Logistics from Long Ago: Incan Expedite Service

The Inca Empire spanned 4 centuries and was the dominant civilization in all of the Americas. When the Spanish arrived in 1532, there were 10 million inhabitants within the empire.

The empire 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. 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.

And they built an impressive network of over 14,000 miles of roads, so let’s talk about logistics!

The roads enabled quick and reliable movement of messages and material throughout the Empire and linked the mountain peoples and lowland desert dwellers with the Incan capital city of Cuzco in Peru.

Despite their advanced knowledge of science, architecture, agriculture and astronomy, their culture was missing something that is now considered a basic necessity to transportation: the wheel!

That’s right, the Incas never developed or used the wheel; it was only introduced after the Spanish arrived.

Movement of goods was made either by foot or by using llamas to carry goods from one point to another.

The principal means for relaying messages throughout the vast empire was by way of the messenger, called “chasquis”.

These messengers were agile, highly trained and physically fit. They were in charge of carrying the “quipus” or messages up to 320 km (200 miles) per day!

The quipus were 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 “qipi,” which was a lightweight container that could hold objects that were to be delivered across the empire.

The chasquis would run at fast speeds for 2 – 4 km and then pass along their quipu and qipi to the next runner at small huts along the route. These huts were called “tambos” and they contained food and water for the exhausted chasqui.

It is amazing to think how this ancient civilization overcame the geographic and environmental obstacles to maintain communication and trade within the empire.

We have our own challenges today in the logistics world: making sense out of big data, conquering long-lead supply chains that stretch around the globe, on-demand delivery and so many more.

We need to work together to keep evolving and improving our logistics capabilities!

¡Hina kachun! That’s Quechua, the language of the Incas and means “Good luck!”

The Lost Inca Empire by Liesl Clark (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/ancient/lost-inca-empire.html)

Inca Roads and Chasquis


About Lenny

Many years of experience in a Fortune 1000 companies, especially in the logistics and I.T. areas of manufacturing companies. Through process improvements and the use of many of the tools mentioned here, I have been able to identify and implement savings opportunities worth up to $10 million. I hope that some of these real-life stories, suggestions and tools can help you!
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