The Qhaqaq Ñan, which in Quechua means the Royal Road, was the greatest road system in the 15th century. And I mean in the world. It is comparable to the Silk Road of Eurasia, although it was maintained much better. Reports of the Silk Road mention that it was in general disrepair and very dangerous. The Qhapaq Ñan was safe, easy to follow, provided lodging and postal service. It even had features that protected from the elements.
you include the minor connecting roads, the network was about 40,000kms of interconnected roads. It connected almost all cities, huacas, and ritualistic sites in the Inca Realm.
To maintain such a road system demanded millions of hours of man-hours each year. In the US we dedicate much less work per capita to our infrastructure and we wonder why it is disrepair. Infrastructure requires a lot of work, but it should also be a source of price.
First off, it wasn’t just 40,000kms of Kansas looking roads.
The Qhapaq Ñan spanned from one end of the Inca Realm to the other. It went through the driest deserts in the world where no rainfall hasn’t ever been recorded and along the spine of the world’s longest mountain range to inlets into the world’s largest rainforest.
There were two main spines of the road, one along the coast and the other along the spine of the Andes. The spines went from Santiago de Chile to Quito Ecuador. Both of these spines converged on at the midpoint at Cusco. The parallel spines were connected by a network of smaller roads. The Spaniards used the Qhapaq Ñan spine along the coast to transverse the dunes and desert of western Peru until they came across one of these smaller roads that led to the spine in the mountains. They took it and arrived at Cajamarca.
Despite the difficult conditions, the road was smooth, and mostly paved with either stone or a pavement similar to ours today. In places, it was as wide as a 3 lane road. It had bridges spanning thousand meter drops, it spanned the second most arduous mountain range in the world and was in near perfect condition.
This is what Juan Botes Benes, a conquistador, said about it:
“From the city of Cuzco there are two roads or royal highways two thousand miles long, one following the coastal plains and the other the mountain peaks, so that in order to bring them to their present state it was necessary to raise the valleys, cleave the stones and the living rock, and humble the pride of the hills. They were twenty-five feet wide. A work that incomparably excels the constructions of Egypt and the monuments of Rome.”
And what another conquistador by the name of Pedro de Cieza de Leon had to say about it
“One sees the Inca highway, which is as famous in those parts as the road Hannibal made through the Alps when he descended on Italy, and may be regarded as even more remarkable, both because of the great lodging places and storehouses built all along it and because of the great difficulty in driving it through such steep and craggy mountains. It is an astonishing sight […] a road fifteen-feet wide with a wall along it higher than a man and very substantially constructed. Through its whole length the road was level and shaded by groves of trees, from which boughs laden with fruit often hung over the way. And in the woods the trees were full of many kinds of birds and parrots.”
There aren’t any pack animals native to the Andes and so the Qhapaq Ñan was constructed solely for human, and the occasional llama caravan. Because of this they typically constructed the road to ascend mountains without the use of switchbacks. It was generally more arduous of a journey to walk through the jungle-covered valleys and steep canyons and so the road typically went along the high points and ridgelines of the mountains. That means that the Qhapaq Ñan rarely descended below 3,000 meters (10,000ft). One of the great obstacles that the engineers faced was the ravines and gulches that descended enormous distances, 1,000m was not uncommon. They had a variety of methods to cross such ravines. Along the more popular roads, they would build a straw bridge that could support upward of 15 tonnes or zip-tie like systems.
Garcilaso de la Vega, the son of a conquistador and an Inka Princess said of the weight-bearing capabilities of the bridges:
“When the bridge was finished, the Inca left Cuzco with twenty thousand soldiers and four commanders. He ordered the army to cross the new bridge in companies marching in triple file as a permanent record of its first use.”
It wasn’t just a spectacular road either. It was ready for use.
The infrastructure built along it. The multi-lanes. The slant through the rain area. The guards in the snowy areas. The blinds in the windy areas. The poles in the dunes.
The Qhapaq Ñan was complete with inns (Quechua: tampus) and storehouses (Quechua: colqas) where one could retrieve any item that they would be able to at their house. These were posted every few miles so that whenever a traveler was tired they could stop, sleep, eat, and be refreshed. There was a postal service made by a network of relayers made of young men aged between 17 and 21 that sprinted just over a mile to where the next one was stationed. This network of relayers (Quechua: chasque) was complete with small lodgings for these young men that could house 2 of them.
As Father Cobo a conquistador, put it:
“Apart from these large towns and many other small ones located on these royal highways or not very far from them, there were well-supplied [tampus] and storehouses at intervals of a day’s journey, which was every four to six leagues, even though it was an uninhabited place and a desert. These [tampus] were the same as our inns and hostelries, except that they were used in a very different way because they were not privately owned. The community of the town and province constructed them and had the obligation to keep them clean, in good repair, and provided with servants. In them the armies, governors, and the rest of the royal ministers were given accommodations, and they were given their meals and everything else that they needed from the Inca’s storehouses that were in the[tampus]; and the governors who resided in the capital cities of the provinces took great pains to see that the people cared for the [tampu].”
