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Making Empire Local

Posted On July 25, 2019 | 15:50 pm | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Carla Hernández Garavito shows how an Andean community used ritual to create a local history of their conquest by the Inca

Carla Hernández Garavito, who recently completed her PhD in anthropology at Vanderbilt University, was a 2018–2019 junior fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies. Her research report, “Cultural Legibility and Provincial Interaction: Subjugation of the Inca in Local Memory and Ritual in Huarochirí,” argued that incorporating local practices helped the Incas successfully colonize the Andes.

Q&A with Carla Hernández Garavito

How does your research help explain the mystery of the Inca empire’s rise and fall?

I’m fascinated by how an empire can construct itself so fast and be so large and then succumb to European conquest and colonization. From when the Inca first expanded beyond the basin of Cuzco—eventually encompassing areas of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina—to when the empire collapsed was 100–150 years.

But the Andes is a diverse region, not only in ecology but also in people. There is a very long history of occupation, and the Incas were just an endpoint to an Andean practice of statecraft. My argument is that the Inca empire was very good at synthesizing what was already there. Rather than trying to do a shocking transformation, the Incas incorporated local practices into their own ideology. They were very good at inserting themselves into the local landscape. My work centers on the material correlates of this insertion.

That’s not to say this was a gentle form of colonialism. That doesn’t exist. But this synthetic approach sets the stage for how you could build an empire this large this fast, and why so many practices of indigenous populations are alive today even after the Inca and the Spanish conquests.


What’s an example of a local practice the Incas incorporated?

I study one specific group, the Yauyos, the people of an area called Huarochirí. This region is very well known to Andeanists as the homeland of the only Quechua-written local history from the colonial period, which is commonly known as the Huarochirí Manuscript. It contains a long description of what brought the people of Huarochirí together, which was the idea of being associated with a single deity: a snowcapped mountain known as Pariacaca. Pre-Hispanic Andean societies saw their own communities as directly connected to their landscape, particularly to rock outcrops. Stones could embody something sacred and mediate between ground, bedrock, and everyday life. The people of Huarochirí saw themselves as one people not because they recognized themselves as a single political entity, but because they were the children of Pariacaca.

One specific ceremony of veneration to Pariacaca, the auquisna, included libations, people racing atop the mountains carrying llama bucks, dances, and sharing food. These ceremonies were not mere celebratory events, they were an affirmation of the link between people and land, and the performance of local memory. There’s this phrase in the manuscript that can be paraphrased, “they dance their origin dance, and then that place became their home.”

This ritual would probably have started before the Inca empire if it was part of the local cult of Pariacaca. But it isn’t something the Incas would necessarily have changed. My excavations showed the Inca added to the ceremonies rather than eradicate them.


Why look at local rituals like auquisna, both historically and archaeologically?

These rituals were familiar enough among Andean groups that they could serve as a space of interaction and negotiation between the Inca and their subjects. What the state does is try to make local practices fit into an order that allows them to govern. Again, I don’t want to banalize colonialism. But for local people who didn’t have the power to hold off the Inca, the use of familiar practices could be a means to maintain agency. You could claim little spaces where what was yours remained yours. You could develop a narrative like the Huarochirí Manuscript, in which the Inca also venerated Pariacaca and the Yauyos were not just a subjugated people.  Of course, they are still subject. But in my work, I attempt to explore how subjection becomes part of local memory.  


Julia Ostmann is Postgraduate Writing and Reporting Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, Postgraduate Digital Media Fellow.