Incan Art History as done by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala

Bolivia: The Aymara - Living the Language - Al Jazeera English

A discussion of the language and oral history of the Aymara would now have to include its’ apparent renaissance in Bolivia today. Here, news outlet Al Jazeera explores the how and why this language was marginalized, and how it is coming into its own once again. 

Aymara and other indigenous languages have been perceived by many Bolivians as backwards or low-class. These kinds of prejudices, however, are beginning to be reversed by artists and musicians throughout the country. And unlike nueva cancion, it’s not solely through traditional musical genres that this is happening. Aymara rapper Abraham Bohorquez says: “We do hip-hop, and at the same time we reclaim the cultural identity of our communities. Five years ago, many young people were ashamed of being Aymara or Quechua”. Bohorquez also comments on the legacy of colonialism, and what reclaiming Aymara means in that context: “I think music theatre, and urban art are the tools that many are using to fight back. We are now living in a period of subliminal colonization. Now it’s our time to expose the untold history”. 

Schoolteacher Marco Apaza agrees; “I tell my students about the reality, about we we are and to whom this country belongs. This is the reality that I talk about with my students. They are ready to defend what’s ours”. 

In this way people are beginning, again, to access the language of their ancestors in order to understand and transcend the places that have been determined for them by historical and modern forces. And they are doing so -as can be seen in the video - through tools as diverse as hip-hop, radio, the internet, and Bolivia’s schools, where traditionally only Spanish has been taught. 

Inti Illimani is another example of the nueva canción movement. Their name, taken from  the Andean Aymara (a language to which Guaman Poma accredited a rich oral history), translates to “Sun God”. 

Violeta Parra was a Chilean singer and songwriter who was part of the nueva canción [new song] movement of Latin America, which produced folk-inspired and socially committed music which often blended autochthonous musical traditions with Spanish ones. Nueva canción artists collected songs in indigenous languages such as Aymara and Quechua and used indigenous instruments. 

Parra worked directly with both male and female cantores [rural musicians] to compose, perform, and “[piece] together forgotten parts of songs”. Just as Guaman Poma was a thread between the Inka and the European, Violeta Parra was both the “bridge between the rural and the urban” and between Chile and the international stage, which was exposed to her and nueva canción upon her exile from Chile after the US-backed coup of September 11, 1973. 

The creators of nueva canción decided at a Cuban Encuentro (meeting) that “song should play an important role in the liberation struggles against North American imperialism and against colonialism”. Consequently, it strived to differentiate itself from what its artists saw as commercialized, “tourist” folk and, in accordance with the diversity of cultural traditions across the Andes as described in the Nueva Corónica, was a movement “remarkable for its heterogeneity rather than homogeneity as regards both music and its use”. The unique power of nueva canción, which spanned multiple decades, national borders, and political movements,  lay in its ability to express the multiplicity inherent in Latin American indigenous traditions. 

All quotes in this post are sourced to La Nueva Canción Latinoamericana by Jan Fairley, from the Bulletin of Latin American Research (full citation).

Guaman Poma writes that “each lineage and ayllo [small community] had its own dances, taquis, hayllis [farmer’s chants] and songs, harauis [songs of love], and celebrations with cachiua [choral song]”.(67). 

Music was a part of everyday life - as with the hayllis - and of celebrations both for the small communities throughout the Andes and for Inka royalty. The sixth coya, or Inka queen, is described thus by Guaman Poma: “[she]had a happy face and enjoyed singing and music as well as playing the drum and having parties and banquets”[131]. He illustrates her with the drums mentioned, participating in the making of music herself.


The featured song is from a Smithsonian Folkways recording of traditional Andean music from the Ayacucho region of Peru. It features Scissors Dancers accompanied by harp, violin and scissors. The “physical and spiritual knowledge implicit in the [Scissors] dance is passed on orally from master to student, with each cuadrilla of dancers and musicians giving pride to its village of origin”.

Andean music, therefore, survives to this day as something integrated into a people’s daily lives, as well as a living bridge connecting history to the present. 

"It has been said that no political, military, social, or religious event among the Inka was complete without textiles being exchanged or gifted, burned or sacrificed". (Source)

Inka Unku, 1460-1540

1, 2. Inka clothed female figurines, 13th-16th Century

3. The Tenth Inca, Topa Inca Yupanqui

The term used by Guaman Poma to refer to Inka nobles is orejon. This word may in fact be derived from the Spanish oreja, which means “ear”.The reason this word was used to identify nobles was because they wore special earplugs that distinguished them from common Inca. In writing about the people of Puquina Colla, a (region) in the Inka Empire, he writes that “since they were lazy, they did not achieve enough for the privilege of Inca earplugs; for that reason they were called puquis, millma rinri [dumb, wool ears]”. In contrast, Inka nobility often wore gold earplugs. 

