Inca ingenuity

Cultural Insights — By on May 17, 2007 at 7:46 am

The Inca Empire of South America was known for a few of its architectural achievements, as well as for a remarkable system of roads and bridges that enabled fairly quick communication among communities that were scattered throughout the rugged terrain of the Andes Mountains.

The NY Times just ran an interesting article that combined a bit of culture and science when it provided an overview of the Inca transportation system, and particularly the suspension bridges that were built across canyons. These bridges were made from natural rope fibers.

Conquistadors from Spain came, they saw and they were astonished. They had never seen anything in Europe like the bridges of Peru. Chroniclers wrote that the Spanish soldiers stood in awe and fear before the spans of braided fiber cables suspended across deep gorges in the Andes, narrow walkways sagging and swaying and looking so frail.

Yet the suspension bridges were familiar and vital links in the vast empire of the Inca, as they had been to Andean cultures for hundreds of years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1532. The people had not developed the stone arch or wheeled vehicles, but they were accomplished in the use of natural fibers for textiles, boats, sling weapons – even keeping inventories by a prewriting system of knots.

So bridges made of fiber ropes, some as thick as a man’s torso, were the technological solution to the problem of road building in rugged terrain. By some estimates, at least 200 such suspension bridges spanned river gorges in the 16th century…

The Inca suspension bridges achieved clear spans of at least 150 feet, probably much greater. This was a longer span than any European masonry bridges at the time. The longest Roman bridge in Spain had a maximum span between supports of 95 feet. And none of these European bridges had to stretch across deep canyons.

The Peruvians apparently invented their fiber bridges independently of outside influences, Dr. Ochsendorf said, but these bridges were neither the first of their kind in the world nor the inspiration for the modern suspension bridge.

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