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Pukina: The secret language of the Incas

by Gina Cronin

As researchers explore the history of ancient Peru, they find more and more evidence of Pukina: The secret language of the Incas. Pukina (also spelled Puquina) may very well be the native tongue of the Incas, yet has remained mostly hidden for hundreds of years. 

Though Pukina itself is now extinct, much of its vocabulary has extended to the Kallawaya people, a group of traditional healers in the Bolivian Andes. The Kallawaya language is mixed, said to be 14 percent from Quechua, 14 percent from Aymara, 2 percent from Uru-Chipaya, and 70 percent from Pukina, according to researchers, including anthropologist Louisa R. Stark, in her book Machaj-Juyay: secret language of the Callahuayas

The origins of Pukina
Pukina and the migration to Cusco
Historic records of Pukina
Linguistic fragments and territorial distribution
Summary: How is Pukina such a secret?
Quechua, Aymara, and Kallawaya today

The origins of Pukina

To know the origins of Pukina, it is helpful to also know the origins of the Incas themselves. To begin, most Inca myths point to Lake Titicaca as the birthplace of the Inca—they also name this area the birthplace of the sun and the center of the universe. Before the Inca, a civilization that occupied this famed lake was the Tiwanaku, and the Tiwanaku people spoke Pukina.

In Inca mythology, the founder of the Inca civilization is Manco Capac, who is believed to have been born in the Lake Titicaca area. Or, to put it in mythic terms, to have “emerged from the depths of Lake Titicaca,” near Bolivia’s Isla del Sol. He was, as the legend goes, born in the same region where the Tiwanaku empire stood just centuries prior. 

Ethnohistorian of the Andes, Thérèse Bouysse-Cassagne, in her book, The gold mines of the Incas, the Sun and the cultures of the Collasuyu, writes, “The Incas, who believe Lake Titicaca to be the starting point for their myth of origin, argue that the ancestors of their caste, Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo [fertility goddess and sister and/or wife of Capac], came from this lake, which allowed them to recover the myth of origin of the Sun and all the prestige of the culture of Tiwanaku, which until then had as main depositary the son of the Sun, owner of [Isla del Sol] and a speaker of Pukina.”

The meaning of Titicaca

It is also worth mentioning that there are some contrasting ideas about the meaning of the word Titicaca. Titicaca is generally held to be a word from the Quechua language, which is the most widely spoken native language in the Peruvian Andes. In Quechua, Titi, means puma, and caca, means mount. However, if you look at the translation of Titicaca in Pukina, titi means sun and cachi means circle or rim. Which would mean, circle, or rim, of the sun. 

On this note, here are 3 considerations
  1. As Manco Capac, the illustrious founder of the Inca Civilization, was born near Lake Titicaca, it would follow that he was a descendant of the Tiwanaku people—a culture that spoke Pukina. 
  2. Point 1 would suggest that the original language of Capac was Pukina. As a result, it would have been widely spoken at the dawn of the Inca civilization.
  3. While the Quechua translation of Titicaca (puma mount) holds weight, considering the mythological significance of the sun god in the Inca tradition and of the lake itself, it may hold more weight to translate to circle of the sun. 

In conclusion, this theory would hold that Pukina can find its origins with the Tiwanaku people of Lake Titicaca; where it was then carried on by the earliest of Incas, as their original language. 

As a side note, the Tiwanaku republic collapsed unexpectedly around 1000 AD, with some remnants lingering through 1150 AD. The reason is unclear, but there are different theories relating to drought, intentional destruction due to social issues, and abandonment. 

Manco Capac, the legendary founder of the Inca Civilization.

Pukina and the migration to Cusco 

As the Incas began their migration from the Lake Titicaca to Cusco, they encountered villages along the way whose inhabitants spoke other languages, especially Aymara and Quechua. With time, the Incas adopted these languages as their own, and spoke them frequently.

They continued using Pukina, but over time it became lesser-used as Quechua was already the dominant language of the area. Cusco, founded by Manco Capac in 1200 AD, became the capital of the Inca empire.

Quechua—also referred to as Runa Simi—was the common language, used regularly throughout the villages. However, there are some accounts of another more secretive language used only by the elite—also referred to as Qhapaq Simi. Here are a few such accounts: 

  • Inca Garcilaso de la Vega (1539-1616), chronicler of Mestizo-descent, stated “the Incas had another particular language that they spoke to each other, which the other Indians did not understand, nor was it lawful for them to learn it, as divine language.” He also notes that the empire that originally used the language has since perished (most likely referring to Tiwanaku). 
  • Diego Cantos de Andrade (1586) also describes that while the elite knew Quechua, and spoke it among the commoners, they also used another language in their court that general population “were not licensed to learn.”
  • Bernabe Cobo (1582-1657), a Jesuit priest, reinforces these two claims, as he explained there was a language used among the elite and those of their lineage, but, he says, it “has already been forgotten by the descendants of the Inca.”

By the 16th century the name of this secretive language was not widely known by the common people nor the conquistadors, however, research and colonial records show that it was Pukina. 

