Running the Qhapac Nan
The chaski relay system in the ancient Incan Empire
Illustration by Daniel Yagmin
The blast from a conch shell cuts through the cold Andean night. Lying beside the embers of a dying fire, you hear the patter of footsteps running on cobblestones. You jump to your feet and grab your sling and conch shell before ducking out of your stone hovel and onto the “Qhapac Nan,” the Incan Royal Highway, the Incan Empire’s sprawling road system.
You know this section like the back of your hand. Two miles in either direction is your exclusive domain. At 12,000 feet, oxygen is scarce, but you can still run a six-minute mile. A runner dressed in a white robe approaches and hands you a knotted cord that bears a message for the King. He whispers the message’s final destination in your ear and you begin to run toward the next outpost.
You are a chaski runner, a relay messenger in the ancient Incan empire.