The chasquis formed the communications system of the Inca Empire of Peru, speeding along the narrow pathways and steps of the mountain road system at amazing speeds.
Inca boys suitable to work as chasquis had to possess special qualities Quite apart from the ability to run very fast, boys had to have a very athletic physique and particularly good lungs to become a member of the courier-relay teams on which communications in the Empire depended.
Qualities the Chasquis Required
The training of chasquis involved plenty of running, racing and scaling hills. Their legs had to be particularly strong and their toes, which were slightly splayed, needed to grip well on the uneven surfaces they covered.
The chasquis’ lungs needed to be developed by training so that they could breathe properly in the thin atmosphere of the Andes and take in sufficient oxygen to keep on running.
Chewing Coca Leaves
It was also fearsomely cold at the great Andean heights. Thirst and fatigue were other dangers that awaited the chasquis. This was why they were among the few people in the Empire who were allowed to chew coca leaves which the Incas called the “divine plant”.
Inca nobles and the amautas (teachers) were probably the only other people permitted to chew coca, which had the effect of making them less vulnerable to cold, hunger, tiredness and thirst.
The Chasquis on the Road
The chasquis carried messages knotted onto the string quipus which contained official records and other information along roads cut through the Andes Mountains, running at full speed for nine miles or more. They kept going for around 2.4 miles per hour at a stretch between one tampu (post station) and the next, which meant they had to keep up top speed for as long as fifteen minutes.
On reaching the tampu, the chasqui handed over his message to another courier who ran with it in his turn to the next tampu. Through this relay system, the chasquis could cover tremendous distances in a relatively short time. A message could be taken as far as 250 miles in a single day and would reach Cuzco, the Inca capital, from Quito (Ecuador) a distance of 1,250 miles in only five days.
Even the couriers of Ancient Rome, who were renowned for their speed over two thousand years ago and more, thought that one hundred miles a day was good going. The Inca chasquis moved four times as fast and not on straight roads like the Romans.
The Nature of the Andean Roads
Inca roads through the Andes were governed by the demanding nature of the mountains and were sometimes reduced to narrow pathways with an unprotected precipice on one side. Parts of the road were cut as steps in the rock face. Others included rope bridges slung between mountainsides like hammocks which swayed alarmingly over deep ravines.
The chasquis’ tremendous speeds made it possible for the Sapa Inca to have fresh fish at meals, even though the nearest source of this food was at least 192 miles away, that is the shortest distance between Cuzco and the Pacific coast of Peru.
The messengers were also extremely important as an early warning system, a very necessary asset in an empire which ruled over many conquered territories and tribes. If an uprising or other trouble occurred in some distant part of the Empire, the sooner the news reached the Sapa Inca and his generals, the sooner an army could be sent to deal with it. And the sooner they dealt with it, the less likely a rebellion was to spread or get out of hand.
The Spaniards were Impressed
The Spaniards who conquered the Inca Empire after 1532 were so impressed with the efficiency of the chasqui system that the runners were still being used in the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru in 1800. Pedro de Cieza de Leon, the Spanish chronicler, wrote:
“The Incas invented a system of posts which was the best that could be thought or or imagined. It may be certain that …news could not have been conveyed with greater speed on swift horses.”
Arguably the most remarkable feature of the Inca system of posts was that it operated at heights of up to seventeen thousand feet above sea level. At this extreme height, the air was so thin and had such a limited oxygen content that the strain of physical exertion could be unbearable – and even fatal.
In 1532, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his men suffered greatly as they climbed up into the Andes from the Pacific coast on their way to their conquest of Inca Peru. Since they were unused to such extreme conditions, they were unable to breathe properly, and could not move their limbs without great effort.
They felt sick and endured blinding headaches and bouts of dizziness. Many of Pizarro’s men died from sheer exhaustion during the journey, and some died from heart attacks.