The Aborigines of Peru

Physical Peculiarities of the Quichuas, Aymaras, Atacamas, and Changos

The Peruvian and Araucanian races alone, among the South American aborigines, present subjects of interest to the historian. The other tribes of that great portion of the western continent are at an infinite remove from these in the scale of civilization, and can scarce be said to have any separate national history. We shall describe their habits and physical appearance, much as we should enter upon the duties of the writer upon natural history: an attempt to arrange a serial narrative of events, as connected with them would be useless.

Nature Of The Country

Widely contrasted with the wild and savage tribes of the interior, and of the eastern coast, the Peruvians offer, in their character and history, a fruitful theme for the attention and research of the historian and the philosopher. As a nation, they were, when discovered by Europeans, perfectly unique. Such refinements in government, such unity of purpose, and such perfect system, as were observable in all their customs and usages, have never been even attempted, much less accomplished, by any other community throughout the globe.

The physical conformation of the Quichua race, the most prominent among the ancient inhabitants of Peru, is somewhat singular. The effects of living at such an immense elevation as that of many of their cities, and of the great plateaus which they inhabit among the Andes, cause a remarkable development of the chest. The rarity of the air in mountainous districts render a much greater volume of it necessary in respiration. The Quichuas have there fore, according to M. d’Orbigny, “very large, square shoulders, a broad chest, very voluminous, highly arched, and longer than usual, which increases the size of the trunk. The extremities are nevertheless, very muscular, and bespeak great strength; the head is larger than usual in proportion to the rest of the body; the hands and feet are always small.”

The Quichuas differ, in a marked manner, from most of the other South American nations, in the features of the countenance. These are said in some degree to approach the Mexican type. A prominent aquiline nose, large nostrils, the forehead somewhat retreating, a moderately full cerebral development, rather a large mouth, adorned with fine teeth, and a short but well defined chin, may be given as generally characteristic of the race.

The Quichuas have beautifully soft, thick, and flowing hair, but are almost destitute of beards. Their complex ion is a brown olive, entirely distinct from the reddish or copper hue of most of the North American Indians. It approaches that of the mulatto more nearly than that of the other American aborigines, and is spoken of as singularly uniform. They are of low stature, particularly those who live in the more elevated regions. Their general physiognomy, in the words of the author above cited, “is, upon the whole, uniform, serious, reflective, melancholy, without, however, showing indifference: it denotes rather penetration without frankness. Their features altogether retain a mediocrity of expression. The women are seldom very handsome; their noses are not so prominent or curved as those of the men: the latter, although they have no beard, have a masculine expression, derived from their strongly marked features. An ancient vase, which represents with striking fidelity, the features of the present race of Quichuas convinces us that for four and five centuries their physiognomy has undergone no sensible alteration.”

The Aymaras, the second in the grand division of the Peruvian races, bear a close resemblance to those just described. In early times the strange and unnatural custom of flattening the head obtained among them, as is fully proved by the contour of many skulls found in their ancient places of burial or deposit.

No material variation from the Quichuan bodily formation is noticeable in the Atacamas, who inhabit the western slope of the Andes; but the Changos, dwelling upon the hot levels of the sea-coast, “are of darker hue: their color is a tawny, approaching to black.”

The country inhabited by these three races, although lying within the tropics, and in certain localities luxuriantly rich and fertile, presents obstacles to the agriculturalist, which would seem almost insurmountable. Nothing but the whole industry of a great nation, directed systematically to the work of reclamation and improvement, could ever have made Peru what it was in the days of the Incas.

A flat and sterile plain, washed by the Pacific, forms the western boundary of the ancient empire. On this district rain never falls; at least, the few drops, which at certain seasons sprinkle the surface, are insufficient to avail in the slightest degree for the promotion of fertility. From the stupendous mountain ranges which extend in an unbroken course throughout the western sea-board of South America, impetuous torrents pour down through the plains towards the sea, and, by a laborious and ingenious diversion, these streams were led by the ancient Peruvians in long and massive aqueducts to irrigate the plain or the terraces wrought upon the steep sides of the mountains. Some mention has been made, in a former chapter, of the ruins which still remain to attest the advancement and enterprise of the ancient Peruvians, particularly of the great roads by which ready communication was opened over the most rugged and naturally impassable country in the world. A further description of some of these relics will be given hereafter, as connected with their wonderful system of government, and its effects in the accomplishment of public works.

