The Aymara are an indigenous ethnic group of Bolivia and Peru, who occupy the high altiplano region surrounding Lake Titicaca. In Bolivia, the Aymara number nearly 2 million, comprising a quarter of the national population, and their concentration in and around La Paz gives Bolivia’s capital city a distinctly Aymara flavor. Another 350,000 Aymara live in Peru and some 20,000 in northern Chile. The Chilean Aymara have mostly lost their ancestral language but it is still widely spoken in Bolivia and (to a lesser degree) Peru. Nevertheless, the language can be considered endangered, inasmuch as most speakers today are bilingual, and many bilinguals raise their children as Spanish monolinguals. Traditionally an agricultural people, many Aymara have moved to urban centers in recent decades, with the accompanying cultural assimilation and language loss characteristic of such situations. Many have also migrated to Argentina in search of employment.
Between AD 400 and 1000, Aymara civilization centered on the ancient city of Tiahuanaco (Tiwanaku), the capital of an empire that extended from the western coastal desert to the humid slopes of the eastern Andes. After long-term drought led to the empire’s collapse, the Aymara (aka Collas) comprised a dozen independent chiefdoms, which were incorporated into the Inca empire during the 15th century. Due to centuries of contact, there are deep parallels between Aymara and Quechua language and culture. The traditional subsistence/tribute economy was based on potatoes and other tubers, high-altitude grains such as quinua, and camelids (llama and alpaca), today largely replaced by sheep. Extensive marketing networks between different ecological zones existed for many centuries before European contact.
Traditional Aymara social organization varies by region but typically consists of monogamous, patrilineal, extended-family households. The compadrazgo system of fictive kinship is widespread and essential to social and economic life. Compadrazgo ties may be horizontal (between equals) or vertical (crossing class strata and ethnic boundaries). Some communities observe the classical civil-religious hierarchy or cargo system, which is formally restricted to men but actually based on conjugal pairs. Communities are grouped into ayllus, headed by an informal council of elders (amautas). Most Aymara are nominally Catholic, with considerable syncretism from earth-centered indigenous religion, but Protestantism is spreading among the Aymara, as throughout Latin America.
Aymara society was drastically disrupted by Spanish colonization. Many communities were dispossessed of their lands and forced into feudal arrangements with European landowners, or enslaved in the region’s rich silver and tin mines. However, many communities were able to maintain their culture relatively intact, due to their remote and arduous high-altitude habitat. The Bolivian land reform of 1953 brought much land back under Aymara control, but drought, low prices, and increasing land pressure have driven many out of agriculture and into the cities. Today, integration into the cash economy and national institutions is more the rule than the exception; the urban proletariat of La Paz is predominantly Aymara. At the same time, increased opportunities for social mobility have given rise to a significant number of Aymara professionals (including social scientists). Even Bolivia’s overwhelmingly nonindigenous Parliament now contains some Aymara (and Quechua) deputies. Victor Hugo Cardenas, Bolivia’s vice president from 1993 to 1997, is Aymara.
- Eagen, J. (2002). The Aymara of South America. Minneapolis, MN: Lerner.
- Hardman, M. J. (Ed.). (1981). The Aymara language in its social and cultural context: Essays on aspects of Aymara language and culture. Gainesville: University Presses of Florida.
- Kolata, A. L. (1996). Valley of the spirits: A journey into the lost realm of the Aymara. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.