• Environment and Geography

    The Aymara are dispersed over a vast area that contains a number of ecological and political sectors: the shores of Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian altiplano, the far north of Chile and northwestern Argentina. In Chile, the group is to be found living in the northernmost regions of Arica and Parinacota, Tarapacá and Antofagasta, and in three distinct environments: the altiplano and puna, at altitudes greater than 3800m asl (12,500 feet); the slopes and upland valleys of the Andean foothills; and the region’s lowland valleys and cities. Population centers include the region’s mining towns, its coastal zone, and more distant large cities.

  • Economy

    The Aymara economy is based on two ancestral principles: complementarity and reciprocity. Through complementarity, the Aymara take advantage of the different products that can be grown or produced in the group’s different ecological environments. This is the framework for their agricultural and horticultural production in chacras, small personal plots of land, as well as for farming in terraces and riverbanks and near natural springs and oases. Complementarity also extends to herding of Andean camelids, traditionally llamas and alpacas and more recently sheep, in the high altitude sectors of the Aymara’s range. Today, modern processes such as transportation and trade have infiltrated traditional Aymara economic practices, particularly among those who have migrated to urban centers such as Arica and Iquique in Northern Chile.

    Reciprocity, the second key aspect of the traditional Aymara economy, refers to the group’s solidarity, both individual and collective. An example of this is the minka, where the community gathers to clean out local irrigation canals.Access to urban markets has steadily diminished a portion of Aymara agricultural production, while the rest is now shipped to relatives in the city for commercial sale at low prices.
    It should be noted that all traditional Aymara economic activities have a symbolic dimension, based on rituals rooted in the culture’s cosmovision, in which life exists in a harmonious but fragile balance.

  • Art

    Until the time of the Spanish conquest, both men and women wore thick tunics made from llama or alpaca wool and drawn in at the waist with a woolen belt or sash. It was also usual to carry a small bag, known as a chuspa, that held coca leaves and other herbs. On their feet the Aymara wore leather sandals. They wore their hair long, sometimes braiding it into artistic forms. Necklaces and conical hats seem to have been used on special occasions, with the most spectacular of these worn by leaders and other high-profile individuals.

    Traditional Aymara dress is now seen mainly at local community festivals. For women, this consists of an aksu, a black woolen shawl wrapped around the body and fastened with silver brooches or pins known as tupus, and a decorated sash or wak’a worn around the waist, as well as a finely woven multicolored manta-style cloth called a llijlla that covers the back and shoulders.
    Aymara textile artists are renowned for their superior technique and the high quality of their pieces, which are generally clothing designs or ceremonial accessories such as chuspas or the ritual tari and inkuña cloths. Textiles were used as trade goods but were also highly valued in Aymara society, some becoming treasured family heirlooms.
    Music and dance are also highly important in the Aymara culture. More than just a form of entertainment, these activities play a central role in religious rituals and ceremonies. Every Aymara man plays at least one instrument, while the women can sing and dance.

    At ceremonies, each “cofradia” or brotherhood represents a certain segment of society and performs its own dance, which may take an entire year to prepare. The alférez or flag bearer is the individual responsible for organizing the festival and providing enough supplies for the year.
    Another popular Aymara art form is silversmithing, which produced jewelry and ceremonial items such as cups and scepters. The techniques used were a mixture of traditional pre-Hispanic metalworking methods and new skills introduced in colonial times.

  • Beliefs and Funerary Rites

    Modern Aymara religion is a syncretic belief system, a mixture of custom—the group’s traditional cosmic vision—and religion—practices of the Catholic Church. Together, these two systems form a whole that is called ‘liturgy’. This syncreticism is particularly evident in community festivals celebrated on the feast days of patron saints, during Holy Week, and on All Saints’ Day.

    The group’s belief system follows the seasons of the year and is structured around key annual agricultural and natural events. The Aymara have a mythological, humanized and spiritual view of their environment, making it a key component in their world view and ideology, which seeks to define their place in nature and their responsibility towards it in everyday life.