First Rumors of the Wealth of the Country

Mexico had already fallen into the hands of the Spaniards, and their settlements had long been established upon the Isthmus, before the world obtained any knowledge of the western coast of South America. The national thirst for gold, only the more excited by the successes in contest with the Aztecs, was roused anew by reports gathered from the natives of the Isthmus, of a far richer and more magnificent empire at the South.

Expedition of Pascual De Andagoya

The first attempt to explore the coast to the southward had been made in 1522, by Pascual de Andagoya, but he proceeded no further than the Puerto de Pinas, near the mouth of the small river Biru. Two years passed away without any further discoveries, at the end of which time, the matter was taken in hand by a man whose character leaves us at a loss whether we should the more admire his courage, fortitude, and indomitable energy, or execrate his cruelty and unscrupulous rapacity. This man was Francisco Pizarro. He was, at this time, about fifty years of age, the last ten of which, at least, he had passed amid the stirring scenes of discovery and conquest in the New World. He had, among other adventures, shared the dangers and the exultation of Vasco Nugnez de Bal boa, in his first passage of the Isthmus, and his discovery of the Western Ocean. He was now residing near Panama, and is said to have accumulated but a small landed property as the reward of his long labors and privations.

Francisco Pizarro: his First Voyage of Discovery

Pizarro was the illegitimate son of a colonel of infantry, named Gonzalo Pizarro, and a woman of low rank, residing at Truxillo, in Spain, in which city the future conqueror was born. In the great enterprise of the conquest of Peru, he was associated with one Diego de Almagro, a man of more uncertain origin, and less favored by worldly prosperity, even than himself. This companion in arms was, at all events, a brave and gallant soldier. Fortunately for the two adventurers, they succeeded in securing the assistance of Hernando de Luque, an ecclesiastic occupied in the duties of his profession at Panama. With such funds as could be raised by these three, a vessel was pro cured, and about one hundred men were enlisted to share the danger and profits of the expedition. Pedrarias, the Spanish governor, sanctioned the proceeding, stipulating, at the same time, for a proportion of the gold that should be brought home.

In November 1524, Pizarro set sail, leaving Almagro to prepare another vessel which they had purchased, and to follow as soon as possible. Nothing but disaster marked this first voyage. Storms at sea; conflicts with natives on shore; sickness, exposure, and starvation, thinned the numbers and broke down the spirit of the party. Pizarro alone appears to have maintained an unskaken fortitude and determination.

No provisions could be procured at the spots where the voyagers landed, and it became necessary to send the vessel back for supplies. About half the company, under one Montenegro, was dispatched for this purpose, leaving the rest of the adventurers upon the swampy, unwholesome coast, not far from the mouth of the Biru, to support them selves as best they could amid an almost impenetrable wilderness of rank tropical vegetation. Nearly half their number perished before any relief was obtained. When at the extremity of distress, the sight of a distant light amid the forest awakened their hopes, and Pizarro, with a small scouting party, led by this token of human habitation, penetrated the thicket to an Indian village. His hungry followers seized on whatever offered. As the natives, who had at first fled in terror, gradually approached and held communication with them, their hopes were again revived by the sight of rude ornaments in gold, and by the confirmation of the reports concerning a rich empire at the south.

It was six weeks from the time of his departure before Montenegro returned to rescue his remaining companions. With renewed hope and zeal, the party reembarked, and continued to coast along the shore. After landing at other places, and experiencing severe encounters with the war like natives, it was found necessary to return to Panama to refit.

