Peru Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Peru is one of the dominant nations of South America. So, who lives there? In this lesson we will talk about the ethnic groups of Peru, and see how this reflects the nations complex history of empires and conquest.

Peru

There have been some great things to come out of Peru. Quinoa originated in the Andes Mountains, and now we see it on grocery stores everywhere. Peruvians were the first to domesticate alpacas, and now alpaca wool is world famous. People of this region were also the first to domesticate guinea pigs. Of course, they used them for a food supply, while we like them because they're cute and fluffy, but still, Peru has given the world some great stuff. Part of this is because it is one of the American (as in the continents of the Americas) cradles of civilization. From the peaks of the Andes to the dense forests of the Amazon, people have lived and thrived in what is now Peru for millennia, and developed some of the oldest settled societies in the hemisphere. But that was a long time ago. So, who lives in Peru now? Let's get to know the Peruvians, who still have a lot left to offer this world.

Peru is one of the cradles of civilization in the Western Hemisphere
Mountains of Peru

Amerindians

As many of you have probably heard, Peru was the center of Spanish imperial conquests back in the 16th century, and has been inhabited by Spanish-speakers ever since. We'll get to them in a minute, but I want to talk about what happened to those indigenous people already living there. Peru is unique amongst many South American nations in that its indigenous population is still not only intact, but a majority. In fact, roughly 45% of Peruvians are ethnically indigenous.

Now, the Peruvian government officially recognizes all people of indigenous ancestry under a single title: Amerindian. This term is a contraction of the words American Indian. While the census groups all Amerindian together, the reality is much more complex. Depending on who you ask, there are between 50 and 90 distinct Amerindian ethnic groups within Peru, most of whom speak their own language. In general, however, these people all fall within one of three ethno-linguistic families. First are the various Quechua people. The Quechua groups are high-elevation Andean peoples and the largest Amerindian ethnic group of Peru today. Historically, it was a branch of Quechua speakers who formed the massive Inca Empire that stretched across this part of South America. While many still live in the Andes, many have also migrated to lower-elevation cities across Peru for economic opportunities. Officially, all Quechua languages are considered official languages of Peru, and the government maintains a proud stance on this heritage.

Quechua girl
Quechua girl

The next ethno-linguistic family in Peru are the Aymara people. Aymara languages were spoken by some of the settled societies that appeared even before the Inca, and is also largely connected to the Andes. Most Aymara people live in southern Peru, but like the Quechua have spread across the nation looking for work. Aymara languages are also formally recognized as official languages in Peru as well.

The final group of Amerindian ethnicities are the Amazonian people who live along the Amazon River. Many of these groups are essentially hunter-gatherer societies to this day, although recently they have been placed under extreme pressure by logging industries in the rainforest. As small, loosely-organized bands, most Amazonian groups do not receive any sort of representation in the Peruvian government and can be subject to prejudice as being less a part of the Peruvian national identity than Quechua or Aymara peoples.

Mestizos

So, that's a basic breakdown of the Amerindian population of Peru. Now, to qualify for this ethnic category, members have to be almost entirely genetically indigenous. That's because Peru, like most Latin American nations, has a historic and modern ethnic category of mixed heritage, or mestizo. People who have mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry are formally categorized as mestizos, and compose about 37% of the total population. They mostly speak Spanish, another official language of the government, although many also speak an Amerindian language. Historically, mestizos were mostly middle-class artisans and merchants (to the extant that Peru as a Spanish colony had a middle class), but today mestizos are found throughout society.

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