado and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Inka road Lluta 2 These discussions will explore new theories and discoveries about the construction of the Inka Road and how these ancient techniques can be applied by modern engineers and city planners. The research will be highlighted in an exhibition currently being developed by the museum. 

Over the next several days, we will feature Dr. Matos's fieldwork along the Qhapaq ñan in July and August 2010, from his own reports and the descriptions and photographs of Megan Son, a writer, photographer, and filmmaker who has walked the length of the Great Inka Road and who accompanied Dr. Matos on his research. Their perspectives are complemented by Dr. Barreiro's occasional descriptions of contemporary life in Chawaytiri, an indigenous community on the Inka Road in Peru, in NMAI's Inka Road blog.

One of the great engineering achievements of history, the Inka Road network traverses diverse and difficult terrain, from the steep mountainsides and deep ravines of the Andes to the high desert of southern South America, and west to the Pacific coast. 

Upper: Kallawaya homelands in Bolivia; lower: the Valley of Lluta, Chile. Photographs by Megan Son.

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