Almagro, in the mean time, had followed in the same course, with the second vessel, and landed at most of the places visited by Pizarro. He was more successful in his engagements with the natives than the first party had proved and succeeded in extending his voyage as far south as the river of San Juan. At this place unmistakable tokens of approach to a well-cultivated and inhabited country presented themselves. Finding no further traces of Pizarro and his companions, and supposing that they must have perished or have been compelled to return, Almagro now turned his course towards Panama. He brought home more gold and more favorable reports than his partner; but the disasters, losses, and miserable condition of the first voyagers tended to throw almost insurmountable obstacles in the way of a second attempt.

Contract Of Pizarro, Almagro, and Luque

The three confederates Pizarro, Almagro, and Father Luque continued as sanguine as ever. The necessary funds were obtained by the latter, as is said, of one Gas-par de Espinosa, in whose name he acted, and in whose behalf he stipulated for one-third of all returns which should result from a successful completion of the immense undertaking. A solemn contract was entered into between the parties, strengthened by all the ceremonials of oaths and religious services. Neither of the two soldiers could write, and their signatures were executed in their presence, by the witnesses to the instrument of contract.

Pedrarias had been succeeded by Don Pedro de los Rios, and the new governor assented to the second expedition. This was undertaken with two vessels, carrying about one hundred and sixty men and a few horses. The services of Bartholomew Ruiz, a skilful pilot, were secured. The adventurers steered direct for the mouth of the San Juan, and, landing at an Indian village on the river, obtained some plunder in gold, and seized upon the persons of a few of the natives. The country appeared too populous to offer much chance of success to such a small band of invaders. Almagro was therefore sent back to enlist more men at home, while Ruiz, with the other vessel, explored the coast further to the south, and Pizarro remained near the river, with a portion of the crew. The latter endured much from famine, exposure, and fatigue, during the absence of Ruiz. Attempting to penetrate into the interior, in hopes of finding a more open country, they were completely worn down and dispirited.

The pilot, in the mean time, had made his way far southward. He had crossed the equator, and touched at several places, where the dense population and well-built dwellings gave proofs of no little advancement in civilization. He brought with him several Indian prisoners, taken at sea, upon one of the rude boats, or rather rafts, called “balsas,” in which they were voyaging. Some of these were from the port of Tumbez, and their marvelous accounts of the quantities of gold and silver used by their monarch, roused anew the cupidity of the Spaniards.

Almagro spoil after arrived with numerous fresh recruits, and, what with the glowing reports of Ruiz, and this addition to their force, the weakened and despairing followers of Pizarro regained their former hopes and courage. The whole company again set sail for the land of promise. At Tacames, near the mouth of the Santiago, where the present town of Esmeraldas is situated, the flourishing appearance of the country invited the voyagers to land; but they were opposed by thousands of armed natives, who attacked them with great fury. It was sup posed that all the Christians must have perished in this onslaught, but for a strange mistake on the part of the Indians. A few of the Spaniards were mounted upon horses a sight never before witnessed in Peru and one of the cavaliers happening to fall from his horse, the Indians supposed that a single enemy had become two. The horse and his rider were taken for but one animal, and the confusion and amazement caused by the sight of such a prodigious separation, gave the Spaniards an opportunity to retreat.

It was plain that a greater force was necessary to make any advantageous progress in the new empire, and again was one of the little vessels sent back to Panama for reinforcements, while Pizarro and a portion of his forces took up their quarters upon the little island of Gallo. They suffered every extremity before supplies reached them from the north, and when two vessels loaded with stores made their appearance, there was a general cry for return.

Pizarro, fortified in his determination by encouraging letters from his allies, harangued his followers, and gave them their free choice whether to go forward in search of fame and wealth, or to return in poverty and disgrace to Panama. Thirteen only had the resolution to proffer their further services. The commander of the store-ships, who was instructed by the governor to bring back the party, refused to leave either of his vessels for the use of these few valorous spirits, and, grudgingly bestowing upon them a portion of his provisions, set sail, leaving them, as was supposed, to certain destruction.

