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Forgetting Inca technology June 16th, 2019 by

No one knows how the Incas built their famous temples and palaces. Ordinary Inca houses were made of uncut field stones, with no mortar. But their palaces and temples were built in a style of fine masonry, with stones of irregular shapes, yet cut so precisely that they fit together perfectly. Inca fine masonry is one of the wonders of ancient engineering. The late Swiss historian, Armin Bollinger, writes that the stones even “dance” in place during earthquakes, before settling back into their original position.

Previous Andean cultures worked with large stones placed close together, but in simpler patterns than the unique, high art of fine masonry used during the Inca Empire (about 1425 to 1532 AD). The massive pre-Inca blocks at the prehistoric city of Tiwanaku are placed side-by-side, as rectangles, not in the Inca pattern, where each stone is of a unique size and shape.

Even the conquistadores admired the Inca stonework, yet the Spaniards never saw the walls being built. After the conquest, the Incas never built in their finest tradition again, as the Spanish directed them to build in the European style instead.

Bollinger dismissed some common theories of how the walls were made, such as the idea that the blocks were put in place, then taken off and chipped some more before being put back in place, over and over until the fit was perfect. Many of the blocks were too big for that, since they weighed over 20 tons. Another theory is that the Inca masons rubbed the stones together, back and forth until they fit perfectly together. But the stones were mostly andesite, a basalt-like stone that is too hard to work just by rubbing.

Both of these ideas rely on using mass amounts of brute force. Bollinger no doubt would have preferred a theory that also included smart engineering and careful measurement to explain how the stones were fitted. But that knowledge is simply lost. Inca fine masonry has never been documented, nor reinvented, not even with the help of machinery. Although in a recent experience, Brandon Clifford (MIT) and Wes McGee (Univ. Michigan) get pretty close, with digital technology, glue, with small blocks made of concrete, and robotic arms to do the carving.

Technology is a game of use it or lose it. Whether it is a style of masonry, or of farming, even ingenious techniques can be lost if they are not used.

Agricultural knowledge has been evolving for at least 5000 years, a lot longer than the Inca stone walls have existed. As farmers adapt their knowledge to make it relevant in a changing world, it is important to respect, document and keep that knowledge alive which is not only clever: it feeds us. It is in humanity’s interest to keep as many techniques on hand as possible, to remain adaptive. Human knowledge is fragile. It can vanish if it is not used.

Further reading

Bollinger, Armin 1997 AsĂ­ ConstruĂ­an los Inkas. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro. Translated by Rainer B. Podratz. Original title So Bauten die Inka.

Clifford, Brandon, and Wes McGee. 2015 “Digital Inca: An assembly method for free-form geometries.” Thomsen, M. R., Tamke, M., Gengnagel, C., Faircloth, B., & Scheurer, F. (Eds.). Modelling Behaviour. Springer. 173-186.

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Almost all of the videos on www.accessagriculture.org show a sensitive mix of local knowledge and appropriate new ideas.  For example, there is a new series on herbal medicines for livestock from India, and a series on traditional Andean knowledge of the weather.

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