Before the conquistadors arrived, the Inca empire stretched from Ecuador in the north down to Argentina in the south. An extensive network of paved roads and suspension bridges, made with ropelike vines, enabled the rapid movement of armies and fast distribution of food, even through the highest mountains. As well as being masters of civil engineering, the Incas were brilliant agriculturalists, creating drained terraces of rich fertilised soil on the inhospitable mountainsides. As a result, experts say, they developed more plants for medicines and food than any other culture, including quinine for treating malaria, and the potato.
At its zenith 1,000 people lived in Machu Picchu, which some archeologists believe was reserved as a retreat for the Inca elite - noblemen and priests served by concubines - as well as an important religious site for worshipping the sun. But how the population disappeared remains a mystery. The site is thought to have been left deserted for 340 years until discovered in an untouched forest by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. "I suddenly found myself in a maze of beautiful granite houses. They were covered with trees and mosses and the growth of centuries," he recalled.
Despite its achievements the Inca empire lasted less than 100 years and had some remarkable shortcomings. By 1532 the Incas still had no written language and no wheels.
Photograph by Bill Pogue
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