The term Inka means “ruler” or “lord” in Quechua, the main language of the Inca Empire. It was used to refer to the ruling class of the empire but the Spanish, who conquered and destroyed their civilization in the 16th century, used it to refer to all the people of their empire. The Inca Empire rose to prominence in the 15th century to become the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. The Inca were great architects and engineers; and they constructed some of the most marvelous and renowned structures by any civilization. A prime example of their extraordinary engineering ability is the site known as Machu Picchu, which was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Inca built advanced aqueducts and drainage systems; and the most extensive road system in pre-Columbian America. They also invented the technique of freeze-drying; and the rope suspension bridge independently from outside influence. It is important to mention that Inca accomplished all this without the use of the wheel, a proper beast of burden and a writing system. Know more about the marvelous feats of the Inca civilization through their 10 major achievements.

 

#1 The Inca Empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America

The Andean civilization, which is estimated to have developed from as early as 4th century BC, is regarded as the first civilization in South America. It is one of five civilizations in the world considered by scholars to be “pristine”, that is indigenous and not derivative from other civilizations. The Inca people were a part of the Andean civilization. They were a pastoral tribe who inhabited the region of Cusco of modern day Peru around the 12th century. In the middle of the 15th century, the Inca ruler Pachacuti started a series of conquests which were continued by his successors to unite most of the Andean cultures into the Inca Empire. At its greatest extent, the Inca Empire incorporated large parts of modern day Peru, Chile, Ecuador and Bolivia as well as north-west Argentina and south-west Columbia. With an area of more than 2 million square kilometers containing a population of around 12 million people, the Inca empire was the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. It was comparable to the historical empires of Eurasia and perhaps the largest empire in the world in the early 16th century.

Map of the Inca Empire
Map of the Inca Empire with its four provinces in different colors

 

#2 Their architecture includes some of the best stonework from any ancient civilization

Inca architecture is the most significant and renowned pre-Columbian architecture including some of the most finely worked stone structures from any ancient civilization. Its fine stonework includes walls containing precisely cut and shaped stones that are closely fitted without mortar. These stones are fitted so precisely that not even a sheet of paper can be inserted into the joints. A famous example of advanced Inca stonework is the twelve-angle stone in Cuzco, Peru which is bordered by twelve other stones. Another impressive feature of Inca buildings are the massive stones used in them, some of which weigh over 100 tons. There are various theories regarding how such massive stones were transported and fitted with such precision. However, there is no established explanation. As the Inca lived in an earthquake prone region, their buildings have a peerless seismic resistance thanks to high static and dynamic steadiness; and absence of resonant frequencies and stress concentration points. They have proved earthquake resistant for over 500 years.

The 12 Angle Stone
The 12 Angle Stone, laid without mortar, at the street Hatun Rumiyoq in Cusco

 

#3 They achieved marvelous feats in civil and hydraulic engineering

The Inca achieved tremendous feats in civil and hydraulic engineering; and their understanding of the fields is considered both advanced and complete. They built impressive waterworks including canals, fountains, aqueducts and drainage systems. Inca aqueducts were made of stone and were water-tight. They were primarily used for irrigation of agricultural terraces and for providing fresh water to the cities. One of the Inca aqueducts leading from the highlands down to the sea was 360 miles (579 km) long and 13 feet (4 m) deep. Some of the aqueducts built by the Inca are still in use today, centuries after their construction. Tambomachay, which is located near the Inca capital Cusco, consists of a series of aqueducts, canals and waterfalls that run through the terraced rocks. Other sites where impressive feats of Inca hydraulic engineering can be seen include Machu Picchu, Moray and Tipon.

Tambomachay in Cuzco, Peru
Tambomachay in Cuzco, Peru – Known for its aqueducts, canals and waterfalls

 

#4 They built a monumental road system in one of the most difficult terrains

To govern their huge empire, the Inca rulers required a way to connect various parts of their empire. So they expanded the existing roads to create an elaborate road system which ran for around 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) and provided access to over 3,000,000 square kilometers (1,200,000 sq mi) of territory. It consists of two main roads: the western route which runs along the coast and the eastern route which lies inland along the Andes mountains. Shorter roads linked the two main routes. The Inca road system is built across one of the most difficult terrains on earth which ranged from coastal desert to high plateau and mountain ranges to deep valleys. This, along with the fact that the roads are still in quite good condition after centuries of use, bears testimony to the extraordinary engineering skills of the Inca. The largest and most extensive transportation system in pre-Columbian America, the Inca road system is regarded as one of the monumental engineering achievements in history. In 2014, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inca Road System map
Map of the Inca Road System

 

#5 Their relay system could transfer messages at the speed of 240 kilometers per day

The Inca road system was essential for the political cohesion of their empire and for the redistribution of goods within it. The roads were used to send out the resources to other parts of the empire that were in need of them. Apart from this, it provided a way for the Inca armies to move quickly during battle. The Inca built a number of structures along their roads known as tambos. These contained supplies, served as lodging for state personnel and were used for keeping records. The Inca used a relay system which employed messengers known as chasquis. The chasquis were agile, highly trained and physically fit. A chasqui ran from one tambo to another to transfer a message or deliver small items to the next chasqui; and this process was repeated. It is estimated that messages could travel 150 miles (240 km) per day through the Inca relay system.

