SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now a story about one of history's great engineering feats, a project that has slipped almost into obscurity, the Inca Road. Parts of it still exist today across much of South America, and NPR's Jasmine Garsd is going to take us on a virtual tour.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Back in the day, and by back in the day, I mean over 500 years ago, a commoner like me wouldn't have been able to walk on the Inca Road, or Qhapaq Nan, without official permission.
RAMIRO MATOS: (Foreign language spoken).
GARSD: Fortunately, I have Peruvian archaeologist Ramiro Matos by my side. He co-curated an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian called The Great Inka Road: Building an Empire. That's Inka with a K, as it's spelled in Quechua. And today, we're taking a journey down what was once 20,000 miles of road.
(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).
GARSD: The Inca Road began at the center of the Inca universe, Cusco, a city said to be built in the shape of a puma crouching up in the Peruvian Andes. It was a network of royal roads designed for military transportation, religious pilgrimages and to move supplies. The roads were an instrument of power.
MATOS: (Through interpreter) As far as the road stretches, the empire stretches.
GARSD: The Inca Road spanned modern-day Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia. The photographs of it are vertigo-inducing. Massive pathways wind up tall mountains and pave the clouds, sturdy staircases unwind into lush green valleys as if the brutal nature of the landscape had been just a small inconvenience to work around.
MATOS: (Through interpreter) The highest part of the road crosses from Argentina to Chile, nearly 20,000 feet high. How did they build this? Local experience.
GARSD: The Incas were master engineers, but like most conquerors, they also tapped local experts. As an example, the exhibition focuses on a bridge of plant fibers which is still in use today.
MATOS: (Through interpreter) There is an inventory of over 100 bridges in all of the empire. This is one of the few which remain. It is made with icchu, or puna grass.
GARSD: The Inca Empire only lasted about a century. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived, the intricate Inca Road made it easier for them to move around and access precious mines the Incas themselves had been exploiting. Today, most of the road has been destroyed, both by the conquest and by modern highways. Some parts remain. Schoolchildren around the world memorize facts about the Roman roads and the Great Wall of China, but most people know so little about the Inca Road. Kevin Gover is director of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. He says the road is largely forgotten because it just doesn't fit into the typical Western narrative.
KEVIN GOVER: Indians play one of two roles in that narrative. They're either the opponents of civilization, or they're literally part of the nature that was there to be settled and conquered. We are not taught that some of these were very advanced civilizations because that means this wasn't a wilderness. And that means somebody had to be displaced, and it wasn't necessarily a noble endeavor.
GARSD: That's why the museum created the exhibit, which is on display until 2018. The great Inca Road reminds us that once upon a time, all roads lead to Cusco, Peru. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Washington.
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