Peru’s Andes mountains, arid deserts, Amazon jungle, and Pacific coast each produced distinct civilizations, dating back to the prehistoric era. Most Peruvians have at least some indigenous ancestry. Today, Peru has a population of around 30 million. Most people are Spanish-speaking and Catholic, part of the culture shaped by the Spanish colonial power that lasted from the mid-16th century until 1824.
While most Peruvians speak Spanish, highlanders are more likely to also speak Quechua, the language of the Inca. There were many other indigenous people besides the Inca living in Peru when the Spanish arrived. Spanish conquistadors swiftly imposed a policy called m’ita, forcing the natives to work in the mines. The Spanish also introduced mitma, a process of relocating the most disruptive tribes to areas where they would not make as much trouble. These two practices wiped out many indigenous groups, and many of their languages did not survive into the 21st century.
Over the centuries, the Spanish came up with terms for different ethnicities. People of completely Spanish lineage are called criollos. Eventually, the co-mingling Spanish and indigenous populations created a new, mixed ethnicity, known as mestizos. Natives were simply called Indios, or Indians. Even after the Spanish left, criollos made up the majority of the ruling class. During the 16th and 17th century, the Spanish had slaves imported from Africa, creating the Afro-Peruvian subculture that exists to this day.
Indigenous people in Peru have experienced discrimination since the first days of colonization. For many decades after Peru became a representative democracy, it was illegal for illiterate people to vote in Peru. Because of the high rate of illiteracy among indigenous people, this policy excluded a large portion of the indigenous population from the democratic process.
One group of natives fared particularly badly in the wake of colonization. Today, the Amazon still has a population of about 250,000 natives, spread out over about 65 different groups. It is difficult to guess how many Amazonians originally inhabited the jungle. In 1541, a Spanish conquistador named Francisco de Orellana conducted an exploration of the Amazon River, in search of El Dorado, the legendary city of gold. During his expedition, he saw warriors armed with bows and arrows. Seeing their grass skirts, he mistook them for the Amazon warrior women of Greek mythology. His confusion gave the Amazon River its name. Orellana’s reports inspired Catholic missionaries to visit the Amazon.
More contact with the outside world came with Charles Goodyear’s 1839 discovery of rubber’s potential. At the time, the Amazon jungle was one of the few environments where rubber trees grew. Foreigners came to the Amazon to harvest the rubber trees, and some became quite rich in the process. Native Amazonians were forced to help harvest the rubber plants. It was at this point that many Amazonians began to assimilate into the Peruvian culture, or die out because of the abuse and diseases outsiders introduced.
Native Peruvian cultures did not leave behind evidence of a written language. Luckily, we have an important document that expresses what life was like before the Spanish arrived. Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca princess, recalls memories of his experience with the Inca culture in his 1609 publication, Comentarios Reales. This book is incredibly important to Peruvian culture, as it documents Inca civilization from the point of view of someone who saw it crumble.
Over the subsequent centuries, literature helped preserve and draw attention to precarious elements of Peruvian culture. Ricardo Palma wrote Tradiciones Peruanas in the 19th century, preserving proverbs and popular stories about historical events. During the 20th century, Jose María Arquedas brought more attention to the plight of indigenous populations with his literary efforts, including his 1970s work Deep Rivers. Raised among the indigenous peoples of the Andes, Arquedas draws on his experience to make his stories of life in the rural Andes highly realistic.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, native Peruvians engaged largely in nature worship. Shamans or curanderos used San Pedro cacti or the ayahuasca plant to induce hallucinations as part of a spiritual experience. Shamans still practice these spirit-journeys today.
Coca leaves used to be a harmless part of many Peruvian cultures. Dating back to the pre-Columbian era, natives would chew on the leaves as a harmless painkiller. Inca priests sacrificed the leaves to their gods. Some natives still cultivate the plant to use it medicinally, but its production has become a point of legal controversy. Over the years, both the government and Peruvian terrorist organizations have had involvement in the production and export of cocaine.
Over the centuries, indigenous religious practices and Catholicism blended together. You can see the results of this mixture at one of the many religious festivals celebrated throughout the year, especially in Cusco. At the springtime festival of El Señor de Los Temblores–“Lord of the Earthquakes” – locals gather for a procession of a 17th-century crucifix through the streets of Cusco. According to legend, this icon protects the city from earthquakes. This practice eerily echoes a ritual of the Inca – a procession of an ancestor’s remains as part of a religious ritual.
Like religion, Peruvian cuisine brings together the best of native and colonial ingredients. Some local ingredients, like potatoes, peppers and quinoa, have been a part of Peruvian cuisine since the dawn of history. They combine with distinctly Spanish ingredients, like olive oil and garlic. Over the centuries, other cultures have joined in the mix. At the turn of the century, workers from China arrived in Peru to find work building railroads. Chifa has become a trendy cuisine in Peru, a mixture of Chinese and Peruvian cooking styles. Peru’s spicy yet subtle cuisine had become increasingly popular in other parts of the world. Tourists have lots to choose from, but often have a hard time with Peru’s original livestock–the guinea pig, known on local menus as cuy.
Quinoa, a traditional staple of the Peruvian diet, has exploded in popularity overseas. Unlike many grains, it is both gluten-free and high in protein. The price of quinoa has shot up significantly because of the increased demand. This is both good and bad news for Peruvians. Farmers are making more money on their crops, but it has made it difficult for the poorest Peruvians to afford what was once a staple of their diet.
Tourists flock to Peru’s open-air marketplaces for their handicrafts. Peruvian handicrafts are perhaps best known for textiles, with vibrant geometrical designs that represent a wide range of earthly and celestial formations. Alpacas and vicuñas provide the wool used in traditional weaving. Peruvians are also known for their ceramics. Archaeologists have found ancient examples of both art forms in the remains of civilizations like the Nazca.
Like much of Latin America, Peru’s favorite sport is fútbol (AKA soccer). Boxing has also become increasingly popular. In some cities, bullfighting is still practiced, a hangover from Spain’s colonial presence. Peru has a beautiful Pacific coast, a prime destination for many surfers. But you don’t have to limit yourself to surfing waves–Peruvians living near the desert soar down the sides of dunes on smooth sandboards.
Peru’s most recognizable pastime is Marinera, a dance performed by a couple wearing distinctive folk costumes. The man wears a wide-brimmed straw hat and the woman wears a long, flowing skirt. This dance requires lots of gesticulating – both the man and the woman flourish a white handkerchief. All of the twirls and footwork represent a flirtatious courtship between the dancers. Each region of Peru has its own take on the dance. Set to romantic guitar music, the Marinera dance makes for lively entertainment.
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