RELIGIOLOGIQUES, 17 (printemps 1998) NOURRITURE ET SACRÉ (p. 123-137)

Andean Nutrition, Exchange, and Ritual

Joseph W. Bastien[1]

[Résumé / Abstract]


Malnutrition is recent in the Andes, arriving in full force with impoverishment brought about by colonial and capitalist underdevelopment. This is especially true in the Department of Oruro, Bolivia, the area of our research, where the majority of people work as miners and farmers. In 1967, in a sample of 1, 338 residents of three rural areas of the Department of La Paz (adjacent to Orura), 33 percent exhibited Grade 1 (mild) malnutrition; 10 percent exhibited Grade 2; and 2 percent, Grade 3 (severe) (USAID 1978:87). Prevalence of malnutrition was greatest (40 to 50%) for children from birth to five years. Malnutrition in young children is often exacerbated by diarrhea, which lessens absorption of nutrients.[2] Poverty is the primary cause of malnutrition. Peasants are unable to purchase fruits and vegetables, and they sell nutritious foods (eggs, meat, and potatoes) for money to buy cane alcohol, beer, sugar, tobacco, and noodles. In Challapata, peasants regularly traded five eggs for one bottle of Coca Cola.

Moreover, Aymara peasants suffer a crisis of values concerning traditional concepts of proper nutrition. Community Health Workers (SHWs) of forty-six communities reported that nutrition was better in the past than in the present. Members of these communities are in conflict trying to follow their traditions and resist radio propaganda which induces them to consume non-Andean products. The highly nutritious cereals quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and cañahua (Chenopodium pallidicaule) are considered lower-class, "Indian" foods to be replaced by white rice and noodles. Table I, at the end of the article, compares the nutritional values of cañahua, quinoa, rice, and noodles. Cañahua and quinoa have 100 percent more energy value and protein than noodles. They have considerably larger amounts of protein than rice and large quantities of calcium, phosphorous, and iron (cañahua).

Introduction of new foods makes peasants dependent upon merchants, whose prices are high because of transportation costs to rural communities. Peasants have decreased their production of native foods in preference for cash crops. These factors have altered nutritional balances. The women do not know how manufactured foods fit into the classification system; for example, unsure whether noodles are hot or cold, they serve them as a supplement to such classified foods as potatoes (Solanum tuberosum) or oca (Oxalis crenata), further overloading a diet high in carbohydrates. In sum, malnutrition is caused not only by economic forces but also by propaganda to change traditional values and adaptive dietary habits. Anthropologists and nutritionists can assist peasants by reconfirming some of their traditional practices.

In the past, peasants of Oruro had a better diet because they exchanged products grown on the Altiplano (a high plateau between the Cordilleras Oriental and Occidental)[3] for foods from different ecological zones. Four basic Andean zones are the following: Yungas (rain forest on the eastern slopes of the Andes) from 1,230 to 2,500 m, where coca, oranges, bananas and coffee grow; the Queshwa zone (valleys and slopes) from 2,500 to 3,000 m, where the cereals maize, quinoa, and wheat and vegetables are grown; Qhapanas (central rotative fields) from 3,000 to 4,500 m, where potatoes, oca, barley, and cañahua grow; and Puna (tundra highlands) from 4,500 to 5,000 m where alpacas, llamas, and sheep graze beyond the limits of agriculture.[4]

Members of each Andean community are limited to the number of zones to which they have access. Some people have plots in all regions, but this is rare. Andeans specialize in their production according to where they live. Information about the intricacies of climate and soil conditions for particular zones is passed on orally from parents to children. Members of the community exchange their resources with those living in other zones, thereby complementing their foods and maintaining their diets.

Within these zones are found certain basic Aymara foods. Already discussed quinoa and cañahua are high in protein and grow at high altitudes. See Table I for nutritional values. Cañahua is cultivated from 3,500 to 4,000 m. It is ground into powder and eaten dry or with milk as a snack on journeys. It is also used to make beer. Quinoa flourishes at levels where maize is cultivated, such as the Valley of Cochabamba, but also grows on the Altiplano, in the moister and warmer regions surrounding Lake Titicaca, 3,800 m. Aymaras eat quinoa in soup with chili peppers and potatoes, a dish called chaque de quinoa. They also fry it in butter or cheese, a dish called pisara, similar to macaroni and cheese in the U.S. Although seldom consumed, the leaves of quinoa contain vitamins and can be eaten like spinach. Increased production and consumption of quinoa would address particular dietary needs of Aymaras (Cárdenas 1969:115).

