Peru Indigenous Peoples

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The area that became Peru was home to millions of native Americans before the arrival of European explorers.

Coastal Indians cultivated maize, beans, squash, gourds, peanuts, and cotton using irrigation. Highland (Sierra) Indians raised llamas and alpacas and also farmed. The coastal and highland Indians lived in small farming villages (ayllu) ruled by hereditary chiefs. Amazonian Indians (Selva) to the east were involved in hunting, fishing, and gathering. They also farmed but would move from place to place to rotate their farmlands.

Regions of Peru[edit | edit source]

Each region had distinct Indian cultures and occupations.

During the 15th century the Incas conquered or subjected other Indian tribes along the coast and highlands from present-day Ecuador to Tucumán, Chile. The power in the Inca government was held by only a few people, including the emperor. In order to conquer the empire, Francisco Pizarro simply had to destroy the emperor and impose himself as the ruler.

During colonial times the Spanish rulers exploited the Indians. Adult males were required to provide labor service in mercury and silver mines. Children were forced to labor in workshops (obrajes). Devastating epidemics from the Old World diseases, especially smallpox, decimated the Indian population.

After the Spaniards took over, a gradual change took place in the country’s ethnic composition. In the first years of the Conquest, single women were prohibited from emigrating to the colony. Most colonists were single males who sought mates among the Indian population. The children of early colonists grew up with many of the native traditions. Eventually a distinct ethnic group called mestizos arose, which bridged the gap between whites and Indians.

Although there were over 100 Indian languages still spoken in the early 1970s, many are gradually disappearing. Quechua was the official language of the Inca Empire. Today, about 4 million Peruvians speak Quechua. The next largest number of people speak Aymara, especially in the area around Lake Titicaca. These two languages appear to be fairly stable in modern Peru.

Early Spanish missionaries had little difficulty converting Indians to the new faith. The missionaries represented the conquering power and offered a religion similar to the one it displaced. Many Indians, however, mixed pagan practices and concepts with Christian ideas. Indians in more remote areas of the Selva (east of the Andies) remained largely untouched by missionary activities.

Church records and civil registration are the best sources of information about the Indians of Peru. Most Indians were members of the Roman Catholic Church and all of the population of Peru were required to register civilly. For the tribes in the east, who were not included in the early church records or in civil registration, oral traditions may be the most important source of information for your research.

Many books and studies have been published about the Incas and other Indian tribes that have lived in Peru. Many of these studies can be found in public and private libraries and university collections. These studies can provide valuable information about specific tribes, customs, movement patterns, and other historical facts to help you compile your family history. Some examples at the Family History Library include:

  • Means, Philip Ainsworth. Ancient Civilizations of the Andes. New York: Gordon Press, 1964. (FHL book 980 H2m.) Santa, Elizabeth della. Historia de los Inca: indagaciones sobre algunos problemas discutidos (History of the Incas: Investagations into Some Problem Areas). 7 vols. Arequipa: Edición de la autora, 1969– . (FHL book 985 H2sh; film 0873987 item 4 [vol.1].)
  • Stein, William W. Hualcan: Life in the Highlands of Peru. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975. (FHL book 985.21/H2 H6s.) This is a detailed study of the Indian community of Hualcan, Carhuaz Province, Ancash Department.

Other books and records on Indians can be found in the catalog under the “Locality” search and the topic

“Native Races”:



During World War II a group of anthropologists and archaeologists from the United States and Latin America collaborated in compiling a classification of South American Indians. The Indians of Peru are included in volume two (The Andean Civilizations) and volume three, part three (Tribes of the Montaña and Bolivian East Andes), with additional general information in volumes five (The Comparative Anthropology of South American Indians) and six

(Physical Anthropology, Linguistics and Cultural Geography of South American Indians). These books are found at the Family History Library and other libraries:

  • Steward, Julian H., ed. Handbook of South American Indians. 7 vols. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc., 1963. (FHL book 980 F3h.)

Indian name projects can be found in the Family History Library on films 1263089–90, 1267073, and 2055306 item 7.