* Q’ero Praxis of Reciprocity

IMAGE_Mother child

“The message of the Q’ero is that people need to reconnect with the matrix of the cosmos–with the spirit of Pacha Mama (Cosmic Mother), which is the Earth, with the spirits of the mountains, or apus, and with the spirit of the stars.” Americo Yabar Americo Yabar

Let’s travel together to visit the Q’ero culture in the Andes Mountains of Peru where we explore the theme of natality by focusing on reciprocity and Q’ero relationship with seeds.  Q’eros (pl.) view themselves as members of the ecosystems in which they live, and they participate consciously in feedback loops by opening their ears to dialogue with all beings in their living culture, particularly seeds.

Biocultural Heritage

Cusco_MapLand.  The Q’ero people are located in the remote highlands of the Peruvian Andes of Paucartambo Province in the Cusco Region of Peru.  Q’ero culture consists of six ayllus (communities) with a total population of approximately 2000.  They are an ethnic group of the indigenous Quechua which inhabit the Andes in Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Argentina. Q’ero is a dialect of Quechua language.


Language.  Peru’s educational system tends to alienate indigenous populations because it is taught in the Spanish language, valorizes Western notions of progress and devalues millennia of traditional agricultural knowledge.

History.  Spanish colonizers forced the Quechua to convert to Roman Catholicism and subsequently, the Virgin Mary merged with the ancient Andes’ deity, Pachamama.  In other rural Quecha cultures, leftist ideologies and Protestant religion are new forms of colonization that erode Quechua culture by discouraging public rituals to Pachamama and restricting traditional rituals to the private sphere. Due to their remote location, the Q’eros have maintained their ancient spiritual traditions from the pre-Hispanic era and consider themselves the last existing community of the Inca empire (1438-1533 CE).  Marriage is formalized after a one-year trial marriage which can be severed without stigma. The culture is patrilocal.

In 2011, the Q’ero people blocked geneticists from collecting DNA samples from their community.  The project by National Geographic (NG) attempted to use flyers with a deceptive message to attract inhabitants to a “fun” presentation to become acquainted with their ancient roots. A Q’ero delegation raised concerns to officials in Cusco, who agreed that the NG representatives had violated international law that requires written evidence of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) in accordance with Article 10 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) (Regalado, 2011, np; Polidor, 2011, np).  Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) became a much larger threat to biodiversity in 2010.  GMOs were a key election issue in the 2011 presidential election and Peru subsequently imposed a ten-year moratorium on GMOs (Brandford, 2013, np).

Natureculture.  The Q’ero have a long history of living in harmony with the land. Their tradition is to maintain their land communally.  Their territory extends over several altitude ranges, and by using terracing and irrigation, they grow a variety of arable crops such as potatoes, barley and quinoa.  The region is one of the world’s oldest centres of domestication of plants and animals.  Potatoes were first domesticated in Peru about 10,000 years ago and are inextricably tied to Q’ero and Quechua identity, much like corn to the Maya. Technical knowledge of plant breeding is maintained in a coherent oral system inspired by the Andean cosmology (Gonzales et al, np) that informs agricultural, medical and spiritual practices. The cultural knowledge of plant breeds may have been recorded using quipus, a knotting system that has fallen out of use. The material culture of the Q’eros includes weaving, using wool from llamas, alpacas, guanacos, vicunas and a multitude of natural dyes to incorporate patterns handed down from Inca times or earlier.

 Climate change is affecting the Q’eros.  Mountains that were snow-capped have been snow-free for about ten years, causing rivers and streams to dry up.  There are unusual droughts, floods, frosts, illnesses and insect infestations. These changes are affecting agricultural practises and compelling new adaptations.  The Quechua people who live near Potato Park participate in the Indigenous People Climate Change Assessment Initiative (IPCCA), and in that context they have worked with Marina Apgar’s research team who also work with the Guna.

 Myth, Ritual, Sign and Symbol in Q’ero Culture


Pachamama is an ancient pre-Incan deity revered by the indigenous Quecha people of the Andes.  She is Earth Mother, Cosmic Mother and Mother of Time; she presides over planting and harvesting – an ever present and independent deity who uses her own self-sufficient and creative power to sustain life on this earth.  Pachamama’s partner is Pacha Kamaq, the god of the mountain; her children are Inti, the Sun God, and Killa, the Moon Goddess.  In Quechua cosmology, these deities represent the four organizing principles: water, earth, sun, and moon.  Pachamama is a Regeneratrix who creates new life from death, and thus represents the cycle of life.   The Q’eros, like many indigenous cultures including Buryats and Himalayans, link the concept of ‘cycle of life’ with their belief in reincarnation. Like Kali, Pachamama is destroyer and devouring mother, and sometimes takes the form of a fierce dragon that causes earthquakes (Columbus, 2004, p.196).

Pachamama represents the principle of Ayni (reciprocity).  Those who nurture mountains, streams and plants are themselves nurtured. The ability of the ayllu members to nurture each other effectively is rooted in their interrelatedness.  “The Andean World is not a world of things, of objects, of institutions, of cause and effect relationships, but rather we are in the presence of a world of renderings, recreations, renovations” (Gonzalez et al, np).

Contemporary rituals by Q’eros to honour nature and Pachamama testify to the tenacity of ancient propositional knowledge about the mythical construction of inter-dependency between humans and nature, in spite of attempt to superpose Catholicism and the Virgin Mary on indigenous spiritual traditions (Haarmann, 2007, p.222).


