Ancient Quechua Civilization

Countries: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile.

Regions: Populations scattered throughout the Andes extending over 3,000 km from the Colombian border to central Chile, in high valleys and vast plateaus.

Territory and characteristics of the land: Cuzco at 3,420 m high in the Peruvian Andes was the Inca capital, and it remains the great center of the Quechua even today.

Quechua Culture and Traditions
Quechua Culture and Traditions

Ancient Quechua Civilization

Language group: Quechua

Quechua, although derived from the Aymara language, became a more developed language as new terms and phonetic variations (Arawak and others) were incorporated into it during the Inca Empire. The language of the Inca further strengthened its presence in the Altiplano during the period of Spanish colonization, as the Spaniards used it when dealing with the inhabitants of the Andes, not differentiating them in terms of their origin and therefore they did not take these peoples’ different languages into account. It is the most widely spoken indigenous language on the American continent and is a very imaginative language filled with richness and words that describe very complex feelings, observations of events, etc. Garcilaso de la Vega ‘the Inca’ (son of an Inca and a Spanish conquistador) encouraged Spaniards to learn Quechua, claiming that the Indians who spoke it had a much higher intellect and aptitude for understanding, with a wider scope and a greater variety of forms of expression. Although the Inca established schools in their conquered territories, their educational texts were limited to knotted strings, called quipu, which recorded numbers and allowed them to perform an endless series of arithmetic functions.

Geography and natural resources

A considerable number of distinct ecological niches are found over 2,000 meters above sea level in the Andes. Three very different zones are found in a very short distance from each other: the Altiplano (within it the subsystems called Puna, higher and colder, and Suni, more temperate), temperate valleys and the Yungas.

The plateau (between 3,750 and 5,200 meters above sea level) that is located between the two Andean mountain ranges is called the Altiplano. The landscape is usually barren, but with a little luck, it’s possible to find remains of thin, exposed native forests, which formed an important part of the original landscape of these lands. It is usually more humid to the north and arid to the south. Average annual temperatures are below 10° C, and there is frost on over 100 days of the year, which can occur in any month. The water balance is generally negative: clear skies for most of the year and the altitude leads to a high evaporation rate. Frost and the vast range of daily temperatures mean limitations in the variety of agricultural products and, generally, low productivity.

Quechua Geography
Quechua Geography

In the temperate valleys, average annual temperatures are between 2ºC and 18ºC and are at altitudes between 1,200 and 3,600 meters above sea level. Variations in temperature between the seasons are minimal and frost is scarce and not mild. As we descend from the Altiplano to the valleys, agricultural activity tends to be more important than livestock, although in the valleys goats and sheep put a lot of pressure on the land and they may have difficulty surviving particularly at the end of the dry season, when there’s little organic matter and the progressive exhaustion of the earth can be seen.

The Yungas are between 800 and 2,000 meters above sea level. The temperatures are always higher than 17º C, and there’s no frost or major variations in temperature. The slopes and the high rainfall result in washed soils and a subsequent loss of fertility. The intensity of the rainfall and lush vegetation make farming difficult.

The introduction of livestock and agriculture can be seen to have caused a rapid deterioration in all of these environments over a few years, which further limits its already poor productivity.

Traditional forms of community exploits and organization

The domestication and adaptation of plants in the Andean region shows that the ancient settlers managed the ecological diversity and what it offered very well. Each ecological niche offers a variety of agricultural products, such as the potato, which along with the oca and ulluco (root vegetables), quinoa and qañawa (Chenopodiaceae), and tarwi (legume) were the basis of the diet and agricultural development of the people of the Altiplano. In regard to the valleys, the most well-known native crops are coca, corn, chili, sweet potato, peanut; various fruits such as cherimoya, the banana passionfruit, and many others.

Nowadays the Quechua cultivate only a relatively small part of the land that their ancestors did. They are the descendants of the Inca civilization who used a technique of irrigating the dry mountainous steppe with a complicated system of canals and terraces. Thanks to the use of these technologies, they had spectacular results in domesticating these plants. Their past achievements are still noticeable, and in spite of the fact that cultivated areas were abandoned and new plant and animal species were introduced after the Spanish conquest, food in the Andes continues to largely consist of the production and consumption of native species.

By 500 BC the Quechua had domesticated llamas. Llama manure was used as fertilizer and as fuel for fires. But the llamas’ best asset was as a beast of burden; able to carry small packages through the long and dangerous mountain paths, these animals do not require any special care and feed themselves along the way. In the winter, you can often see large rows of llamas descending from the high Punas to the valleys loaded with salt and potatoes.

