Several South American countries, including Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Columbia, have sizable populations of indigenous peoples. Indigenous languages such as Quechua and Aymara, which are spoken in multiple regions within South America, count their speakers in the millions. Many of these indigenous communities maintain aspects of traditional cultural practices, including religion, social organization, and subsistence practices. Some communities live in relative isolation from modern society, and a few are counted as uncontacted peoples.
As the Earthducation team will be visiting Peru and Chile during expedition 4, we are highlighting below the indigenous cultures found within these countries. Peru has a high percentage of indigenous peoples still living within its borders, whereas Chile has a relatively low percentage. The team will be visiting indigenous communities in both countries, including a Shipibo community in Peru who live within the Amazon Rainforest.
Indigenous peoples make up about 46 percent of the population in Peru. The highland Quechua people are the most numerous, comprising about one-third of Peru’s total population, with the Aymara people a distant second. About 4.5 million Peruvians speak Quechua, and 8 million identify themselves as Quechua. Quechua became Peru’s second official language in 1969.
The Aymara population, by comparison, is estimated at between 500,000 and 600,000 people in Peru. Most Peruvian Aymara live in the southern Andes region of the country.
The total number of indigenous Peruvians living in the Amazon basin is estimated at 350,000. The Ashaninka people comprise the largest single indigenous group in this region of Peru, with a population of approximately 50,000.
Peru also is home to one of the largest numbers of uncontacted tribes in the world, after Brazil and New Guinea. These tribes live deep in the Amazon rainforest, and many are at risk of extermination due to land loss caused by, and disease spread by, loggers and oil developers. More than 70% of the Peruvian Amazon has been leased by the government to oil companies, and there have been growing tensions, protests, and conflicts between indigenous communities and natural resource extraction companies, including oil developers and mining firms.
Indigenous peoples in Chile form about 4.6 percent of the total population. The Mapuches, from the south, account for approximately 85 percent of this number, and have recently been engaged in an ongoing conflict with the government over land rights. “At the root of the struggle lies the land the Mapuche lived on for generations, and which they are now seeking to reclaim from the private and corporate landowners who have taken it over” (Peterson, 2012).
The Chilean government currently recognizes nine indigenous groups: the Atacameño, Aymara, Colla, Diaguita, Kawashkar, Mapuche, Quechua, Rapa Nui, and Yagán peoples. Approximately one-half of the self-identified indigenous population in Chile remains separated from the rest of society, largely due to historical, cultural, educational, and geographical factors.