Sacsaywaman ruins from afar, with mountains in the distance and blue skies.

Sacsaywaman, the Inca stronghold of Cusco

Historic records (or lack thereof) of Pukina 

There are barely any historic records of Pukina. Rodolfo Cerrón Palomino, Peruvian linguist, explains that the Spanish had a quite pragmatic approach. So, seeing that the people already spoke Quechua or Aymara, they did not see the use in creating documents in Pukina. “We lost a great opportunity to have materials for this language,” laments Palomino. 

What little does exist are fragments of religious texts, one such being a catechism by Alonso de Barcena (1530-1597), Jesuit missionary and linguist. Unfortunately these grammatical and lexical precepts have not been located.

Jeronimo de Ore (1554-1630) also published some pastoral texts in Pukina, from which linguists have been able to further extract grammatical components.

Though not a linguistic text, the fifth viceroy of Peru, Francisco de Toledo, had a declaration that listed Pukina as a general language of colonial Peru. 

In more contemporary anthropological works, these statements are reinforced. In Stark’s South American Indian Languages: Retrospect and Prospect, she explains, “During the colonial period the Andean region was characterized by three ‘lenguas generales’—Puquina, Quechua and Aymara.”

It is also worth noting that the native Incas, and many other groups in the Andes, were a cultura agrafas. That is, a culture that does not possess writing. The people of the Andes had more of a spoken culture—though it is worth mentioning that they did use quipus, or talking knots. Quipus are knotted fiber cords used for collecting data and keeping records, and some researchers consider this to be a form of writing. 

Quipu in Museo Machu Picchu. It is knotted fibers used for keeping record.

Quipu in the Museo Machu Picchu, Casa Concha, Cusco. Credit: Pi3.124 (Creative Commons).

Completing the Puzzle

Linguistic Fragments 

Aside from the limited records, there have been other hints that point to the significance of Pukina. In some historical records there are fragments of a small linguistic corpus, different from Aymara and Quechua. While some historians wrote them off as perhaps an offshoot of Quechua, others have taken a closer look. 

They found that the idiomatic fragments can not be related to Quechua or Aymara. They belong to a third language, which we now know to be Pukina. 

Territorial Distribution

It is also possible to examine the territorial distribution of the language. “This territory can be confirmed to be Pukina thanks to the toponymy,” says Palomino. A toponym is the general name for any place or geographical entity, and toponymy the study of such names.

Based on colonial documents, primarily those of Spanish chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, we can deduce that, during its time, Pukina spread from Lake Titicaca, continuing Northeast to the Canchis province and throughout the Cusco region, continuing on to the Pacific by way of Arequipa, all to way to Iquique in Chile, northeast to the edge of the Peruvian Amazon, and finally to La Paz and Potosi in Bolivia. 

A linguistic map that shows the territotial distribution of Pukina

Territorial distribution of Pukina. Source: Palomino

How is Pukina such a Secret?

To summarize, here are 5 points that showcase how Pukina has remained a secret for all these years.

  1. Lack of Awareness. The majority of people assume that Quechua and Aymara are the main language families of the Inca. In fact, Pukina is left out of the conversation in most circles, typically because people are unaware of it.
  2. Lack of Documentation. The first point is largely because there are virtually no written documents in Pukina. Mostly spoken and used under the radar of history, the language is now extinct. 
  3. Cryptic Nature. When the language was later spoken alongside Quechua or Aymara, it was more of an exclusive tongue. Considered the cryptic language of the Inca elite, it was spoken and understood only by nobility.
  4. Pragmatism. During the Spanish conquest of Cusco, many speakers of Pukina also already knew Quechua and Aymara by that point. Being a pragmatic people, the conquistadors did not want to waste time preparing texts, grammar, and vocabulary in Pukina. Instead, they focused on Quechua and Aymara records. 
  5. Neglect. Most modern academia has not yet embraced or updated its curriculum to reflect the research about Pukina. This has further shrouded and minimized the historical significance of the language. 
  6. Bonus Point. Taking it one step further, even looking at the subsequent Kallawaya language—heavily based in Pukina—the secrecy continues. Primarily used ritually, the language is passed only from father to son or grandfather to grandson.

Young girl from the Andes in traditional attire smiling beside an alpaca. 

Quechua, Aymara, and Kallawaya today

Though Pukina is now extinct, Quechua, Aymara, and Kallawaya are still alive and breathing. Here is some statistical information about how these ancient languages have held up after all of this time: 

  • Quechua has 8-10 millions speakers throughout the central Andes including Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina. 7.7 million of those speakers are in Peru. 
  • Aymara is an official language of Bolivia, alongside Spanish. It has about 2.8 million speakers, 1.6 million of which are native speakers; primarily in Bolivia but also in Peru and northern Chile. 
  • Kallawaya is still spoken, but is very much endangered. Being a secret and exclusive language among traditional medicine men in the Bolivian Andes, there are estimates that only 150 speakers of Kallawaya remain (or even fewer, in other estimates). 

Decoding Pukina is an ongoing task. With every new discovery, we understand more about the ancient Incas and their mysterious language.