Through weaving, the women of Ausangate, Peru, pass down the traditions of their ancestors.
Pacchanta’s Maria Merma Gonzalo practices weaving techniques that have changed little in 500 years. (Courtesy Andrea M. Heckman)
By Andrea M. Heckman Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly October 7, 2015
In the shadow of the 20,800-foot snow-clad peak of Ausangate in the southern Peruvian Andes, Maria Merma Gonzalo works at her loom, leaning back on a strap around her waist, just as her ancestors have done for centuries. She uses a wichuna, or llama bone pick, to weave the images of lakes, rivers, plants, condors and other symbols of her life into the colorful alpaca fabric she is making. For Maria and the Quechua people, Ausangate encompasses far more than its distinction as the highest peak in southern Peru; it is a mountain spirit or apu, held sacred since Inca times. “Because of Ausangate,” she says, “we all exist. Thanks to Ausangate, there are plenty of animals and food. We give him offerings, and he gives us everything in return.”
Her weavings capture both the sacred and everyday symbols of life in Pacchanta, a small village 80 miles southeast of Cusco. She and other Quechua women place the stories of their lives into textiles, communicating and preserving important cultural traditions. This is how memories are most vividly remembered.
For many centuries textiles have been an integral part of Quechua daily life, from birth to death. Babies are wrapped with thick belts, covered with cloth and carried on their mother’s backs in handwoven carrying cloths. Three- and four-year-olds learn to spin yarn. By eight, girls start weaving belts and soon move on to more complicated textiles, such as llicllas (women’s shoulder cloths), ponchos and kaypinas (carrying cloths).
Pacchanta is a stable community blessed by its proximity to cold, mountain glaciers, their mineral-rich runoff irrigating fields that yield particularly flavorful potatoes for making chuño, or freeze-dried potatoes. At 14,500 feet, villagers live in stone and sod houses, although they do not consider them homes as Westerners do. Houses provide only shelter and a place to store goods, eat and sleep. Days are spent primarily outside, tending extensive herds of alpacas, llamas and sheep, which supply them with fibers for weaving, dung for fuel and a regular source of food. In Pacchanta, the Quechua still follow the organizing principles established for harsh high altitudes by their Inca ancestors such as ayni (reciprocity), mita (labor tribute), ayllu (extending social networks) and making pagos (offerings to the mountain gods).