On 24 February, GlacierHub’s managing editor, Ben Orlove, gave a talk titled “Bodies, Objects, and Power in Andean Landscapes and Waterscapes” at the Lowe Art Museum at the University of Miami. His lecture was one of a series of public talks linked to the exhibit “Kay Pacha: Reciprocity with the Natural World,” the first major display of the museum’s extensive holdings of pre-Columbian art from Peru. The exhibit, curated by Traci Ardren of the university’s Department of Anthropology, presents the Andean belief that humans and nature are involved in mutual exchanges, each supporting the other. This worldview is connected to the Andean emphasis on dualities, in which two entities, sometimes subdivided into four sub-parts, complement each other and form a whole.
Orlove underscored the linkage of landscapes and waterscapes to indicate that Andean peoples see land and water as basic elements that constitute nature, in contrast to Western views that emphasize land as primary, and see water as a secondary substance that travels over the land. He discussed the Inca name for their empire, Tawantinsuyu, the four-parts-together, with the imperial capital of Cusco located at the point where the four parts meet. He stressed the importance of water management for the Inca Empire. They constructed terraces which were watered by irrigation canals, allowing the expansion of the cultivation of maize—a prized crop, served at the ritual feasts, many tied closely to an annual calendar, that celebrated the relationships that linked the imperial rulers, local ethnic communities, and the spirits of the mountains and the earth.
An extensive network of roads and storehouses allowed goods to be moved throughout the empire. To keep track of goods and to facilitate their redistribution, the Incas used an accounting system known as khipus. These khipus are complex structures of knotted cords, still incompletely understood, which served as records, and perhaps as abacus-like calculators as well.
Contemporary indigenous cultures in the Andes
Orlove emphasized the radical disruption in Andean life that was brought about by the conquest of the Incas by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. This cataclysm ended the Inca Empire, decimated populations, and forced local peoples into harsh labor in mines. He emphasized that much of the indigenous technology and culture has nonetheless survived to the present. He presented four cases in which these traditions evolved into new forms that address the concerns of contemporary indigenous communities. Drawing on Frank Salomon’s research in Tupicocha, Peru, Orlove discussed a village which preserves ancient khipus and honors them in an annual festival in which they are brought out of a storehouse, unwrapped and displayed, and then wrapped and stored once again. These rituals offer insights into the ancient practices of the Incas. In a similar fashion, the annual, ritual-filled construction of a canyon-spanning bridge, made entirely from ropes of local straw, sheds light on earlier practices, and provides testimony of the ties of reciprocity that connect the villages involved in the construction.
The other two cases in Orlove’s talk examined high-elevation regions with glacier-covered peaks. Zoila Mendoza’s study of the Qoyllurrit’i pilgrimage, held each year before the winter solstice to a glacier peak, also shows the importance of annual ritual cycles. As Mendoza has noted, “mountains have been the focus of veneration and ritual [in the Andes] since pre-Hispanic times.” Orlove included images from Mendoza’s video of the pilgrimage in his talk.
The pilgrims’ visit to the site in the Cusco region had long included a tradition of harvesting ice from the glacier, but the glacier’s retreat has led them to suspend this custom, a change that causes them great concern. They still worship at other shrines and go up to the mountain, but now return without glacier ice.
Astrid Stensrud’s research in the Colca Valley of Arequipa shows how agricultural villagers work to maintain and extend irrigation canals in the face of glacier retreat which has reduced water supplies. The community work parties that dig and reinforce canals involve festivals, tied to an annual calendar of rituals, that draw on centuries-old cultural symbols. As in the case of Qoyllurrit’i, the regularity of the traditions promotes close attention to environmental change; in this instance, the villagers draw on traditions to adapt to climate change.
Current adaptation projects
Orlove concluded with a discussion of the indigenous responses to climate change which draw on these cultures. In addition to the Colca Valley case mentioned above, he selected, as one example among many, the Cusco-based group Asociación Andes. A group of indigenous communities have set aside lands at different elevations in which they experiment with native crop varieties. They monitor the results to see which varieties perform best in the context of higher temperatures, irregular rainfall, and new pest outbreaks.
As Orlove emphasized, the project leaders draw on long-established symbols of authority, such as ritual staffs, to coordinate the villagers’ efforts across a wide region. To underscore the integration of ancient traditions with elements from the modern world, he showed a photograph of a local indigenous woman who was making a video recording of the discussion of the agricultural experiments.
This Andean case is not the only one in which established traditions inform adaptation to climate change. Comparable examples can be found in other mountain regions of the world, including the Himalayas, the Alps and the Tien Shan. As Orlove suggested at the end of his talk, indigenous cultures’ resilience is a valuable resource for a world that is facing climate change.