Societies come and go. Yet central to them all is sustained, and shared subsistence followed by (hopefully) increasingly competent organizational leadership – what we have come over time to call “government.” Diverse living examples are spread across the world today and often built directly on top of those have preceded them. Each demonstrating the innovations by which humans have tackled the paired challenge of feeding and leading scaled-societies. And how collective creativity can foster increased productivity. Tucked into the mountain folds of the Peruvian Andes, the remarkably productive and stunningly short (only 300 years) Inca civilization or “Tawantinsuyu” as it was called then is a telling exemplar. Just before its precipitous collapse, it was 12 million citizens strong.

The Inca civilization is perhaps more famous for how in 1533, at the hands and treachery of the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Pizarro and his 180 horsemen, it was swiftly conquered. But the far more fascinating chapters of the Inca 300-year story are those of the Inca’s rise. For as breathtaking as the Andes are in beauty, their imposition on transportation, climate, and agriculture remain formidable to this very day.

In the year just before Pizarro’s expedition had made their way deep into Inca Andean territories. Being tragically preceded with their deadly gift of smallpox, the (what was to become the last) Inca Emperor Atahualpa had just completed quelling a revolt and consolidating his rule. Upon arriving in the Inca capital of Cusco, Pizarro invited the ascendant Emperor to attend a feast organized in his honor. Atahualpa accepted and joined with what is estimated to be several thousand but unarmed Inca soldiers. At dinner, Atahualpa was asked to abdicate his rule to the Spanish Emperor Charles Vth and accept the sovereignty of Christianity as the only and one true religion. After refusing both, Pizarro had his hidden cannons open fire; and his soldiers simultaneously launched a deadly horse-mounted attack. In the chaos that ensued (Incas had never seen guns nor cavalry) thousands were slaughtered and Atahualpa captured.

In exchange for his release, Atahualpa promised and then delivered over 24 tons of Inca gold, in what was then the largest ransom ever paid. But Pizarro reneged. He put Atahualpa on trial for treason against Spain for the murder (of his half-brother) for which he was convicted by a Spanish puppet tribunal on all counts – then handed a swift sentence of “death by fire or strangulation.” He chose the latter and the last breath of their Inca leader and a remarkable Tawantinsuyu sovereign society vanished together – Spain claimed its newest conquest and the so-called “Peru” was etched onto all maps that followed. Although so much had been lost, as the Incas did not have a formal writing system and so much of what had been painstakingly built has since been plundered, what remains provides telling and timeless lessons.


Millions visit Peru every year; and all marvel over the Inca’s architectural prowess and stone craft. Though many historic sites are just remnants of their original scale, examples such as mountain-perched Machu Picchu dramatically illustrate the Inca’s inspiring architectural vision coupled with highly detailed engineering and execution skills.

But what can easily go comparatively unnoticed are the Inca terraces – cascades of countless plateaus carved into the sheer mountainside. Each one is topped in imported and carefully enriched soil, often vividly green with growing food crop and all interconnected with vast aqueducts and water flow control systems that feed from mountain aquafers built hundreds of years ago and still working wonderfully even today.

To provide shelter is one thing, but to sustainably feed a rapidly growing population is wholly another. In food production, the Inca were particularly sophisticated with their agricultural terraces being the key enabling innovation. To feed a society of 12 million citizens in the high and arid Andean climate requires extraordinary sophistication and planning. This chapter of Incan history remains vivid in the Peruvian markets and products of today – a region that presently produces over 6,000 distinct varieties of potatoes, as just one of countless examples.

But how, in such extreme climates and topology did the Incas create such extraordinary agriculture diversity and productivity? As you might expect, they focused on scientific methods and attention to detail. One of the more telling examples is Moray, their elegant agricultural laboratory.

Moray is a set of cascading circular terraces that begin at an elevation of 11,500 feet and drop down ~100 feet in precise increments. Although stunning to witness and ponder their construction (by hand and shovel!), the effectiveness of this ancient laboratory is even more telling. Each resulting terrace results in a distinct micro-climate (27 degrees Fahrenheit differential from top terrace to bottom). Each terrace level then being indicative of a specific temperature range that one can expect to extrapolate to the countless other terraces spread across the empire. On the terrace arrays of Moray, each variety of agriculture product could be tested for fitness for a specific micro-climate and the specific planting and harvesting schedules could be precisely optimized. This, coupled to a steady and reliable source of water, enabled the early Incan agricultural experts to shift from experimentation to mass food production.

As we prepare for a climate-changed world where the availability of water is rapidly changing, and mean temperatures shift upward, the prescient planning of the Incas is a wonderful reminder of how creativity can enable productivity, even in the most trying of environments. Clearly, it is (was) hard work and takes long-term planning. But the “mouths of the masses” will always be eagerly waiting.

All About Transitions

February 19, 2018

Olympic Games bring out the best in all of us.  Athletes from across the world set aside national differences and reconvene to honor the pursuit of excellence.  To stand shoulder-to-shoulder as the world’s best, each hoping to take center stage of behalf of their nation – fourteen days during which anthems and admirations stream across the world.

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February 7, 2018

“The Red Apple” was the elusive prize of medieval conquest for an uninterrupted 800 years.  Secured behind what had proven to be the most formidable combination of building ingenuity and natural defenses was the fortress city of Constantinople.  Dedicated in 330 AD by its namesake Emperor Constantine the Great, it quickly became the center of wealth and commerce of the Middle Ages.

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JPM at 15

January 4, 2018

To “skip a stone” takes more than just practice.  It requires discriminating selection, as only a tiny subset of stones will do.  The perfect stones for this are those that have been polished by time – rounded of rough edges and protected from too much mid-body girth. 

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Thrilling Three for 2017

December 22, 2017

2017 will be recorded as the year of “resilience” – a year that illustrated more than any in recent memory our human capacity to endure. To survive the unexpected, to adapt and to rebuild after recurring setbacks. A year where the world began to search for new sources of leadership. A world where iconic institutions that were seemingly unshakable began to prove disruptable.

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Power Struggle

November 9, 2017

Power takes many forms. In physics class, we might think of it as what it takes to move a mass of X from point A to point B. Or in politics, perhaps it is the influence an individual or institution leverages to achieve its objectives.  But when it comes to biology, the “seat-of-power” resides along membrane leaflets within ancient microbially-derived organelles, and for those of us within the animal kingdom we call them “mitochondria.”

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To Nurture Our Nature

September 20, 2017

The quantification and forecasts of productivity are the gristmill of economics.  Typically, a ratio of inputs (labor and capital) over outputs (products and services) are often used to measure how effectively or efficiently a given economy is performing.   The range of creative variations of these ratios and measures are staggering. 

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August 16, 2017

Our world can be corrosive – an environment able to swiftly convert the “shiny and new,” into the “dulled and the rusted.” Why so? In our physical world both beauty and blight are made possible by oxygen. A relatively rare element in the universe generally but the transformative ingredient of what makes complex (eukaryotic) life possible. It is said that, “if carbon is the foundation of life then oxygen is its fuel.”

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What’s It Worth?

July 31, 2017

An age-old question that is generally answered by – “what is someone willing to pay for it?”   As we often see, this can become quickly irrational particularly when the price is set on the hope or expectation of a future value or outcome.

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Hard to Fathom

June 14, 2017

In the mere moments required to utter and comprehend a “we are so sorry to have to tell you” diagnosis, we are transformed from an individual, a customer, a voter, a parent, son or daughter into a patient.

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