One of the wonderful things about our trip to Peru was the interesting people we met everywhere we went (“oh, the people you’ll meet”… to copy from Dr. Seuss).
Peru is home to over 30 million people, the largest group of which (over 50%) are a Mestizo blend of native Indian and European (mostly Spanish). The next largest group (about 30%) is comprised of the indigenous AmerIndians, mainly the Quechua and Aymara people of the Andes, and the dozens of Indian tribes who still live in the Amazon basin. Immigrants from Europe, Africa, and Asia make up the remainder of people currently living in Peru. The population is a multiethnic blend of ancient and recent inhabitants that look quite different from each other, depending on where in the country you are. You would think with all the internal migration that goes on from rainforest village to city, and Andean highlands to coastal lowlands, there would be less distinction between sites — and of course, I had to wonder why that was.
About 30 communities of Yagua Indians live near the major rivers of the Amazon basin. Their lives changed dramatically when Spanish and later European conquests invaded the rainforest to harvest timber. Yagua are known for their ability to hunt with blowguns, and are able to accurately hit the center of a small target at 30 feet or monkeys far up in the tops of trees with their poison darts.
The Yagua ladies wore their native clothes for our benefit, but their everyday clothing is western wear. Here, they are cooking brunch of fish soup, corn patties, fruits and vegetables, one of their two daily meals (no cooking after dark). These people are short in stature, but generally rather slender.
Yagua communities are often remote, deep in the rainforest away from the main tributaries of the Amazon. They live on what the forest provides, fruit, game, roots and seeds, fish from the rivers, and grow some crops for their own consumption but do little trading with others living on the rivers.
A grandma and her granddaughter. The people living right along the major tributaries of the Amazon are more likely to be Mestizo than indigenous, and their daily lives are quite different from the indigenous people.
Houses of riverside villagers are built on stilts, to keep their living space above the level of the river when it rises in the rainy season.
Only the upper floor of river houses is finished space, with one area for sleeping, and another area for everything else.
Like the Yagua, riverside villagers harvest fish from the river and game, fruit and nuts from the forest, but they expect to grow and harvest more produce than they can consume so they can take it to local markets to sell in exchange for what they need to buy. There is not enough electricity in riverside homes to run a refrigerator, so fresh food must be harvested or bought each day.
A wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, spices, and sundries is available at markets like this one at Indiana village, 50 miles down river from Iquitos. It’s best to get there very early in the morning (when this photo was taken) while the food is fresh and supplies are unlimited.
Six hundred miles south and 9-10,000 feet up in the mountain villages of the Andes, people look and dress quite a bit differently, partly because it is much colder here and because their diet is quite different as well. The early inhabitants of this area of Peru were the Quechua (northern Andes) and Aymara (southern Andes) people, some groups of which traded with indigenous people in the Amazon basin. So, even though there might be genetic mixing of lowland and highland inhabitants, their different outward appearances may be more strongly influenced by diet.
The Andes plateau is the home of the potato, and over 4000 (not a typo) varieties are grown in Peru. Prepared and even preserved in a number of ways, this is a primary staple of the highland diet.
Aisles and aisles of all kinds of potatoes can be found in the huge outdoor markets, like this one in Ollantaytambo.
The other primary staple of the highland diet is quinoa, which is grown in large quantities for sale in markets, and also in smaller home gardens for family consumption.
A high starch diet (potato, quinoa, and corn) with less meat and fruit than is typically consumed by people living in the Amazon basin produces a characteristic body type in Andean residents, especially in women, with weight concentrated in the central core.
Andean lady and her son, near Puno, Peru
And the change in body shape begins in childhood…
Aymara girl, near Puno, Peru, in the decorative outfit that indicates her tribal affiliation.
Aymara women are quite short, about 5 feet tall, and typically quite stocky. Braids and small hats perched on top of their head are characteristic of Andean women. Particular colors and patterns in hats, skirts, and vests are unique to each village.
Lunch at an Aymara village near Puno consisted of (from bottom to top of image) quinoa soup, several kinds of quinoa bread, boiled potatoes (white), two kinds of cheese, preserved, dried potatoes (black), and spicy peppers. We ate on plates with silverware, but the Aymara preferred to nosh from a communal plate by dipping in with their fingers.
The diet of the people from the floating villages on Uros island in Lake Titicaca seems to be largely starchy roots, potatoes, and quinoa. They catch tiny 3 inch fish from the lake for protein.
Interestingly, even with such high starch diets that drastically change body composition, Aymara people show low incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A medical journal article published in 2016 found that 69% of their 276 study subjects were overweight or obese, yet only 18% exhibited hypertension and only 7% were diagnosed diabetic. Lack of refined sugar in their diet and perhaps a higher level of physical activity might contribute to the reduced risk of disease in these people.