It is believed that they were the first people to grow potatoes. But apart from their immediate value, the Quechua also discovered a way of preserving their nutritional content, a system that is still practiced today. By exposing the potatoes to night frosts, then the day’s heat, and stepping on them later to extract liquid, the natives produced chuño, a very light black and dehydrated food, easy to store and able to be preserved indefinitely.

Quechua Craft

The first yarns were made with llama wool. The manufacturing process was perfected until they got the fabrics that the pre-Columbian Indians became famous for.

Quechua traditions
Quechua traditions

Quechua Markets

In the Quechua community, exchanges are always done in an environment that is not merely economic and in which reciprocation plays a leading role. The values of the exchanged goods are fixed by custom more than by the national market.

The different forms of work and products form a single system based on kinship and cultural expressions common to the whole ethnic group. In exchanges, each party focuses on being the most generous and the degree of generosity is more important among contractors than calculating what’s actually been transferred.

There is traditional trade done using llamas as a means of transport. The basic method of the trade used by these llameros is bartering, although sometimes currency is involved. However, their main focus is obtaining goods to use in agricultural areas, and they prefer to trade their products for food. This is associated with the agricultural areas of the valleys and Yungas, and they offer livestock products transformed using textile artisanry, as well as dried meat, tallow, leathers and sometimes wool.

When the communities’ traditional economy was introduced to the market economy, it began a process that is leading to the disappearance of traditional systems. At first, the communal economy tried to adapt to the conditions imposed from the outside; while only a surplus is traded in the communities, the market’s modifying effect is mitigated by the traditional norms of the community. However, they cannot maintain these changes for a long time and tend to go into decline when faced with the power of money and the production and consumption needs generated by the market.

A market day is organized weekly and is where the purchase and sale of basic necessities for the family take place. Usually, a woman comes with a small sample of their product, which she sells and immediately goes on to acquire other products that she needs, not saving money nor accumulating it. It is only in the harvest season that the transactions at the market are larger, in this case, a man usually comes, although there are many variants depending on the place and the product.

Education in Quechua Culture

The mother is the main person responsible for the child’s socialization. Until they’re one and a half years old, she carries her child behind her back and raises it while she goes about her activities. The eldest daughter usually pitches into caring for the smaller children; this done normally from around four years old. The father dedicates little time to parenting at this early stage. When they’re five years old, little boys work more and more with their father, who trains them in men’s duties. On the other hand, daughters always stay with the mother, who continues to influence her behavior as a woman.

They learn social rules by playing with friends. In the little time that they have together, they pretend to be adults, growing, selling and buying products, taking care of children, etc. So many of these games are functional and not purely recreational.

Another form of education is the tales that relate to the activities and ups and downs of daily life, which use birds and animals to show the way to a comfortable and honorable life and contain a mixture of morality and old superstitions.

Quechua education
Quechua education

The education they receive from school does not contribute to better integration of the child into the community but to their initiation in the dominant global society. The curriculum, as well as the means of learning (for example, the use of Spanish), and even the implicit attitudes of the majority of teachers, all lead to contempt for communal and rural culture and to overvaluing life outside of the community.

Housing in Quechua Culture

Each dwelling makes up a fairly complex housing complex that grows as the life cycle of the family occupying it progresses. It is small and limited when the couple has just got together, then new improvements are made every year during periods of low agricultural activity in the dry season. Finally, when the eldest children in the family get married, a new cycle will begin in another dwelling, possibly in an area separate from the family estate.

Most of the houses are built using local resources: adobes, stones or planks for the walls; straw, palm, tiles or clay for the roof. Wood is used more in the valleys and Yungas, and less in the arid highlands; it is, therefore, easier to find two-story dwellings in the valleys and Yungas, while parts of the Altiplano still have rolled mud (ñiq’i giru) vaulted dome ceilings or crossbeams.

The houses adapt to suit the climate. They are much smaller, without any, or with tiny windows and tiny doors, in the cold Altiplano. On the other hand, those in the valleys and Yungas are bigger and have ventilation, with more windows, external stairs and sometimes even porches. In cold places, it is more likely that everyone will sleep in the same room and cook there to keep it warmer.

In almost all areas, the family complex has separate residential parts for living, sleeping, other domestic routines and another room purely reserved for all kinds of storage. In the residential area, clothes and staple consumer items are stored; there are also various religious symbols; the interior walls are often adorned with newspapers, calendars, posters, etc. The furniture is scarce: some beds, or rather adobe platforms, are shared by several people, and there may be a table and sometimes a chair or stool. Clothes are usually hung on roof crossbeams or nails.

Not far from the house are the various animal corrals, apart from the Andean rabbits (quwi) who are usually under the bed-platform.

