Knowing Quechua

By Terry Philips

It is common when discussing the civilization that built such sites as Sacsayhuaman in Cusco and Machu Picchu to refer to it as the Inca culture. However, this is not strictly correct. The Incas were the nobility. The Inca in particular refers to the ruler of the empire. The people as a whole spoke Quechua and this is now used to refer to the culture.

This was called Tawantinsuyu - meaning four provinces - as opposed to the Inca Empire. Known as the naval of the world, the corners met at Qosqo or Cusco. It is said that the hole at the center of the chakana or cruz andina represents Cusco and that the four main crosses are the provinces.

There were actually many dialects of the language Quechua and even today there are distinctions according to the region. The Incas, in an effort to maintain their control, imposed their dialect on the people they conquered. The language was spoken throughout the empire, in Peru, Bolivia, Chile, northern Argentina and Ecuador. At its largest, the empire is believed to have consisted of from 6 to 8 million people, possible up to 10 million.

Society was split into levels with the Inca at the top, followed by nobility and priests, with farmers at the bottom. Families lived together in groups called ayllus which were presided over by a chief. They lived in smaller villages and went to towns and cities only for festivals or to conduct business. Each person paid taxes in the form of work and workers were paid with food and clothing.

The culture had no form of writing and instead kept their history orally and their records through the use of khipus, a system of knotted fibers. These peoples were particularly known for textiles, artisanships, architecture and engineering feats. Unless they use mortar between stones, no other civilization has been able to duplicate and master the ability of building stone structures as grand as their palaces and temples. The economy was based on farming, raising crops and camelids, guinea pigs and ducks.

The principal god for these people was the sun, called Inti, from whom the Inca rulers were said to descend. Also worshipped were Pachamama, the earth mother, and Mama Killa, the moon. The surrounding mountains were referred to as Apus or spirits and were also venerated. The custom of giving thanks in particular to Pachamama and the Apus are still in practice today. August 1 is a day that is given to give offerings to Pachamama for continued health and prosperity.

When the Spanish came under Francisco Pizarro, they were very few in number and exhausted by the time they encounter the Incas. Historical accounts indicate that the Inca ruler, Atahualpa, did not take their threat seriously and, as a result, was captured and eventually killed. Although the Incas resisted, in the end, they were completely conquered.

Today, the culture in the Andes is a blend of Quechua and Spanish influences. People will religiously go to church each Sunday but also offer the first bit of whatever they drink to Pachamama. Although it may seem like a bit of superstition to cover all the bases, it is also a testimony to how these people's ancestors managed to survive in a way that retained elements of their culture and beliefs.



Terry Philips
Article by Terry Philips
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