While Peru’s social order has been molded by Spanish custom, its soul remains indigenous. According to the country’s census bureau, this crinkled piece of the South American Andes harbors 52 different ethnicities, 13 distinct linguistic families and 1786 indigenous communities. In fact, almost half of Peru’s population of more than 30 million identifies as indigenous. Together, these groups account for a plethora of rituals, artistic traditions and ways of life – a cultural legacy that's as rich as it is long-running.

Post-Conquest Life

In the wake of the Spanish conquest, colonial authorities transformed the ways in which people lived in the Andes. Indigenous people who had only ever known an agricultural life were forced to live on reducciones (mission towns) by colonial authorities. These urbanized ‘reductions’ provided the Church with a centralized place for evangelism and allowed the Spanish to control the natives politically and culturally. In these reducciones, indigenous people were often prohibited from speaking their native language or wearing traditional dress.

By the 17th century, after the Spanish had consolidated their power, many indigenous people were dispersed back to the countryside. But rather than work in the self-sustaining collectives (ayllus) that had existed in pre-Columbian times, they were forced into a system of debt peonage. For example: a native family was granted a subsistence plot on a Spanish landowner’s holdings. In exchange, the family provided labor for the patrón (boss). In many cases, these campesinos (farmers) were not allowed to leave the land on which they lived.

This system remained firmly in place into the 20th century.

A 20th-Century Shift

The last 100 years have marked a number of significant steps forward. Since the indigenist social movements of the 1920s, various constitutions and laws have granted legal protection to communal lands (at least on paper, if not always in practice). In 1979, the Peruvian constitution officially recognized the right of people to adhere to their own ‘cultural identities,’ and the right to bilingual education was officially established. (Until then, the public school system had made a systematic effort to eliminate the use of native languages and pressured indigenous people to acculturate to Spanish criollo society.) And, the following year, literacy voting restrictions were finally lifted – allowing indigenous people to fully participate in the political process.

In 2011, President Humala passed a law that required native peoples be consulted on all mining and extraction activities on their territories. Yet, conflict still runs deep. In September, 2014, four indigenous activists were murdered en route to a meeting to discuss illegal logging.

Pressures of Poverty & Environment

Even as indígenas continue to make strides, there are obstacles. Indigenous people make up almost twice as many of the country’s extreme poverty cases as Peruvians of European descent. In addition, access to basic services is problematic. Nearly 60% of indigenous communities do not have access to a health facility, and the country has a high maternal mortality ratio (higher than Iraq or the Gaza Strip). This affects indigenous women disproportionately.

Perhaps the biggest issue facing some ethnicities is the loss of land. Drug trafficking and the exploitation of natural resources in ever more remote areas are putting increased pressure on indigenous communities whose territories are often ill-defined and whose needs are poorly represented by the federal government in Lima. According to Aidesep, a Peruvian indigenous organization representing various rainforest ethnic groups, oil prospecting and extraction is occurring in more than 80% of indigenous territories in the Amazon. In late 2014, the remote Mashco-Piro, a tribe that had never been contacted until recently, raided a mestizo (mixed descent) village for supplies after being displaced from their own lands by logging and drug trafficking. In 2017, Achuar people seized 50 oil wells in their territory to protest the renewal of the Canadian company's contract despite a history of pollution.

Multitude of Cultures

Indigenous cultures are identified by their region or name, such as the Arequipa or Chachapoyas. But with more than a thousand highly localized regional cultures in the Peruvian Andes alone, it is easiest to identify groups by the language they speak. Quechua – the lingua franca of the Incas – is predominant. It is the most commonly spoken native language in the Americas and is heard all over the Andes. In Peru, more than 13% of the national population claims it as a birth language.

Aymara is the second-most spoken indigenous language – with nearly 2% of Peruvians speaking it from birth, primarily in the area around Lake Titicaca. Nearly 1% of Peruvians speak one of another 50 or so smaller, regional dialects. These include the numerous Amazon cultures that inhabit the rainforest.