Also found in higher altitudes, potatoes and oca grow at elevations ranging from 3,000 to 4,300 m. Cultivated in large rotative fields, potatoes are planted the first year, oca the second, and barley the third. After this the aynoqa (Aymara name) or ghapana (Quechua name) lie fallow for five or more years. Rivaling the Irish, Aymaras eat potatoes for five meals during the day. Principal meals consist of quinoa or potato soup and a heaping bowl of many varieties of boiled potatoes. The potato skins are given to the guinea pigs. In spite of the nutritional value of the peels, Aymaras as well as other Andeans consider eating them pi-like behavior. (Nutritionists should not hope to change this view.) The peeled potatoes are dipped in a spicy hot sauce called afí (chili peppers and tomatoes). The meal is very bland and relatively tasteless for Westerners, but Aymaras relish the different species of potatoes, popping them into their mouths and commenting whether the potato is a "Red Maiden," "Bitter Potato," or some other of the hundred or more varieties that they cultivate. Aymaras freeze-dry potatoes to make Ch'uño by laying potatoes on the ground during June, the coldest month, to freeze at night and sweat from the sun during the day while they shuffle through them, squeezing out the water, so that they shrink to the size of marbles. Ch'uño has four times the energy value in calories as that of unprocessed potatoes.

Maize grows between 2,000 and 2,500 m in the Yungas, where the annual rainfall is more than 3,000 mm; in the Beni region at lesss than 200 m above sea level; and on the Isla del Sol of Lake Titicaca at 3,814 m. Major production areas in Bolivia are the mesothermic valleys of Cochabamba, Santa Cruz, and Chuquisaca (Cárdenas 1969:86-109). Maize is a prestigious and basic cereal with high nutritional value, but it is not as commonly used in the Andes as in Mexico. Aymaras eat maize in soup for the wet or first course of the meal and as choclo (corn on the cob) for the dry or second course of the meal. They also prepare a cake, humintas, from crushed kernels, salt, sugar, and cheese wrapped in corn leaves and boiled in water or baked in the oven. The kernels are prepared in many fashions to accompany meat and potatoes for the second dish. Maize, as well as quinoa and cañahua, is used to make a fermented beverage, chicha. These are only a few traditional foods grown at various altitudinal levels.

The Aymaras of the Department of Oruro live on the Aliplano (3,600 to 4,300 m). They grow potatoes, quinoa, and oca; herd alpacas, llamas, and sheep; and raise hogs, guinea pigs and chickens. Aymaras have adapted to verticality by specialized agriculture and herding in the zones occupied by a community and by exchange of resources with people living in different zones. Highland herders trade llama meat for potatoes, oca, and barley of the Altiplano; for cereals of the valleys; and for fruits and vegetables of the Yungas. Brooke Thomas (1972) showed that among the Quechua of Nuñoa, Peru, potato cultivators expended more energy than was received from eating their crop, but that this disproportion was balanced by trading potatoes for llama meat which required little energy input and provided high energy value. Traditionally, Aymaras maintain links among the different levels so that after harvest they barter their produce for that of other zones. Presently, many households in the Altiplano have relatives living in the Yungas and Valleys of Cochabamba and Santa Cruz. Moreover, many Aymaras travel seasonally to the Chapare region for work in coca production. When they return, they bring back produce from this Yungas region. Fairs and fiestas are also occasions of interzonal trading. It is not uncommon, then, to find fresh fruit and vegetables from the Yungas in the households of Aymaras living in semidesert regions of the Altiplano.


Rituals Symbolizing Resource Exchange

Andean rituals also function to promote exchange of resources. The most common Aymara ritual is preparation of a mesa (table) in which produce symbolizing various ecological zones is placed on seashell plates to be served to huacas (earth shrines) of Pachamama (Mother Earth). The gathering of ritual items from people in different zones reinforces exchange ties. The symbolism of the ritual teaches complementarity of foods. Mesas can be adapted by anthropologists and nutritionists to reinforce traditional and adaptive patterns of food exchange. First I will describe the symbolism of a mesa observed in 1971 in Kaata, Bolivia (Bastien 1978:136), and then I will discuss an adaptation of this to teach nutrition.[5]

