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Ancient history in reverse: Engineering unlocks secrets of sustainable design along the Inka Road

Dec 12, 2011   //   By   //   Go! Explore  //  1 Comment  //  Spanish Translation

Set out for what has been called the “archeological capital of the Americas,” a team of researchers has begun to study one of the greatest transportation engineering feats of all time: the Inka Road. Uniting the four regions of the ancient Inka Empire (1438-1533), the Inka Road system extends over 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) from what is now Ecuador to Chile, crossing land in present-day Peru, reaching even into parts of Bolivia, and Argentina. This international highway was the most extensive transportation system in pre-Columbian South America .

Engineers in the team investigate a drainage wall found along the Inka Road

Reverse engineering the Inka Road included three main processes: (1) measuring what was built (2) recording construction techniques, labor methods, and maintenance strategies and (3) comparing the construction of the Inka Road to other Inka structures, including foundations of other buildings. Some were constructed of carefully cut stones, some used broken stones, called rubble, and others used packed clay.

The project closely examined the road structures in order to uncover how the Inka built sustainable structures within the aggressive geographic climate of mountain cold and rain. The Inka faced issues of water control, frequent major earthquakes in Peru (one almost every three years), and constructing a road on the sides of mountains.

High school student Nicolas Salas, of Chile, takes notes on an archaeological structure found in Yucay, Peru. Click image to enlarge.

The research team was led by construction engineering professionals and architects, but also included college students, a high school music teacher and a high school student. Young adults worked alongside professors, learning how to collect and interpret data, and determining the engineering techniques utilized by the Inka. The Smithsonian Institute conferences  associated with the research focused on the interdisciplinary, multi-national, holistic approach to engineering education.

In layman’s terms, the project had three main goals: “(1) to better understand how the Inka designed and built their road system (2) to create lessons learned for modern road construction, apply models of sustainability and working with nature and (3) to make findings accessible through tele-engineering” (Inka Road webcast, July 19, 2011)—that is, broadcasting findings from South America across the Internet.

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1 Comment

  • Do you know how a high school or college student could find information about opportunities to participate in interdisciplinary, international, in-place, engineering-related research projects like this one?

    Thank you for the information.—MB

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