• Location and Environment

    The Quechua are an indigenous people whose name refers to the language they speak— Quechua. The first Quechua communities to emerge were located in what is now Antofagasta Region in Northern Chile, specifically in Ollagüe and along the San Pedro River (a tributary of the Upper Loa River). Recently, some families and individuals living in the oases and ravines of Tarapacá Region—including Mamiña, Quipisca and Miñe Miñe—have identified themselves as Quechua because their families have a long history of occupation in traditional Quechua areas, though they no longer speak the language.

    Ollagüe, Alto Loa and the Tarapacá oases and ravines have distinct environments. Ollagüe is an Altiplano zone with salt flats such as Carcote and Ascotán situated at around 3600 m above sea level. Between 3600 and 3850 m, the flora is herbaceous and bushy, a vegetation community known as tolar, while higher up it consists of grasses and llareta and is known as pajonal. There is no vegetation above 4200 m. The climate is high altitude desert, with annual high and low temperatures of 25ºC and -23º C, respectively. Summer is the rainy season, with volcanoes such as Alconcha, Ollagüe and Aucanquilcha receiving the most rainfall and snowfall, owing to their altitude. Those rains favor the formation of freshwater springs and pools that are used by the local inhabitants to water their crops and their animals, and they provide essential water for high altitude pasturelands as well. In ancient times, the Quechuas living near the San Pedro River inhabited Ojos de San Pedro settlement and used the entire basin for their herding activities. The upper basin has a climate and vegetation similar to those found in Ollagüe, although more precipitation falls on the slopes of nearby volcanoes, including San Pedro and San Pablo, Paniri, Inacaliri and Línzor. The waters that run down the slopes of this abrupt landscape join to form the Inacaliri and Cabana rivers, which are further fed by the waters of the Silala River, originating in Bolivia. All of these watercourses empty out into Laguna Ojos de San Pedro, which gives rise to the river of the same name. today, however, these rivers have been diverted into pipelines and Laguna San Pedro has been drained for use in mining, sanitation and railway activities. This serious ecological alteration has forced most local Quechua families, like those from Ollagüe, to move to the city of Calama.

    The Quechua communities of Tarapacá, for their part, inhabit oases found at the base of the zone’s mountains and ravines. The climate there is desertic, but groundwater is available. Microclimates with moderate to high temperatures form in these zones, protecting the area from frost and making it suitable for agricultural crops, especially fruit.

  • Economy

    Quechua community economies vary by geographic zone. The Quechuas of Ollagüe and San Pedro primarily raise livestock and practice limited agriculture, as well as sometimes gathering wild plants and extracting non-metallic minerals. In contrast, the Quechua communities of Tarapacá subsist primarily on agriculture.

    In Ollagüe, that means growing crops such as potatoes and alfalfa on terraced fields situated in nearby frost-free ravines such as Puquios, Cohasa, Del Inca, Caichape and Amincha. In the San Pedro River zone, in contrast, agriculture was abandoned many years ago due to the lack of water, and the population soon left the area. In Tarapacá oases and ravines such as Mamiña, Quipisca and Miñe Miñe, agriculture is more diversified, and includes corn, oregano and fruit, among other crops, in addition to the traditional potatoes and alfalfa. Some of these settlements have a subsistence economy, while others are more market-oriented, with some or most of their crops destined for sale.
    A few Quechua families in Ollagüe still raise llama and alpaca herds, practicing the seasonal nomadism this activity requires. The localities of Cosca and Puquios are two cases in point, and their grazing lands are spread upon the slopes of the Aucanquilcha and Santa Rosa volcanoes, although some drive their herds as far as the San Pedro River to graze.

    Importantly, in recent decades the traditional Quechua economy has been marginalized to a large extent, with herding been abandoned altogether in some localities. Traditional agriculture shares the same fate, mainly because of migration to urban centers, where Quechuas engage in salaried employment, leaving behind their traditional subsistence activities and land-based practices, especially owing to the lack of a labor force.

  • Art

    Traditional ceramic and textile arts are still practiced in some Quechua communities. Pottery is manufactured primarily for domestic use and includes large urns for storing food and drink, and smaller vessels for serving. Quechua textiles include carry bags of various sizes, cargo bags and sacks, belts, cloths and blankets, all of which are woven by the women on floor and backstrap looms. Quechua men also participate in the textile tradition by making cordage for rope and slingshots. Dance, music and song are other Quechua artistic expressions that are used in rituals and especially in religious festivities such as the carnivals celebrating the Catholic patron saints of each community.

  • Beliefs and funerary practices

    Quechua beliefs and religious celebrations are similar to those of other Andean indigenous peoples. One of the main belief systems is that of “payment” to the mallkus—the guardian spirits embodied in the highest mountain summits that represent the ancestors and powers of nature. These mountain-gods are sacred to the Quechua, as they control the weather and provide all resources to the people. The people make ritual “payments” to these entities to ensure an abundant supply of grass for livestock, water for irrigation and for animal and human consumption, and minerals, as well as health, protection and prosperity for the community. The Quechua also make “payments” to the Pachamama, Mother Earth, asking her for abundant harvests. The Quechua ceremonial calendar also includes rites related to the fertility of their herds, including the Enfloramiento (in which their animals are adorned with flowers) and the Vilancha, in which a white llama is sacrificed. The ancestors are remembered and honored on the first three days of November, during Todos los Santos (All Saints) celebration, when ritual tables are set loaded with food and decorated with personal effects. When a member of the community dies, they are honored with songs and prayer for a day and a night and their clothing is washed before burial. On the one-year anniversary of their death, the yatiri (traditional healer) officiates a final farewell.