Quechua Family life

The community is an endogamous group (that is, they marry among the community). However, at the moment this inbreeding is more due to the inevitable physical limitations of the relationships between individuals than due to cultural regulations. In addition, with the increasing fragmentation of communities, it is increasingly difficult for new communities to remain endogamous. The number of inter-community unions has increased slowly since the last century. More often than not, it is the woman who comes from another community, but the opposite is also accepted.

There is a greater link between relatives, especially closest ones. The kinship network works as insurance for the family due to a range of needs. On the other hand, it is one of the factors that binds the various families of the community together, or at least it is one important part of it. Each individual increases their prestige in the community not only by performing certain duties and services as trainers and authorities but also surrounding themselves with a trail of relatives, children-in-law, and godchildren. There is a tendency not to allow unions between relatives, both maternal and paternal, until after four generations.

Compadrazgo is a term used to describe a custom of a particular family establishing a bond of near kinship with another family and is linked to their specific involvement in an important ritual. The chosen pair become godparents to a godchild (the central character in the ritual) and their parents become linked to the godparents. Compadrazgo is horizontal when it ritually unites people of the same social status and vertical when it is done between individuals and families of different social levels.

Quechua family life
Quechua family life

There is a hierarchy of duties based on kinship when providing aid: immediate relatives have more obligation to help than distant and non-relatives in the same community; among relatives, those from a lower social status have more obligation to help their superiors, and each has their specific way of helping; relatives from the older generation have more of a duty than those from the same generation; the husband’s relatives have more obligation than the wife’s, who is more likely to be from elsewhere; likewise, husbands’ obligations to male relatives is stronger.

Role of women in the Quechua communities

Educating women for a long time is considered a waste of time and money because this information will be of little use later in her adult life. In addition, parents consider that once they enter puberty, their daughter runs more risks than benefits by going to school. Due to all of this, parents prefer their daughters to be involved in domestic activities after learning the basics. Furthermore, child labor in the household remains important for a range of chores (e.g. animal care). As school cuts into these contributions, families seek to get at least their eldest daughters back for these indispensable tasks.

Quechua Cosmology

Humans live in “this world” (kaypacha) and are permanently exposed to the forces of two partly opposing and partly complementary worlds. These are janaq pacha (world above / distant) and ukhu pacha (world below / inside). Both worlds are filled with living and powerful beings that influence all of us, demanding our co-operation in exchange for their goods and powers; or – if we don’t pay them any attention – they send us threats to comply with them. The central idea is that balance must be maintained with all of them and, at the same time, this balance between the two worlds must be guaranteed. On the other hand, each has its own specific nature: the world above is more closely linked to established order; the world below is less predictable and is more linked with the productive power of new life.

All the inhabitants of the world below have strength and hunger as a common characteristic, with which they cause great benefits and great catastrophes, as well as mankind’s fortunes and miseries. Therefore, taking good care of them, feeding them generous offerings and treating them with respect is important in order to stay healthy and secure good quality crops. There are ethical connotations in regard to how we must relate to these beings: if we do not fulfill our basic obligations to others, it is more likely that calamities will follow. But the most important thing is that we take care of their hunger so that they gratefully use their power in a beneficial way for us. The customary officiant for this relationship with the world below is the Yatiri, especially one called a ch’amakani “the master of darkness.”

During the challa (libation), when they invite all the deities to drink, while they pour the drink drop by drop on the ground, the Quechua people go over all the places in their territory by name and insert offerings in an open space to fortify it, and through the almost endless recitation of each place, every nook and cranny with a special power is recognized. This is not a simple list of places, rather a calling upon these places to carry out their special role.

The dead also have a very important place among the beings of the world below. Achachila or machula (grandfathers or ancestors) are the protectors of the community and region, and some of them have special powers over clouds, winds, rain, frost or hail, phenomena linked to agriculture, and are associated with certain nearby or distant hills; the awicha (grandmothers), on the other hand, are more associated with caves and ravines, and with diseases, although the protective spirit of each household is also called this.

Quechua religion
Quechua religion

The Pachamama is one of the most well-known Andean deities -even outside of the field – but also one of the most difficult to define. Her name is often translated as “Mother Earth” but in reality, her character is much more complex, but she is always associated with agricultural fertility. From this perspective, she is related to the other knock-on animal (illa) and plant (ispalla) spirits, and even minerals (mama). She is also considered a tutelary spirit and it is said that each community, each sayaña and even each small farm and concrete house has a protector Pachamama; but at the same time the Pachamama is also universal and is everywhere. From what has been said so far, it can be understood that many consider it to be the leading spirit of this world.

