How the Inca Empire Engineered a Road Across Some of the World's Most Extreme Terrain | At the Smithsonian | Smithsonian

Every June, after the rainy season ends in the grassy highlands of southern Peru, the res­idents of four villages near Huinchiri, at more than 12,000 feet in altitude, come together for a three-day festival. Men, women and children have already spent days in busy preparation: They’ve gathered bushels of long grasses, which they’ve then soaked, pounded, and dried in the sun. These tough fibers have been twisted and braided into narrow cords, which in turn have been woven together to form six heavy cables, each the circumference of a man’s thigh and more than 100 feet long.
 

Dozens of men heave the long cables over their shoulders and carry them single file to the edge of a deep, rocky canyon. About a hundred feet below flows the Apurímac River. Village elders murmur blessings to Mother Earth and Mother Water, then make ritual offerings by burning coca leaves and sacrificing guinea pigs and sheep.

Shortly after, the villagers set to work link­ing one side of the canyon to the other. Relying on a bridge they built the same way a year earlier—now sagging from use—they stretch out four new cables, lashing each one to rocks on either side, to form the base of the new 100-foot ­long bridge. After testing them for strength and tautness, they fasten the remaining two cables above the others to serve as handrails. Villagers lay down sticks and woven grass mats to stabilize, pave and cushion the structure. Webs of dried fiber are quickly woven, joining the handrails to the base. The old bridge is cut; it falls gently into the water.

At the end of the third day, the new hanging bridge is complete. The leaders of each of the four communities, two from either side of the canyon, walk toward one another and meet in the middle. “Tukuushis!” they exclaim. “We’ve finished!”

And so it has gone for centuries. The indige­nous Quechua communities, descendants of the ancient Inca, have been building and rebuild­ing this twisted-rope bridge, or Q’eswachaka, in the same way for more than 500 years. It’s a legacy and living link to an ancient past—a bridge not only capable of bearing some 5,000 pounds but also empowered by profound spiritual strength.

To the Quechua, the bridge is linked to earth and water, both of which are connected to the heavens. Water comes from the sky; the earth dis­tributes it. In their incantations, the elders ask the earth to support the bridge and the water to ac­cept its presence. The rope itself is endowed with powerful symbolism: Legend has it that in ancient times the supreme Inca ruler sent out ropes from his capital in Cusco, and they united all under a peaceful and prosperous reign.

The bridge, says Ramiro Matos, physically and spiritually “embraces one side and the other side.” A Peruvian of Quechua descent, Matos is an expert on the famed Inca Road, of which this Q’eswachaka makes up just one tiny part. He’s been studying it since the 1980s and has published several books on the Inca.

For the past seven years, Matos and his colleagues have traveled throughout the six South American countries where the road runs, compil­ing an unprecedented ethnography and oral his­tory. Their detailed interviews with more than 50 indigenous people form the core of a major new exhibition, “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire,” at the Smithsonian Institution’s Nation­al Museum of the American Indian.

“This show is different from a strict archaeo­logical exhibition,” Matos says. “It’s all about using a contemporary, living culture to understand the past.” Featured front and center, the people of the Inca Road serve as mediators of their own identi­ty. And their living culture makes it clear that “the Inca Road is a living road,” Matos says. “It has ener­gy, a spirit and a people.”

Matos is the ideal guide to steer such a com­plex project. For the past 50 years, he has moved gracefully between worlds—past and present, universities and villages, museums and archae­ological sites, South and North America, and English and non-English speakers. “I can connect the contemporary, present Quechua people with their past,” he says.




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