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Updated: Sep 18, 2019

Did the Incan Empire have a system of ultra-marathon running messengers?

At its greatest extent, the Incan Empire stretched down almost the entire west coast of Latin America, further than the distance from New York to San Francisco. Despite that vast size, however, the entire empire endured for less than a century, collapsing during the Spanish conquest of the Americas in 1533. The last bastions of the Incan resistance finally disappeared in the 1570s.

Famously (and perhaps at least partly due to its relatively short history) the Incan Empire never developed a written language. But despite that fact, the Incas nevertheless had what could be described as an early “postal” system. So how the dickens did that work?

Well, by “postal system”, what we really mean is a means of relaying messages. Imagine you were an Incan nobleman who needed to send a message from one end of the Empire to the other. You would simply tell your message to a specially-employed young man (called a chasqui) who would both memorize its content, and use a length of knotted twine (called a quipu) to encode all of its finer details. In this way, the number of stands, twines, and knots on the quipu could be used to record things like numbers, dates, times, weights and other measures, while the chasqui would be there to decipher all of these facts and figures from this jumble of knots and twines on his arrival.

No matter how keen he might have been, however, one solitary chasqui could hardly have been expected to run the entire length of the Andes. So, to get around that shortcoming, the Incas established an entire network of these messengers throughout their empire.

One chasqui would simply run to the other—announcing his arrival by blowing a specialised conch shell trumpet, called a pututu—then both hand over the encoded quipu, and relay the message needed to decode it, to the next messenger in the chain. This new chasqui would then set off, running to the next messenger in the network, and so on until your message reached its intended recipient.

These Incan postmen ultimately weren’t required to run the entire length of South America, mercifully—but some of them are nevertheless believed to have been required to run as far as 240km (150 miles) in a single day to ensure that their message arrived on time.

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