The Importance of storytelling: The preservation of pre-Columbian Andean culture
Humankind, as far as we know, is the only species that tell stories. Stories can serve as a record of past events and societies from small tribes to large empires. They can detail the journeys of heroes and legends that provide inspiration to others, as well as the cautionary tales of tragedy to serve as lessons for the generations that follow.
Stories evoke emotions. They can make us laugh, cry, or rage with anger. Stories create a space for empathy and vulnerability, and humans have told them even before language for those emotional understandings even existed. In the past, they have been shared through drawings on cave walls, oral recounting around campfires, and hand gestures. Traveling folk shared stories through enacting plays.
Without stories, heritages and traditions can be drowned in the waves of cultural evolution and reeducation through colonization.
Storyteller of the Andeans
Ultimately, storytelling is an integral part of the human experience with the goal being linked to the innate human desire for connection: to understand and be understood.
In that way, storytellers have a unique and important role in creating a bridge between the story and the listener— one that upholds the experience of the story’s subjects, culture, and traditions.
One such storyteller is Guaman Poma of Peru, also called Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala when melding his Quechua name with his Spanish given name. Born during the fall of the Inca Empire and the establishment of the Viceroyalty of Peru in 1542, Pomo’s indigenous Andean roots and Spanish language education made him uniquely poised to chronicle the history of his native people— the Andean people of the Inca Empire.
His work, El Primer Nueva Corónica y buen gobierno, was a 1200-page letter to the King of Spain, complete with a written history of Peru from its early settlers through the rise and fall of the Inca. It also includes nearly 400 illustrations of Andean culture and critiques of Spanish colonial rule in Peru.
Guaman Poma’s Letter
One thing to note about the Inca empire and indigenous tribes of the Andes prior to the Spanish conquest was that they had no writing system. Everything that was known about the ordinary people in the Inca Empire and their way of life was passed down to generations through oral tradition— traditions that Poma recognized were being rapidly erased through Spanish influence.
Denied the rights and later exiled from his family’s lands, Poma spent approximately a decade writing the letter that outlined the upheaval of the native way of life by the Spanish and condemned the Spanish rules’ treatment of the natives. He used the Christian faith to point out the hypocrisy of their actions and reorient God in the position of moral superiority over King Phillip III and the Spaniards.
It’s unclear whether the El Primer Nueva Coronica y buen gobierno ever made it to the King, but its recovery in Europe indicates that it at least made it across the pond. It was likely put in a box or on a shelf and forgotten…
Meanwhile, back in Peru…
When the Inca capital of Cusco was no longer of interest to the Spanish conquistadors, they established the city of Lima as the capital for its strategic location on the coast.
Over the next couple of centuries, the Viceroyalty of Peru’s silver and gold mines were the sources of much of Spain’s wealth. It faced, and put down numerous rebellions led by mestizo and indigenous groups. Earthquakes reduced the colonial architecture to rubble on more than one occasion.
Time marched on.
Wars and land disputes between colonies of Europe shaped and reshaped the borders of the “New World” and the memory of the Inca Empire was largely forgotten to those who had conquered it.
“Discovery” of the Lost Civilization
A common theme of the descendants of European colonialism is that once the excitement of exploration, the ‘glory’ of conquest, and the consumption of resources have wound down, the quest for knowledge and understanding of the past begins.
In 1911, an American explorer by the name of Hiram Bingham III, famously ‘discovered’ the Lost City of Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail. He was led to it by a local Andean farmer named Melchor Arteaga, which indicates that the site was hardly lost.
Archaeologists excavated the ruins to learn everything they could about the ancient civilization, how they lived, what they ate, who they worshiped, and about their architects and engineers who impressively built the structures that remain— unmoving throughout conflict and earthquakes. The mysterious site quickly became one of the most visited locations in South America and its purpose to the Inca is still under much debate.
Cultural Preservation through Storytelling and Traditions
By penning El Primer Nueva Corónica, Poma achieved primary source status on the customs, culture, and daily life of the Andean people of the Inca Empire in a way that fills in the gaps that archaeology and Spanish documentation — which focused largely on Inca kings and nobility — cannot.
Though Poma’s letter served as one of the only chronicles of Inca life written by a native, when you venture out away from modern civilization in Peru and head toward the more remote villages, you can find locals living, farming, worshiping, and building in a manner that would be considered most similar to pre-Hispanic influence— although their religious beliefs and rituals seem to blend Catholicism with those of the Inca.
These traditions, art, rituals, and wisdom that resiliently carry on through generations— despite colonialism, forced assimilation, uprooting of families, and cultural oppression— show the power and importance of storytelling.
Active Listening as a Conscious Traveler
There is wisdom, understanding, and dare I say, magic in hearing another culture’s story. Sometimes as travelers it can be disorienting (see ‘Culture shock’), even challenging, when confronted with another’s perspective on the events of the past, religious beliefs, language, customs, and even pace of living.
Some things to try when exploring another culture:
Be open-minded and curious
Try and learn some of the language
Notice your own emotions in response to new information
Active listening as a conscious traveler can open the doors for connection and growth— recognizing the interconnectedness and rich heritage we all share as humans.
The author of this blog is the oh-so-talented, Shelagh Hogan.
You can find out more about her work on our team page
Malpass, Michael A. Daily Life in the Inca Empire. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press. 1996
Adams, Mark. Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time. New York, NY. Dutton Press. 2011
Adorno, Rolena. Guamán Poma and his Illustrated Chronicle of Colonial Peru: From a Century of Scholarship to a New Era of Reading. Museum Tusculanum Press: The Royal Library of Denmark & the University of Copenhagen, 2001