by Amy Eisenberg
“K’utarapxiw quqanakasxa, ukatxa phichantapxarakiw, quqa tunu lawanaks jik’irapxi, ukatsi janipu-niw jik’supkit qhuya tunu saphanakasxa.”
“One should take pride in one’s land and culture. There is a popular saying in Aymara: ‘They cut our branches, they burn our leaves, they pull out our trunks… but never could they overtake our roots.’ This was addressed to the Spaniards.”
– Aymara yapuchiri (farmer) of Chile
Aymara people respect and maintain the knowledge and way of life of their ancestors, which is a continuum of their social responsibility, solidarity, and reciprocity. Aymara scholar Vicenta Mamani stated, “The sacred permeates Aymara culture. We manifest our religiosity through ceremonies.” In the Andes, Aymara rituals are grounded in the daily and seasonal activities and realities of life — living on the land, planting, irrigating, weeding, and harvesting — hence the people’s very existence involves ritual. Aymara ceremonial activities are strongly associated with social and economic phenomena. The Aymara give wax’ta (offerings), wilancha (llama sacrifices), and ch’alla (libations of alcohol) to the Earth for the achachila (protective spirits of the family and community) and to Pachamama (Mother Earth, Mother Cosmos, or Mother Universe).
The Aymara cultural landscape is alive with vitalizing energy and infused with powerful spiritual beings whose presence the people must acknowledge in all their activities.
Pachamama is the spirit of the uncultivated earth, who occupies a very privileged place in Aymara culture because she is the intermediary for production and the generative source of life. The achachilanaka are the grandfathers: ancestor spirits that reside in preeminent places and outstanding objects and exercise a constant influence over people. The mountain peaks are wak’anaka — places of spiritual power, shrines to the personified forces of nature that influence human destiny. The ancestors help the Aymara orient themselves within their holy land. They are masters of the clouds, water, snow, and hail. If they are not fed and feted, they will bring disaster to fields, canals, pastures, and animals. The achachilanaka control meteorological phenomena by sending rain, hail, or frost, but winds are sent by spirits that inhabit volcanos. Every extraordinary element in nature contains a spiritual essence that plays an active role in the existence of all that surrounds it, including people.
Aymara yatirinaka are wise ones, leaders in ritual and wisdom. They know intimately each of nature’s features within their sacred landscape and recount the unique history that is inscribed there in great depth. The yatirinaka feel the life forces that pervade the physical world, and they are the cultural guardians of the people. They determine what belongs to Aymara culture and what is intrusive. Yatirinaka make offerings to the achachila, asking for their blessing and protection in times of struggle. Recognized as mediators between the supernatural and human beings, they intercede with the invisible forces of nature. In trance, they look into the numinous world of spirits.
Yatirinaka use kuka (coca) leaves (Erythroxylum coca Lam.), an oracle of the earth, in divination. This sacred leaf is a cornerstone of Andean culture and serves as medicine and as a way of communicating with the supernatural. Coca is used at all fiestas and ritual occasions to promote goodwill. At these ceremonial events, people beg one another’s pardon, as ill feelings are believed to destroy the efficacy of the rite. Kuka is invariably part of every ceremonial offering, and akhulli is the ceremonial sharing of coca leaf. By chewing coca collectively, one calls for unity and communication within the community, and one’s body is united spiritually with the earth. Currently, the coca leaf is being condemned, threatened, eradicated, and persecuted because of drug trafficking. Yet, for the Aymara kuka is the symbol of life and hope.
For Andean people, economic, spiritual, and social life is inextricably tied to land and water. The Aymara of Chile are struggling to maintain their sustainable and traditional systems of irrigation water distribution, agriculture, and pastoralism in one of the most arid regions of the world, the Atacama Desert. Interviews with Aymara people reveal the social and environmental dimensions of the larger conflict between rapid economic growth and a sensitive cultural and natural resource base. The Aymara help us grasp their cosmological vision and understand Indigenous issues.
We are human beings; hence we must communicate. We are obliged to dialogue, and through communication, we also face and resolve all the conflicts in which humans take part. The Aymara believe in the unity of humankind and that only as one we can make this earth a good place for us all.
Development in the Andes must respect the individual and collective needs of the Aymara people, in their own terms. Environmental transformation must be grounded in a careful understanding of the Aymara and their way of life. Our parnership with the Aymara Marka (Aymara Nation) attempts to contribute to that understanding.
Minimal transformation of the Andean environment is necessary for the subsistence of the Aymara communities of northern Chile. Agricultural fields are located on terraces that cover steep valley walls like great staircases and have been carefully filled with earth to prevent erosion. Open areas are left undisturbed to ensure the survival of the native flora and fauna and the continued maintenance of domesticated animals. Thus Aymara people must be regarded as an integral part of their environment. There is no such thing as natural, untouched landscape in the Andes. Indigenous presence during the millennia has intimately shaped and molded the environment and its biotic resources; hence biodiversity in the Andes is as much cultural as it is natural.