The road itself was kept as safe as possible. It was so smooth that one didn’t have to worry about tripping (keep in mind those chasques that were sprinting at full speed to relay their message. They couldn’t afford to trip), it was guarded against the elements, and had drainage. To guard against the snow when the highway crossed the mountains the constructed stone walls to guard it against blowing snow. In the desert, they constructed tall stakes that no matter if a sand dune moved, one would still be able to find their way. Anyone familiar with the Silk Road will note that the deserts in western China presented a large problem because of the dunes.
Cieza de Leon says the following
“The walls that ran along either side of these roads continued until the ground was too sandy to permit the Indians to build foundations for them. Thereafter, lest the traveller should be lost or lest he should forget the greatness of the builder of the highway, long and heavy stakes, as big as beams, were driven into the ground at intervals. And just as they took pains to keep the road clear and rebuild the walls if they crumbled or fell, they also paid attention in case any of the stakes or beams in the desert fell and duly replaced them. Thus this surely marked road was a great work, though not so great a labor as the other. There were some fortresses and temples of the Sun in these valleys as I shall mention in their due place.”
And Garcilaso de la Vega said concerning them:
“In every valley when the road came to the fresh river sides with their groves of trees, which, as we have said, normally extend for a distance of a league, they made thick mud walls on either side nearly forty feet apart and four or five bricks deep; and when the road left these valleys it was continued across the sandy deserts, where stakes and rods were driven in so that no one could miss the way or stray to right or left. And this road also runs for five hundred leagues, just like the mountain highway.”
And Father Cobo said the following concerning the drainage:
“Since the royal highway goes along the banks of Lake Titicaca, when the lake fills up during the rainy season, the area around the road is inundated, and only the causeway remains in view; and people walk along the road, while water covers the ground on both sides, sometimes one-half estado deep and other times more. Beneath these causeways there are culverts and drains with small bridges made of large stone slabs under which the water runs from one side to the other without stopping or overflowing. In some places these causeways are made of rocks and large, flat stone slabs, and generally, where there are quagmires and bogs, the road is well paved with these stone slabs and large rocks for many leagues.”
Such an endeavor would be difficult even today. The Incas, however, were a bronze age civilization. They worked without pack animals so no horses, mules, ox, or the such, they literally carried everything they moved. This included moved earth, stones, tools, and wood. Such an endeavor as building the Qhahaq Ñan could be considered almost impossible if not from a labor point of view, then because of the expense.
So how much did it cost? Millions of man-hours annually.
Although the Inkas likely kept records of the exact amount of time required for the road, those records are long gone. If they were found they would be nigh to impossible to translate due to the uniqueness of their accounting system of quipus. They Inkas didn’t have a monetary system and based taxation off of personal labor measured in time contributed to the state. This was a method called mit’a.
I don’t find it outlandish to suppose that this empire of 10 million people devoted around 72 million hours of work devoted to the Qhapaq Ñan, annually.
An infrastructure is expensive.
Cities were created at certain labor-intensive areas of the highway. These cities had one job, to maintain the road.
As Garcilaso de la Vega says of the bridges alone:
“The bridges, owing to their cost in labor and time, could only be used on the royal highways, and as the country is very broad and long, and crossed by so many rivers, the Indians were driven by sheer necessity to invent various contrivances for crossing them […] The Indians therefore had to adopt another sort of wood which is no thicker than a man’s thigh but as light as the wood of the fig tree. The best kind, according to the Indians, grows in the provinces of Quito, where it was taken by the Inca’s orders to the various rivers. From it they made rafts, large and small, of five or seven poles lashed together.”
At the same time, we see that they didn’t shirk from the work of the roads. They were proud of them. If it was time to build another road, more glory!
Garcilaso de la Vega tells us of a time where the people voluntarily built a new road for the Sapa Inka (Emperor) because of his victory. He makes it sound like it was a source of pride for them.
“The Indians therefore thought it fitting to build a new road for his triumphant return once he had reduced the province of Quito, and they made this smooth, broad highway the whole length of the mountain chain, cutting through the rock and leveling it wherever necessary and filling the ravines with rubble. In some places it was necessary to raise the surface fifteen or twenty times the height of a man, and this road runs for a distance of five hundred leagues. And it is said that when finished the road was so smooth that a wagon could have run along it, though since those times […] The difficulty of the feat will be appreciated by anyone who watches the labor and expense of leveling two leagues of mountain road in Spain between El Espinar near Segovia and Guadarrama, a task that has never been completely finished in spite of the fact that it is the route continually used by the kings of Castile”
Our modern infrastructure is amazing, it’s true, but the condition of it causes shame rather than pride.
We see from the Silk Road, the Qhapaq Ñan, the Autobahn, the infrastructure of previous empires, that infrastructure is key. It’s not a nice thing to have, it’s key. And it’s expensive.
Let’s take a more Inkan view of our modern infrastructure and be proud to make it better because an infrastructure should be a source of pride, not shame.
You can still experience parts of the Qhapaq Ñan, the famous Inca trail that leads from Cusco to Machu Picchu is part of it. In the coming decades, we should see more because UNESCO designated the whole Qhapaq Ñan as a World Heritage Site. They are working on re-discovering the routes, restoring parts of it, and trying to understand the full significance it had on the world. I could argue that the Qhapaq Ñan gave Europeans an idea of what a good system looked like. Since the US road system was inspired by the Europeans, by only a mild stretch can I state that the Qhapaq Ñan played some influence the freeways.