Who are the Quechua?

If you’re interested in South American culture, you have likely heard the term “Quechua”. Although there are many different cultural groups in South America, the term “Quechua” is one of the most common to appear in discussions about South American languages and ethnic groups. This interest in the Quechua is driven in part by the fact that a large number of people in the Andes still speak the Quechua language; recent surveys estimate that around eight million people still speak Quechua and variations of Quechua. Moreover, the Quechua have had a significant cultural influence on mainstream culture in South America. From Quechua words being incorporated into South American Spanish dialects to Quechua traditional weaving products becoming popular with the general South American population, there are a myriad of examples of Quechua culture becoming integrated into mainstream South American cultures.

So then, who, or what, is Quechua? Quechua is a language spoken by people in the Andes. In fact, it is the most spoken indigenous language among people who live in the Andes. However, it should be noted that there are multiple variations of the Quechua language. For example, there are a large number of people in Ecuador who speak a dialect of Quechua called Kichwa, which is also referred to as Runa Shimi. In Colombia, many people speak Inga, another variation of Quechua. In Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina, Quechua speakers refer to their language as “Runa”.

Quechua can also refer to the cultural group of people who speak the Quechua language. Much like the regional variations in the Quechua language, the Quechua should not be considered a cultural monolith. There are many different traditions and cultural practices that can vary from region to region. Thus, keep in mind that these variations exist as we explore some of the common cultural practices and history of the Quechua. 


Are The Quechua The Same As The Incas?

The Inca Empire was the largest empire in America prior to the Spanish conquest in 1532. The Inca empire began in the Peruvian highlands sometime in the early 13th century, with its administrative center located in Cusco. As the Inca Empire grew, it extended across large sections of multiple modern-day countries, including Peru, western Ecuador, western and south central Bolivia, northwest Argentina, a large portion of Chile, and southwestern Colombia. Quechua was the official language spoken across the Inca Empire. However, the Quechua language predated the Inca and many of the Quechua traditions continue to be practiced to this day. As a cultural group, the modern-day Quechua have retained multiple traditions from their days under Inca rule, such as some of their religious practices, weaving techniques, and festivals. In addition to Inca cultural influences, Spanish cultural influences are also notable among the modern Quechua people, including some Spanish words being used among speakers of Quechua and elements of Christianity being incorporated into Quechua beliefs and traditions. One example of this blending of cultures can be observed in the religious traditions and beliefs of the Quechua. Most Quechua celebrate traditional Catholic holidays, such as Easter and Christmas. However, many Quechua also celebrate Inca deities through traditional festivals. For example, a popular festival among the Quechua is the Inti Raymi festival. The Inti Raymi festival is a celebration of the sun deity Inti that marks the winter solstice. During the time of the Inca empire, the Inti Raymi festival also celebrated the beginning of the Inca New Year. Although Inti Raymi celebrations date back to the time of the Inca empire, some Quechua people still carry out the celebration in honor of Inti through music, dancing, wearing colorful costumes, and the sharing of food. 

Given the various cultural influences on modern Quechua culture and the long history of the Quechua language that predates the Incas, it is evident that Quechua and Inca are not synonymous. However, several Incan cultural elements are still present in modern Quechua culture.


What Do The Quechua Do For a Living?

The Quechua have a long history of being an agricultural society. During the time of the Inca Empire, the Quechua cultivated crops such as potatoes, quinoa, and corn, all of which are still prominent components of Andean cuisine. Today, many Quechua continue to rely on agriculture as a means of subsistence. Many Quechua festivals, beliefs, and traditions can be traced back to their agrarian way of life. For instance, the traditional Quechua belief system includes a reverence to Pachamama, the “Earth Mother”; Pachamama is an important figure in Quechua culture, who is believed to preside over planting and harvesting and has a strong connection to agriculture. Moreover, the Quechua people have a long tradition of raising animals. In particular, two animals that have been raised by the Quechua for countless generations are llamas and alpacas, both of which are domesticated camelids with soft wool; these animals have been used as meat and pack animals since the pre-Columbian era. 

