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

by Terry P. Smith

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The Quechua of Panao

The Andean people with whom my family and I have lived during the past eleven years are the Quechua of Panao. They are peasant farmers living between the Cordillera Occidental and the Cordillera Azul in the Andean districts of the province of Pachitea, department of Huánuco, in central Peru. The Andean districts of Panao, Chaqlla, Molinos and Umari, with a rural population of approximately 40,000 represent an identifiable social grouping; they identify themselves as Panao runakuna, people from Panao, which is the provincial capital. Linguistically and culturally they differentiate between themselves and the neighboring Quechua groups.

The nuclear family is the basic social unit within the culture. However, the primary social group is the extended family. The origin of many communities can be traced back to these extended family groups traditionally known as ayllu. The extended family is the primary source of identity, trust, resources, and labor. As communities of multiple family groups have grown and the ayllu has become more fragmented, primary group relationships are extended by establishing social bonds with godparents and co-parents. These relationships also contribute to one's sense of identity; they are expected to be trustworthy, and reciprocally they are sources of resources and labor. Quicaña (1995:72) indicates that identification with the ayllu is based upon kinship, commitment to communal agrarian goals, and by sharing a common worldview.

A large billboard at the entrance to the town of Chaqlla boasts, "Potato Capital of Peru." The predominant crop in the region is the potato. Some communities produce up to 30 metric tons per hectare (l3.4 tons/acre). These potatoes are grown in both the high mountain valleys and up on the alpine steppes. The high mountain valleys also produce corn, beans, and squash. During parts of each year the PNQ farmers also migrate to the high jungles where they produce coca and other tropical crops.

The Province of Pachitea was created politically on February 2, 1956. However, its cultural uniqueness was noted by the Spanish during the mid-1500s when Captain Gómez Arias de Avila was sent to conquer the region of the Chupaychos and specifically the Panatahuas of the region of Panao. Arias was accompanied by clerics who were responsible for the Christianization of the Indians. The Christianization process of the Catholic Church has continued for some 440 years and Protestant groups have added their efforts during the past 60 years.

Weber (1989:1) describes the language of the Pachitea Quechua as a "relic dialect, not having suffered as much as the dialects to the west, which were much closer to the pre-Columbian centers of prestige." The culture seems to continue to resist change by the outside world and maintains its language and traditions as evidenced by the customs and beliefs detailed in this paper.

Searching out Panao Quechua templates

In the process of trying to understand their world, I have learned that coca leaves and the Mountain are primary elements in the Panao Quechua's cultural template. A brief story illustrates how these themes intertwine.

The Mountain that Wanted His Heart and Lungs

Once upon a time a man overnighted in Tender Grass Flat. There at that flat is the Mountain's mouth. The wind blows out from there. There in the middle of the night Wanakawri Mountain called out to another Mountain saying, "Just his heart. Just his lungs." Then the other Mountain responded, "But he has eaten bitter herbs. He has eaten garlic. But there is a skinny runt of a man here for you to eat. His lungs though are just for me." So then the other Mountain said, "Please, at least invite me to taste one bite of him. I am craving that since it has been a year since I have tasted lungs." Listening to that conversation, chewing coca, the man watched the new day dawn. But the skinny runt of a man, he did not chew coca. So he was dead as the day dawned. So, we eat bitter herbs and garlic so the Mountain will not devour us. When we overnight in uninhabited places, we chew coca leaves. (Juan Villogas Duran)

The vocabulary of this text is rather straightforward. However, it is confusing to someone who does not share the same encyclopedic knowledge as the Panao Quechua. They believe that the Mountain is alive and predominantly malevolent. It has human-like senses which are offended by strong odors like garlic. Caves are the doors to its house. Also as a deity, it knows the future. And chewing coca relieves drowsiness. Stories like this highlight their practices and beliefs, contributing to my efforts to acquire an understanding of the Quechua worldview.

Document created: June 6, 1997