The Kapak Nan: the lifeblood of the Inca Empire running through Chile

Brian O‘Sullivan is an expert on the O’Higgins region, running O‘Higgins Tours. In a series of guest blogs, he writes about Chilean culture. Today in part five, O’Sullivan picks up on how the O’Higgins region played an important role in the wealth of the Inca Empire in Cuzco, connected through an ancient road.

The Incas could be considered the Romans of the Andean World; their empire was as large and efficient as the Roman one, and a lot less corrupt. In itself, the Inca expansion was not that of just an empire but of a cosmovision and the head of the Empire’s state religion was at Coricancha, the high temple of the Sun in Cuzco, much like Roman Catholicism revolves around the Vatican City. The Inca Empire/Cosmo vision thus united over 200 Andean South American tribes of many different languages and dialects.

Inca Infrastructure

Inca building technology offers lessons many countries would find valuable today. Inca masons built walls of stone in which the face of the wall is designed to fit so tightly that the mortar is hidden. These walls have held up over many centuries and countless earthquakes. Engineers constructed irrigation ditches, canals, and aqueducts that provided fresh water and sanitation to cities at a time when European towns had open sewers that spread disease among the population.

Paved roads ran up the Andes Mountains, along cliff edges, over deserts, even through jungles and many of those roads still exist today. Where needed, bridges spanned chasms hundreds of feet deep and lasted more than 100 years, despite being built of reeds, leather, and logs. By 1500, the planned city of Cuzco had more than 4,000 stone buildings, complete with sparkling fountains, rock-lined sewers, and sprawling public plazas.

Tawantinsuyu: advanced political organization

The administrative, political and military centre of the empire was located in Cuzco, Peru. The empire itself was divided into the Tawantinsuyu, Quechua for the Four Regions, whose corners met in Cuzco. The Tawantinsuyu was overseen by a central government with the Inca at its head and provincial governments with strong leaders for each region, comparable in a way to the European Union.

This area was part of the Kholla Suyu region, the south-eastern province of the Empire. Kholla Suyu translates into English as Region of the Kholla, named after a subgroup of the Aymaras whose kingdom stretched from what is now northern Chile to central Bolivia before their territory was annexed by the Incas. From the mid to late 15th century, the Incas established forts in central Chile, from north of Santiago to around where the city of Talca stands today.

The province that comprised this area, Santiago and further north had its capital regional capital in the town of Quillota, a town north of Santiago which still exists today, and the last Inca governor to reign here was Kilikanta. The Kholla Suyu extended from Cuzco to central Chile but the advance southwards was halted after the Battle of the Maule where they met determined resistance by the Mapuche tribes, and the final border was fixed as being this area.

The Wiphala: what does this indigenous flag mean?

The Diaguita tribe and the quests for minerals

When the first Inca troops came to Chile during the rule of Pachacuti, they initially met resistance in the semi-desert valleys from the local Diaguita tribes in the Atacama and Coquimbo areas of northern Chile. This resistance did not last long however, and following submission, the Diaguitas began to adopt the Inca culture and fuse it with their own, which they were allowed to maintain under the Empire’s policy of autonomy. This agreement became the basis of a mutually beneficial relationship that saw the Diaguitas become the Incas’ greatest allies in this corner of the Empire.

The Incas’ aspirations of expansion southwards and gaining control of the mineral resources there fitted in nicely with that of the Diaguitas. In a way, the Diaguitas became a proxy or extension of the Incas and contributed many men to their armies and governments in this area. As previously mentioned, control of mineral resources was a primary interest of the Incas and their Diaguita allies. It became the Empire’s greatest source of wealth in this area and they established many copper, gold and silver mines during their expansion southwards.

When the Incas conquered an area, they nominated the highest mountain there as the Apu, a mountain deity that protected the inhabitants of the valley and where acts of worship and human sacrifices were carried out in their honour.

The Apu of the Mapocho valley (Santiago) was the nearby Cerro El Plomo, and the name of the Apoquindo Hill in Santiago comes from the Quechua words Apuk Kintu, meaning “flowers for the Apu”. On this hill, flowers were grown in honour of the Apu and caravans en route to the mountain for rituals of human sacrifice left from the hill. Another local Apu near Rancagua was Cerro Challay, near the Monticello Casino.

Inca rule, although relatively brief, greatly impacted the original way of life for the indigenous people in the region. New social and political structures were introduced along with new ideas and customs. The local populations now had to pay taxes to the Empire in the form of labour, properties, minerals or military service. The transfer of taxes from south to north improved and extended the road network, which in turn consolidated and improved communication.

The Battle of the Maule

Despite initial resistance, the Incas settled in Rancagua valley and lived with the natives contributing to improve farming, livestock and mining practices. Nonetheless, they had a fragile hold on the territories between the Cachapoal River at Rancagua and Maule River at Talca, and the increasingly rebellious tribes there began to enlist the help of their allies further south, known by the Incas as purum awqa, Quechua for wild enemy.

In a bid to stamp out rebellion and expand the Empire ever further south, the Incas crossed the Maule River, and in keeping their old custom, they sent messengers to require the purum awqa to submit to the rule of the Inca or resort to arms. They refused. The Incas then tried diplomacy, offering peace and friendship. The Mapuches were not interested in any kind of dialogue or negotiation. They refused again and the battle began the next day.

