In 1532, Tawantinsuyu – as the Inca Empire was known – represented the single largest pre-industrial state established in the Americas. It stretched across most of western South America and encompassed a territory that was extraordinarily geographically diverse and inhabited by a range of nations that were also culturally and linguistically diverse. Throughout this massive territory, the Inca built a network of roads, called the Capaq Ñan, as a means of uniting the multitude of regions and groups that had been brought under Inca control. When the Spanish first saw this road network, they called it ‘the longest and grandest in the world’. Pedro Cieza de León, a young soldier who arrived in what is now Peru in 1547, became one of the first Spaniards to write about the Inca roads, and stated:
In the memory of people, I doubt there is record of another highway comparable to this, running through deep valleys and over high mountains, through piles of snow, quagmires, living rock, along turbulent rivers; […] Oh! Can anything comparable be said of Alexander, or of any of the mighty kings who ruled the world, that they built such a road, or provided the supplies to be found on this one!
With its snow-capped mountains, rugged terrain, deep canyons, and swift rivers, the Andean region is regarded as one of the most difficult and demanding landscapes in the world. Without the ingenious imagination of its indigenous inhabitants, this formidable landscape would effectively isolate not only communities, but also entire regions. Therefore, the establishment of the longest and grandest road network in the world was a significant achievement.
All of the time and energy invested in building roads across this challenging terrain would, though, have been wasted without a crucial component: suspension bridges that hung elegantly over deep canyons and rapid currents. Between November and March – the rainy season – rivers become turbulent and impossible to ford; thus, ‘the longest and grandest [network] in the world’ is simply impractical without bridges, as sizeable tracts of territory separated by rivers would have been isolated for months on end. Remarkable suspension bridges presented the solution to this problem and represented an integral feature of the Inca road system.
It is clear that the Spaniards were impressed by these bridges, even if they had a hard time finding the right words to capture what they saw. Victor von Hagen believes that Miguel Estete was the first Spaniard who attempted to describe such a bridge:
[We] reached a large village in a valley, and a very rapid river intercepted the road. It was spanned by two bridges close together, made… in the following manner. They build a foundation near the water and raise it to a great height; and, from one side of the river to the other, there are cables as thick as a man’s thigh. They are held up by the towers and the ends buried in the ground with great stones. The width is that of a cart’s width.
As the Spanish advanced from Cajamarca to Cuzco, the Inca capital, they observed that the greatest number and most impressive examples of suspension bridges were found in what is today the Peruvian central highlands, along the road linking the Inca capital with the imperial installations of Vilkaswamán and Jauja. Cieza de León travelled this highway and observed bridges made of ‘twisted withes’ that were ‘so strong that horses can gallop over them’. Naturally, using perishable plant materials meant that such bridges did not stand for decades on end, but had to be rebuilt reasonably regularly. This task seems to have fallen to local groups living in the vicinity of a bridge.
It was indigenous writer Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala who provided the earliest drawing of an Inca suspension bridge, while also pointing out that each bridge was supervised by a state official, named a chakakamayoq. According to Victor von Hagen, a later illustration of a bridge in E G Squier’s Peru: Incidents of Travel and Exploration in the Land of the Incas was one of the reasons why Hiram Bingham decided to travel to Peru. As is well known, Bingham went on to play a key role in bringing the existence of Machu Picchu to the attention of a global audience.
At the height of the Inca Empire, the roads and suspension bridges bound the empire together, allowing peoples and goods to be mobilised across the Inca realm. Llama caravans transported goods from one location to another, while official messengers – known as chaskis – criss-crossed the empire, ensuring the steady flow of information the state depended on.
Suspension bridges are elegant pieces of indigenous engineering, which required careful assembly over fast-flowing rivers. No serious attempt has been made to investigate the antiquity of this innovation, although it is reasonable to assume that it existed before the rise of the Inca Empire, not least because important segments of the road system are believed to have been established by the preceding Wari state (c.AD 600-1000). Either way, the bridge is a testament to the ingenuity of the inhabitants of the central Andes, and their ability to overcome the challenges posed by a demanding landscape. Today, not only does the precise origin of such bridges remain obscure, but their future is also uncertain.
