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Coca and the Mountain
Observations into the Worldview of the Quechua of Panao

by Terry P. Smith


Translation requires a good understanding of a culture's worldview. Coca leaves and mountains are two predominent themes in the life of the Quechua people of Panao in the central Andes of Peru. By describing the customs associated with coca and the mountains, this paper permits us to view reality concerning them from the Quechua perspective and to consider the implications for translation.


While learning to do desktop publishing I have been introduced to the notion of "templates," those parts of a publication which are preformatted. Creating a publication is simple since all I have to do is insert the appropriate text, and it formats itself automatically.

Culture is a society's template of life, and an individual's experiences fit into the different frames on the page with their meanings preformatted. The basic formatting is developed during the process of socialization, giving meaning to experiences and defining parameters for behavior. And just as I can modify the formatting of a paragraph, so I can also modify my culture's template. This analogy illustrates Spradley's (1980:6) definition of culture as "the acquired knowledge people use to interpret experience and generate behavior," as well as the notion that we are both creatures of our culture as well as creators of it.

Smith (1991:16) illustrates four levels of culture with concentric rings. Behavior in the outermost ring is composed of the observable components of culture: the social behavior observable among members of the culture and the culture's projects or artifacts. Inside this circle is the ring of social authority, the approval of the group to which the members belong. The next inner circle is the ring of experience, the collective personalized set of beliefs whch exercise even greater influence on behavior. The innermost circle represents the core beliefs of both an individual and the culture. The worldview of either one equates with its underlying assumptions about reality.

Communicating within the context of a single culture is typically done fairly easily because the same basic templates are shared. Communicating cross-culturally, however, is more complex because each culture's template is unique.

This paper describes elements of those outer levels of Panao Quechua (qxh) culture, the customs and beliefs associated with the Mountain and coca. And my purpose in making these observations of Quechua man and his relations and communications with the supernatural is to have a better understanding of the worldview of these people.

Interaction with the supernatural is a universal phenomenon. Steyne (1989:22) says that all people have some form of religion. Under the domain of religion, individuals formulate their responses to the questions of "Who am I?" and "Why do I exist?" The answers provide guidance for behavior and understanding for the experiences of life, especially those that are beyond one's control. The answers include explanations regarding life before and after one's present existence. Observations then into the PNQ's relations and communications with the supernatural is an attempt to understand this aspect of their worldview.

Ninety-five percent of the Quechua state that their religion is Christian, either Catholic or Protestant. To illustrate the need to understand the Quechua template, a brief example demonstrates the syncretism of Christian and Quechua beliefs:

María is a Quechua woman who says that she is an evangelical and trusts in the God of the Bible who healed her of gallstones. Maria has a one-year-old son. One day as people were butchering a cow, her child's clothing was removed and his face covered with a cloth. As soon as the rumen was removed from the cow, two large openings were made in it and the child was passed through the stomach's contents. Then, with stink and all, the child was quickly dressed. The reason for this is that the Mountain's senses are offended by this smell and thus it would not touch the child to give him 'fright'.

For the Scriptures to communicate accurately, I, as a translator, must understand the Quechua worldview. I must comprehend how their templates are similar and/or different from mine and the cultural perspectives of the source languages and cultures from which I translate.

Terry and Karla Smith work with SIL in Peru as translators with the Panao Quechua. They previously worked in Bolivia. Terry holds an M.A. from Azusa Pacific University in Human Resources and Leadership Development.

Document created: June 6, 1997