Quechua designates the language that the Inca, in the course of their military expansion, disseminated across wide expanses of the Andean highlands. Many of the groups they conquered learned Quechua as a second language or adopted it in lieu of their own tongues. Indicative of the former geographical extension of the Inca Empire is the far-flung distribution of their language in modern times. The speech forms of Quechuan peoples range from southern Colombian (Inga) and Ecuadoran (Quichua), to Peruvian, Bolivian, and northern Argentinian (Runa Simi). Dispersed throughout this vast region of western South America, an estimated 8.5 to 11 million people speak more or less closely related dialects of Quechua, which makes it the most widely spoken surviving Indian language of America.

In Peru, Quechua is recognized as a co-official language, and in Bolivia it functions as the second national language of the country. This recognition simply takes account of the prominence that Quechua commands in these two countries. In the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, 90 percent of the people understand Quechua, 80 percent speak it, and 50 percent are said to speak it as their only language. Although Quechua is spoken by mestizos in rural and urban areas, it tends to become increasingly identified with the lower-class Indian peasantry within the nation-states of its contemporary distribution.

Descendants of the Inca themselves and of the peoples they conquered constitute a large part of the Indian and mestizo highland population of Peru and adjacent countries. Living in dispersed homesteads, communities, and townships, they possess an intricate culture composed of authochthonous and European elements. Thus, the Quechua people cannot be considered Indians in the aboriginal sense. In colonial times, they acquired many Spanish cultural elements such as oxen and other domestic animals, plows, and new crops, as well as local governing councils and religious brotherhoods. Many modern Quechua are hacienda workers or have become assimilated as laborers in highland towns. Furthermore, in the twentieth century, the highland Quechua have increasingly intensified the colonization process of the Montaña rainforest regions on the eastern Andean slope, a process that began as far back as Inca times.

Quechua culture, as described in the Mountain Culture Area section of the Introduction, is concentrated heavily in the central Andean highland communities. For variant forms of contemporary Quechua culture, consult separate entries under Callahuaya, Canelos Quichua, Cotopaxi Quichua, Otavalo, Salasaca, and Saraguro.


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Isbell, Billie Jean (1978). To Defend Ourselves: Ecology and Ritual in an Andean Village. Institute of Latin American Studies, Latin American Monographs, no. 47, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Landerman, Peter N. (1991). "Quechua Dialects and Their Classification." Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles.

Mishkin, Bernard (1946). "The Contemporary Quechua." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward. Vol. 2, Andean Civiliazations, 411-470. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 143. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

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