Incan architecture

Inca architecture is the most significant pre-Columbian architecture in South America. The Incas inherited an architectural legacy from Tiwanaku, founded in the second century B.C. in present day Bolivia.

The Incas developed an extensive road system spanning most of the western length of the continent. Inca rope bridges could be considered the world's first suspension bridges. Because the Incas used no wheels (the Inca, unlike many other large empires, never discovered the wheel) or horses they built their roads and bridges for foot and pack-llama traffic.
Much of present day architecture at the former Inca capital Cuzco shows both Incan and Spanish influences. The famous lost city Machu Picchu is the best surviving example of Incan architecture. Some other significant sites include Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo. The Inca were sophisticated stone cutters whose masonry used no mortar.


Characteristics of Incan Architecture

The basic shape of Inca Architecture is a rectangular building without any internal walls. Typically these single room units had either thatched or wooden beam roofs. Many of these structures were built side-by-side, often sharing a wall though not a door. These buildings may have been used as homes, storage, or served for government or religious activities. In his book Incan Settlement Planning, John Hyslop writes: “The rectangular plan could not dominate the Inca buildings. From humble rural houses to the halls of the most sacred temple…” Occasionally the Incan built circular or two story buildings.
Incan architectural ornamentation is considered, by western standards, limited. Occasionally they painted walls or hung metal plaques. Although infrequent, small animals and geometric patterns were sometimes sculpted into their stonework. Although decoration was rare, canals and fountains were certainly an aspect of ornamentation. Incan doors and windows were created with some elegance as well.


Masonry and Construction Methods

The Inca had learned about the importance of long-lasting infrastructure, including the need for foundations, from the Tiwanaku Empire near Lake Titicaca. The famous Incan foundations are the reason for their city’s longevity. Water engineer Ken Wright estimates that 60 percent of the Inca construction effort was underground. The Inca built their cities with locally available materials, usually including limestone or granite. To cut these hard igneous rocks the Inca used stone and bronze or copper tools, usually splitting the stones along the natural fracture lines. Without the wheel the stones were rolled up wood beams on earth ramps. Extraordinary manpower would have been necessary. Hyslop comments that the “ ‘secret’ to the production of fine Inca masonry…was the social organization necessary to maintain the great numbers of people creating such energy-consuming monuments.”

Incan stonework is known for its mortarless construction and expert precision. Fine Incan masonry can be grouped into two categories: polygonal and coursed or rectangular. Typically polygonal construction consists of irregularly shaped blocks. This type of masonry is found in canals, terrace walls and very rarely in buildings. Coursed masonry is composed of large rectangular blocks and is commonly used in perimeter walls and in the corners of buildings. Inca doors and windows were normally trapezoidal in shape. Often there is a stone loop either above or beside the doorway, so that the door could be tied and kept open. Recent research in Egypt showed pyramids may have been built with reconstituted stone. No such research exist in South America but similarity of building difficulties (no wheel, perfect joints) added to perfect angles could point out to similar solutions which would discard the need to lift the stones or cut them.

Usually the walls of Incan buildings were slightly inclined inside and the corners were rounded. This, in combination with masonry thoroughness, led Incan buildings to have a peerless seismic resistance thanks to high static and dynamic steadiness, absence of resonant frequencies and stress concentration points. During an earthquake with a small or moderate magnitude masonry was stable, and during a strong earthquake stone blocks were “ dancing ” near their normal positions and lay down exactly in right order after an earthquake.

The roofs of Incan buildings were made from thatch, often interlaced with gold threads for ornamentation. The roofs would shine in the sun and appear to be made of gold. There was an awning ceiling below a roof to protect inhabitants from falling roof materials during earthquakes. This is why the Incas rejected heavier roofing materials such as tiles or wood.


Agricultural Architecture

Perhaps the most renown aspect of Incan architecture are the agriculture terraces used to increase the land available for farming. These steppes provided flat ground surface for food production while protecting their city centers against erosion and landslides common in the Andes. The civil engineers at Machu Picchu built these so well that they were still intact in 1912 when Hiram Bingham discovered the lost city.



The Incans gave their empire the name, 'Land of the Four Quarters' or the Tahuantinsuyu Empire. It stretched north to south some 2,500 miles along the high mountainous Andean range from Colombia to Chile and reached west to east from the dry coastal desert called Atacama to the steamy Amazonian rain forest.
The Incas ruled the Andean Cordillera, second in height and harshness to the Himalayas. Daily life was spent at altitudes up to 15,000 feet and ritual life extended up to 22,057 feet to Llullaillaco in Chile, the highest Inca sacrificial site known today. Mountain roads and sacrificial platforms were built, which means a great amount of time was spent hauling loads of soil, rocks, and grass up to these inhospitable heights. Even with our advanced mountaineering clothing and equipment of today, it is hard for us to acclimatize and cope with the cold and dehydration experienced at the high altitudes frequented by the Inca. This ability of the sandal-clad Inca to thrive at extremely high elevations continues to perplex scientists today.

At the height of its existence the Inca Empire was the largest nation on Earth and remains the largest native state to have existed in the western hemisphere. The wealth and sophistication of the legendary Inca people lured many anthropologists and archaeologists to the Andean nations in a quest to understand the Inca's advanced ways and what led to their ultimate demise.



The Incas had an incredible system of roads. One road ran almost the entire length of the South American Pacific coast. Since the Incas lived in the Andes Mountains, the roads took great engineering and architectural skill to build. On the coast, the roads were not surfaced and were marked only by tree trunks The Incas paved their highland roads with flat stones and built stone walls to prevent travelers from falling off cliffs.

Referred to as an 'all-weather highway system', the over 14,000 miles of Inca roads were an astonishing and reliable precursor to the advent of the automobile. Communication and transport was efficient and speedy, linking the mountain peoples and lowland desert dwellers with Cuzco. Building materials and ceremonial processions traveled thousands of miles along the roads that still exist in remarkably good condition today. They were built to last and to withstand the extreme natural forces of wind, floods, ice, and drought.
This central nervous system of Inca transport and communication rivaled that of Rome. A high road crossed the higher regions of the Cordillera from north to south and another lower north-south road crossed the coastal plains. Shorter crossroads linked the two main highways together in several places. The terrain, according to Ciezo de Leon, an early chronicler of Inca culture, was formidable. The road system ran through deep valleys and over mountains, through piles of snow, quagmires, living rock, along turbulent rivers; in some places it ran smooth and paved, carefully laid out; in others over sierras, cut through the rock, with walls skirting the rivers, and steps and rests through the snow; everywhere it was clean swept and kept free of rubbish, with lodgings, storehouses, temples to the sun, and posts along the way. The Incas did not have the wheel, as they had no draft animals, so all travel was done on foot. To help travelers on their way, rest houses were built every few kilometers. In these rest houses, they could spend a night, cook a meal and feed their llamas.

Their bridges, which were made from ropes ingeneously tied together to form a narrow but effective structure, were the only way to cross rivers on foot. If only one of their hundreds of bridges was damaged, a major road could not fully function. Fortunately, every time a bridge broke, the locals would repair it as quickly as possible.

• Brown, Jeff L.. Water Supply and Drainage Systems at Machu Pichu. Retrieved on 2006-09-20.
• Finch, Janie and Ric. Inka Architecture. Retrieved on 2006-09-20.
• Gasparini, Graziano; Margolies, Luize (1980). Inca Architecture. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-30443-1. 
• Hyslop, John (1990). Inca Settlement Planning. University of Texas Press, Austing. ISBN 0-292-73852-8. 
• Inca Civilization. Retrieved on 2006-11-12. Article Geography & Roads Supplied By Gihan P