 

#6 They invented the rope suspension bridge independently from outside influence

The Inca used various means to bridge water courses of which the most famous is their rope bridges. The Inca invented the rope suspension bridge independently from outside influence. However, suspension bridges had been in use for long in mountainous regions in Asia. Inca rope bridges were built by weaving natural fibers into threads which in turn were braided into even bigger ropes. Since there were no wheeled vehicles, the rope bridges worked beautifully for foot traffic. The bridges were destroyed and rebuilt annually by local villages to maintain their strength and reliability. The last remaining Inca rope bridge is Q’iswa Chaka, or Q’eswachaka, which spans the Apurimac River near Huinchiri in Quehue District of Peru. The residents of the region renew the bridge annually to keep their tradition alive. Tests suggest that Q’eshwachaka can support 16,000 pounds and it is estimated that strongest Inca rope bridges could have supported 200,000 pounds. The longest Inca rope bridges spanned at least 150 feet, which was longer than any bridge in Europe at the time.

Q'eswachaka suspension bridge
Q’eswachaka suspension bridge in Peru

 

#7 The Inca built Machu Picchu, one of the wonders of the world

The Inca built many magnificent cities, most of which were ravaged and destroyed by the Spanish. One of the Inca sites to escape the Spanish was Machu Picchu, which was re-discovered in 1911. It is situated on a mountain ridge 2,430 meters (7,970 ft) above sea level in Peru’s Cusco Valley and is believed to have been constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. Machu Picchu is one of the most spectacular sites in not only South America but around the world; and it is a prime example of the extraordinary engineering ability of the Inca. It contains many renowned monuments including the Intihuatana stone, which is constructed such that the sun stands almost above the pillar on November 11 and January 30, casting no shadow at all; the Temple of the Sun, whose windows, rock and the sun precisely align on the summer solstice; and the Room of the Three Windows, which looks at the sunrise and the main square of the fortress of Machu Picchu. In 1983, UNESCO declared Machu Picchu as a World Heritage Site and in 2007, it was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a poll which gathered more than 100 million votes.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu – One of the New Seven Wonders of the World

 

#8 The Inca mastered terrace farming and used it as part of their drainage system

Terrace farming is a method in which a piece of sloped plane is cut into a series of successively receding flat surfaces, resembling steps, for more effective farming. The Inca mastered terrace farming and a prime example of this can be seen at Machu Picchu. The Inca build terraces at Machu Picchu not only to create farmland but also to prevent their city from sliding away due to the excessive rainfall in the region. The first step in the construction of terraces was building stone retaining walls. These absorbed heat from the sun during the day and radiated it back out at night, thus preventing crops from freezing at night. The bottom layer of the terrace consisted of gravel and larger stones; the middle consisted of sandy dirt; while the top contained rich topsoil on which crops were grown. Even if there was a lot of rainfall, the water moved down through this progressive layer of materials, preventing erosion. Thus apart from providing food, the terraces also helped prevent landslides and were part of a sophisticated drainage system. The Inca also placed around 130 drains at Machu Picchu to move the water out through walls and other structures.

Inca Terraces in Pisac, Peru
Inca Terraces in Pisac, Peru

 

#9 The Inca invented the technique of freeze-drying to make food durable

Qullqa (“deposit, storehouse”) is a term used for the storehouse of the Inca. Qullqas were built in the tens of thousands across the Inca empire allowing them to store more food than any other civilization till that time. The reason for this is probably the uncertainty of agriculture in the region. Qullqas were built along roads and near the cities and political centers. They provided food and other commodities to Inca officials and armies on the move; to laborers; and to the general public in cases of crop failures and shortages of food. Among the items stored at Inca storehouses were Charqui, dried meat; and Chuño, or freeze-dried potato. The Inca used the freezing temperatures at night in the Andes to freeze frost-resistant varieties of potatoes and then exposed them to the intense sunlight of the day. Chuno was extremely durable and could be kept in the storehouses for up to four years. The Inca are considered to be the first people who developed the technique of freeze-drying.

Chuno - Freeze-dried potatoes
Chuno – Freeze-dried potatoes

 

#10 They successfully managed a vast empire without money and internal market economy

The Inca did not use money as an exchange unit or markets to trade, though they did trade with outside regions. The local farmers in the empire worked on the land but they were allowed to keep only one portion of the produce with the remaining two portions being used to support the Inca government and religious leaders. All adult men in the empire were required to perform mandatory public service known as Mita. Each person was assigned specific jobs according to their skills like a skilled weaver would be assigned to make cloth while a good runner would be made a chasqui. The Inca structures were made with the help of Mita labor. In return the Inca government provided security, food, housing, clothing, education, occasional feasts and technical help to increase agricultural productivity. In fact, terraces at the Inca site of Moray are widely believed to be testing grounds for determining which crops would grow under what conditions in order to more efficiently exploit ecozones. The Inca economic system, which functioned without a currency and an internal market economy, was still highly successful in expanding and maintaining a huge empire. It is believed that no one went hungry in the Inca empire.

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