Quechua

The descendants of the Incas (along with the myriad peoples the Incas conquered) inhabit much of Peru’s Andean spine, representing the biggest indigenous cohort in the country. The department of Cuzco, however, remains the symbolic center of Quechua life. Traditional Quechua refer to themselves as runakuna and refer to mixed-raced mestizos or indigenous people who adopt Spanish-Peruvian culture as mistikuna. The ritual chewing of coca is regarded as a major point of self-identification among runakuna. However, such distinguishing characteristics are becoming increasingly blurred as more indigenous people adopt at least some criollo customs in order to participate in the greater economy.

Regardless, many people continue to speak the language, chew coca and wear traditional dress. For men, this generally consists of brightly woven ponchos and the ear-flap hats known as chullos. Women’s outfits are more elaborate and flamboyant: a bowler or flat-topped hat accompanies some sort of woven wrap or sweater, and multiple layers of handwoven or shiny skirts. (The layered skirt look is considered very feminine.) Elements of traditional and Western dress are often combined.

Feature: Ollantay: Quechua’s Great Literary Epic

Ollantay tells the story of a pair of star-crossed lovers: Ollanta, a celebrated warrior of humble birth, and Cusi Cuyllur, a captivating Inca princess. Because Ollanta is not a noble, societal mores dictate that he cannot marry his beloved. But he nonetheless draws up the courage to ask Emperor Pachacutec for his daughter’s hand in marriage. The emperor becomes enraged at the audacity of the young lovers, and expels Ollanta from Cuzco and throws his daughter in jail. Battles ensue, a child is born and after much palace intrigue, the lovers are reunited.

Ollantay is a work of classic Quechua – the version of Quechua spoken at the time of the conquest. But because the Incas didn’t leave behind a written language, its origins are quite murky: no one knows who composed it, or when. Its first recorded appearance is in the manuscripts of an 18th-century priest named Antonio Valdés, who worked in the department of Cuzco. Some scholars have surmised that Valdés may have written Ollantay. Others say that it was one of the many epic poems transmitted orally among the Incas, and that Valdés simply recorded it. Others figure Valdés may have tailored an indigenous work to suit Spanish tastes. Regardless, it is a popular theater drama in Peru – and remains one of the great works of art in Quechua.

Aymara

Though subjugated by the Quechua-speaking Incas in the 15th century, the Aymara have maintained a distinct language group and identity. Traditionally an agricultural society, they were reduced to near-slave status through debt peonage and, later, in the silver mines of Bolivia. Within Peru, they are clustered in the area around Puno and Lake Titicaca.

While identification with indigenous custom is strong, Spanish elements are present in spiritual life. Indígenas have largely adapted Catholic deities to their own beliefs. Like the Quechua, many Aymara practice syncretic religious beliefs that closely link indigenous custom to Catholic thought. In Puno, there is a large festival in honor of La Virgen de la Candelaria every February 2 (Candlemas). The Virgin, however, is closely identified with Pachamama, as well as natural elements such as lightning and fertility.

Cultures of the Amazon

The vast Peruvian Amazon is home to more than 330,000 indigenous people, representing more than five dozen different ethnicities – some are closely related while others couldn’t be more different in terms of tradition and language.

Within this group, the biggest demographic is comprised of the Asháninka people (also known as Campa). Comprising roughly a quarter of the indigenous population in the Peruvian Amazon, they inhabit numerous river valleys east of the central highlands. (Because of this location, the Asháninka suffered mightily during the Internal Conflict, when the Sendero Luminoso – Shining Path – made incursions to the east.)

The second-largest Amazon group is the Aguaruna, who occupy the Marañón, Nieva and Santiago River valleys to the north. The group not only resisted Inca attempts at conquest, they also fended off the Spanish. In fact, they still occupy their preconquest lands, and survive by practicing horticulture, hunting and fishing.

There are countless other smaller ethnic groups, including the Shipibo, Matsiguenka and the small, so-called ‘uncontacted tribes’ that have made headlines in recent years. These groups are extremely vulnerable to land loss and pollution caused by oil and mineral extraction. For the most remote groups, the biggest problem can boil down to simple immunity: in the 1980s, more than half of the Nahua people in the southern Amazon died after contracting diseases from loggers and oil-company agents.