It is in the awesome, frigid, windswept expanse of the high plateau that traditional Aymara ways of life remain superior; the Aymara are the experts in this formidable environment. Aymara culture endures admirably in one of the most challenging environments on Earth.
The Aymara always ask permission of Pachamama before working the soil or planting a seed. As the principal Aymara deity, with the achachilanaka, Pachamama is the guardian and caretaker of the Andean people. She is an elderly mother who protects the Aymara and provides them with all that is necessary for life. Pachamama is the mother of Aymara culture because existence itself is made possible through this inexhaustible source of life. With Pachamama are all the generative spirits connected with the animals and crops. Vincenta Mamani elaborated: “We believe the land is for all people — that it is meant to be shared and not used only for the benefit of a few. Land is life, because it produces all that we need to live. … Water emanates from the land as if from the veins of the human body. There is also the natural wealth of minerals, and pastures grow from it to feed the animals. … Pachamama is sacred… she is like a mother who nourishes us with the milk we need. She is not meant to be exploited, or to be converted into merchandise. She is there to be cared for. … Respect for Pachamama is respect for ourselves, after all she is life.”
For Andean people, economic, spiritual, and social life is inextricably tied to land and water.
The Aymara Indians have perhaps one of the largest materia medica of any Indigenous people of our world. Aymara medicine is highly specialized, possessing many categories of practitioners, and their medical botany is comprehensive, with a great number of remedies derived from plants. Some Aymara herbalists are expert botanists with an elaborate system of plant classification that is comparable to the Linnaean system of binomial nomenclature. They gather by hand without the use of knives and are careful not to injure the plant. They offer prayers to Pachamama, the earth mother, thanking her for providing them with healing medicine. The Aymara strive to maintain a reciprocal and harmonious relationship with nature. They do not harvest more than they need.
At the Taller, Aymara elders discussed their traditional medicine: “We all participate in gathering our medicinal plants. We are all interested in having good health and recovering when we are sick. Together, we can exchange medicines with others for healing. We understand illness. There are some Aymara who know a great deal about medicine. They learned this from their parents and grandparents. We respect our yatirinaka, wise ones and leaders in wisdom and ritual. They know nature very well. The medicine of the city has caused us to forget our own. It is very good to learn new things but without forgetting what is ours.”
Aymara perceptions of a person’s health embrace self and body and include the community. Aymara medical practices are grounded in their cognitive, cultural, ecological, economic, geographic, physiological, ritual, and social systems. There is an analogous association between their bodies, land, water, and social organization. Aymara healers employ medical techniques that have been tried and tested through time for promoting the spiritual and psychological wellbeing of the patient. An understanding of Aymara healing is a prerequisite for people who wish to improve health conditions in the Andes. From reflecting on nature within their lands, the Aymara understand their bodies and are aware that the laws governing nature apply to all life systems.
Reciprocity is the guiding principle of Aymara society to the extent that it has become institutionalized. Aymara people depend on one another to a large degree and create and maintain lasting social relationships in various ways; hence reciprocity is one of their core cultural values. In the Aymara cosmovision, the social order of humans is linked with the natural order of the universe. A disturbance in the equilibrium calls for all means to restore the broken balance. Family and community are sacred; thus one’s commitments concerning them must be honored. The performance of each member of the community affects the well-being of the whole. Health, productivity, and survival depend on an enduring vision of reciprocal relations among humans, nature, and the supernatural, whose roots reach deeply into the past. The Jaqin uraqpachat amuyupa serves to keep our world in balance.
Amy Eisenberg is a botanist and associate scholar with the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She received her PhD in Arid Lands Resource Sciences (Ethnoecology) and American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona. She conducted collaborative research with the Aymara people of Chile through USAID and the International Cooperative Biodiversity Group Project.
Eisenberg, A. (2013). Aymara Indian Perspectives on Development in the Andes. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Mamani, M. (1994). Antecedentes míticos y ecológicos del significado del vocablo Chungará. Revista Chungará, 26(1),117–124.
Mamani, M. (1996). El simbolismo, la reproducción y la música en el ritual: Marca y Floreo de Ganado en El Altiplano Chileno. In M. P. Baumann (Ed.), Cosmología y Música en Los Andes (pp. 221–245). Frankfurt, Germany: Biblioteca Iberoamericana.
Mamani, V. (1993). Popular religiosity and evangelism in Aymara culture. International Review of Mission, 82(327), 391–400.
Yapita, J. de D. (1994). Aymara: Método Fácil 1. La Paz, Bolivia: Ediciónes ILCA.
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