The Chasquis – The Runners Who Supported An Empire

It is easy to take for granted the speed at which we can send letters and packages in today’s world. Even more amazing is the speed at which an e-mail can be sent to the far corners of the Earth. However, we are not the only culture that has had a rapid postal system. Surprisingly, the Inca Empire, which existed hundreds of years ago, had a very fast and efficient delivery system. But unlike our system, which relies on trucks, airplanes, and computers the Inca’s delivery network relied solely on runners.

The Inca designed a complex series of roads and bridges throughout the mountainous terrain of the Andes. Along this road were a number of small huts, called Tambos, which had food and water. Each Tambo was manned by very fit runners, called Chasquis, who would run from one Tambo to another, delivering messages in a massive relay. Chasquis were unbelievably athletic and could relay a message at speeds of 200 miles per day. Because of the quickness of these runners, a message could be sent over 1000 miles in less than a week.

The equipment used by the Chasquis was minimal and designed to be light so that running would be easy. First, the runners carried a “quipu,” which consisted of a series of knotted cords that could be used to store information. The specific colors of the cords, the knots on the cords, and how the cords were connected all served as an ingenious way to encode information. For example a certain number of chickens might be recorded on red strings while a number of cows might be recorded on green strings. Second, the Chasquis carried a a “qipi,” which was a lightweight container that could hold objects that were to be delivered across the empire. Finally, the runners carried a special conch shell trumpet, called a “pututu,” which they blew when they arrived at their destination. The trumpet let everyone know that there was a message or object waiting to be delivered.

The speed, efficiency, and work ethic of the Chasquis was amazing. To think that these runners, combined, could relay messages at speeds of 200 miles a day in some of the mountainous terrain in the world is just incredible. It certainly was a proud moment in the history of running when an entire empire relied solely on runners.

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