Similar to what happened before with Rome and later with the famous Pony Express in the American Far West, the expansion of the Inca Empire owed much to the development of an extraordinary road network that facilitated communication between different points of Tahuantisuyo and Cuzco with astonishing speed, allowing for prompt action. However, in the Andean case, the absence of horses meant that news didn’t travel on four legs but on two. The legs of the chasquis, a group of messengers so proverbially efficient that the Spaniards continued to employ them long after the conquest.
Chaski is a Quechua word that can mean “reception, acceptance, consent”, although the most suitable meaning for our topic is “messenger”. The term for “messenger” was kacha, but it did not apply in this context; instead, it was reserved to designate ambassadors and/or personal emissaries of royalty, as attested by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (Gómez Suárez de Figueroa, writer, historian, and mestizo military, the son of a conquistador and an indigenous princess, the granddaughter of the ruler Huayna Cápac, Atahualpa’s father).
In 1609, Garcilaso published a work titled “Royal Commentaries of the Incas”, narrating the history, culture, and customs of that people. Chapter VII is dedicated precisely to the chaskikuna (the plural, in Spanish chasquis) and constitutes one of the main documentary sources to understand how they functioned. It is not the only one, as we also have the account “First New Chronicle and Good Government” by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala (a chronicler of noble Indian descent whose ancestors included the Inca Túpac Yupanqui), which has the added interest of being accompanied by illustrations.
Also noteworthy among many others are two books: “Suma y Narración de los Incas” by Juan de Betanzos (explorer and chronicler who was part of Pizarro and Almagro’s expedition, serving as an interpreter thanks to his knowledge of Quechua) and “General History of Peru” by Friar Martín de Murúa (a Mercedarian friar who, in addition to Quechua, also learned Aymara), as well as reports to the king written by Juan Polo de Ondegardo y Zárate (encomendero and corregidor of Charcas and Cuzco).
Thanks to all of them, the unique figure of the chasqui has been reconstructed. As we mentioned, they played a significant role in the formation and expansion of the Inca Empire because they kept their leader informed promptly with information, whether from others or their own, as part of their duties also included acting as spies (similar to the Pochtecas or Mexica merchants). Therefore, it is understandable why this role was highly regarded and reserved for the sons of proven loyal local leaders (caciques).
The chasquis transmitted the orders of the Sapa Inca to the political and military leaders of the provinces, just as, in reverse, they carried the messages from these leaders to Cuzco. To do this quickly, as speed was crucial to the service, they had the road infrastructure that kept the empire’s territories connected to the capital. They also contributed their excellent physical condition, allowing them to cover distances in the estimated time. For this purpose, they were trained from childhood, not only in running and swimming but also in knowing the routes and fords, bridges, and shortcuts.
However, they were still human and, therefore, limited. That’s why the service was performed using a relay system: a chasqui covered the half-league (two and a half kilometers) assigned to optimize their effort as quickly as possible. This was the distance at which the smaller tambos, roofed architectural constructions serving as warehouses, arsenals, and shelters, were located along the roads (there were larger tambos, but they were located at greater distances, such as those on the Qhapaq Ñan or Royal Inca Road, which were twenty or thirty kilometers away – a day’s walk – and served to accommodate troops or brigades of workers on the move).
Running a couple of kilometers may seem unimpressive in these times of widespread sports practice, but we are talking about half a millennium ago, and on top of that, a significant part of these races took place in the Andean environment, at an altitude that produces negative effects on the body such as altitude sickness (headache, rapid heartbeat, nausea, respiratory failure, etc.); for example, Cuzco is at 3,399 meters above sea level. It is worth mentioning that, according to Polo de Ondegardo, the distance between relay points was greater, a league and a half (seven and a half kilometers).
Whatever their separation, several chasquis’ companions, between four and six individuals, awaited them in those small tambos. One relieved the one who had just arrived, who went to rest from the effort in a small cabin called chasquihuasi (“house of the chasqui”), while the others waited for the possible arrival of other chasquis in either direction. The relay teams were already prepared because when a chasqui approached the cabin (he could see it from a distance because they were built in elevated locations for that purpose), he announced his approach by sounding a pututu (large conch shell).
In this way, the only time they lost was in transmitting the message, sometimes orally – which required the relay to memorize it – and other times written in a quipu. This consisted of a set of ropes and knots, the number and colors of which coded the information.
It is unknown whether the chasquis could read it or if it was an exclusive task of the quipucamayoc experts. It may have depended on the nature of the data, as some sources indicate that the information in these quipus was incomplete and had to be supplemented with the oral part memorized by the chasqui.