This is only one example of how the Inka understood clothing and used it to relate to society. The closeness of imperial rank and one’s garments is expressed clearly in the Nueva Córonica, as Poma includes a detailed description and illustration of each Inka ruler’s garments in telling the history of the empire. Above, he illustrates the Tenth Inca, Topa Inca Yupanqui, and writes that “He had a helmet of anas pacra, dark color; the fringe, a club, and a shield; his cloak blue and tunic all of tocapos and four fastenings on his feet”(83[111]). The tocapos to which he refers are the grid-like designs that cover Topa Inca Yupanqui’s cloak. These tocapos, to someone living in the Inka Empire, indicated how proficient the ruler was in imperial conquest. Not coincidentally, in the same passage - just as he does with his description of each and every Inka ruler - Poma details the ruler’s conquests; “Besides what his father took, he conquered half of Huanuco Allauca, Chinchaycocha, Tarma, all themountain regions of Lima; Huno Huaylla, ten thousand Indians; Conchuco, Cajatambo”(85[111]). Topa Inca Yupanqui, clearly, commanded impressive imperial power during his rule, and this shows in the multitude of tocapos that adorn his cloak.

But Topa Inca Yupanqui’s imperial prowess did not cease with conquest. “He was the one who ordered all the royal roads and bridges be kept in good repair”, Poma writes; “He established the runners, hatun chasque [principal messengers], and the churo chasque [shell trumpet messengers] and the lodgings [….]He spoke with the huacas every year. He ordered the ancient ordinances be obeyed and later made other ordinances. He started organizing his property and the community property and the storehouses with much order, accounting and quipo officials throughout the kingdom”(85[111]). The ruler organized his territories with great efficiency and care, employing officials, tapping the spiritual resonance of the huacas, and maintaining the Empire’s knowledge through quipo scholars.

Thus, a ruler’s dress refers both to the Empire and his relationship to it; to dominance and to the living networks, such as the quipo and huacas, of knowledge and spirit which flowed from all locations in the Empire’s spectrum of power.

1. The author says “But, tell me” as he inquires about the history of ancient Peru

2. The Twelfth Captain, qhapaq apu [powerful lord], and Guaman Poma’s Grandfather

3. An Inka Quipu

Guaman Poma de Ayala’s record is called a “Chronicle or general history” because it comprehensively reviews “the kingdom of the Indies of Peru”. It is called “New” because, through its Andean perspective, it introduces a novel historical narrative amongst traditional colonial histories of Peru. There are a number of reasons Ayala had the credentials to address the King of Spain about these issues. According to Rolena Adorno, much of it was “on account of his aristocratic credentials as heir to the Yarovilca dynasty that had preceded the Inkas and as the son and grandson of men who had served the Inka lords of Tawantinsuyo in important posts”. Above, you can see Ayala’s illustration of his grandfather Guaman Chaua, who was a captain and a qhapaq apu [powerful lord].

This history of Inka artistic culture is “based on unwritten accounts, taken from the quipus or memorials and reports from ancient times remembered by wise old Indian men and women, eyewitnesses, for reliable information that can withstand critical judgment”. Guaman Poma himself gathered such oral history from “diverse informants” an in each case “sought the opinion held in common”. The Chronicle is written mostly in Spanish but its knowledge but its knowledge lies originally in indigenous Andean languages, such as the Quechua of the Inka, Aymara, Puquina Colla, Canche, Cana, Charca, Chinchasuyo, Antisuyo, Collasuyo, and Condesuyo. 

The quipu is a type of writing system developed and understood by the Inka. The wise men, such as “philosophers, astrologers, grammarians, poets”, or the “camasca mauta runa [wise Indian healers]”, used the quipus instead of the European writing system to “read, record, and write their ideas, ingenuity and skills”. They also gathered knowledge “from the stars and the comets” and the sun, in order to know “when to harvest the crops, plow the earth, prune, irrigate and other labors”. Such knowledge was available not only to the wise men, but also to “old men and boys who do not know how to read”. In this way the Andeans created and preserved knowledge throughout generations, and across planes of society, about the world and how to live.