Quechua: The cultural heart of the Andes
On a trip to Peru, you’re likely to come across the term Quechua. Look closely and you’ll see Quechua cultural elements, listen carefully and hear Quechua words. Peru is a mestizo society, born of the encounter between European and indigenous worlds in the early 1500s. In music, dance, dress, food, and language, Quechua influences are still in evidence everywhere, not just in Peru, but across the central Andes.
Who are the Quechuas?
The Quechua are often described as the direct descendants of the Incas. But this characterization is overly simple. The Inca Empire, large and powerful as it was, consisted of a small ethnic group that ruled for only a short span of time (1438-1534). The history of the Quechua people begins many years before the Inca civilization rose to power, and it continued to evolve in multi-faceted ways in the period after the arrival of Spanish conquerors and settlers in the 16th century.
The Quechua people today are not a single ethnic group, but rather several indigenous groups scattered throughout South America. Examples include the Q’ero and the Wankas in Peru, the Kichwas and Otavalos in Ecuador, the Ingas in Colombia, and the Kolla in Bolivia. Historic examples of Quechua-speaking groups are the Incas of Cusco, the Chancas of Ayacucho, and the Cañaris of Tumebamba near modern-day Cuenca in Ecuador.
The people’s language
Runa simi, or “the people’s language”, is another term for Quechua. There is not a single Quechua language (to find one we have go to the very origins of the language, called proto-Quechua, which developed some 2,000 years ago). Instead, there are regional varieties of Quechua. The Quechua spoken in Cusco is not the same as the Quechua spoken in Chavín de Huantar or the Quechua spoken in Ecuador. Quechua is a family of languages and, while there is some overlap, the varieties of Quechua are mutually unintelligible.
Under the Inca Empire, Quechua became the lingua franca for trade and communication in the Tawantinsuyo. Some outside groups already spoke Quechua, whereas others adopted the language when they were incorporated into the empire. The consensus among linguists is that the origins of Quechua are not in Cusco and that the Incas were not responsible for the spread of the language across the Andes – this with the exception of Bolivia and northern Argentina.
In the present-day, there are an estimated 8 million speakers of Quechua throughout the central Andes, though the exact numbers are not known. Peru has approximately 3.2 million Quechua speakers.
A living Andean culture
In the 21st century, the history and culture of the Quechua (and other indigenous groups) have become sources of great national pride. In Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, Quechua is recognized as a co-official language alongside Spanish; and in some majority-Andean regions, bilingual intercultural schools offer instruction in Quechua. Moreover, traditional practices of the Quechua people, with their handcrafted textiles and instantly recognizable dress, have become part and parcel of national identities and an integral component in how countries market themselves as tourist destinations. Festivals like Inti Raymi in Cusco, conducted from start to finish in the Quechua language, are major attractions that showcase indigenous heritage in front of national and international audiences.
The valorization of Quechua culture in the present is a marked departure from the history of the Andes in the aftermath of Spanish colonization. Historical demographers estimate that in 1491 (before Columbus sailed), 6.5 million indigenous people inhabited the South American continent. By the end of the 1600s, the death toll was at 80%. Millions perished, if not from warfare and conflict, then from disease and poor living conditions. It would take four centuries for the total population of Latin America (including Eurasian emigrants, African slaves, and their mixed descendants) to match its pre-Conquest numbers. Meanwhile, the indigenous survivors of the Conquest were discriminated against and exploited, their communities destroyed or reconfigured, their autochthonous traditions repressed and almost erased. With this dark history as a backdrop, the persistence of Quechua culture speaks to an extraordinary will to live.
Today, while there is no sense of a unified “Quechua nation”, there is an incredibly rich set of living Andean traditions that coexist (easily and uneasily) within the dominant mestizo culture. In rare and remote places, communities are still organized as ayllus, self-sufficient networks of families who hold parcels of land in common and have reciprocal labor obligations. Economically, ayllus depend on subsistence farming and pastoralism to eke out a living. Houses are basic, consisting of adobe or stone walls and roofs thatched with ichu or straw. Although Peru enjoys a good international image, the country is still characterized by great economic inequalities, and unfortunately, indigenous communities bear the brunt of poverty.
Handicrafts play an important cultural and economic role. Some communities, such as Chinchero and Taquile, are renowned for the high quality of their textiles. The wool of llamas, alpacas, and sheep is spun, dyed in vibrant colors, and woven into blankets and clothing. Each community has its own patterns (pallay) and anthropomorphic designs that have been passed down over the generations and that communicate symbols and myths that are locally important. Examples of their work can be seen in the thick, multicolored ponchos typically worn by men, in the bright skirts and petticoats worn by women, and the chullos (warm hats with ear flaps) seen ubiquitously on the streets and at markets. The colorful textiles of the Quechuas and other indigenous groups are today internationally recognized motifs.
Quechua words you already know
In South America, Spanish and Quechua have a long history together and each language is sprinkled with loanwords from the other. Quechua words that have been adopted into Spanish include: cancha (enclosure; or also toasted corn), carpa (tent), chacra (farm), choclo (corn), cuy (guinea pig), papa (potato), poroto (bean), yapa (extra), wawa (infant), and zapallo (pumpkin).
Some Quechua words have also made it into English: coca, condor, guano, jerky (charqui), llama, pisco, puma, quinine, quinoa, and soroche (altitude sickness). The word lagniappe also has its origins in Quechua. In U.S. English, lagniappe, pronounced lan-yap, is most often heard on the Gulf Coast. It was adopted from Louisiana French, which borrowed from the Spanish creole phrase la ñapa, which in turn derives from the Quechua words “yapa” or “yapay,” meaning extra to to increase. In Andean markets, it’s still common for customers to ask for la yapa, that little something extra from shopkeepers to round out a purchase.