It was called the Qhapaq Ñan, or “road of power.” We know it as the Great Inka Road, a highway that was—and in many ways still is—the connective tissue linking communities; allowing exchange of resources, customs, and beliefs; and providing a way for people to communicate and connect. It empowered the Inka to control an enormous empire comprising parts of present-day Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Argentina, and Chile as it ran north to south for thousands of miles along the spine of the Andes.
The National Museum of the American Indian’s “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire” exhibition explores the origins of this stupendous engineering achievement, illuminating techniques used more than 500 years ago and still viable today. It celebrates this legacy as it also reveals the vibrant cultures of the indigenous peoples living in the Andean mountains and valleys, rain forests, and coastal deserts transected by the Inka Road.
Several years of research in the Andes were dedicated to creating the exhibition.
Archaeologist and lead curator Ramiro Matos explored the region’s traditions and cultures, documenting oral histories and contemporary life in areas once part of the Inka Empire.
Dr. Matos says the Inka Road still contributes to the region’s cultural continuity. “There are people living in the same villages, planting and consuming the same foods like potatoes and corn, quinoa, and beans; and still using llamas and alpacas.” In the pre-Columbian world, the roads tethered the Empire’s four provinces or suyus to the capital city, Cusco. “The roads were the cornerstone of the Inka organization. Without them, perhaps there would have been no Inka Empire.”
The road actually began in the first millennium B.C., Dr. Matos says, “as a way to move goods throughout the Andean region, from the mountains to the valleys.” This is the beginning of several stories told in the “Great Inka Road” exhibition. They include the masterful way the Inka built a vast empire, and the epochal changes in theOld World that began when the Spanish conquerors brought back the Inka’s gold and silver along with potatoes, corn, and tomatoes.
The exhibition’s key story is about engineering and how the Inka’s techniques are providing lessons in sustainability to engineers today, from how a mountaintop fortress like Machu Picchu was stabilized to rope suspension bridges that endured as stone bridges crumbled.
Visitors will be able to take a virtual tour of Cusco at the height of the Inka Empire, courtesy of a state-of-the-art 3-D reconstructed model of the city. They can play an interactive game involving chaskis, the Inka relay runners who carried messages throughout the region. Or they can learn from another interactive display why the Inka’s cosmology included constellations in the dark spaces between the stars in the Milky Way.
Inka culture, history, and tradition are also a focus of this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which has Peru as its theme. The festival opens on June 24, two days before the exhibition, and features the creation of a 2/3-scale model of a suspension rope bridge that a Peruvian community has kept in repair for 500 years. The community’s current bridge master and several helpers will create it during the festival’s 10-day run. When it’s complete, a section will be displayed above the exhibition. The stories and lessons of the Inka Road are ongoing, says Dr. Matos. “For many people, it’s still a living road, one that links the present with the past,” and—as we continue to learn—with the future.