Participants in this ritual fed the ancestors and the mountain shrines with food from the three levels of the ayllu as well as the universe itself. The three levels and communities were the following: Niñokorin (3,200 m), where Quechua speakers farm maize, wheat, barley, peas, and beans; Kaata, where Quechua speakers cultivate oca and potatoes on rotated fields of the central slopes (3,500 - 4,250 m); and Apacheta, where Aymara speakers herd alpacas, llamas, and sheep on the highlands (4,300 - 5k00 m) of the ayllu. Ritual items symbolize a particular level of land either by being a product peculiar to the ecological zone or by resembling some characteristic of the level. For instance, oranges are symbols of the sun, and cotton is a symbol of clouds, although both are grown in the lowlands. A llama fetus aborted on the high puna, a silver cross for the sky, and a staff for vertical authority and ancestral control also refer to the highlands. The central lands are symbolized by produce from inside, such as blood from the heart, and eggs from the hens. Items symbolic of the lowlands are carnations and chicha from Niñokorin, incence and coca from the lower Yungas, and seashells from the ocean (see Bastien 1995).

Participants spent a month gathering all the necessary ritual items from the different communities and ecological zones of their ayllu and province. They traveled twenty-six miles to Apacheta, where they exchanged three sacks of potatoes, oca, and beans for a live llama, which they butchered the next morning, quartered, and packed on a burro for the return trip to Kaata. Later, they traveled to Niñokorin, where they gathered carnations and maize, and from there to the lower Yungas for coca and fruit. Other ritual items were furnished by traveling neighbors. People from ayllu Amarete supplied the incense and fire-pots used only for ritual. A trader from distant Moro Karka exchanged from potatoes small figurines of stars, suns, moons, horses, llamas, fields, and houses. The gathering of the ritual items respects specialization by having the participants travel to the area where a resource is found, but it also emphasizes the necessary resource exchange between parts of the mountain.

The major feeding of the ritual began when Sarito, a yachai (diviner), set seashells on a ritual cloth (Figure 1), beginning with the bottom row, moving from west to east and upward. He followed symbolically the path of the sun as it dies in the west, is buried in the earth, and travels beneath the mountain to the east, where it is born again. Designating the first seashell to two western masculine lords of the mountain, Wayna Qowila and Machu Qowila, Sarito said that the young Qowila would serve the old Qowila. He set a plate to the lord of the central ayllu, Phesga Pata, and to the lords of the lower ayllus, Kalla Kalla and Qota Qota. The female guardians, Ikituana, Paya Tuana, and Machu Tuana, were beseeched. At the upper edge of the mountain, Sarito served plates to the staff and llama fetus. The staff is a symbol of lightning as well as of authority and patrilineal claim to land. The ritual items were wrapped in the cotton, and tied around the staff and fetus' back. Sarito said that the staff and fetus would carry these plates to the dead ancestors. As Sarito turned from north to west, south, and east, the mountains of Aghamani, Sunchuli, and Sillaga, the three lords of the seasons, were each given a plate. These lords are associated with the three crops of potatoes, oca, and barley, grown each year in the central area; with the three ecological levels of land; and with their corresponding communities

Arito filled the seashells with food. Twelve select leaves of coca were placed on the cotton within each shell. Since coca is a universal symbol for Andeans, it is used in every class of ritual. It also accompanies every meal. Sarito next placed carnation petals on the coca leaves, followed by chunks of llama fat, telling the lord it was cheese. Incense, dried ferns, lead figurines, pea-sized white and pink candles, confetti, and sugar were added to each seashell. Sarito scraped the coins and eggshell over the plates, and whispered to the lords to serve themselves and to buy something with the money.

Several orderings were discernible in the serving of the foods. The solid ritual foods were put on the seashells by beginning with the lower left corner and crossing to the upper right. Sarito repeated this upward movement until he reached the llama fetus. Wine, pisco (distilled wine), and cane alcohol, symbols of fertility, stood on the lower part of the cloth. Sarito sprinkled each plate with these liquids in the reverse direction and ended at his place near the lower left corner. Solids moved upward, and liquids moved down, just as on the mountain, where solid food grows upward and water runs down. The sun travels upward from east to west under the mountain during the nigt. Solids and liquids are related to the cyclical factors of day and night, earth and sky, sun and rain, as well as the husband's patrilineage and the wife's lineage.

Sarito followed a specific order in serving the foods, beginning with lower zone foods such as the seashells, coca, incense, and carnations; going to the central zone foods of eggs, money, llama fat, and candies; and finishing with figurines, associated with the higher level. The ritual was a way to invite all the lords to eat at his household shrine. If the lords and ancestors, who are associated with parts of the mountain, were fed at the proper time, then the communion of people and places would ensure the organic integrity of the corporeal body (health-nutrition) (see Bastien 1985).

