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A tale of Incan communal knowledge and Plato’s elite rulers

Published on 24 January 2016
Updated on 24 November 2023

For hundreds of years, the Q’eswachaka rope bridge in Peru has been rebuilt every year in the same location. Local communities on either side of the canyon, employing traditional Inca engineering techniques, actively participate. They are experts in using ropes. In fact, before Westerners introduced paper, ink, and the abacus, the Incas used lines and knots for recording and calculating.

Here is a video showing how the community went about it:

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Weaving the rope bridge at Q’eswachaka

First and foremost, one notices the shared effort from everyone in accordance with his and her abilities. Much knowledge is embedded in the participants and all know their role. All members fluidly engage in the shared purpose. Through coordinated calls, they rehearse and transmit this knowledge to the younger members.

Among the participants are a few ‘experts’, whose knowledge has been passed down through the generations within their families. They are responsible for the critical aspects of the process. These architects do so by example: in fact, they put their lives on the line as they sit perilously on the loose floor cables, weaving the bridge to completion. ‘I love the bridge like a son’, explains Victoriano Arizapana. And he is right; he makes one every year, embedding accumulated knowledge into the newest version. If we were to compare versions a hundred years apart, we would notice the subtle evolutionary differences that make the bridge ever more adapted.

Men building the Q’eswachaka bridge.
Men building the Q’eswachaka bridge (Heather Jasper).

Though some tasks are more demanding or critical than others, no strict hierarchy develops. Such structures are temporary. In fact, it seems to me that they dissolve in the celebration following the bridge’s completion. In dancing and feasting, everyone gets their share.

Women making ropes for the bridge.
Women making the ropes for the bridge (Heather Jasper).

Of course, this is not an example of a Marxist ideal, but rather a ‘good enough’ social structure that has survived for centuries to meet a common need. What I notice most – though I am certainly prejudiced – is the careful balancing of collective, purposeful intentionality and confirmation of the social group. In fact, one may wonder whether the act of bridge-building or the feasting holds greater significance in the event.

Now, for fun, compare this Andean practice with Western theory:

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Plato took a dim view of democracy as a process for deciding what to do. He thought rulers should be specially-trained philosophers (philosopher kings/queens), chosen because they were incorruptible and had a deeper knowledge of reality than other people.

The argument is abstract. Through Plato, philosophers assert their superiority and authority. No evidence or experience is required, just membership in the guild, where membership is achieved by self-regarding cooptation.

By the way, at the above Youtube channel, there are numerous ‘philosophical’ shorts well worth exploring.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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