The ancient Inca were a textile society and thus skilled in working with natural fibers including alpaca and cotton. Still, it might surprise people today that their solution to crossing the canyons and gorges of their mountainous empire featured another fibrous material: grass. When you consider how they built a simple suspension bridge, you'll realize that not only was this a practical solution, it was also a safe one. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, watch residents of the Peruvian Andes as they build a traditional and functioning grass bridge—the likes of which enabled the ancient Inca people to flourish for several hundred years.
Suspension bridges such as San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge and New York's Brooklyn Bridge are among the engineering wonders of the world. They owe their existence to a technological breakthrough: the development of high-tension steel from iron. But what do people do when the only material they have in abundance is grass? They use it. That's what the Inca people of what is now South America have done for hundreds of years.
Until recently, little more was known about traditional grass suspension bridges than that several hundred or more of these natural-fiber structures once spanned formidable obstacles—the canyons and rivers of the Andes Mountains. These bridges enabled the Inca Empire, the largest empire of the pre-Industrial world, to flourish and to expand into new territory. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, they marveled at this technological achievement. The bridges, built from nothing more than braided grass and wood fibers, spanned distances longer than those of any bridges in Europe at the time.
Although these structures were made from natural fibers, modern researchers know that they were more than just ropes thrown across canyons. Rather, they were engineered—deliberately designed and built—in much the same way that modern suspension bridges are. For the foundations, the Inca created pairs of stone abutments on either side of a crossing. These served as the anchors between which a roadway was suspended. As depicted in the video segment, which features the only Inca bridge crossing still in use, each of the four or more thick main cables that made up the roadway was actually a braid of three thinner cords. In turn, these thinner cords were each made up of two-dozen two-ply strands of grass that nearby villagers had twisted together by hand. The roadway was covered with a mat made of branches. Two additional cables served as protective handrails, which were secured to the roadway by vertical ties.
Grass bridges tend to sag in the middle under their own weight and to sway in high winds, but despite their flimsy appearance, recent tests show that their design is structurally sound. In fact, they meet the benchmark for today's safety standard, which is to build a bridge three to four times stronger than the loads it will have to support.
Inca bridges, like Roman arch bridges, are examples of very successful bridge designs that have survived for centuries and continue to carry traffic today. Each of these bridge types was made using materials readily available to the people building them.
Construct suspension cables out of newspaper in this NOVA classroom activity.
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