The Aymara people are Native American (First Nations) culture living in the Andes mountains around the borders of where present-day Peru, Chile, and Bolivia meet. The Aymara are considered one of the oldest extant ethnic groups of the High Andes, predating the Inca civilization by thousands of years. The ancestors of today’s Aymara built the highest urban center in the world, Tiwanaku, reaching it’s highest populations between 500-1000 c.e.(the header image from this post are the “stone peoples” of Tiwanaku). However, during the height of Inca power and then during the colonial era, the Aymara were forcibly resettled to their present area.
The most famous thing about the Aymara people is their language, not because it’s a dying language — there are around three million speakers today, and it’s one of Bolivia’s official languages and recognized as a minority language in Chile– but because of how the language construes time.
In most languages, including English, the future is in front of us and the past is behind us. The analogy of walking helps to describe the conception of time: where we are standing is the present moment; the path behind us represents the past, a place we’ve already been. The path ahead is not a place we have been but to which we are going.
But in the Aymara language, the past is in front of them and the future is behind them.
The Aymara people carry their babies in brightly colored woven alpaca-fiber manta, aguayo, or quepina. Mantas look like squares when unfolded, while aguayo or quepina look like rectangles, but when folded into a triangle it’s clear that the corners aren’t perfectly squared. This is intentional for creating the right amount of bias stretch and support for carrying an infant or child without the use of a seat or pocket common in other traditional carriers.
The future is literally behind them because that is where they carry the next generation.
Of course, the brightly colored shawls aren’t just for carrying infants or children, they are used to carry any kind of bundle that needs to be transported while keeping the hands and arms free. It’s important when scaling steep hills and mountains that arms are free and weight is distributed properly in order to keep one’s balance.
Humans built empires with the same tool used for carrying babies.
One of the unique things about First Nations cultures, of either North or South America, is that prior to the Columbian Exchange (such a polite term for what was actually exchanged, but I digress) did not have beasts of burden. Sure there were llamas but you can’t ride a llama or get a llama to plow a field or pull a cart. Okay, so they had a little help from dogs in North America and the fickle moody llamas in parts of South America.
Speaking of being fabulous, if you would like to learn more about Aymara women’s dress, the layered skirts polleras or the ubiquitous and precariously perched bowler hat, I recommend this article, “Making Beauty: The Wearing of Polleras in the Andean Altiplano” on Portal, the magazine for the LLilas Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas.
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