LOCATION: Peru; Ecuador; Bolivia (Central Andes regions)
POPULATION: About 7.5 million
LANGUAGE: Quechua language
RELIGION: Combination of pre-Columbian and Roman Catholic beliefs
The Quechua Indians of the central Andes are the direct descendants of the Incas. The Inca Empire, which existed for a century before the arrival of the Spanish, was a highly developed civilization. The Inca Empire stretched from parts of present-day Colombia in the north, southward into Chile. The Incas had an impressive governing structure. The government imposed tribute and taxes on the population which were exacted in the form of labor and in crops. Vast warehouses were used to store food, which was then distributed in times of famine. The Incas also had an immense army, used to continuously expand the empire and conquer new peoples.
The Spanish conquistadors arrived in South America in the early 1500s. When they arrived, the Inca king Huayna Cápac(d.1527) had already died from one of the many European diseases that preceded the conquistadors. The Incas were in a state of civil war when Spanish forces arrived. After the Spanish captured the new Inca king, Atahualpa (1500?–33), the Incas suffered a swift defeat.
Peru attained independence from the Spanish in 1821. Modern-day Peru has struggled to modernize. It has been plagued by problems of hyperinflation, poor governments, and terrorism. Most Quechua still live in the Andean highlands. They rely on subsistence agriculture (growing little more than their own food) and pastoralism (nomadic herding) as did their Inca ancestors.
Quechua Indians still live in the areas once governed by the Inca Empire in Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The geographical conditions between regions differ dramatically. In mountain valleys there is rich soil and access to water that is suitable for farming. Most Quechua, however, live on the stark, steep slopes of the central Andes. Here the soil is poor, the wind strong, and the weather cold.
About one-third of Peru's 24.5 million inhabitants are Quechua Indians. Migration and urbanization in the past few decades have drawn many Quechua to Lima, the capital city of Peru. There is now a large indigenous and mestizo (mixed-race) population in Lima.
The Quechua language is known by its speakers as Runa Simi, or the language of the people. The term quechua refers more to the language than to a concrete ethnic group. The Quechua language was the administrative language of the Inca state. It is spoken by millions of people in Peru (about 8 million), Ecuador (nearly 2 million), and Bolivia (about 1 million). Quechua words that have been assimilated into the English language include puma, condor, llama, and coca. Unlike most other native South American languages, Quechua is an official language of Peru, accorded the same status as Spanish. Although it rarely occurs, senators and members of congress can give speeches in the Peruvian Congress in Quechua.
The myth of Incarrí perhaps reveals the most about the feelings of the vanquished Inca. After the conquest of Peru in 1532, the Inca rulers retreated from Cuzco to Vilcabamba. There they resisted the Spanish invasion for nearly fifty years. In 1579 the last rebel Inca, Tupac Amaru, was captured and beheaded by the Spanish. The Spaniards stuck his head on a pike and placed it in the plaza of Cuzco as a warning to the rebels. The head disappeared, and they say that it is buried. The myth tells that it is slowly growing its body back and when the body is complete, the Incas will return to rule their land.
Many of the ancient Quechua myths are still preserved in their oral tradition. Most of them narrate the origin of various ethnic groups, or of mountains, rivers, and lakes.
Quechua religion combines both pre-Columbian and Catholic elements. The most significant pre-Columbian influence that endures is the belief that supernatural forces govern everyday events, such as weather and illness. This belief serves a utilitarian purpose to the agricultural Quechua. By making offerings to the powers that control natural forces, the Quechua feel they can influence events and not merely be helpless in the face of bad weather or disease. When drinking alcohol, for example, it is customary to first offer a drink to Mother Earth, Pachamama.
This religious Andean world is populated by gods who have human attributes. Sometimes they love each other and other times they hate and fight each other. For this reason, the Andean religion has two dimensions in the lives of the people. First, in human terms it promotes social cohesion, and second, in transcendental terms it connects gods and humans.
The Quechua have adopted Christianity and also have incorporated it into their indigenous beliefs.
The Quechua celebrate important Catholic holidays such as Christmas and Easter. At the same time, they have not abandoned their ancient holidays. In the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco, the Inca Sun Festival is still celebrated. The Inti Raymi festival, as it is called, draws thousands of tourists from all over the world to witness its spectacular festivities. Donning replicas of Inca tunics, rather than contemporary Andean garb, Quechua Indians reenact the Inca sun-worshiping ceremony. The Inti Raymi festival, which celebrates the June solstice, reflects the Inca's vast knowledge of astronomy. On this occasion, there is much eating, drinking, and dancing. True to Inca traditions, a llama is also sacrificed on this day.
Major life transitions, such as birth, puberty, and death, are marked by rituals and celebrations that combine Catholic and indigenous traditions.
Courtship and marriage involve a lengthy series of rituals and stages. Most unmarried youths meet (and flirt) during one of the community's many festivals. When a young couple decides that they are ready to consider marriage, the family of the bride is visited by the family of the prospective groom. The groom himself stays home while his parents and godparents discuss the wedding and negotiate what each family will donate to the newlyweds. The engagement is made official at a later date when the bride and groom exchange rosaries. At the wedding, there is a public procession as the bride leaves her home to join her husband's ayllu or community. Various other rituals, including fertility rites, follow the wedding.