(See figure 2)

Only Sarito could watch the lords eat. Sarito emptied the contents of the seashells into the flames of the fireport, located in the patio. He beseeched, "Please receive this food, servant, and carry it to the lords of the seasons." Once the lords had eaten, the participants ate plates of hot soup with llama meat, followed by cooked maize and potatoes. Sarito was paid a sack of dried foods and left. (See figure 3)

Varied forms of the ritual can be found throughout the Andes. Variations include the designation to earth shrines, lords, and ritual foods, but nearly all mesas have servings of a llama fetus, llama fat, coca leaves, and guinea-pig blood, corresponding to produce from high, central, and low zones. Implications for the use of mesas in nutritional education are the following: first, mesas can be analyzed to understand Aymara classifications of foods (such as solids moving up the mountain and liquids moving down) or that foods from high, central, and low levels should be combined in a certain order. This ordering is not easily discernible, but when a new food is introduced, its place in the system can be ascertained by how it is used in ritual. Secondly, Andeans associate meanings with food produced in their region which are symbols used in their rituals. Food symbolizes specialization, exchange, levels of ayllu and universe, and diet of the lords. Thirdly, the major ritual is a meal in which careful attention is paid to seeing that the lords are fed a complete meal with produce representative of the major resource levels. In short, mesas contain valuable lessons in nutrition for Andeans and in Andean cosmology for outsiders. They can be adapted for promoting nutrition.


The Good Meal Table

While I was working as a consultant and evaluator of Project Concern's Oruro program in 1986, Mary, Oscas, and I adapted a mesa to teach Aymaras nutrition in the following way. Because mesas are often called "Good Fortune Tables," we named it Sumaj Comida Mesa (Good Meal Table). Our objective was to motivate Aymara mothers to complement their diet by exchanging and eating resources from different zones. We trained forty-six community health workers (CHWs) who represented forty-six small communities of from fifty to 250 inhabitants. The CHWs were taught to present the mesa to mothers at meetings of mothers' clubs, Clubes de Madres, Programa Materno Infantil, and Warmi Wawantin, approximately 209 clubs in urban and rural areas of the Department of Oruro. We first explained to the CHWs that the lesson plan involved role playing and enactment of a sumaj suerte mesa (Good Fortune Table), which is a ritual meal to feed the earth shrines of their community. Symbolically, these rituals represent a feeding of the earth with produce from many Andean zones, so they can be used as illustrations for what people should eat. We explained the analogy that if the earth, Pachamama (an important feminine deity), is served foods from the high, central, and low levels of land, then people should also eat from a table with foods from these levels, or a Sumaj Comida Mesa. The CHWs were sent out to prepare a mesa for their community. They gathered ritual paraphernalia, which varied with their region but always had items from three or more regions. The following week the CHWs prepared the Good Meal Table. As they served the seashells foods from the different levels, they commented on the body's need for each food. The llama fetus represents Pachamama's gift of alpacas, llamas, and sheep, from which we get meat and energy. Blood represents the central lands, where we grow potatoes, oca, and barley, foods which are needed for carbohydrates and energy. Coca and carnations represent the lowlands, from where we receive maize, vegetables, and fruits - foods that provide fiber, minerals, and vitamins.

After the CHWs understood the lesson plan, they used it in meetings of the Mothers' Clubs. The mothers spent two weeks in gathering the ritual items. (Here the CHWs pointed out the importance of bartering - consider that the peasants are much better off with farm goods than money in a country where inflation is high.) The mothers enjoyed creating the mesas with seashell plates, cotton, coca, llama fat, guinea-pig blood, carnations, candies, and many regional symbols. They designated the plates to their own earth shrines and asked their owns favors. The mothers fed the earth when they burned cotton balls in the earth shrine within the patio, asking the place to eat this meal abundant with produce from the different zones. By acting this out, the women not only reiterated the ritual importance of these foodstuffs but also learned their nutritional value. The nutrition lesson became legitimized within their culture by its association with the Good Fortune Table. Complementarity was emphasized in that each earth shrine eats foods from the other zones at the same meal. This illustrates that Aymaras need to combine foods at meals, such as beans and rice.

After the Good Meal Table, CHWs explained the principles of a nutritious diet. They pointed out that combining foods from the three levels completes the human body. Feeding the earth shrines feeds Pachamama. They said, "Meats, potatoes, oca, cereals, vegetables, and fruits are needed to feed your children in similar fashion as you have fed Mother Earth (Pachamama)." For the next meeting, the mothers prepared a meal to honor the earth shrines, bringing products from different zones and eating them. Discussion followed about how they could obtain resources from these levels.