The Battle of Maule

The Battle of the Maule was fought between the Mapuche people and the Inca Empire at the river of the same name near the present day city of Talca. The three-day battle, which is generally believed to have occurred in the reign of Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1471-93), marked the end of the Incas’ southward expansion.

The battle was bloody, both sides lost more than half their armies and most of the survivors were wounded. There was no decisive winner, but the Incas made no further incursions into Mapuche territory and retreated back to the River Cachapoal, abandoning their installations further south.

There, they consolidated the territories they had conquered, with the region between the Rivers Cachapoal and Maule acting as a demilitarized free trade zone between the Inca Empire and the Mapuche heartlands where they still exerted some economic and commercial influence. It is believed that the final boundaries were fixed as being here by Wayna Kapak during his reign.

Wayna Kapak and infrastructure in Chile

Under Emperor Wayna Kapak, who reigned from 1492 to 1527, the Inca Empire reached the height of its size and power and was extended significantly to the south into present-day Chile and Argentina. A dedicated ruler, Wayna Kapak did much to improve the lives of his people.

In addition to building temples and other works, Wayna greatly expanded the road network and had storehouses built along it for food so that aid could be quickly rushed to any who were in danger of starvation. He also spent at least one year in Chile before fatally contracting smallpox while campaigning in Colombia. The Spaniards had carried smallpox to South America, and the Native South Americans had no acquired immunity against it.

Wayna Kapak

Although Quechua is no longer spoken in this area, traces of the Inca Empire and its culture remain. Inca designs are quite prominent in the famed hand-woven ponchos in nearby Donihue, for example. In addition to this, on their march south during their expansion towards the river Maule prior to the battle there, the Incas built the wicker bridge in Rancagua which crossed the Cachapoal River just over 1 kilometre from where the highway crosses it today.

The Santiago municipal council ordered the building to be repaired in 1545, and the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia crossed it with 60 well-armed soldiers in February 1546 on his own mission to subjugate the same indomitable Mapuches. Traces of its stone foundations are still visible today. They also left the Wak’a China, a religious site with burial ground on the outskirts of Santiago which doubled as an astronomical observatory, along with the road network that linked it all to Cuzco, the Kapak Nan.

The Kapak Nan

The Kapak Nan was the lifeblood of the Inca Empire that allowed for the movement of its officials, armies, messengers, llama caravans and goods. It was crucial to the Empire in four key areas:

  • Government: The routes allowed for the installation of regional governors and administrative centers to rule the provinces. In the16th century, the position for this region was filled by a Peruvian from Cuzco called Kilikanta, who would turn out to be the last. His centre of government was the town of Quillota, north of Santiago, making it the regional capital of this province, the furthermost corner of the Kollasuyu.
  • Military: The Inca system of roads allowed for very quick movement by the Inca army. Shelters called tampus were built one day’s distance in travelling from each other, so that an army on campaign could always be fed and rested when tired. This also allowed for the rapid expansion and consolidation of the Empire.
  • Communication: The roads also allowed runners to carry messages long distances every day, creating a rapid communication system. Runners were given coca leaves to fight off hunger and fatigue and would carry the message to another runner (relay style) who would then take the message to another one until the message had reached its destination. This way, a message could travel up to 240 kilometres every day.
  • Economy: A primary interest of Inca expansion to this particular region was to gain control of the valuable gold and copper mines, which were then transported back to Cuzco, and copper from this very region would have ended up in the Inca capital via this route. The trade routes created by the Incas led to greater economic growth for their subject peoples, making it easier for the Incas to assimilate them into their empire.

From Colombia to Chile

The route

The road network ran from southern Colombia deep into Chile along the Andes, with an intermittent parallel route along the Pacific coast and various branches and side roads linking the two or extending into Argentina and Bolivia.

These side roads which linked the main highways followed an east to west orientation in line with the daily route of the sun, which the Incas worshiped as a god. In all, the Kapak Nan zigzagged and criss-crossed Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, with Cuzco at its centre.

Reaching what is now Santiago, the road is now Avenida Independencia, then Paseo Ahumada, passing Plaza de las Armas, where there was originally a large tampu, and Calle Arturo Prat, before crossing the river where the train and main highway south cross today.

According to renowned local archaeologist Ruben Stehberg, who has spent a great many years studying the branches of the Kapak Nan here,  after crossing the River Mapocho, the road network splits into two separate branches.

One branch went south via Chena, crossing the Maipo River over a rope bridge at El Romeral.

The second branch passed by the foothills of the mountains from the Santiago district of Vitacura southwards, passing through the district of La Reina, then over a rope suspension bridge where the Los Morros bridge now stands, facing Pirque, continuing south to the Angostura.

In the past, the Angostura area (where the Casino Monticello stands today) was a swamp, and the road that connected the fertile Maipo river valley to the final border at the Cachapoal River passed by the hill of Chada.

It is now a secondary road that runs parallel to the highway through many typical rural villages including Codegua (originally a Picunche settlement) and passes La Compania, where it becomes Avenida La Compania all the way to Rancagua.

The Spanish later incorporated the local branch of the Kapak Nan into the “Camino Real a la Frontera”, the highway linking Santiago and Concepcion. “Camino Real a la Frontera” means “Royal Highway to the Frontier”, “frontier” referring to where the Spanish Kingdom of Chile ended and the Mapuche territories began.

Mapuche silver – symbols of indigenous culture

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