The Quechua languages are spoken today by several million people in the Andes Mountains and adjacent lowlands, from northwestern Argentina to southwestern Colombia. Quechua historical sources and scholarship, are heavily concentrated in the southern Peruvian Andes. While key aspects of Quechua’s early history remain unclear, both Inca and Spanish rule appear to have resulted in the spread of varieties of Quechua. Large regions of the Andes, including urban areas and nonindigenous social strata, were almost entirely Quechua speaking well into the 20th century. “Quechua” embraces a tremendous diversity of dialects, sociolects, and contexts of use, and it has experienced surprising transformations over time. Its post-conquest history cannot be envisioned in terms of gradual decline; there have been retreats but also resurgences, and losses in one arena have been offset by gains in another.
Over the last two decades or so, scholars and enthusiasts have found several ways to preserve historical documents, taking advantage of the evolution of the Internet and an expansive audience interested in such material. Digital Peruvian historical sources reflect this global trend, with primary sources being especially rich. In Peru, the digitization process or technique has not been confined to archivists, librarians, and historians. Rather, the digital format has brought a revolution itself that has blurred the distance between experts and amateurs and has posed new challenges for preservation and access to historical collections. Images, photographs, paintings, interviews, testimonies, TV commercials, and much more have been digitized and stored in multiple online platforms, such as various different social media, YouTube, and SoundCloud among others, by professionals and amateurs alike. The result may be mixed, but historians with a focus on the Peruvian experience will find a bounty of material among which to pick and choose.
Recorded in UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2007, Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s Nueva corónica y buen gobierno (1615) offers remarkable glimpses into ancient Andean institutions and traditions as well as those of colonialized Andean society in the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru. Housed at the Royal Library of Denmark since the 1660s and first published in photographic facsimile in 1936, the autograph manuscript (written and drawn by its author’s own hand) has been the topic of research in Andean studies for several decades. Prepared by an international team of technicians and scholars, the digital facsimile was placed online on the newly created Guaman Poma Website at the Royal Library in 2001. Thanks to its free global access, research has accelerated, offering new and ongoing challenges in such fields as history, art history, environmental studies, linguistics, literary, and cultural studies in Andeanist, Latin Americanist, and post-colonialist perspectives. The work’s 1,200 pages (of which 400 are full-page drawings) offer Guaman Poma’s novel account of pre-Columbian Andean and modern Spanish conquest history as well as his sometimes humorous but most often harrowing exposé of the activities of all the castes and classes of the colonial society of his day. Guaman Poma’s account reveals how social roles and identities could evolve under colonial rule over the course of a single individual’s lifetime. As a Quechua speaker who learned Spanish, and thus called an “indio ladino” by the colonizers, Guaman Poma’s Quechua-inflected Spanish prose may present reading challenges in both its handwritten form and searchable typeset transcription, but his 400 drawings welcome casual as well as scholarly and student readers into the rooms and onto the roadways of that multi-ethnic—Andean, African, Spanish, and Spanish creole—world.
Miguel La Serna
Between 1980 and 1999, the Peruvian Communist Party—Shining Path—enveloped the Andean nation of Peru in an armed insurrection designed to topple the state and institute a communist regime. The Maoist insurrection began in the highland department of Ayacucho, quickly spreading throughout the countryside and into the cities. After initially dismissing the insurgency as the work of small-time bandits, the government responded by sending in counterterrorism police and the armed forces into guerrilla-controlled areas. Both Shining Path and government forces targeted civilians as part of their wartime strategies, while some Indigenous peasants took up arms to defend their communities from the bloodshed. In 1992, police captured Shining Path leader Abimael Guzmán, severely weakening the insurgency. By 1999, most remaining guerrilla leaders had been arrested, all but ending the armed phase of the conflict.
Between 1472 and 1572, the conquests of Peru were many: by the Inca, who in the 15th century spread from their southern Andean heartland in Cusco to build an empire that stretched from what is now southern Colombia to northern Chile and Argentina; by the Spanish conquistadors under the leadership of Francisco Pizarro and Diego de Almagro, who reached down from Panama in search of the rumored wealth of the kingdom of “Birú” and fatefully encountered the aspirant Inca emperor Atahualpa at Cajamarca in November of 1532; by the Spanish crown, which intervened after the revolt of Atahualpa’s brother Manco Inca in 1536 and the rebellion of the conquistadors in the 1540s; and by the Inca’s former subjects, the Spaniards’ Indian allies, and their mestizo sons, who ended independent Inca resistance by helping to capture Atahualpa’s nephew in the Vilcabamba valley in 1572. This essay sketches the century-long arc of those many conquests, which together yielded a historical entity not quite like any other in the early modern world, let alone Americas: a composite Spanish-Indian kingdom whose incredible wealth lay not just in the gold and silver that its mines and burials produced but in the network of subjects and laborers that drew both the Inca and their Habsburg successors on to further conquests than was wise.