With a rich and complex history, the Aymara Indians are the second largest indigenous linguistic group in South America. They are believed to be the descendents of the ancient Tiahuanacan, the first great Andean empire that emerged in the Bolivian highlands around 600 B.C. and was centered around the southeastern side of Lake Titicaca.
Of the 2 million Aymara that remain, most communities or ayllus (traditional Aymara communes based on extended families living in single room, in gabled houses constructed of turf and thatched roofs) live in the altiplano regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Chile has the smallest number of Aymara people, around 45,000. Due to economic hardship and a propensity toward greater assimilation into typical Chilean life, many Aymara people have migrated from the altiplano to the coastal cities of Arica and Iquique and many small villages are now used only for ceremonial purposes.
Those who continue to carve out a subsistence existence from the desolate altiplano utilize 2,000-year-old traditions and techniques based on animal husbandry -- the herding of sheep and llama -- and agriculture, namely the cultivation of quinoa, potatoes, and barley. Rather contentiously, the Aymara have cultivated coca plants for centuries, using its leaves in traditional medicines, a fact which has brought the Aymara into conflict with the government, especially in Peru and Bolivia, since coca contains cocaine alkaloids, the basis for cocaine.
Social organization varies from community to community and leadership, based on a complex system of social prestige, is achieved through community service, sponsorship of fiestas, and extending ties beyond each ayllu. Patriarchal kinship is based on extended families and premised upon economic cooperation. Daughters tend to marry and move in with their husbands, while sons seek to establish a separate household within the same community as their fathers.
The Aymara have a profound respect for their ancient traditions, ancestors, and religion, and their ritualistic culture reveals a passionate adherence to their belief in a multispiritual world in which shamans, diviners, and magicians are a part. Festivals and rituals, which usually occur during harvest and to mark seminal life events such as baptism, marriage, and death, are ebullient community events involving frenzied dancing, singing, eating, drinking, and animal sacrifice. Each fiesta presents a compelling fusion of catholic and supernatural indigenous religious rituals. At the apex of the Aymara's mystical devotion is the goddess Mother Earth, known as Pachamama.
The Aymara dress is adapted to the harsh conditions of the high altitude altiplano. Men wear a chullu (a wool hat with ear-flaps) and striped ponchos over shirt and pants. Women wear bowler hats, ruffled blouses, brilliantly colored full skirts, sturdy boots, and an aguayo (a wool sling for carrying their baby on their backs).
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