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How Inca chaskis covered 1,250 miles in a week

Over the last few months we’ve focused on the Qhapaq Ñan, the Inca road system which stretched from Colombia to Chile and covered a total of 25,000 miles. This month we examine the legendary chaskis, the short-distance relay runners who could get a message from Cusco to Quito in under a week.

Meet the cast

Young boys with superior running skills were earmarked as future chaskis. They underwent a strict training regime in cloistered living conditions. Their job as runners was considered so vital to the empire that they were exempt from all other forms of mit’a, the work based taxation system which oiled an economy that has variously been described as ‘the perfect form of socialism’ and ‘capitalism without the money’.

Note the shell trumpet and rope sandals.

Chaskis delivered official messages and small parcels throughout the Tawantinsuyu. Because the Inka had no written language, messages had to be memorized and repeated to the next runner in the relay –a 1000-mile game of broken telephone, if you like!

Each runner would run for between six and nine miles until they reached a chaskiwasi (quite literally ‘chaski house’) from where the next chaski would continue the relay.The chaskis wore sandals made from woven plant fibers and braided woolen cord and carried a small personal bag. This bag contained, among other things, khipu (more about this later) and a shell trumpet known as a pututu. If a member of the Inka royalty had a strong craving for ceviche there may also be fresh seafood in the bag!

The chaski would sound his pututu when he was coming up to a chaskiwasi to alert the next runner that he was nearby and thus keep the handover time to a bare minimum. Verbal messages, goods and khipu, were rapidly passed on before the next runner left. This extremely efficient system meant that 25 runners could cover about 150 miles in a single day. To get a message from Cusco to Quito took as little as a week – that’s 1,250 miles traversing the second-highest mountain range on the planet.

Cotopaxi in Ecuador. (Photo: Simon Matzinger)

Understanding khipu

The Inka developed a system of record-keeping called khipu. Khipus comprised between 100 and 1500 strings of knotted cotton or alpaca wool hanging vertically from a single horizontal string or wooden bar. The number and position of the knots could denote all manner of information. About 80% of khipus contained mathematical information (much like a textile version of the abacus) which was vital for the accounting and record-keeping of the empire. A khipu may contain information about the number of households in a village or the amount of potatoes in a particular storehouse, for example.

Good luck making sense of this!

Scientists have decoded these mathematical khipus, but the other ‘non-mathematical’ khipus remain a mystery. The esteemed American journalist Charles Mann has written a fascinating paper entitled Cracking the Khipu Code which is well worth a read – check out the link if you have 10 minutes to spare.

Mann writes: “The Inca have often been described as the only major Bronze Age civilization without a written language. In recent years, however, researchers have increasingly come to doubt this conclusion. Many now think that although khipu probably began as accounting tools, they had evolved into a writing system—a kind of three-dimensional binary code, unlike any other on Earth—by the time the Spanish arrived.”

When William J Conklin, a research associate at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C he had the following to say: “When I started looking at khipu, I saw this complex spinning and plying and color-coding, in which every thread was made in a complex way. I realized that 90% of the information was put into the string before the knot was made.”

The Qhapaq Ñan traverses some pretty harsh terrain. (Photo: Rainbowasi)

Cracking the code

While chaskis were trained in tying and interpreting khipus, specialists known as khipucamayucs had a much fuller understanding of the system. Khipucamayucs underwent years of training in order to ‘write’, read and interpret khipus. They were placed in every community and even the smallest Inca village would have had at least four khipucamayucs.

The khipucamayucs are long gone, but over the centuries there have been several missed opportunities to crack the code, for example: “To assemble a history of the Inca, in 1542 colonial governor Cristóbal Vaca de Castro apparently summoned khipukamayuq to “read” the strings. Spanish scribes recorded their testimony but did not preserve the khipu; indeed, they may have destroyed them.”

The Qhapaq Ñan passing through Raqchi, Peru. (Photo: Kyle Magnuson)

Scientists all over the world are using various methods to unlock the code so that ““we may be able to hear the Incans for the first time in their own voice.” If you want to take part in the hunt, wander on over to Harvard University’s Khipu Database Project and start sleuthing…

The cover image of this blog shows runners in the Carrera de los Chasquis, a race which takes place in Ecuador every year.


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