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The Incas: Quechua language, Machu Picchu, Cuzco, Inca Trail

Inca Language: Quechua

The Inca Civilization Machu Picchu Art

Inca tongue endures,
Quechua whispers from the past,
Cusco's ancient voice.


Quechua: the Inca Language

Hiram Bingham, the American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911, wrote:

Some American archaeologists are prone to shorten the length of time during which the civilization of the Incas was developing. Because the Mayas of Central America used hieroglyphics and invented a calendar it is easy to grant them a couple of thousand years, while the Incas are limited to a few hundred. Technically they are right, if one chooses to restrict the use of the word Inca to the few centuries when the rulers were actually called Incas. But if one uses the term Inca to characterize that remarkable civilization discovered by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, with its advanced agriculture, its magnificent engineering works and its success over centuries in producing from an exceedingly wild ancestor two such distinct domestic and pure-bred animals as the llama and alpaca, it becomes evident that the period covered by the growth of this ancient Peruvian civilization certainly must have lasted for several thousand years.

This theory is also confirmed by the many varieties of both potatoes and corn found in Inca land, and also by the fact that the guinea pigs (cuyes) which they domesticated and bred are as widely different in color and in coat as are the cats of the Mediterranean region which are known to be of extremely ancient lineage.

Unfortunately the ancient Peruvians never developed any form of script or picture writing. It is indeed a great pity that the Incas never had the opportunity, as did the Greeks and Romans, to come in contact with a people like the Phoenicians who were clever enough to invent an alphabet.

The language of the Incas was the Quichua or Quechua tongue. Originally it was used only in a small area around Cuzco where the Inca dynasty originated, possibly in the tenth or eleventh century. During the next five hundred years, when the Incas succeeded in subduing the native races as far north as Ecuador and as far south as Argentina, they carried the Quechua language with them and insisted in its being learned by the conquered peoples so that it had a wide distribution by the end of the sixteenth century.

Today (1911) the total population of Peru is about seven million. A recent census reports that two and one-half million speak Quechua and two-thirds of these speak no other languages. Although there are many different languages spoken by small forest tribes in the Amazon basin, there are only two aboriginal languages numerically important in the Andes, Quechua and Aymara. In the region around Lake Titicaca and in northern Bolivia the Indians speak Aymara which has a phonetic system and grammar similar to Quechua. Neither of these languages is related in any way to those of eastern South America nor to any outside the continent. Philological experts are of the opinion that nearly five million people in South America still speak the language of the Incas. Obviously it is by far the most important native language in either North or South America. That this phonetic system is so widespread is in itself a remarkable tribute to the extraordinary people who were so successful in breeding animals and plans.

There are few words in Quechua to denote abstract qualities. On the other hand, the people obviously were not militaristic for the word meaning "soldier" also means "enemy." The extent of the empire is emphasized by the fact that the word for "foreigner" means "those belonging to a city a great distance off." The importance of agriculture is strikingly demonstrated by the fact that in Quechua there is but one word for "work" or "cultivate." Apparently cultivating the soil was the only thing which rated as work.

An interesting commentary on the habits of the ancient people and a sidelight on their manners and customs is the abundance of expressions in Quechua for all stages of drunkenness. One of their principal activities was the manufacture of beer or chicha. It was brewed from sprouted corn which served the Andean people as an upper mill-stone or pestle. The Indians of Mexico and Central America in grinding their corn use a miller, pushed back and forth on a slab. This is more fatiguing and requires more effort than the rocking stone invented in the Andes. The fact that the most common necessity of the household, a means of grinding corn, was not the same with the Incas as with the Mayas, points to the long period of separate evolution.

The Incas domesticated at least three varieties of dogs but there is no evidence that, like the Polynesians, they used any of them as an article of food.



‘Lost City of the Incas, The Story of Machu Picchu and its Builders’ by Hiram Bingham
The American explorer who found the ruins of Machu Picchu in 1911

Hiram Bingham at Machu Picchu
The inspiration for Indiana Jones?

 Glossary of Quechua Words:

Quechua Translation
Acllacuna Chosen Women
Alpaca Domestic camel animal
Apachita Sacred offering, cairn
Aquilla Golden goblet
Ayllu Social division, 'clan'
Canca Sacred bread
Charqui Dried, 'jerked' meat
Chasqui Relay runner
Chicha Fermented beverage, corn beer
Chullpa Burial vault or tower
Chuņu Desiccated potatoes
Coca Narcotic plant
Collahuaya Class of native physicians
Coya Queen
Curaca Queen
Guaman Province, political division
Guanaco Wild camel animal
Guano Bird or bat excrement
Hauasipascuna 'Left-out Girls'
Hihuaya A form of punishment
Huaca Sacred place, archaeological site
Huaco Archaeological site
Huaquero Native digger, treasure hunter
Huahuqui Supernatural Guardian, brother
Huayara Fertility festival
Ichu Coarse grass
Inca Inca
Llama Domesticated camel animal
Llama Fillet, head-band
Macanamaqna War club
Mamacuna Mother Superior
Mita Tax-service
Mitima(es) Compulsory colonist, settler
Napa White (albino) llama
Oca Cultivated tuber (oxalis)
Pachaca Political unit of 100 families
Pampa Low-level treeless or grassy plain
Pirca Masonry of undressed field stones
Pucara Fortress
Puna High-level grassy plan
Puric Able adult man, head of household
Quechua Quechua
Quero Wooden goblet
Quinua Cultivated amaranth (Chenopodium)
Quipu Knotted record
Quipucamayoc Knot-record keeper
Saya Section of a province
Sinchi Chief, leader
Situa Curative festival
Suyu Quarter of empire
Taclla Spade or foot-plough
Tambo Inn, barracks
Tocco Cave mouth, window
Topo Shawl pin; standard of measurement
Totora Reed, rushes
Vicuņa Fine-haired wild camel animal
Villac Umu High Priest
Villca A narcotic (Piptadenia)
Yacarca Soothsayer, diviner
Yancuna Class of servants

Reference: ' The Ancient Civilizations of Peru' by J. Alden Mason, 1957

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She-Calf and Other Quechua Folk Tales (English and Spanish Edition)
by Johnny Payne
Textbook (Paperback - 1 ED)

These fables from highland Peru, presented in both Quechua and English, capture a rich oral tradition and illustrate many universal human themes. This bilingual edition, the first collection of stories from the Cusco region to be published in English, captures a rich but fast disappearing oral tradition. The ethnographic introduction, a poignant re-creation of what living and working with Quechua speakers reveals to a perceptive and appreciative outsider, is conversational, witty, and memorable for its insights.

Johnny Payne, a novelist, playwright, and translator, is a specialist in comparative literature. He directs the creative writing program at Florida Atlantic University. For three years he headed a summer institute in Quechua history and literature in Cusco, Peru.