Following the decline of the Inca Empire, many suspension bridges fell into disrepair. Both the colonial obligations imposed by the Spanish and the drastic demographic decline caused by diseases introduced by the Europeans brought many long-lived traditions to a halt. As people perished, so too knowledge and technologies were lost with them. The suspension bridges offer a prominent example of this, as the methods used to construct them have disappeared from the memories of most local communities. There are, though, some fascinating exceptions to this general rule.
Until recently, at least two suspension bridges were still being replenished in the region. One was Q’eswachaca, which was built over the Apurimac River, just west of Cuzco, while the other was known as Tinkuqchaka and spanned the Pampas River in the vicinity of the former Inca station at Vilkaswamán. These two bridges were not identical, as the first was largely made of ichu grass, while the latter was primarily constructed using branches from what is known as the pichus bush. Despite these differences in material, though, both bridges were constructed using a very similar technique. This leaves open the tantalising possibility that the essential elements of Inca suspension bridge technology survived in use until very recently. If so, such examples can perhaps provide an invaluable sense of not only how the bridges were designed, but also the remarkable way in which local communities mobilised in order to rebuild these structures.
With that in mind, it is intriguing to take a look at the social activity that was part and parcel of the rebuilding of the Tinkuqchaka suspension bridge. This last occurred in 2014, but in the heyday of the crossing, it was reconstructed every two years, a job that fell squarely on the shoulders of the local community of Sarhua. Today, just as in Inca times, the Sarhua community is divided into two groups or ayllus. One ayllu is known as the locals, while the other is made up of outsiders, whose ancestors are believed to have been born elsewhere. This division is of crucial importance during the construction of the suspension bridge. Another parallel with the Inca era is that the bridge was supervised by a local official known as the chakakamayuq. The whole process of bridge renewal began when this official notified the community that work would commence in one week’s time. Following that, members of both ayllus would gather the pichus branches necessary to complete their task. After that, the entire community travelled to the bridge site, carrying the branches on their shoulders. Arrival at Tinkuqchaka brought them to an open space near the bridge, where the division between the ayllus became apparent. There, the two groups physically separated, in order to occupy different sides of the open space. From that point onwards, a strong competitive element was woven through proceedings. Initially, this took the form of jokes and mockery, which the two sides hurled at each other, but such verbal dexterity was only a prelude to the rivalry underpinning the whole business of rebuilding the bridge.
While the two camps were at the open space, they fashioned the pichus branches into strong, heavy cables. This initial step involved manufacturing a total of 23 cables, each 100m long. As well as being a practical necessity, this also marks the first competition between the groups, with the one making the most lines judged the winner. Next, each ayllu combined four of their cables to create a longer length, with both groups again vying to complete the task. Finally, three even larger cables were produced, each incorporating five of the shorter stretches. Once again the two ayllus go head to head, with both groups starting at the middle of their respective lengths of cable and working outwards towards the end. The competitive element was embraced by the ayllus, with the sweetness of victory and agony of defeat keenly felt by participants.
While creating the cables, both sides were led by experienced masters and their assistants. These figures were old hands at bridge-building, having gathered the knowledge needed to both make the structure and achieve success in the challenges during previous episodes of bridge maintenance. Both ayllus also contained younger members of the community in their ranks, with the most youthful acting as observers, while slightly older individuals became involved as helpers. This approach allowed key skills to be passed down through the generations, meaning that this communal event is also an instance of how indigenous teaching could be carried out. Although the task of cable production was traditionally seen as a male activity, women were very much participants in the gathering, providing support and engaging in verbal sparring with members of the opposing ayllu.