The mission of these messengers, who were on duty twenty-four hours a day for a month before being replaced by a new team, was also carried out at night, in good or bad weather. Fires were lit if visibility needed improvement, just as it was done if the news required even faster delivery than that of the chasquis, such as in the case of an invasion. Guamán Poma de Ayala provides interesting details, not only about the speed of the chasquis but also about their organization and equipment:
… it must be known that the Inca king had two kinds of runners in this realm: the first was called churo mullo chasqui, chief runner, who brought him live snails from the sea of New Kingdom, these were half a league away; and the lesser runner was called carochasque, placed a day’s journey away for heavier matters. And these runners had to be children of nobles, faithful knights, and proven, swift as a game. The Inca paid and provided for them as Lord and King, and they bore a large feather parasol on their heads covering their entire heads so that they could be seen from afar, and a trumpet called uaylla quipa, and they gave a great shout and blew the trumpet, and for weapons, they carried a chambi and a sling. And thus, these runners governed the land and were free of everything they had, as well as their wives and children, father, mother, brothers, and sisters, and so, day and night, never stopping; at each chasqui relay, there were four diligent Indians in this realm.
In other words, the chasquis were identified from a distance by the white feather headdress they wore, and they traveled light, carrying only the quipu and the pututu, although they were armed with a huaraca (sling) and champi (mace with a star-shaped head) to ensure that nothing hindered their mission. In this regard, Pedro Cieza de León explains that they were very discreet and did not reveal the content of the messages – even if they were ancient – without giving in to threats or bribes.
One might wonder at what speed they ran. According to a modern study conducted in the mid-20th century by the American archaeologist and anthropologist Victor Wolfgang von Hagen (an expert in pre-Columbian cultures who spent two years in Peru and discovered the only remaining rope suspension bridge), they were capable of covering a kilometer in four minutes, maintaining the pace for about another four. This means that, through relays, the message could cover from 15 to 20 kilometers in an hour, which would be around three hundred kilometers a day.
Spanish chroniclers attested to this. Polo de Ondegardo states in a report:
… they assert that from Cuzco to Quito, which is five hundred leagues and mostly very rough terrain, the longest round trip would take twenty days, and it is believable because after this, when there have been wars and other needs in the land, we have used this remedy of the chasquis, which, as it was an old order and was distributed, and even today most of the relay stations are still standing, then when ordered, they put them, and sometimes I have ordered them to be put, and there is no doubt that between day and night, they must have covered the fifty leagues they say (…) and I have received letters at the rate of thirty-five leagues in just one day and one night. Other times I have seen letters arrive from Lima to Cuzco in four days, which are one hundred and twenty leagues, almost all rough and difficult paths.
Juan de Betanzos says that the Sapa Inca received all messages within five or six days, while Martín de Murúa provides an interesting example:
When the Inca wanted to eat fresh fish from the sea, despite being seventy or eighty leagues from the coast to Cuzco, where he resided, they brought it to him alive and fleeing, which certainly seems incredible over such a long distance and in such rough and rocky paths because they ran on foot and not on horseback, as they never had them until the Spaniards entered this land.
Murúa adds that the tenth Inca, Túpac Yupanqui, whom he considers the creator of the chasquis (however, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa and Juan de Betanzos attribute it to his father Pachacútec and his grandfather Viracocha Inca, respectively), ordered the selection “among the Indians who were the swiftest and most agile, and had the most breath in running,” going on to detail aspects of their training and ability:
… and thus he tested them, making them walk running on a plain and, afterward, making them go down a slope with the same swiftness, and then go up a steep and rugged slope without stopping, and those who stood out in this and did it well, were given the office of messengers, and they trained every day in the race. So they were so spirited that they could catch deer and even vicuñas, which are very swift wild animals that live in the coldest highlands and deserts.
He also reports that those who did not run as expected received as punishment a blow to the head or fifty blows on the back, or their legs were broken, probably by order of the Hatun Chasqui (Churo mullo chasqui, according to Guamán Poma de Ayala), a kind of chief messenger who, nevertheless, also awarded prizes.
And he concludes that the Spaniards did not let such an excellent service go to waste, keeping it active until 1613 – when horses and mules began to be widespread in America – under the direction of the Galíndez de Carvajal family, concessionaires of the mail in the Indies:
Today, the Viceroys and governors of this realm have continued this chasqui ministry, as very necessary for its good government and utility, and thus they have it established on all the royal roads from the City of the Kings, where they reside, through the Sierra, going up to Jauja, Guamanga, Andaguailas, Cusco, Collao, Chucuito, and Huguiapó, Potosí and la Plata, and on the coastal road through Cañete, Yca, Lagasca, Camaná, Arequipa, and Arica, and so down from Lima to Paita and Quito, which has been a very successful means for the kingdom and for merchants and traders, and all kinds of people, leaving every month on the first day without fail.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 9, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Chasquis, los eficientes correos que comunicaban todos los rincones del imperio incaico
Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Comentarios reales de los incas | Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, Nueva coronica y buen gobierno | Juan de Betanzos, Suma y narración de los Incas | Martín de Murúa, Historia general del Perú | Jorge F. Buján, Ciudades y territorio en américa del Sur del siglo XV al XVII | Gonzalo Lamana Ferrario (ed.), Pensamiento colonial crítico. Textos y actos de Polo Ondegardo | Juan Gargurevich Real, La comunicación imposible: información y comunicación en el Perú | Jean-Claude Valla, Los incas | Wikipedia
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