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Land of winds > The people > Culture | Issue 02. Sep.-Oct.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Chipaya

The Chipaya
The Chipaya call themselves “water people” or qhwaz-za zhoñi (kjotsuñi). According to their own oral tradition, first Chipaya appeared near Ajllata Lake (dried today) but were expelled from their land by the Aymara and moved to the fringe of the Coipasa salt desert on the shores of the declining Lauca River (drying up today), at 4.000m above the sea level, a harsh and eerie landscape in the provinces Atahualpa and Carangas (Oruro Department, Bolivia). They are supposed to be connected to the Urus of Irohito at the southern end of Lake Titicaca and the Muratos on the shores and islands of Lake Poopó. The term “Chipaya” is Aymara and might refer to the nets ch’ipa used by the Chipaya to hold up the roofs on their homes. The Aymara also call them chullpa puchu, “the remains of the Chullpas”, for they consider the Chipaya to be descendants of the mythic Chullpas, who dwelt this part of the Altiplano in ancient times. Physical differences between them and other Andean indigenous peoples is the invented reason that the Aymara (their centuries-old oppressors) give to discriminate them on grounds of their dark skin and their “barbaric” and “primitive” customs.
Their traditions, clothing, musical instruments, architecture and the way women braid their hair have awaken the interest of anthropologists and tourists alike. The village of Santa Ana de Chipaya, located on the Altiplano southwest of Oruro, is their most important settlement, an inhospitable terrain surrounded by salty lakes. It is there where they grow enough quinua and cañihua (originated in the Andean region of South America, are grain-like crops of great nutritional importance) to sustain them, thanks to soil desalination (by flushing the soil with river water) and efficient use of the scarse water resources. This process also enables the Chipaya to regenerate the pastrueland where they graze sheep and Andean camelids flocks. By the shores of ponds, they catch acuatic birds using their traditional bola or boleadoras (throwing weapons made of lead balls on the ends of interconnected braided leather cords, used by many indigenous peoples to hunt) following refined group hunting technics. Their meagre food surpluses are traded with the Aymara in neigbouring villages. Since poor farming and animal herding production is not enough to maintain their population, many Chipaya migrate to cities in Chile or eastern Bolivia.

The Chipaya
A traditional Chipaya village house (wallichi koya) is completely different from other Andean constructions. It is round, with walls made of tepes (sod blocks) and rendered with a layer of mud, and a roof in the shape of an inverted cone made of handfuls of stiff straw and ichu grass resting on a framework of thola intersecting hoops tied together with straw rope. The roof is further secured with a network of straw ropes to hold it when there are strong winds. The house has no windows and the only door (traditionally of cactus wood) faces east to prevent sand from being swept inside by the same strong winds. Wood is hard to find and the Chipaya have to travel some 30km to bring back tholas and dried cactus. To cook and get warm during the bitterly cold puna nights they use yareta, an evergreen occurring in the puna grasslands that grows very close to ground level at a rate of approximately one millimeter per year and produces an enormous amount of heat when burning.

The Chipaya
A second type of house (phutuku), found in the agricultural areas, is beehive-shaped and made entirely of sod blocks. It has a door and no windows. Before going to live in a house, the Chipaya sacrifice an animal and cover the walls and the ceiling with its blood. In addition they put a wild cat on the roof to protect them against evil spirits.
Houses in a Chipaya village, as in most parts of the Andean world, are arranged in two partitions: Tajata (“the upper half”) y Tuanta (“the lower half”). Each partition has its own church (the Chipaya profess Christianity pervaded by their own beliefs) and worships a different mallku or deity.
Likewise their Quechua and Aymara neighbours, the Chipaya chew coca leaves to counteract tiredness, hunger and suruqchi or altitude illness. They also use those leaves to carry out divination rites, a tradition spread along the Andes, similar to the old western custom of “reading” or “interpreting” coffee or tea dregs.
Their most traditional clothing is made of dun, brown or crude wool obtained from llamas and sheep, and consists of a pair of trousers, a sleeveless tunic tied round the waist with a thong (from which the bolas, the coca woven pouch and a number of other things hang), and the essential poncho (an outer garment that keeps the body warm). Both, women and men wear felt hats and sandals made of old tyres. Distinctive hairstyle for women consists of 60 braids divided in two halves with several small metal adornments tied to them. The very same hairstyle has been found in the mummies recovered from the Chullpas stone towers burial grounds. Considering this fact –and the Chipaya own testimony assuring that they are the direct descendants of this ancient culture– some archaeologists have suggested that a connection might exist between both peoples.
Talking about their traditional instruments, special attention deserves a set of panpipes known as maizu, which might be the oldest one found according to the Chipaya. The group consists of a pan flute with three pipes and three pan flutes with two pipes. The former is thought to be male (lutaga), while the others are said to be female (mataqa). A clay whistle called wauqu completes this ancient collection, which is considered sacred and would have been played on ceremonial occasions. Ernesto Cavour refers to the maizu as khokho peks ira arka, and calls the whistle khokho-ché. The Chipaya use the ch’utu or ushni pinkayllu, two six holes thola or willow wood flutes of different size (paquilla y qoltaylla), played and the same time to the accompaniment of drums, small box-shaped percussion instruments, a cow-horn trumpet known as doti and a campana or llama-bell, the only instrument that can be played by women. Other instruments are the lichiwayus and the tarkas (tar pinkayllu, of three sizes: paj, cin-talla and qolta), probably borrowings from the Aymara; the panpipes of two sizes, which Cavour calls pak-taipi maisho peks, “the grandfather’s large and medium”, two single row panpipes with seven and six pipes each; small flutes made of condor and parina (flamingo) bones, the ushni caja or square shaped box, the chap isquin caja or triangle shaped box, the pap pish isquin caja or rectangular shaped box, the maizu caja or Chipaya box and the “guitarrilla Chipaya” (“Chipaya little guitar”) with five double strings and three sizes (paj, taipi and qolta).
The Chipaya story of how the world and mankind came to be tells that the Chullpas, the first human beings, lived in darkness, illuminated only by moonlight. After many centuries, the sages of the community announced that the sun (thuñi) would come up in the west. The Chullpas built houses with the door facing to the east to avoid being stroke by its sweltering heat. Unexpectedly, the sun rose in the east and the Chullpas were burned to death. Only a couple survived diving underwater. They remained hidden underwater during the day and came out of the water at night to carry out daily tasks. This way they got used to a new rhythm of live according to the day and night cycle. And these would have been the ancestors of the Chipaya.
At present they hold beliefs such as mallkus and t’allas worship (male and female deities respectively). The former can be hills or small monuments. In addition the Chipaya honour certain animals like the Andean wild cat and also the deceased, who are invited to a feast on All Saints’ Day.
The Chipaya culture is one of the oldest treasures the Bolivian Andes guards in every nook. As long as they survive their cultural heritage will be safeguarded and protected. The recovery of their language and oral tradition (see) is a step in the right direction. However, climate change (that will drain pods and decrease the river’s flow) and religious and cultural pressure on the part of several religious groups and the state, respectively, are likely to put in danger the Chipaya future generations. Fortunately those young don’t seem willing to back down after knowing that they are the heirs of a thousand-year-old vigorous culture.

Uros, in Wikipedia.
Cultura uru chipaya. MUSEF [es].
Una aproximación milenaria: los Chipayas [es].
Chipaya in Documentation of Endangered Languages, DOBES.
Bolivia: water people of Andes face extinction. The Guardian.

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Video 01. Documentary on the Chipaya.
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