    The Quechuas of Alto Loa celebrate the patron saints of their communities as part of the Catholic religious calendar. The major celebrations include Todos los Santos, the Virgen de Andacollo in the town of Cosca (in Ollagüe), and the feast of San Antonio de Padua in Estación San Pedro. All of the communities also hold traditional Andean carnivals at the end of the summer.

  • Settlement Pattern

    Traditional Quechua settlement patterns were organized to facilitate herding and agricultural activities and the collection of land-based resources such as plants. Permanent dwellings are situated near agricultural terraces located in ravines or near small plots around highland wetlands. Settlements in Ollagüe are located in the Puquios, Cohasa, Del Inca, Caichape and Amincha ravines, while in the Quechua communities of Tarapacá crops are grown in the upper ravine. Herding activities tend to produce a more disperse settlement pattern, as is the case in Ollagüe, where grazing lands are found in Cosca, Puquios, Aucanquilcha and Santa Rosa, based around small ranches that include garden plots alongside the corrals and seasonal dwellings.

    It is worth nothing that, owing to their past and present settlement patterns, the Quechua communities of Ollagüe and San Pedro Estación have obtained official recognition of their traditional grazing grounds recognized under Indigenous Law Nº 19.253, a total area of 446,367.4 hectares. Although this vast territory was recognized in 2014, the Chilean State has officially ceded just 3.2% of that territory (14,384.19 hectares) to the Quechua community of Ollagüe.

  • History

    The history of the indigenous population of Ollagüe and San Pedro Estación is linked to that of the neighboring Uyuni Salt Flat in Southwest Bolivia. Archeology in the region has determined that the area was first occupied around 8000 B.C. by hunting-gathering groups that made use of the ravines and salt flats. In the later pre-Hispanic period, between 900 and 1380 A.D., agriculture and herding became firmly established in the region. Today, groups in the area of Ollagüe and Alto Loa still have close cultural ties with the Altiplano, valleys and oases of the Circumpuna area and the Pacific coast. In the colonial period, the area was traversed by herders driving their livestock between the Antofagasta coast and the Altiplano, ultimately reaching the city of Potosí, in Bolivia. The zone was also home to early colonial pueblos de indios (“indian towns”) such as Amincha and Alota, created by order of Viceroy Toledo in the late 16th century.

    The current presence of the Quechua in Ollagüe dates back to the sulfur mines on the Aucanquilcha and Ollagüe volcanoes, the borax mines on the salt flats, and the construction of the Antofagasta-to-Bolivia railway in 1888. These economic activities encouraged Quechuas to migrate from Bolivia to the region, where they joined the indigenous communities inhabiting the ancient settlements of Cosca, Amincha and Alota. The same thing occurred in the San Pedro River basin, where the sulfur mine of Línzor was a focal point of Quechua migration. This also led to the establishment of the Ojos de San Pedro settlement as a base for raising livestock and gathering plant resources such as llareta, which was extracted intensively for use as fuel in the towns and mines. Mining ended in the 1950s when demand for this substance dropped in the cities of Chuquicamata and Calama. The sulfur mines closed somewhat later, in 1992, and agriculture and livestock raising continued on a small scale only. Meanwhile, the town and grazing lands of Ojos de San Pedro were abandoned when the waters of the San Pedro River were channeled into pipelines and the lake began to disappear. A few Quechua families remained, subsisting along with their livestock near small water sources, but by the early 21st century the zone had been entirely depopulated.

    For their part, the Quechua communities of Tarapacá base their indigenous identity on historic information confirming that the settlements that now inhabit were formerly Inca settlements, and that Mamiña, Miñe Miñe and Quipisca are ancient communities dating back to when these territories belonged to Peru, a time when the majority of the population was Quechua.

  • Language

    As mentioned above, the identity of Quechua communities is primarily based on language affiliation. However, while Quechua is spoken primarily by the people of Ollagüe and San Pedro Estación, in Alto Loa, it is spoken little by the self-identified Quechua communities of Tarapacá. Still, Quechua was the lengua franca of the Inca Empire, and is spoken today from Ecuador to southern Peru. In the Bolivian Altiplano and Northern Chile, Quechua is still spoken in some indigenous communities whose historic origins include groups that were moved by the Inca Empire during its conquest of those Andean territories.

  • Social Organization

    Traditional Quechua communities are organized into groups based on extended family or friendship ties, and their members live in both urban and rural settings. The community comes together for ritual and religious ceremonies and for collective work projects involving the entire community. Quechua territory and lands are held communally but allocated to individual members for growing crops and gazing their livestock.

    These communities have also been legally incorporated as indigenous communities under Indigenous Law Nº 19.253. These communities have a board that is responsible for administrating the territory and also participate in the Alto Loa Indigenous Development Area. Additionally, there is the Junta de Vecinos (Neighborhood Association) of Ollagüe, which is a municipal entity. The Quechua communities of Tarapacá—including Mamiña, Quipisca and Miñi Miñe—have also been officially incorporated. As most community members live in the city, they tend to maintain dual residency in both their home community and the city.

    The Quechua population in these communities is small, although 30,019 individuals self-identified as Quechua in Chile’s 2013 CASEN Household Survey, which is a major increase from the 2002 Population Census, in which only 6,175 individuals self-identified as Quechua.