Celebrations stand out among the many religious and cosmological expressions within Andean daily life. Due to their size, richness in symbolic significance, their far-reaching appeal, and their climax, celebrations are a fundamental moment in the lives of individuals and communities. Throughout life and the year, celebrations, by definition social events, mark and give meaning to the most important events in the life of the individual, family, and routines in communal life. Celebrations directly aimed at the world above are more in line with the annual order of the calendar and predictable moments in the agricultural cycle; they are more public and social but also are the ones that most emphasize subordination to the ruling class. Celebrations aimed the world below, although sometimes linked to the calendar (e.g. Tuesdays, Carnival or early August), depend more on unforeseeable uncommon events, such as illness, drought, lightning, or accidents in a construction site or a mine. They are more intimate celebrations, sometimes almost secret, although they can be at a communal level as well.

The abundance of food and, above all, drink plays an important role in these celebrations. The social and ritual character of the festive celebration is stressed above all else, starting with invitations and exchanges of generosity in a context of universal reciprocity. But in addition to this, the feast is a celebration that springs all of the senses into action: food and drink to excess drunkenness, coca and cigars, music and song, dance and costumes, candles, incense and the smell of smoke, a multitude of senses, the roar of rockets and blasts… everything contributes to the euphoric atmosphere and increasing it to the point of ecstasy. In this way, celebrations are both the quintessential place and moment for social communion and sacred encounters with the otherworldly beings who determine the destiny and meaning of the world in which humans live.

Health and traditional medicine

For the Quechua, the origin of many diseases is mysterious, so to diagnose and cure them, they must simultaneously resort to cosmic explanations and ancestral remedies – including a rich tradition in the use of Andean pharmacopeia – to medical concepts brought by colonization and modern science. They use the same logic for disease as peasants do to reduce agricultural risks by planting many species in many different places and times.

The indigenous approach doesn’t distinguish between magical and natural illnesses and cures, it is much more unitary; it is a system of relationships between the body, the many souls, society and the cosmos that is as full of beings as alive and real as us, like inseparable parts that make up a harmonic whole. Andean medicine assumes a holistic ideology regarding the body and spirit, person, society, and cosmos; it has natural cures, personal care, and ritual remedies when providing a response to Andean patients.

The specialist who diagnoses and cures all types of physical-psychic-cosmic disorder (including diseases) is the Yatiri (the one who knows), and their specialization may include education, but ultimately they are supernatural order due to having been struck by lightning or having received special powers since birth. They are simultaneously a doctor, diviner, and priest. They dominate ritual remedies, although they also know natural remedies. Within the Yatiri is the jampiri or qulliri (the healer), who is specialized in diseases and has an extensive knowledge of plants and other natural medicinal remedies.

Inca healer
Inca healer

Quechua political and religious organization

Traditional Quechua communities are called ayllu, a word that refers not only to the territorial enclave of the village but also refers to the group linked by blood. The community itself is not a production unit, it is a territory shared by a number of families that produce individually; however, there are institutionalized mechanisms that regulate and facilitate the formation of cooperative groups and regulate the rules of behavior among their members, their obligations to each other and the distribution of tasks. Mechanisms that order collective communal works (phayna, jayma, umaraga, chuqu and others) can be distinguished among these as well as those that ensure reciprocation between families (yanapa, ayni, mink’a, waki and others).

When an individual marries and inherits communal lands, they become a full person per se (runa in Quechua) and start almost automatically sharing all their rights and obligations. In all cases, the criterion to be a full member of the community is to have land.

Among the obligations of every community are: to provide services in communal work; provide regular funding to the community; attend the assembly; go through public offices – political and religious – that the community has established etc.; if the head of the family is unable to attend, another member of the family may do so. In this sense, the member and/or the holder of the position is not so much the individual as much as it is the family unit that the head of the family represents. Their rights are: to make full use of one or more plots of agricultural area with its respective water supply (if there is one); have access to other communal resources (grasslands, wood, building materials, etc.); be appointed as an authority; intervene in the decision-making of communal affairs through the assembly; participate in celebrations; be addressed regarding local authorities’ demands and emergencies etc.

The communal assembly is the highest court of authority and the center of community life. Its legal authority extends from economic control of communal resources to all social demonstrations. It is the center of the community’s power. It is summoned and presided over by the chief communal authority, appointed periodically in an assembly.

Normally, decisions are screened by one or several community assemblies in which male heads of household actively participate; in a less visible way, they are screened by each household where the husband and wife consult on the matter before arriving at a firm decision in the assembly. The woman only attends the assembly if she is a widow or if the husband is absent unless it is a matter that concerns them directly. These assemblies are a forum for expression and collective decision-making that surprises outsiders with their degree of participation and sense of democratic respect. The agreements are made after long discussions between the participants and they then withdraw to their homes having settled their interests. A consensus is sought after as opposed to decisions by majority.

Ancient Quechua Civilization
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