    Their oldest belief systems are based on worshiping the spirits of the great mountains, the Achachilas, Mallkus and T’alla or “Providers”. These male and female spirits wield enormous power over peoples’ lives by controlling the climate. Other key Aymara figures include Pachamama, also known as the Virgin or Mother Earth, who brings forth all life (plants, animals and human beings); and Amaru, the serpent, which represents the courses of rivers and streams. These three spirits are linked to the origin, abundance and distribution of water, the giver of life, and to the natural ordering of the ecological and economic framework of the Aymara way of life. These three entities also determine the structure or hierarchy of the Aymara social order and political economy. For example, the social, political and spiritual capitals of the Aymara subgroups are all located in high-altitude pasture lands of the north-eastern region.

    Every aspect of Pachamama is alive and has a name, a purpose and a destiny. Sacred locations may offer protection or danger, but all are to be respected– in some cases through worship and offerings. Some places are considered especially powerful; these include peaks, or Piru partes, and freshwater springs. Archaeological sites are also places worthy of respect, as they are the dwelling places of the ancestors, who are known as ‘the kind ones’ or ‘the grandparents’. The mythological triad mentioned above also has an ecological-ideological component, as the Aymara believe that individuals should always strive to achieve and maintain Tinku, an ever-changing balance in life.

    Aymara cosmology has undergone many changes as a result of dominance by the Inka and then the Spanish colonial powers. Over time, therefore, the triad of Mallku-Pachamama-Amaru was transformed into the Christianized Arajpacha-Akapacha-Manqhapacha, (Heaven-Earth-Hell), expressing the Aymara subordination to colonial and neo-colonial society.

    In the Aymara vision, time runs in cycles that are defined by the seasons of the year, which in turn determine the dates of agricultural activities and religious ceremonies. These events are part of a larger cycle, known at the Pacha, which is constantly being renewed through a process of ‘revolution’ referred to as Kuti. This rhythmic, organic concept of time is interwoven with a more linear view of historic and mythological events: the beginning, which was the era of the sun, the time of the Spanish Conquest and colonialism, and the awareness of a future Kuti.

    Traditionally, the Aymara have buried their dead in a variety of ways: in stone dolmens (with four walls and a roof); directly in the ground, both within and outside of houses; in cylindrical graves; and in small cairns. In the past they also built funeral monuments known as chullpa. These adobe towers were sometimes beautifully painted and were used to bury the ruling elite in pre-Inka times.

  • Settlement patterns

    The Aymara have a number of subgroups, each with its own territory or marka, centered around a political, social and religious capital. The marka consists of the ayllu, the human community; the sallqa, the surrounding wilderness where plants and animals live; and the huacas, composed of Pachamama, the mountain spirits and other ‘powerful’ places, the stars, and other personified phenomena. These distinct spheres of creation interact and overlap in the home, in the family agricultural plot, in the grazing lands and pastures, and beyond them, in the wilderness. Together, they make up the Akapacha, which sits between a higher world, Arajpacha, and a lower world, known as Manqhapacha. The Arajpacha is associated with all that is good, the Manqhapacha with its opposite. They balance each other at a central point of exchange, fertile and firm, known as the Tinku.

    Today, the unity of the marka is expressed in festivals that are held in the Aymara capitals, where people representing the different Aymara sub-groups and territories uphold their traditions, though they no longer live in a cohesive social structure. The territory of the marka is divided into two halves or sayas, and four sectors, ayllus. The primary division is symbolic, and includes the higher world/lower world distinction (Arajsaya/Manqhasaya), while the secondary division is economic, and separates the high mountain herders from the farmers of the foothills. These segments complement each other and together form the whole.