Once completed, the cables were carried to the river edge, where the existing bridge stands. Then, the members of the outsider ayllu crossed the old bridge for the last time. When the two groups were on the opposing banks, the old bridge was cut at both ends, plunging it into the Pampas River. As the remains were carried away by the current, so too a cycle was symbolically brought to a close, teaching those present that everything with a beginning also has an end. Bringing down the bridge while the two ayllus occupied different sides of the river also brought to fruition the concept of a group of locals and (on the far bank) outsiders. This division was not seen as healthy, with the integration of the outsiders into the community considered fundamental for the wellbeing of Sarhua. To achieve this, both ayllus had to come together, and it was the act of raising the new bridge that achieved this. In effect, the bridge was presented as essential for unifying the community.
To initiate the merger, members of the local ayllu threw one end of their ropes to the opposite bank. This acts as both an invitation to the outsiders, and a way of acknowledging that their presence is vital for the wellbeing of the community. Once the ayllu managed to catch the rope, they used it to pull the heavy cables across the river. This action was repeated five times, so that three cables were available to act as the base of the bridge, while the other two provided guard rails. Both ends of the cables were securely tied behind large stone towers, which survived from earlier incarnations of the crossing. Once the cables were in position, ropes and sticks anchored them in place. Finally, the sides and base of the bridge were inserted, making the structure secure.
In total, the task of creating the cables and erecting the new bridge took several days. Just as the act of building presented a message about the community, so too the place where the challenges between them played out has a wider significance within the landscape. This open space lay beside the confluence of the Qaracha and Pampas rivers, a location that holds symbolic meaning for not only the inhabitants of Sarhua, but also the Andean worldview more generally. This identifies places known as tinkuy, where two elements combine to bring something new into existence. The word tinkuy also means a meeting place, a fighting place, and a playing place, making it a fitting venue for the vying ayllus. Since time immemorial these two groups competed beside this natural confluence, before going on to merge themselves via the act of completing the new bridge. Far from being a tedious communal chore, this regular act of renewal was a carefully choreographed statement of group values.
A chapter closes
Ethnographers are in the privileged position of being able to witness how communities like that of Sarhua can accomplish major tasks at a local level, without state involvement. Archaeologists, by contrast, can detect where bridges once stood and deduce that regular rebuilding would be necessary. It could even be possible to establish from finds that gatherings were held nearby. Relying on archaeological evidence makes it much harder to flesh out the spirit in which such events were conducted, though. How could you hope to comprehend that the entire process was fueled by competitive mockery? If the renewal of the Tinkuqchaka bridge does indeed echo the manner in which Inca suspension bridges were built, then examining the actions of the Sarhua community is perhaps the closest we can now come to comprehending how such key operations were achieved in the Inca Empire, and indeed how important such groups were to the smooth running of it.
The case of Tinkuqchaka also shows that the execution of this important task was not a great burden, but an activity that community members looked forward to, because it provided a unique opportunity to play, to socialise, and to renew the sense of belonging to a group. What is more, building the bridge enabled older community members to transmit valuable knowledge to future generations: knowledge with origins that most likely stretch back before the rise of the Inca Empire.
Today, we live in a world of rapid change, where anything regarded as antiquated is at risk of being discarded. This has proven to be the case for the suspension bridges of the Andes; once upon a time they were indispensable for the smooth running of an empire, but now they are regarded as obsolete. It appears that the last two surviving suspension bridges of this style in the Andean region have been rebuilt for the last time. This venerable tradition has been doomed by the construction of crossings made from durable modern materials. In the specific case of Tinkuqchaka, it also appears that the community of Sarhua has had its last great gathering, where members were brought together to become a single large family. This change in technology, then, has spelled the end for a long-standing event promoting communal cohesiveness. Times have changed and the last construction of Tinkuqchaka bridge in 2014 draws to a close an important chapter in the history of the Central Andes.
FURTHER READING P Cieza de León (1959) The Incas of Pedro de Cieza de León, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. R M Mendieta and J Barreiro (2015) The Great Inka Road: engineering an empire, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. L M Valdez and C Vivanco (2021) ‘Tinkuqchaka: a suspension bridge over the upper Pampas River, Ayacucho, Peru.’ Journal of Anthropological Research 77 (2): 208-233. V W Von Hagen (1976) The Royal Road of the Inca, London: Gordon & Cremonesi.
All images: Courtesy of Lidio Valdez unless otherwise stated.