The Inca used khipu like this one to record census reports and other data. (Ernest Amoroso/National Museum of the American Indian) The Inca used khipu like this one to record census reports and other data. (Ernest Amoroso/National Museum of the American Indian)

Without wheels or iron tools, the Inca built a vast empire in South America that lasted about 100 years, beginning in 1438. A network of more than 24,000 miles of roads formed the backbone of this civilization. Those roads are the focus of a new exhibit opening Friday at the National Museum of the American Indian, “The Great Inka Road: Engineering an Empire.” (“Inka” is the spelling used in Quechua, a native language still spoken by Inca descendants.)

“It’s astounding that the Inca were able to engineer a road system that didn’t wash away despite the incredible amount of rainfall and the earthquakes in that part of the world,” says Amy Van Allen, Inka Road project manager.

Modern engineers study how the Inca channeled water away from roadways and buildings, says Dan Davis, who’s in charge of the exhibit’s interactive elements.

“A lot of people think of native tribes or ancient people as more primitive, but the Inca were so far ahead of their time,” he says. “We are only catching up to their ideas of sustainability today.”

Informed by the foundations that still stand in the Inca capital of Cusco, archaeologists and architects made a 3-D model of the city as it looked at the height of the empire. Exhibit visitors can explore ancient Cusco using a huge touch-screen table. Either click around the map for a walking tour, or take control of a condor to get a bird’s-eye view.

Augmenting the interactive exhibits are artifacts from the museum’s collection, including a khipu — an intricate record-keeping system consisting of knotted ropes. Inca bureaucrats used these to keep tabs on supplies, livestock and the number of people in various municipalities. After all, this was a 12 million-person empire that operated smoothly without currency or stores. Nearly everything was managed by the central government, Van Allen says.

“You need powerful administrative tools to keep all these people working and fed,” Van Allen says.

That feat may particularly interest locals, Davis says.
“D.C. bureaucrats might see this and appreciate they don’t have to deal with kipus,” Davis says.

National Museum of the American Indian, Fourth Street and Independence Avenue SW; free, Fri. through June 1, 2018.

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