Bolivia is a culturally diverse country. Its population can be roughly divided into three distinct ethnic categories: about 60% are of pure indigenous stock (comprising over 30 different native groups, many living in the jungle lowlands); about 33% are
(people of mixed European and indigenous ancestry); and the remainder are of European origin. The racial composition varies from place to place: almost entirely indigenous around Lake Titicaca; more than half indigenous in La Paz; three-quarters
or European in the Yungas, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, and Tarija, which is the most European of all.

The Highland
are composed of two main groups: those in the north of the Altiplano who speak the guttural Aymara (an estimated 3 million), and those elsewhere, who speak Quechua, the Inca tongue (2.5 million). Both cultures were dominated by the Incas but the Aymara were allowed to keep their own language. Both have kept their languages and cultures distinct. Outside the big cities many speak no Spanish, but knowledge of Spanish is on the increase. About 70% of Bolivians are Aymara, Quechua or Tupi-Guaraní speakers. The first two are regarded as national languages, but were not, until very recently, taught in schools, a source of some resentment.

The Aymara

The Aymaras, who populate the Titicaca region, are descendants of the ancient Tiahuanaco people. They are a squat and powerfully built race who have developed huge chests and lungs to cope with the rarefied air of the Altiplano. Since the agrarian revolution of 1952 the Aymara
own the land on which they live, but still live in extreme poverty.

Though introduced to Catholicism by the Spaniards, the Aymara remain grudging converts. They are a deeply religious people who may observe Christian rituals but also continue to worship the ancient animist spirits and celebrate rituals which date from the Tiahuanaco period. Aymara culture is permeated with the idea of the sacred. They believe that God, the Supreme Being, gives them security in their daily lives and this God of Life manifests him/herself through the deities, such as those of the mountains, the water, the wind, the sun, the moon and the
(sacred places). As a sign of gratitude, the Aymara give
(llama sacrifices) and
(sprinkling alcohol on the ground) to the
(the protecting spirits of the family and community), the
(Mother Earth),
Kuntur Mamani
(protecting spirits of the home).

The remote mountains of the bleak Altiplano are of particular importance for the Aymara. The most sacred places are these high mountains, far from human problems. It is here that the people have built their altars to offer worship, to communicate with their God and ask forgiveness. The community is also held important in the lives of the Aymara. The
is the great-great grandfather of the family as well as the protector of the community, and as such is God's representative on earth.

The offerings to the sacred mountains take place for the most part in August and are community celebrations. Many different rituals are celebrated: there are those within the family; in the mountains; for the planting and the harvest; rites to ask for rain or to ask for protection against hailstorms and frosts; and ceremonies for Mother Earth.

All such rituals are led by
Aymara Yatiris
, who are male or female priests. The
is a wise person - someone who knows - and the community's spiritual and moral guide. Through a method of divination that involves the reading of coca leaves, they guide individuals in their personal decision-making.

The Quechua

The Quechua language was imposed by the Incas on several culturally and linguistically divergent groups and, to this day, many of these groups have maintained separate social identities. The Quechua language, much more than the Aymara, is divided by many variations in regional dialect. Geographically, they are more varied, too. There are Quechua speakers in the fertile valleys of Cochabamba, on the high plateaux of Potosí, in Chuquisaca and parts of Oruro. Some Quechua communities have lived free from outside influence for centuries. Others, such as those of the Cochabamba valley, have long been in close contact with
, a term used to describe indigenous people who have abandoned the traditional rural way of life and moved to the towns. These people have always been bilingual and have adapted easily to the
way of life, thus weakening their own ethnic distinctiveness. Their religious life lacks the specialized rituals of the Aymara and the music and dance also shows considerable
influence. The Quechua youth of the Cochabamba valley are becoming fluent and literate in Spanish.

Other ethnic groups

There are other smaller ethnic groups, such as the Uru and the Chipaya of the Altiplano. The Chipaya, who inhabit the inhospitable Carangas region of the western Oruro department and speak their own language, are now so small numerically that they are in danger of disappearing. A similar fate could befall the Uru, a fishing and herding people who live in the swamps of the Río Desaguadero on the edge of Lake Titicaca.

In the lowlands are some 30 ethnic groups, including the Chiquitano (numbering about 220,000), Guaraní (about 150,000), Ayoreo, Chiriguano, Guaravo, Chimane and Mojo. Each group has its own language and, though the Jesuits settled missions in some of these remote areas over 300 years ago, have only recently been assimilated into Bolivian culture. There are also about 17,000 blacks, descendants of slaves brought from Peru and Buenos Aires in the 16th century, who now live in the Yungas and the department of santa Cruz.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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