Q’ero culture is rich in ritual.  Through rituals and ceremonies, the Q’eros reciprocate their relationships with the human members of the ayllu and other-than-human members of the sallqa.  Some rituals are linked to the agricultural cycle, such as field selection, planting and harvesting.  The Q’eros offer a toast to Pachamama, ‘the good mother’, every morning and at every meeting or festivity by spilling a small amount of drink on the ground before drinking the rest.

Video: The Rights of the Mother / Los Derechos de la Pachamama


 This video was a joint project of five indigenous communities for the 2010 People’s Forum on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights in Cochabamba region.  It shares stories about climate change adaptation in critical ecosystems.

Producer: Insightshare. Duration 9:40

 Sign and Symbol

IMAGE_cross box design The cross-box design  is a symbol that originates in pre-contact Q’ero and Quechua cultures.  Unfortunately it has been popularized as a “chakana cross” over the last 2 decades with New Age interpretations for the tourist industry.  It communicates the principle of Ayni (reciprocity) that intersects time and space, as well as past and future.  The Q’eros shared the following interpretation with Marina Apgar when she studied Q’ero climate change adaptation:

  • The four arms of the cross represent the four directions and four elements. The central hole represents Agni and the diagonal intersecting arrow represents crianza (conversation, music, offerings, dance and prayers) by which all beings communicate with one another and nurture each other.
  • The three upper right steps represent levels of consciousness in the three worlds: upper world, middle world, and underworld.
  • The three lower right steps represent three prohibitions: laziness, stealing, and lying.
  • The lower left steps represent a system of work: community service, the division of labour and sharing the harvest.
  • The upper left steps represent the three primary principals:  love, knowledge and work.

The Pacha are three equal and interdependent kinship communities engaged in biocultural processes: the ayllu comprises human beings, the sallqa comprises other-than-human beings and the third comprises the deities.  All three are intimately related and treat each other with respect and dignity (Gonzales et al, np).  The layered box design represents both a worldview and a symbol of the TEK that sustains biocultural diversity (Apgar et al, 2009, p.262; see also design).

Reciprocity – Exploring Rituals for Relationship with Seed

Crianza means nurturing seed. The seed is a living being, and a member of the ayllu and the sallqa. Like every other member of the three communities of the Pacha, the seed is sensitive and has its own culture. The process of crianza with respect to the seed is complex and intimate, and resembles the process of human courtship. The farmer must move carefully, and often invisibly, to court the seed, hiding his or her real intentions in order to attract and captivate the seed, and inspire its affection. Courting the seed in this way increases the probability that the seed will remain in the family.  It lives with you and nurtures you, but it also leaves when it is not appreciated or is mistreated (Gonzales et al, np).

IMAGE_potato_varieties_Credit Boelldotde Through rituals, the seed is incorporated into the family as a new member. Both the farmer and the seed become partners in a trial marriage or a ‘more intimate knowing.’  The incorporation of a new variety is a slow process, taking several growing seasons, and there are no guarantees that the new seed will stay. As in any Q’ero trial marriage, the relationship can be severed without stigma.  Farmers converse constantly, in a very fine-tuned conversation, with the seeds.  There is a constant remembering and commitment to nurturing by providing the right soil and water for the benefit of the seed.  To nurture the seed, the Q’eros create a feedback loop by observing and analyzing up to one hundred indicators of agricultural activity on a daily basis throughout the season (Gonzalez et al, np).

The different crianza such as songs, rituals and festivals are not determined by a calendar, but are carried out according to the rhythm of the cycles of nature.  Holly Wissler conducted research with the Q’eros for her doctoral dissertation in ethnomusicology.  She found that “the Q’eros actively regenerate, re-create and reproduce social and cosmic relationships and cosmological perceptions through their music-making” using performance of ancient musical rituals.  Q’eros’ singing and flute playing are active forms of reciprocity in that they are musical offerings that are sent out through breath, life essence and force. To ensure that the spirit powers receive their songs, the Q’eros employ a vocal technique they call aysariykuy (to pull) where ends of phrases are sung in prolonged, held tones with a final, forced expulsion of air. Once the spirit powers receive a song, the powers are able to reciprocate beneficially (Wissler, 2009, p.vi).

How does crianza contribute to biocultural diversity and thereby to cultural continuity?  Haarmann and Marler declare that “practises that result in sustainable societies create and continually recreate a viable nexus between the practical and the spiritual in which a feedback mechanism is constantly engaged to track what maintains balance and viability (of society and the living environment) and what does not.  Sustainable societies are self-organizing and self-regulating for mutual benefit” (Haarmann & Marler, p.39).

In summary, the Q’ero cosmology, represented by the layered box design, provides a philosophical framework for maintaining biocultural diversity.  For millennia, the Q’ero culture has maintained this principle of reciprocity, which, in their view, is fundamental to the resilience and adaptive capacity of their biocultural systems.  Indigenous peoples around the world have nurtured the agrobiodiversity that exists on the planet today and have valuable cultural knowledge for determining strategies for protecting biodiversity.  The links between seeds, reciprocity and natality is evident in Q’ero culture, even though those links may be incomprehensible to Westerners who ascribe to an anthropocentric worldview.  Reciprocity is intimate engagement with life and natality. I posit that cultures engaged in reciprocal relationships with nature demonstrate greater capacity for climate change adaptation.

See Reference page for details on citations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.