    The Aymara use several types of dwelling. The first, used in the summertime marka festivals, is located in the part of town that houses the upper ayllu. Then there is the dwelling place known as the uta, used throughout the year in rural areas. This adobe residence is rectangular in shape and constructed on a stone foundation, with a pitched roof and beams made from keñua wood. It contains separate modules for the kitchen, sleeping area, and food storage, and its door points eastward. The structure is windowless, to keep out the cold. The Aymara’s believe their houses are living things, and decorate them with two wreaths or woolen flowers. Finally, smaller, one-room lodges called paskanas are built of lightweight materials in fields and pasturelands, to be used as occasional shelters. Their construction is less solid than that of the Aymara’s permanent dwellings.

    In pre-Hispanic times, fortified villages called pukaras were among the most significant settlements. They were built in elevated locations, not only for defensive purposes but also to leave space for terrace agriculture lower down, and to better oversee this precious fertile land.

  • History

    The history of the Aymara people unfolded on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in what is now Bolivia, continuing a tradition that came to the fore at the height of the Tiwanaku culture (500-1000CE). Before the fall of this pre-Hispanic culture, the Colla people, as they were then known, lived independently, organized into local domains called Señoríos, some of which exhibited great social complexity. Although they were incorporated into the Inka Empire around the year 1400, it was the Spanish conquest that dealt a serious blow to the social and economic structure of these domains. The impact of the conquest was particularly severe in 1534, the beginning of the period known as the Eradication of Idolatries, and from 1600 to 1650.

    However, the arrival of Christianity did not bring about the complete disappearance of the Aymara cosmic vision. Instead, local inhabitants assimilated the beliefs of the conquistadors, broadening their outlook and incorporating changes into their cosmic, religious and political perspectives.Between 1700 and 1850, the Aymara people living in the territory of modern-day Chile remained isolated. It was only following the War of the Pacific and the annexation of Tarapacá by Chile that they were brought into the country’s mainstream culture and economy in a marked process of westernization. Since 1950, urban centers and ports have become fundamental contexts of modernization and cultural change for the Aymara people, but also have hastened the abandonment of their ethnic identity. There are currently 48,501 Aymaras living in Chile, representing 7.01% of the country’s total indigenous population.

  • Language

    The Aymara language belongs to the jaqi family. It is polysynthetic and agglutinative, with a tendency to employ suffixes. It is both complex and regular, using compound words where English would use a whole phrase. For instance, the term Aruskipasipxañanakasakipunirakispawa means “let us hope that there will always be dialogue between us”.The Aymara tongue is currently spoken by about 1.5 million people in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. In the altiplano, most people over 40 are bilingual, while younger Aymara tend to speak only Spanish.

  • Social Organization

    The Aymara people include several ethnic subgroups, each with its own dialect and social structure. In general, their social organization is based on territorial divisions, although the adoption of Western theological, ideological and social principles has brought about some changes. The traditional social organization does not follow modern political geography but is based on the marka, the homeland of each subgroup.

    The group’s ancient ‘capital cities’ (such as Parinacota and Isluga in the Chilean altiplano) are centers for ritual trade and the exchange of goods and labor, as well as for forming marriage alliances, preferably between couples from similar social sectors. In socioeconomic terms, such bonds would have respected the clear distinction made between farmers and livestock herders.

    This traditional social organization is apparent in the Aymara’s annual religious festivals, in which those living in the altiplano and high mountain regions play a leading role. Individuals invested with authority by the group are appointed for a limited period – usually one, two or three years. Such positions do require a level of personal sacrifice, but they bring status within the group. Generally, only married couples are appointed to these leadership posts. Each group has the following offices: two kurakas, four superintendents and four flag bearers. In the agricultural sector, one or more ‘mayor of the waters’ is also appointed. Lower level positions may be held by unmarried men, though never by women, and may include: the artisan appointed to maintain the church and produce church goods; the acolyte or cantor who leads the Catholic parishioners when the priest is absent; and the bell-ringer of the mallku bell tower of the church.

    Modern Aymara social organizations include urban associations created to assist highland residents who come to the city for a time, or to organize collective labor to help the urban Aymara community.