LOCATION: Bolivia; Peru; Chile
POPULATION: About 2 million (Bolivia); 500,000 (Peru); 20,000 (Chile)
LANGUAGE: Aymara; Spanish
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism combined with indigenous beliefs; Seventh Day Adventist
The Aymara are the indigenous (native) people who live in the altiplano (high plains) of the Andes Mountains of Bolivia. Bolivia has the highest proportion of indigenous peoples of any country in South America. It is also the poorest country on the continent.
Bolivia was colonized by Spain. The Aymara faced great hardships under Spanish colonial rule. In 1570, the Spanish decreed that the natives would be forced to work in the rich silver mines on the altiplano. The city of Potosí was once the site of the richest silver mine in the world. Millions of Aymara laborers perished in the wretched conditions in the mines.
The Aymara live on high-altitude plains in the Bolivian Andes, on the Lake Titicaca plateau near the border with Peru. The altiplano is at an elevation of 10,000 to 12,000 feet (3,000 to 3,700 meters) above sea level. Weather conditions are cold and harsh, and agriculture is difficult.
An ethnic group closely related to the Aymara lives among the Uru islands on Lake Titicaca. These communities live not on land but on islands that are made of floating reeds.
An estimated two million Aymara live in Bolivia, with five hundred thousand residing in Peru, and about twenty thousand in Chile. The Aymara are not confined to a defined territory (or reservation) in the Andes. Many live in the cities and participate fully in Western culture.
The Aymara language, originally called jaqi aru (the language of the people), is still the major language in the Bolivian Andes and in southeastern Peru. In the rural areas, one finds that the Aymara language is predominant. In the cities and towns the Aymara are bilingual, speaking both Spanish and Aymara. Some are even trilingual—in Spanish, Aymara, and Quechua—in regions where the Incas predominate.
Aymara mythology has many legends about the origin of things, such as the wind, hail, mountains, and lakes. The Aymara share with other ethnic groups some of the Andean myths of origin. In one of them, the god Tunupa is a creator of the universe. He is also the one that taught the people customs: farming, songs, weaving, the language each group had to speak, and the rules for a moral life.
The Aymara believe in the power of spirits that live in mountains, in the sky, or in natural forces such as lightning. The strongest and most sacred of their deities is Pachamama, the Earth Goddess. She has the power to make the soil fertile and ensure a good crop.
Catholicism was introduced during the colonial period and was adopted by the Aymara, who attend Mass, celebrate baptisms, and follow the Catholic calendar of Christian events. But the content of their many religious festivals shows evidence of their traditional beliefs. For example, the Aymara make offerings to Mother Earth, in order to assure a good harvest or cure illnesses.
The Aymara celebrate the same holidays as other Bolivians: the civic holidays such as Independence Day and the religious ones such as Christmas and Easter. Another important holiday is Día del Indio, on August 2, which commemorates their cultural heritage.
The Aymara also celebrate Carnival. Carnival is a festival held just before Lent begins. It is widely celebrated throughout South America. Dancing to drums and flutes accompanies a week-long celebration. Also important is the festival Alacistas, which features the God of Good Luck. Most households have a ceramic figure of the Good Luck spirit, known as Ekeko. This spirit is believed to bring prosperity and grant wishes. The doll is a round, plump figure, carrying miniature replicas of household goods such as cooking utensils and bags of food and money.
An Aymara child is introduced gradually to the social and cultural traditions of the community. A significant event in the life of an Aymara child is the first haircut, known as rutucha. A baby's hair is allowed to grow until the child is able to walk and talk. At about two years of age, when it is unlikely that he or she will be stricken with the many childhood diseases in the Andes, the child's head is shaved bare.
An important feature of the Aymara culture is the social obligation to help other members of the community. The exchange of work and mutual aid play a basic role within an ayllu or community. Such exchanges occur when more work is required than a single family can provide. An Aymara peasant might ask a neighbor for help building a house, digging an irrigation ditch, or harvesting a field. In return, he or she is expected to pay back the favor by donating the same number of days' labor to the neighbor.
Living conditions of the Aymara depend mainly on where they live and how much they have adopted the Western way of life. Many Aymaras reside in cities and live in modern houses or apartments. There are also large numbers of poor Aymaras in the cities who live in just one room. In rural areas, the construction of an Aymara house depends upon its location and the availability of materials. A typical Aymara house is a small oblong building made of adobe. Near the lake reeds are the primary building material. Thatched roofs are made of reeds and grasses.
The high altitude makes life in the altiplano very difficult. The decreased oxygen in the air can leave a person with soroche (altitude sickness), which causes headaches, fatigue, and nausea—and, sometimes, death. In order to adapt to life in the mountains, the Aymara have developed physical traits that enable them to survive. Most importantly, the Aymara and other mountain peoples have a greatly increased lung capacity.
The central social unit of the Aymara is the extended family. Typically, a family will include parents, unmarried children, and grandparents in one house, or in a small cluster of houses. Large families with as many as seven or eight children are common.
There is a sharp division of labor within an Aymara household, but women's work is not necessarily seen as less valuable. Planting, in particular, is a women's job that is highly respected.
Women in Aymara society also have inheritance rights. Property owned by women will be passed down from mother to daughter. This ensures that not all land and property goes to the sons.
Marriage is a long process with many steps, such as inheritance feasts, a planting ceremony, and the building of the house. Divorce is accepted and is relatively simple.