Pizarro and his Companions Upon the Isle of Gorgona

Upon this island, and upon that of Gorgona, twenty-five leagues to the northward, (whither they migrated on a raft, for better quarters, the little party spent seven miserable and solitary months. By great exertions, Almagro and Luque procured another vessel, and the governor s per mission to relieve their associates; but this was not obtained without a positive injunction to Pizarro to return within six months. No recruits were taken on board, be yond the necessary crew of the vessel. Ruiz had charge of the craft, and the sight of his approach soon gladdened the desponding hearts of the destitute and half-famished expectants at Gorgona.

Without hesitation the little band stood once more for the south, leaving two of their number ill on the island, in charge of some of the friendly natives, who were still detained in their company. After twenty days sail, in which they passed, without landing, the spots of former exploration, the vessel entered the unknown gulf of Guayaquil.

As the Spaniards directed their course towards the city of Tumbez, the residence of the Indian captives, they en countered many natives, in the balsas which served them for boats. These strange craft were made of logs of lightwood, secured together, and fitted with masts and sails. The crews of these rafts, in the midst of their amazement at the prodigy before their eyes, recognized the Indians on board, and learning from them that the strangers were bound merely upon exploration, returned to satisfy the curiosity of the eager crowds gathered upon the shore.

A peaceful communication was soon established, and the sea-wearied Spaniards were refreshed by bountiful supplies of the tropical luxuries furnished by the kindly natives. Llamas, or Peruvian camels, as they were called, were now for the first time exhibited and offered to the visitors. A great noble, of the royal race of the Incas, came on board, and was courteously entertained by Pizarro, who pointed out and explained the mysteries of the vessel and its accoutrements.

The officers of the Spanish company were in turn, feasted at the house of the curaca, or governor of the province, and were shown the royal temple and fortresses. Some of the apartments were adorned with such a rich profusion of massive golden ornaments and plating, that the dazzled Spaniards now trusted in the speedy realization of their long-deferred hopes.

From Tumbez, Pizarro coasted southward as far as the island and port of Santa, some distance beyond the site of the present Truxillo, stopping at various towns and settlements on his route. The strangers were everywhere received with hospitality, kindness, and the most lively curiosity, and enough was seen fully to convince them of the richness, civilization, and prosperity of the thickly populated empire.


Returning to Panama, they again stopped at Tumbez and other important ports, and thence brought away specimens of the productions of the country; among other things, a number of llamas. At their own request, several of the Spaniards were left at Tumbez, to enjoy the luxury and ease, which seemed to be offered by a life among the kindly natives. A young Peruvian, named Felipillo, with one or two companions, was taken on board the vessel, that he might be instructed in the Spanish language, and that his appearance might satisfy the incredulous, at home, as to the character of the inhabitants of Peru.

The troubles of the enterprising trio to whom these discoveries were owing were not yet at an end. The derision and contumely, which had tended so long to damp their spirits, was, indeed, changed to congratulations and eager astonishment at the return and reports of Pizarro; but the governor frowned upon the prosecution of the enterprise. “He did not wish,” says Herrera, “to depopulate his own district in order to people new countries ” the gold, silver, and sheep which had been exhibited, seemed to him but a paltry return for the expenditure of such an amount of lives and money, and the endurance of such hardships and suffering as were the fruits of the first expeditions.

Before continuing the account of the steps by which the great work of conquest was finally achieved, it will be well to take a brief view of the condition of the devoted country at the period of its discovery.

The two great monarchies of Mexico and Peru, both of them in a state of semi-civilization at the period of Spanish discoveries and conquests, are closely associated in our minds. The thoughts of one naturally suggest that of the other. We shall, however, find, upon an examination of history, that these nations were widely dissimilar: neither, in all human probability, had any knowledge of the others existence, and no intercourse could have been maintained between them from a period of the most remote antiquity.

Without going into a direct comparison between these countries, their respective governments, religion, and national customs, we shall enter sufficiently into particulars in treating the present subject, to give the reader such a general idea of its details that he can himself perceive the contrasts and dissimilarities above mentioned.

Peru South America,

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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