Native South American Religions & Traditions

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

Learn about the religions and religious traditions of native South American peoples. This lesson focuses on the Mapuche, the Inca and their descendants the Quechua, and the Yanomami, just a sample of the various people on that continent.

South American Indigenous People

Does South America seem like a strange and exotic place to you, somewhere people still live in the jungle? Do you imagine strange rituals, hidden temples, and cannibalism? Well, you would be somewhat right, but this is not an Indiana Jones film. When you get to know how the people live and what they believe, their practices actually don't seem that strange. Let's look at three indigenous groups of South Americans, the Mapuche, the Inca and their descendants the Quechua, and the Yanomami.


The nearly 500,000 Mapuche people, whose name means ''People of the Earth,'' live on reservations in the southern part of Chile. Today, their religious practices are a combination of their ancestral beliefs and Catholicism, a common occurrence throughout Central and South America where Catholic missionaries have worked to convert the indigenous people for approximately 500 years.

The Mapuche universe is divided into opposite pairings of left and right, male and female, young and old, and many more. Mapuche shamans called machi, are usually women or men of different gender manifestations. The machi are responsible for invoking the four great deities, protecting the village from dark forces or evil sorcerers, healing sickness, and maintaining a relationship to ancestral spirits.

Mapuche machi

Gods, Spirits, and Monsters

The Mapuche believe in several different gods but also believe their ancestral spirits are all around them, able to help or hurt people.

  • Ñenechen: This is the Supreme God of the Mapuche. He created the universe and all things in it but is too far removed from humans to interact with them.
  • Four Great Deities: The four deities that work together and interact with humans are the Elder Male, Elder Female, Young Male, and Young Female. These represent the four parts of all creation.
  • Wekufe: There are evil forces that seek to hurt people and are often controlled by a sorcerer. Shamans must call on their ancestors to protect them from these forces.

Inca and the Quechua

These two groups of people are grouped together because the Incan Empire, which ended with the Spanish conquest, lives on in their descendants, the Quechua.


The Inca, at the time of Spanish contact, worshiped a Sun god named Inti who was believed to be the direct ancestor of their emperor known as the Sapa Inca. The emperor's brother or other close relative served as the high priest of Inti. When the Inca conquered new places, they often adopted the local gods into their own pantheon, including Pachamama, the Earth goddess.

Rituals and Festivals

While the Inca engaged in human sacrifice, they did not do so frequently. When an emperor died, his servants were often sacrificed to serve him in death. However, during long and horrible droughts, the Inca did sacrifice children to try to end a drought or famine.

One of the most important festivals of the year, practiced by both the Inca and their contemporary descendants called the Quechua, was the Sun Festival. Called the Inti Raymi in their language, this festival, and accompanying rituals take place during the winter solstice to ensure good crops for the following year.


The Quechua beliefs today are their pre-Columbian beliefs from the Inca and neighboring cultures mixed with Catholicism. They pay special attention to the mallkus, guardian spirits who reside in nature, especially in the highest mountains. Shamans, called yatiri make ritual ''payments'' to these spirits and to Pachamama for protection and prosperity. One site that is very sacred for the Quechua and the Incas is Machu Picchu, a place high in the mountains where many of the forces of nature are thought to dwell.

Quechua yatiri
Quechua yatiri


The Yanomami live in small, isolated villages in the Amazon rainforest, mostly in Brazil with a few in Venezuela. The entire village lives in a circular ''house'' with an exterior wall and partial roof overhanging living quarters. The center is open to allow sunlight in on the village gardens.


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