Clothing styles vary greatly among the Aymara. Men in the cities wear regular Western clothes, and women wear their traditional polleras (skirts) made of fine materials, such as velvet and brocade. They wear embroidered shawls and bowler hats (some of which are made in Italy).
In the altiplano, the story is different. The strong cold winds require warm woolen clothing. Women wear long, homespun skirts and sweaters. The skirts are worn in layers. For festivals or important occasions, women wear as many as five or six skirts on top of each other. Traditional weaving techniques date back to pre-Inca times. Brightly colored shawls are used to strap babies to their mothers' backs or to carry loads of goods.
Aymara men in the altiplano wear long cotton trousers and woolen caps with ear flaps. In many regions, men also wear ponchos. Both sexes may wear sandals or shoes, but many go barefoot despite the cold.
In cities, the Aymara diet is varied, but it has one distinctive ingredient: aji, a hot pepper is used to season the dishes. In the countryside, potatoes and grains, such as quinoa, form the staple diet. Quinoa, which has become popular in U.S. health food stores, is a nutritious, high-protein grain. It has been grown in the Andes for centuries.
The extremes of temperature in the high Andes make it possible to freeze-dry and preserve potatoes naturally. The cold air at night freezes the moisture from the potato, while the sun during the day melts and evaporates it. After a week of lying outdoors, the potatoes are pounded. The result is chuño— small, rock-hard pieces of potato that can be stored for years.
Meats are also freeze-dried. A traditional dish is olluco con charqui—olluco is a small, potato-like tuber, which is cooked with charqui, dried llama meat. But since llamas are important for their wool and as packing animals, they are rarely eaten. Fish from Lake Titicaca or neighboring rivers is also an important part of the diet.
In Bolivia, primary school education is required until the age of fourteen. However, as in most developing countries, children of subsistence farmers are less likely to complete school. Children often have the responsibility of tending a herd or taking care of younger brothers and sisters. Boys are more likely to complete school than girls, who have more household tasks, even at a very young age.
The Aymara have a rich musical tradition. Although there is a clear Spanish influence, the main musical influences date back to the pre-Inca ancestors. Drums and flutes are featured at festivals and celebrations. Panpipes (zampoñas) and the pututu horn, made out of a hollowed-out cow's horn, are traditional instruments that are still played. Homemade violins and drums are also common.
Traditional dances have been passed down through generations. Many dances feature large, bright masks and costumes. Some dances represent and parody the Spanish colonizers. The "old man dance," for example, features a bent-over Spanish nobleman with a large top hat. The dancer imitates in a comic manner the gestures and mannerisms of old Spanish gentlemen.
Many Aymara are subsistence farmers in the harsh, high-altitude environment. The altitude, cold nights, and poor soil greatly limit the types of crops that can be grown. The Aymara follow traditional patterns of agriculture. Some still use the terraced fields used by their ancestors before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World. They also follow a careful pattern of crop rotation. The most important crop is the potato, which first grew in the Andes. Corn, quinoa, and barley are also important. Many families own land at different altitudes. This enables them to grow several different crops.
Tractors and even oxen teams are rare in the high Andes. Traditional agricultural implements, such as the foot plow, are still widely used. While the men do the plowing and digging, the sacred task of planting is reserved for women, since only they have the power to give life. This tradition is maintained in deference to Pachamama, the Earth Goddess.
The Aymara are also herders. They get both wool and meat from herds of llamas, alpacas, and sheep. A family may also supplement its grazing herd with cows, frogs, or chickens.
The growing tourist trade has increased the demand for the luxurious wool of the alpaca, and some people knit sweaters for the tourists. This has provided the Aymara with some badly needed cash.
Some Aymara also work as laborers in silver or tin mines. This work can be very dangerous.
Many Aymara have entered politics. They have founded a political party, Katarista, and they have elected Aymara senators and representatives to the Bolivian congress.
There are no sports that are strictly Aymara. However, soccer is the Bolivian national sport and many Aymara participate in it.
The Aymara now enjoy their own TV shows, both as viewers and as performers. Some Aymara musical groups have made recordings that are very popular. In the cities, Aymara are frequent moviegoers.
One of the favorite activities is dancing in folk festivals. Young people use these occasions to socialize.
The Aymara are skilled weavers, a tradition dating back to the time before the Incas. Many anthropologists believe that the textiles of the Andes are among the most highly developed and complex in the world. The Aymara use a great many materials in their weaving, including cotton, as well as wool from sheep, alpacas, and llamas. The Aymara also use totora reeds to make fishing boats, baskets, and other articles.
The most significant social problems faced by the Aymara stem from colonial times. European colonizers and their descendants have treated the Aymara as insignificant, taking their land and resources and giving nothing in return. The decreased standard of living among the Aymara and the anger between groups have weakened the social structure of the region.
Only in the second half of the twentieth century has Bolivian society been open to accepting the Aymara heritage. In 1952 (almost five hundred years after Europeans arrived), the Aymara and other indigenous people were given some civil rights that every other Bolivian had had.
With access to education, the Aymara have begun participating more fully in the modern life of the country. There are still serious class and racial barriers, however, and unfortunately, many Aymara still remain in poverty in rural areas. Large numbers move to the cities, where life becomes even harder for them in many ways.
Blair, David Nelson. The Land and People of Bolivia. New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1990.
Cobb, Vicki. This Place Is High. New York: Walker, 1989.
La Barre, Weston. The Aymara Indians of the Lake Titicaca Plateau, Bolivia. Memasha, Wisc.: American Anthropological Association, 1948.
Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: Latin Americas. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.