UNESCO Honours Inca Roads: a pre and post-Columbian Marvel

UNESCO has granted world heritage status to the famous Qhapaq Nan road system, built by the Inca through six modern South American countries in the century before the Spanish conquest. Such a decision seems fitting given the crucial role of the Inca roads in both pre and post-Columbian history.

The Inca and their predecessors built modern roads across the most inhospitable terrain - many remain visible today
The Inca and their predecessors built modern roads across the most inhospitable terrain – many remain visible today

The Inca Empire was short-lived, only coming into fruition in the early 15th century after decades of alliances and battles for control over vast expanses of terrain. The rapid expansion of this empire prior to the Spanish arrival was largely precipitated by the road system developed over centuries across the Andes and which the Inca adopted with formidable gusto.

Perhaps the most significant feature of the road system was its ability to allow the Inca to exercise a remarkable degree of centralized control over a huge area stretching from their capital in Cuzco. It facilitated the role of the Kuraka, whereby regional guardians (kurakas) enforced the rule of the Sapa Inca whilst simultaneously protecting the norms and interests of the local people and redistributing resources accordingly. The lengthy, efficient road system enabled messengers to deliver commands from the centre, encouraging regional loyalty, which was enforced by the threat of military mobilization.

The Inca road network
The Inca road network

The Inca also pioneered the Mitmaq labour system. Through this, ethnic ‘outsiders’ were relocated from one part of the empire to another to prevent consolidated regional opposition to central rule. Again, without the sophisticated road system, such a ploy would have been difficult to enact.

Of course the Spaniards would later make use of the Inca roads when they arrived in northern Peru under the command of Francisco Pizarro in 1528. By 1532 the stronghold of Cajamarca had fallen to the Europeans, followed by the capital Cuzco in 1533. With just a few hundred soldiers, Pizarro had conquered a large swathe of the well-resourced Inca Empire in five years.

Pizarro's small force, mounted horseback, overcame a mighty Inca army
Pizarro’s small force, mounted horseback, overcame a mighty Inca army

Employing horses to great tactical and psychological affect was a prime reason for the Spanish success and the Inca road network was a convenient provision for the conquerors, who did not have to face the tropical forests or daunting mountains that derailed similar European missions.

Not to be felled by their own system, the Inca made use of their famous roads to relocate large numbers of men and resources to the mountainous stronghold of Vilcabamba where a neo-Inca state persisted in rebelling against Spanish rule for decades to come.

Even now the Inca roads are a keen tourist attraction and hold fascinating archaeological secrets regarding the successive dynasties of Andean rulers whose crushing defeat at the hands of a group of Spanish bandits has not seen a diminishing of their reputation over the centuries.

Now, with UNESCO protection, further secrets will hopefully be revealed.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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