In Peru, apart from the more than six million Quechua and Aymara Indians of the Andean highlands, there are some fifty indigenous peoples living in the Peruvian Amazon, each with their own language. These languages are grouped into more than fifteen language families. In addition to language, each of these peoples has a territory, a way of living in society and a unique philosophy of life.
Linguistic and cultural differences do not, however, prevent these peoples from having many characteristics in common, the result of their shared origins and the intense cultural exchanges they maintain.
The history of Peru’s indigenous peoples goes back many thousands of years. Although the first men crossed the Panama Strait at least 35,000 years ago, unmistakable evidence of human presence in the region of Peru today dates back much further.
Some 20,000 people arrived some time ago, following the Andean gorges and also occupying areas of the jungle’s edge. The lowland rainforest did not begin to be populated until later, with the domestication of yucca and the introduction of corn.
The arrival of the colonial power forced to face repeated attempts of territorial conquest. This problem has been perpetuated to this day, in the form of extractive fronts that have been bringing with them, as happened with rubber, for example, dire ecological and humanitarian consequences.
However, if the Andean peoples were incorporated into the colonial power, the jungle peoples were never conquered, and perhaps because of this spirit of resistance they are present in nine Peruvian departments. Moreover, they constitute the majority population in five provinces and almost forty districts.
The Peruvian indigenous people are the most expressive face of poverty. Seventy-five percent of them earn less than two dollars a day. This socio-economic condition shows, according to the United Nations (UN), that being indigenous is equivalent to being poor.
Rocío Silva Santisteban, executive secretary of the National Human Rights Coordinator (CNDDHH), emphasizes that “the indigenous population has been mistreated and ignored since the viceroyalty”. This picture of historical injustice is a byproduct of a development model based on neo-extractivism, which directs the economy towards activities that exploit nature for export. Extractive activities generate unbalanced effects in socio-environmental matters.
Thirty-nine percent of Peruvians, according to Latinbarometer, believe they are discriminated against because of their race. Silva Santisteban recalled the expression that former President Alan García used against the native peoples, whom he described as “the gardener’s dog”. “The gardener’s dog was perceived, from the indigenous peoples, as the most exclusive and insulting,” he said.
The Ollanta Humala government followed the automatic pilot of the gardener’s dog,” and ignored the existence of indigenous peoples in the Andes. “It is absolutely absurd to say that the only truly indigenous peoples are the natives and the uncontacted natives. These are coming out of the spaces of the virgin forest, because they are being surrounded by this state that is proposing a whole development paradigm for the benefit of the big extractive companies,” Silva said.
“We have to broaden the vision of the development models. And one that the indigenous peoples are proposing is that direct link with the land, which is something that the urban world has lost,” he said, after recalling that international bodies, including the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), warn that the development patterns of many countries in this part of the world are endangering the cultural institutions of indigenous peoples.
Indigenous languages are spoken mainly in the central and southern Andes and in the Amazon rainforest. The only native Andean languages currently in use are Quechua, Aymara, Jaqaru and Kawki; while the Amazon region is home to a greater variety of languages (the most widely spoken being Asháninka and Aguaruna), grouped into a total of 14 language families along with more isolated and unclassified languages.
Indigenous peoples of Peru
The following list presents the 55 indigenous or original peoples identified to date by the Vice-Ministry of Interculturality. To learn more about them, select the name of an indigenous people or an indigenous language.