The Quechua are the most widespread indigenous group of the Americas, with some ten million spread across Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador (there known as Quichua), and smaller numbers in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia (there known as Ingano). Quechua speakers outnumber speakers of all other indigenous languages in South America combined, due in part to Quechua’s status as the administrative language of the Inca Empire (Tawantisuyu), which at the turn of the 16th century covered much of western South America. Various Quechua dialects were quite widespread even before the Inca expansion, which was itself relatively short lived (c. 1438-1532); many Quechua-speaking communities are probably the descendants of peoples conquered by the Incas, rather than of the Incas themselves. Although the Inca Empire was toppled, and the indigenous population decimated by the European invasion and subsequent epidemics, the Spanish conquerors, rather than using their own language, also found Quechua to be a useful administrative language in their Andean colonies, and extended its use even beyond the boundaries of the Inca Empire. Nevertheless, modern-day Quechuas are strongly ideologically associated with the Incas, and this link is often stressed in ethnic revitalization movements and other forms of political discourse.
The Incas are famed for their achievements in astronomy, architecture, resource management, medicine, and statecraft. A network of over 20,000 km of stone-paved roads connected their empire, and their agriculture was based on an extensive system of terraces and irrigation works. The masonry of their cities and ceremonial centers, of which Machu Picchu is the best-known example, is extraordinary even by modern standards; granite blocks weighing several tons are fitted so closely that a knife blade cannot enter between them. Although they knew neither writing nor the wheel, they were one of the most technologically advanced societies of their time. A complex system based on colored and knotted strings, known as quipus, was used by the Incas for record keeping.
As colonial subjects, the Quechua were dispossessed of their lands, enslaved, and frequently massacred during (or in retaliation for) indigenous uprisings. Although the Andean countries gained independence from Spain in the early 19th century, this did little to improve the lot of the indigenous majority, whose new masters—European-descended criollos born in the New World—were often even harsher than the old. Not until the 20th century were indigenous Andeans granted citizenship in their own lands, and even today they constitute the most impoverished and marginalized sectors of their respective nations. Although today there are small but significant numbers of self-identified Quechuas in academia, business, and government, social mobility has tended to be accompanied by cultural assimilation.
It is difficult to characterize the modern-day Quechua as an ethnic group, because the term covers several different peoples and languages spanning several countries. By no means do these constitute a single organized polity, despite significant cultural similarities and a shared historical trajectory. Many Quechuas have left their ancestral homelands in search of wage labor in the cities; Lima, Peru’s coastal capital, now contains one of the largest demographic concentrations of Quechua speakers, and there are significant numbers in Argentina, Europe, and the United States as well. Within their home countries, Quechuas have sometimes achieved sufficient political organization to challenge state power, as in Ecuador’s popular uprising of January 2000. Pan-Quechua unification is held out as a goal by some indigenous activists, but is unlikely given the current political reality of the region.
- Allen, C. J. (1988). The hold life has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean community. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
- Daltroy, T. N. (2002). The Incas. Oxford: Blackwell.
- de la Cadena, M. (2000). Indigenous Mestizos: The politics of race and culture in Cuzco, Peru, 1919-1991. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Harrison, R. (1989). Signs, songs, and memory in the Andes: Translating Quechua language and culture. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
- Salomon, F., & Urioste, G. L. (1991). The Huarochiri Manuscript: A testament of ancient and colonial Andean religion. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.