In addition to their long-standing agricultural practices, weaving is also an important part of Quechua identity and traditions. Quechua weaving techniques have been passed down through several generations, but they have also evolved over time to adapt to modern preferences and techniques. Traditional weaving practices among the Quechua begin by shearing the animals, typically llamas, alpacas, or sheep. Then, the process continues by washing the fibers and spinning the fibers through the use of an old tool known as a drop-spindle. More than half of the total weaving time is spent spinning. Spinning is a difficult craft that is often taught to Quechua girls at a young age and perfected through years of practice. Once the fibers have been spun, the weaver begins the dyeing process, which allows the fibers to take on the bright colors that are so recognizable and strongly associated with traditional Quechua weaving. Traditional dyeing techniques among the Quechua often involve the use of natural dyes available in the Andes, such as from plants and minerals. Finally, the process of weaving is carried out, often through the use of a traditional wooden loom, to create impressive patterns that are often symbolic representations unique to a particular community. 

This complex weaving method, which has been passed down through countless generations, is used by Quechua women to produce many different textiles. Some of the textiles produced through this method include the famous ponchos worn by men, shigras, which are personal bags used by women, blankets to keep warm during cold Andean nights, and Llicilas, which are traditional shawls worn by Quechua women. Llicilas, also known as mantas, serve multiple purposes, including providing warmth and holding small children strapped to their mother’s backs. One common theme among the different types of textiles produced by the Quechua are the use of bright colors and intricate symbolic patterns. Weaving and colorful woven textiles are certainly a staple of Quechua culture and tradition and many Quechua make a living through the sale of their artisanal woven products.


How Has Quechua Culture Influenced Mainstream South American Culture?

Quechua language and traditions have had a profound influence on mainstream South American culture. Much like English dialects vary from one region to another in the United States, Spanish also has distinct regional variations across South America. Some of these regional variations can be traced back to the languages spoken by indigenous people in different areas. In the Andes, Spanish dialects have blended in interesting ways with Quechua. For example, Spanish speakers in Andean regions of South America have adopted Quechuan words and words derived from Quechua, such as “taita” to mean “dad” and “guagua” to mean “child”. Similarly, many Spanish speakers often use expressions derived from Quechua in response to different situations, such as saying “achachay” when something is cold and “arrarray” when something is hot.

South American cuisine has also been greatly influenced by Quechua culinary traditions. You might have heard that guinea pigs, often kept as pets in most places around the world, are sometimes considered a nutritious delicacy in some Andean regions. Additionally, Andean crops traditionally cultivated by the Quechua, such as “choclo”, a variety of corn, quinoa, a whole-grain carbohydrate that is rich in fiber, and chochos, a type of lupin bean known for its low sugar content and high protein content, are staples of modern Andean culinary culture.

Music is another aspect of mainstream Andean culture where aspects of Quechua influence can be spotted. Although music in the modern Andes has been influenced by many cultures from around the world, such by Spanish culture and musical trends in the United States, there are some Quechua musical influences that have survived the test of time. In particular, relaxing melodic tunes produced through the use of traditional Andean panpipes and flutes, are still popular among some people living in the Andes. One of the most commonly used Andean instruments is the siku, an Andean panpipe primarily used in a musical genre known as sikuri. It is notable that the siku has taken many forms, as different communities in the Andes have developed sikus with different tuning, shapes, and sizes, as well as unique styles of playing this instrument. Another prominent Andean instrument is the quena, which is a flute made of cane or wood that has six finger holes and one thumb hole.



The Quechua: A Rich Culture Full of Tradition

The Quechua language has existed since before the time of the Incas and the Quechua people have developed rich cultural traditions over countless generations, many of which survive to this day. Moreover, Quechua cultural practices have not remained isolated; instead, the Quechua language and traditions have enriched Andean culture in many ways and will likely continue to have a profound influence over the region in the future. Off the Grid, founded by an Andean family, seeks to share with the world the amazing woven products created as a result of the rich cultural tradition of the Quechua. This endeavor stimulates the local Andean economy, helps to preserve Quechua weaving traditions, and strengthens local communities through the donation of a portion of Off the Grid proceeds to local aid organizations that help to combat child hunger in the Andean region. Celebrate Quechua weaving traditions, Go Full Andes, and live Off the Grid!