Thursday, December 4, 2008

The realm of corn and the alpaca

by Mauricio de Romaña

The prehistoric tribes hunted guanacos, llamas, alpacas and vicunas which they used both for food and clothing. The North American authority Jane Wheeler estimates that the domestic use of the camelidae goes back 8 or 10 thousand years. It is very common to find obsidian arrow heads in the valley and bordering areas. Furthermore, the majority of rupestrine paintings, such as those on the walls of the caves of cCollpa in Sumbay and Mollepunku in Pulpera, represent camelidae.
The first chronicles of the Spaniards tell of the "cattle of the land" or "the sheep with the long neck". The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega talks about the organization of the flocks of llamas and alpacas during the Incan Empire. The produce was distributed by quality in accord with rank. Thus when a vicuna was taken on a hunt it was clipped and its wool or fiber offered to the Inca. The fiber of the alpaca was destined for the nobles and high officials, while the llama served to cloth the common people.
The high part of the Colca valley, from the slopes up-water from Chivay to the snow line or the great high plateau, was and is used for the, breeding of llamas and alpacas.

The sheep with the long neck

Although less prized in the colonial period, the alpaca has recently come into its own. In the middle of the 19th century the industrial processing of alpaca began and since then has been an important source of economic activity with very positive prospects for the future. Today an important textile industry exists, primarily for exportation. It is estimated that 4 million alpacas exist in Peru along the Andean range. The majority of the population is dispersed in small groups of from 100 to 500 head and there are probably about 35,000 breeders. The alpaca is the major source of economic gain in the Colca region. Since the initiation of exportation in the middle of the last century "mistis", as the Arequipan creoles are called, have been established in the villages to collect the fiber and supply the exporters. This has a marked social and economic influence on the peaceful region.
The fiber of the alpaca is obtained by shearing the animal, which is normally done every two years with an average yield of 6.7 lbs for each animal. The alpaca, unlike the vicuna, is domesticated. Thus they are cared for by shepherds, either the owners or employees of the owners, and sheltered in huts on lands with natural fodder. Rotation of the fields is practiced in accord with the conditions of water and pasture.
The most important characteristic of the alpaca, aside from its finess, softness and natural thermoregulation, is the great variety of natural colors from black to white, with a wide range of coffees. There are altogether more than 30 commercial colors.
In some breeding centers modern technology is applied which has resulted in genetic improvement of the flocks, with higher quality and greater production of fiber. Research is sometimes carried on privately as is the case with Francis Patthey, a visionary merchant and prosperous industrialist of alpaca fiber who is at present sponsoring, under the auspices of the "Inca Pro-Alpaca" Foundation, the formation of a center for the promotion and research of alpacas at the foot of Ampato in the high country of the Colca.

Terraces and corn

In the course of their evolution primitive tribes passed from being hunters and gatherers to being farmers. They settled in valleys where the water supply and auspicious climate enhanced the production of food. Thus it was that the cultivation of potatoes, corn, "quinua", an edible plant, "cañahua", a kind of millet and other native species began in the Colca region, down water from Chivay. Corn was the most important crop produced. Even today the corn produced at Cabanaconde is famous.
We can not be precise about the arrival of the Collaguas, but it was they who developed the agriculture and constructed the terraces, which are so impressive for the enormous amount of labor which they represent. There are more than 6 thousand hectars worked into the slopes of the great canyon in order to obtain enough flat surface to sow without fear of losing the fertil soil by erosion. Irrigation is carried out through an ingenious system of canals from the streams and springs coming from the snow peaks on each side of the river.
Once settled, the Collaguas built their villages. The ruins of these indicate an advanced level of engineering, as can be observed at Jaucallacta, Pumunuta and Uyu Uyu. In some cases we find special structures which were built for the storage of corn which are called "colcas".
Corn was and is the most important element in the native diet. It was also much used in rituals and ceremonies and in the brewing of "chicha", a slightly alcoholic drink. Recent studies by a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin, directed by Professor Denevan have placed the age of some of the terraces at 1,450 years, which makes them older than the Incan Empire.


Following ancient tradition, the alpaca and llama breeders who live on the heights descend to the agricultural region in the valley to exchange their products, fiber and "charqui" (meat dried in the sun and salted) for agricultural products such as potatoes, "quinua", corn and beans. To this day they carry out all their commercial transactions using the ancient system of barter.
The system of barter, which seems to have been established in the early days of the Collaguas, that is to say in the pre-Incan period, allows the exchange of products from the different ecological niches. Thus the mountain people supply the inhabitants of the valley with fiber for clothing and meat for food. These, in exchange, supplement the diet of the shepherds with agricultural products.
This type of exchange is made for products of the warmer valleys such as Majes, Siguas and Vítor too. Products from the high country are supplied in exchange for fruits such as figs and chili. This chain of barter reaches all the way to the coast where they trade for fish and shellfish. According to documents of the time the Collaguas have concessions and lands in these valleys, coves and beaches, such as those at Arantas and Quilca.
This system of exchange would surely not have been possible if it had not been for the noble llama, the extremely useful species of South American camelidae which has been domesticated for so many centuries. They are excellent beasts of burden since they can travel through steep, rocky, desert landscapes for long distances without being shod. Nor does the llama need much in the way of food and water, since it can survive on sparse fodder and go for days without drinking. These "alquilas" or pack trains of llamas are still common in the Colca, where they travel for weeks with their drivers in order to obtain the products necessary to complement the diet of the people in the high country.

"Cochinilla" and "ayrampo"

These are two natural colorants which have been used by the natives since pre-Columbian times to dye their cloth. They also have medicinal properties. The cochineal is a parasitic insect which lives on a cactus, the tuna, or nopal in Mexico, and contains a red colorant, carmic acid.
The conquistadors found it in Mexico where it was used by the Aztecs. Hernán Cortés took the tuna to Spain, where it acclimated well, especially in the Canary Islands. At that time only some cotton like spots could be observed on the "pencas" or fleshy "leaves" of the cactus, from which the colorant was extracted. But in 1703, after the invention of the microscope the parasitic insect itself, cochineal, was discovered. The colorant is extracted by scraping the "pencas" and gathering the insects which fall. They are then put to dry. It is the female insect which contains the colorant and the concentration is greatest during the egg laying phase.
This colorant is in great demand today in the production of cosmetics, drinks and foods which are normally tinted, because it is not carcinogenic. Although the conchineal has a wide geographic distribution, Peru is the major producer of the colorant and the Colca one of the most important regions in its production.
The tuna, or cactus apple, is a much prized, nourishing fruit which is collected from natural plantations which are found especially in the ravines of the canyon. The "ayrampo" is also a colorant found in the fruit of a small cactus of the same family as the tuna. It is used to color textiles and foods, though not yet industrially. It is also widely used for its medicinal properties.

No comments: