Quechua Tribe: Location & Language

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson explore the Quechua, a large group of tribes living in the South American Andes. Discover where they are and have been historically located and also, learn about the main features of their language.

The Quechua Tribes

Napaykullayki! That is how you greet in Quechua; not too formal, it's just a casual hello.

The Quechua people are a series of indigenous tribes that live in the Andean mountains of South America. However, Quechua refers more to the language than to a specific human group, because there are many different tribes that speak Quechua or closely related dialects. The Inca civilization, for example, was a Quechua-speaking empire.

Quechua woman and child
Quechua Woman and Child

The Quechua population is estimated at about 10 to 13 million, but many people in the region are also descendants of Spanish and other native tribes, so the exact number is unknown.

Quechua Traditions

The members of the Quechua tribes have a rich culture, full of traditions. They are known for their colorful textiles; the traditional woolen coats, or ponchos, are very popular and are crafted not only for local use but for export and tourists.

Their music is an interesting combination of singing and sounds from traditional flutes. These songs are among the strongest artistic expressions in the Quechua language. Although most Quechua people have adopted Catholicism since colonial times, they practice a combination of ancient tribal rites and Catholic celebrations.

Quechua celebration of the winter solstice in Cuzco, Peru
Quechua Celebration in Cuzco

Location of the Quechua Groups

The Quechua tribes have adapted to several different environments. A large group is located in the mountainous areas of Peru and Bolivia and over 10% of the Peruvian population is considered to be Quechua.

Large areas of Ecuador and the borderline with Colombia are also inhabited by these tribes. Some others are located in Chile, close to the Bolivian border and also, in Northern Argentina.

Location of Quechua-speaking Tribes
Location of Quechua-speaking Tribes

While some Quechuas have moved into the cities looking for better opportunities, many still live in rural zones and small villages. Those are mostly mountainous areas with poor soils, located at high altitude. These harsh conditions have forced the Quechua to adapt.

Stone structures and walls, built during Inca times, allowed people to use the steep slopes of the mountains for growing crops. While potatoes are the most important ingredient of their diet, they also grow other crops like quinoa and beans and eat local animals; both the guinea pig and llamas are considered delicacies.

Houses of Quechua People in the Mountains of Peru
Houses of Quechua People

Some groups have settled in mountain valleys that have fertile soils, abundant water and milder weather conditions, while others are in the rainforest east of the Andes.

The Quechua Language

The Quechua is the language spoken by many different tribes. It is not a homogeneous language and there are several variations. Although they share similar structures and are all considered Quechua tongues, speakers from one dialect often have difficulty understanding the others.

Quechua is believed to have originated in Peru about 4,500 years ago. It was adopted as the official language of the Incas, who helped spread it over the Andean region. Today, it continues to be widely used, mostly in informal contexts. However, Spanish is used for official communications, education and literature.

In Bolivia, Quechua is one of over 30 official indigenous languages. In Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, Spanish is recognized as official and Quechua is considered co-official or secondary. In Argentina and Chile, there is no legal official language, but Spanish prevails and is considered the national language.

Writing

Before the Spanish colonization, the Quechua didn't have a writing system. There is evidence of an intricate Inca system of knotted strings called quipu, in which the shape and number of the knots and size and color of the strings involved different meanings. There's still debate as to the function, whether a technique for remembering messages or an actual representation of phonetic sounds or ideas.

A quipu, the knotted system of communication
A Quipu

The missionaries introduced the Latin alphabet and tried to standardize writing. However, the language remained mostly oral until the 20th century when the correspondence between sounds and writing characters was officially defined. Nonetheless, Quechua is still largely an oral language because many native speakers are unable to read or write.

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