The origins of the Qhapaq Ñan (“great road” in the Quechua language of the Incas) can be traced to trails that formed as early as 1000 B.C. During their brief but glorious peak in the 15th century, the Incas developed the road into a transportation network serving some 40,000 people spread over thousands of miles. Today, the ancient road runs for thousands of miles, traversing vastly different terrain—from tropical rain forests and deserts to the snowy peaks of the Andes Mountains—and connecting Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. All six of these nations have now banded together to support the road’s potential designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
From 1438 to 1532, the mighty Incas ruled the largest pre-Columbian empire in South America from their capital in Cuzco, Peru. The Qhapaq Ñan helped unite Inca territory, linking a population of some 40,000 people spread along the Pacific coast and Andean highlands from the northern border of today’s Ecuador to the Maule River, now in central Chile. Messengers bore news in the form of knotted ropes (as the Incas had no written language) along the road, while traders transported goods such as fish, seashells, weapons, wood, cocoa and textiles as well as valuable metals like gold and copper. The Spanish conquistadors who arrived from the north in 1526 also traveled along the road. They used it to their advantage by driving the Incas into the mountains, completing their conquest by 1532.
In addition to its important role in South America’s history, the Qhapaq Ñan showcases the early engineering skills of the Incas, including the 500-year-old Qeswachaka Bridge, made of woven grass, which spans the Apurímac River canyon some 100 kilometers south of Cuzco. Now, after 12 years of cooperation, the six nations through which the Qhapaq Ñan runs–Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina–have joined together to ask the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to designate the road a World Heritage Site. As the UNESCO World Heritage Committee meets in Doha, Qatar this week, the Qhapaq Ñan is one of 12 natural and cultural attractions being considered for this coveted status.
According to an evaluation by the International Council on Monuments and Sites, the historic road network is currently threatened by tractor plowing and other farming-related encroachment, the construction of communications towers and transmission lines, mining and urban development. Sections of the road have been covered with asphalt or converted into a motorway, while “Larger sections remain in their original materials of the Incan era and are used by pedestrians and with riding animals, in particular horses, donkeys and mules.”
As reported in the New York Times, the application submitted on behalf of the road is elaborate, containing excerpts from the reports of hundreds of experts who studied different parts of the road network or various monuments in the countries it runs through. Of the road’s 20,000 total miles, only 435 miles are being considered for designation; these include 137 sections and 273 components, including temples, fortresses and funerary towers. In all, the Inca legacy lives on in some 100,000 notable archaeological sites, including Machu Picchu, the mysterious mountain complex explored a century ago by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham.
The benefits of winning a World Heritage Site designation include increased prestige, a spike in tourism and in some cases financial support. In return, the countries pledge to follow conservation protocols in order to protect the sites. Named a World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu is now one of the world’s leading tourist draws. A total of 981 sites have been named to the World Heritage List since 1972, including the pyramids of Giza in Egypt, Delphi in Greece, Dubrovnik in Croatia and Angkor in Cambodia.
In addition to the Qhapaq Ñan, the committee is considering the designation of France’s Chauvet Cave, located in a limestone plateau of the Ardeche River. The cave was closed off by a rock fall some 20,000 years ago and was sealed until 1994, when it was rediscovered; it contains some of the earliest known paintings, images of bison, rhinos and mammoths recorded some 30,000 years ago. Other sites in the running include the Erbil Citadel in Kurdistan, Iraq; sections of the Silk Road in China; Judean caves in Israel; and the Rani-ki-Vav, or Queen’s Stepwell, built during the 11th and 12th centuries in Gujarat, India.
Of all the sites being considered, the Qhapaq Ñan is the only one to enjoy support from so many different countries. The six nations have had to overcome a history of tensions—including border wars in the 19th century and violent conflict between Ecuador and Peru that continued into the 20th century—in order to band together to protect their shared legacy.