Channeling my inner 'chasqui'

Everyone has heard of the once mighty Incan empire.  What you may not be familiar with, is the chasquis.  Chasqui, in quechua, means “he who receives and gives”, which can be a loose definition of a modern relay runner.  These were the elite athletes of their day.  Chosen from the fastest young men, a chasqui was trained for endurance.  They scrambled up steep mountain trails with the agility of Spiderman and covered mile after mile in a Flash Gordon-like blur.  Dotted throughout the enormous landscape of the Incan Empire were tambos.  These were posted along a vast system of roads, trails, embankments, and rope bridges, known as Capac Nam, covering over 16,000 miles, spread throughout the Inca territory.  Tambos could be anywhere from two to seven miles apart.  Their function was as a rest station; here the chasqui could hand off the message or goods to the next runner, and get food and water for his return trip.  These speedy relay runners became the backbone of the Incan Empire’s communications in their role as royal couriers.

Inca Empire Territory

Speedy is, of course, a relative term, but this is impressive even by today’s standards.  A team of runners could cover up to 250 miles per day, in what is inarguably one of the harshest climates and highest altitudes in the world.  The main purpose was to send official government messages, tax and census data, and political and military updates throughout the territory.  A non-written language required the runners to memorize the message by repeating it over and over, or to carry quipas, an accounting system of colored ropes with knots.  But it served another purpose as well, for the royal family.  Sapa Inca (the divine ruler) wakes up one day and decides he wants fish.  In less than 24 hours, his dinner could travel from the Pacific coast to the Inca capital of Cuzco, over 200 miles inland, still fresh.  Guess it’s good to be the king. 

Oh, and these runners did this without benefit of GPS, energy gels, Powerade, performance fleece, or supportive shoes.  What makes this even more amazing is that the Incas were a short, stocky race of people. The men averaged 5’2”, the women 4’9”.  Think of elite runners today and long-limbed Kenyans come to mind, not the modern-day descendants of the Incan people – Quechua and Aymara Indians, still small and still stocky.

So where did that ability and athleticism come from?  The chasquis were handpicked at a young age from their villages through a series of fiercely competitive trials.  But, the Incas were not known for being a graceful, muscular, or gazelle-like race.  They don’t look to be built for speed.  Living in high altitudes, however, and over several generations, a unique phenomenon occurred.  The Incas developed superhuman lung capacity. One-third greater lung capacity than the average person (5.5 liters), actually. Additionally, they had slower heart rates.  And their bodies carried an extra 2 liters more blood than the average human, with twice the amount of hemoglobin.  To put it into perspective: Lance Armstrong has a lung capacity of 7 liters (less than your average Incan), coupled with his heart three times the size of an average human, with a resting heart rate of 31-34 bpm (comparable to the average Incan).  Lance is a freak of nature –yet uniquely made for endurance, by design.  As were the Incas.

There were approximately one thousand chasquis throughout the empire at a given time.  The chasqui was male, aged 18-25, in his peak physical years.  He was an employee of the state, and was housed and fed from taxes collected by the empire.  He did not have to farm to support his family.  He needed to be on call at all times, so being a chasqui was a full time vocation, and carried a not insignficant status in rural and remote areas.   The uniform consisted of a wool or cotton tunic, sandals, a saddlebag, and a pututu (conch shell) used as a horn to alert the upcoming tambo of arrival and signal the next chasqui to be ready.  The runners also wore a white headdress (that denoted geographic area and rank), and may have served an additional purpose for visibility on the trail.
The Incan empire lasted from 1438 to1525.  The influence of this civilization lasted long beyond that.  As far as speed and efficiency, the chasqui system far outstripped the renowned Roman Empire messengers.  European colonists were extremely impressed.  As recently as 1800, Spanish settlers were still utilizing the best native runners as a courier system, as it was much quicker than horse travel through the mountains.

My parents are from Bolivia, my father is from a lowland area, but my mother is from La Paz, deep in the Andes.  Growing up, I spent many a summer and winter break in this cold mountainous region, learning about our family history and feeling connected, yet torn between two national identities.  Of course, as one grows up - you realize identity and culture don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  I was born and raised in the US, but my ancestry is rooted in the Andes.  The maternal side of the family – many of which still reside in La Paz, are lean, active, and keep on walking everywhere, right up into their eighties.  My mother, herself now nearing seventy, may have a number of health issues – but endurance isn’t one of them.  She is as tireless as a ten year old boy with a pocket full of Pixy-Stix and a brand new bike.  So, there is a chance, however small, that I might have a chasqui ancestor.  I’ll think of him this weekend, during my long run.   -DB

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