In evaluation, CHWs reported that the mothers liked and understood the lesson plan. Some Protestant CHWs refused to use it because they thought it included erroneous beliefs (cf. Bastien 1992:121). Several CHWs modified the symbolism of the mesa to correspond to their community. This greatly encouraged us because the pedagogy was intended to be a dialogue between the CHW and members of the community. Several CHWs agreed that it was a fine method to teach peasants but felt that their role was to use Western concepts, such as the Basic Four. This has always been a problem in that some adulate Western technology: examples are formula feeding and injections, which peasants request for any ailment.

I observed that the mothers enjoyed acting out the rituals and preparing the meal. They had fun, laughed, and reveled in doing something that the ritualists do. They especially enjoyed discussing the variety of items for the meal. This activity also strengthened the bond between the ritualists of the village and CHWs by recognizing mesas as important cultural items. One advantage of using the mesa is that almost all Andean families prepare or assist at similar rituals frequently during the year, recalling once again the nutrition lesson.




The Good Meal Table also teaches us ways to educate people of North America about nutrition. On a slightly deeper level of abstraction, this pedagogy recognizes food as a part of an ecological, symbolic, and physiological system. For Andeans, you are not only what you eat, but feed the earth and the earth feeds you in a sacred and physiological union. Meals are the bringing together of environmental and physiological components. Food has a holistic dimension. In Western society, food is to be consumed and abrogated by the individual for his or her pleasure; there is no communion with Mother Earth; lost is the deep sharing of banquets, and the exchanging of resources on equal terms. Food is contained in a can or plastic wrapper, as it will later be put in the body. Food is no longer a mediator between our bodies, each other, the earth, and the universe. These cultural premises and critiques can be used to fill the communication gap in nutrition education.


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Bastien, Joseph W. 1978. Mountain of the Condor: Metaphor and Ritual in an Andean Ayllu. American Ethnological Society, Monograph 64. St. Paul: West Publishing Company. (Reissued in paperback by Waveland Press in 1985).

Bastien, Joseph W. 1985. "Qollahuaya-Andean Body Concepts: A Topographical-Hydraulic Model of Physiology". American Anthropologist, 87, p. 595-611.

Bastien, Joseph W. 1992. Drum and Stethoscope: Integrating Ethnomedicine and Biomedicine in Bolivia. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Bastien, Joseph W. 1995. "Les ancêtres et l'expression de la métaphore montagne-corps dans un rituel funéraire Kaatan". Recherches Amérindiennes au Québec, vol. XXV, no 2. p. 66-77.

Brush, Stephen B. 1977. Mountain, Field, and Family. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Càrdenas, Martin. 1969. Manual de Plantas Economicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Imprenta Icthus.

Labarre, Weston. 1984. "The Aymara Indians of the Lake Titicaca Plateau, Bolivia". Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association, 68. Washington: American Anthropological Association.

Lorini, José. 1982. "Los factores limitantes de un ecosistema como causas dequilibrio". In Ecologia v Recursos Naturales en Bolivia. Cochabamba: Centro Pedagógico y Cultural de Portales, p. 7-12.

Posnansky, Manuel. 1982. Los efectos sobre la ecologida del Altiplano de Introducción de animales y cultivos por los Españoles. Cochabamba: Centro Pedagógico Cutural de Portales, p. 13-22.

Thomas, Brooke. 1972. Human Adaptation to a High Andean Energy Flow System. Ph.D. diss., Pennsylvania State University.

Tschopik, Harry. 1946. The Aymara. Handbook of South American Indians. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2, p. 501-73.

USAID. 1978. Evaluació del Sector de Salud en Bolivia. La Paz, Bolivia.












Figure I

Mesa prepared for ritual feeding

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Figure 2

Offering foods to Earth Shrines on three levels

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Figure 3

Feeding Earth Shrines

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[1] Joseph W. Bastien is a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Arlington.

[2] Aymaras classify diarrhea as a wet disease and try to cure it by giving the infant foods classified as dry, such as cereals. Naturally, this dehydrates the infant and often leads to death. In a book (Bastien 1992:176-180), I show how Andean peasants can be taught oral rehydration therapy by recasting an Andean legend. The purpose is to resort to basic Andean cognitive patterns for reeducating them about diarrhea control.

[3] José Lorini (1982:7-12) and Manuel Posnansky (1982:13-22) discuss ecology and cultivation of the Altiplano.

[4] Brush (1977) describes the agriculture and ecological zones in the Andes.

[5] For other descriptions of mesas, see LaBarre (1948) and Tschopik (1946).



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