The dominant building material throughout most of the Andes is adobe. Adobe has the advantages of being highly durable, free, and widely available. Adobe can be made almost year-round with the rich Andean soil. Traditionally, roofs were made from thatched material. However, now they are more often made of tiles. House-building is a communal affair, based on the ancient Inca system of labor exchange known as mita. Neighbors are offered chicha (beer), cigarettes, and food in return for their help in the construction of a new home. In exchange, those who participated in the house-building are owed labor that they can claim at any time.
The quality of health care in rural communities is still extremely poor. Most Quechua first turn to a curandero (literally, "curer") who provides herbal medicines and treatment.
Children in Quechua society play many important roles. From a very young age they participate in economic activities and key household tasks. As in most other subsistence economies, children are essential as they are expected to provide long-term economic security to their parents as they age. An optimum family size is considered to be three or four children. However, due to limited access to birth control, many families have ten or more children. Generally, male children are more highly valued than females, as their economic potential is seen to be greater.
Women play a subordinate role compared to men in the community political structure. Women are less likely to receive a formal education, do not hold significant positions of power within the community, and are excluded from many potentially profitable economic activities. A clear sexual division of labor exists with regard to both agricultural and household tasks. Within the family, women have a say in matters such as decisions about finances or issues surrounding the upbringing of children. However, there is little evidence to suggest that they are free from subordination in that domain either.
Traditional Andean clothing reflects Spanish influences. In 1572, the Spanish prohibited the Quechua from wearing native Inca tunics and wrap-around dresses. Andean peoples then adopted the clothing still in use today. Quechua women wear skirts and blouses, with colorful woven shawls around their shoulders. Men wear trousers, shirts, and woven ponchos (capes). Sandals are the preferred footwear for both men and women.
The style and color of clothing worn by Quechua Indians varies dramatically from region to region. The Otavalo of Ecuador, an important subgroup of the Quechua, have a very distinctive dress. They wear white trousers and shirts, covered by a solid black poncho. Otavalo men are also famed for their long black braids.
The potato was first domesticated in Peru approximately 4,500 years ago. The potato and quinoa grain remain as two of the main staples of the Quechua diet. Common dishes include meat or potato stews, spiced with hot peppers, coriander, or peanuts. For community feasts, a pachamanca, or underground oven, is occasionally used.
Also considered a delicacy is guinea pig. The preferred dish for festivals, guinea pigs are often raised in the house and provide a productive use for kitchen scraps and discarded food. The use of guinea pigs as an important source of protein pre-dates the Incas.
Formal education in Peru is required until the age of sixteen. In rural areas, however, the percentage of students who finish their schooling is much lower than in urban areas. This is, in part, because children play a valuable role in household and agricultural tasks and their labor cannot be spared. The schooling received is generally very poor. Teaching methods are based on rote memorization rather than problem-solving skills. Personal initiative is rarely encouraged, and teachers generally have low expectations of what their students can achieve. A further problem emerges for Quechua children, since Spanish is the primary language taught and used at schools.
The characteristic music of the central Andes is called huayno . The mountain origins of huaynos are reflected in their lyrics that recount daily life in mountain villages and proclaim Andean nationalism (patriotism). Traditional instruments still widely used include drums, flutes, and the charrango, a mandolin-style guitar made from an armadillo shell. Huayno singers are increasingly popular in urban areas.
Quechua folk music also includes beautiful, haunting music for panpipes (hollow pipes of graduated length). One of these songs, "El Condor Pasa," was a hit record for the singing duo, Simon and Garfunkel in the 1960s.
As the Incas did not write, there is not a tradition of Quechua literature. In twentieth-century Peru, however, there has emerged a tradition of indigenista writers who focus on the life of the indigenous (native) Andean peoples. Jose Maria Arguedas, Cesar Vallejo, and Ciro Alegría have written influential books that portray the oppression of the Quechua throughout the centuries and chronicle their hard life in the Andes. These authors have contributed to a growing Andean nationalism and pride.
Most Quechua rely on subsistence farming for their livelihood. Corn, potatoes, and grains are crops that have adapted to the high-altitude environment. Land is still farmed using the Inca method of terracing on steep slopes. This labor-intensive approach to agriculture requires a tremendous amount of time. Little time is left to devote to other economic activities.
Trade is highly developed between different villages and regions. In addition to agricultural products, many communities produce pottery, textiles, belts, hats, and other handicrafts for cash sales. In most communities, there is a weekly market day, which plays an important role in the economic and social fabric of the village.
There are no uniquely Quechua sports. However, as part of a mestizo (mixed background) society, the Quechua participate in a variety of Western sports, such as soccer.
Socializing is the primary form of recreation in Quechua society. The Quechua celebrate a great many religious festivals, national holidays, and birthdays. Parties and festivals are eagerly anticipated and require many weeks of planning. Many festivals involve up to eight days of drinking, feasting, and dancing.
The most significant handicraft produced by the Quechua is textiles. Women throughout the Andes can be seen spinning wool almost all day, even while sitting at the market or waiting for a bus. Both llama and sheep wool are used. The "belt loom" still in use by the Quechua dates back to pre-contact (with Europeans) times. The Quechua are skilled weavers. Their products are increasingly in demand for the tourist and export markets.
Male drunkenness is a serious social problem throughout the central Andes. Drinking alcoholic beverages is not only an accepted behavior at the Quechua's many festivals and parties, it is also an expected behavior.
Alongside feasting and dancing, becoming drunk is a core part of most social occasions. Unfortunately, this behavior often spills over into daily life. Excessive male drinking has a negative impact on both family relations and family finances. Spousal abuse is a common result of alcoholism.
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