Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Diaguita

The peoples of northwest Argentina, particularly in the Salta and Jujuy regions, reflected the Andean culture they shared with the Inca peoples of highland Peru. Our knowledge of them comes from the evidence of early archaeological sites and the information gathered by the earliest Spanish priests and settlers.

The Diaguita were agriculturists who used the digging stick as their principal tool and cultivated corn, beans, and peppers. Potatoes did not grow well in the lower altitudes. Similarly, they herded llamas and alpacas as sources of protein and of wool for making clothing. The Diaguita lived in houses of stone masonry like other highland peoples. They arranged their modest family-sized dwellings along the streams and fields with pathways between them. They did not build great cities, as were found elsewhere among the various pre-Columbian peoples of the Andes.

The early inhabitants of northwest Argentina shared a semiarid landscape dominated by high plateaus suitable for grazing, valleys suitable for tilling, and mountain peaks that rose above the snowline. Snowmelt represented the zone’s water resource that these peoples harnessed for irrigation. The original peoples made coiled basketry, wove ponchos and skirts from llama wool, and shaped pottery in geometric designs similar to their Andean neighbors in Bolivia and Peru.

The Diaguita and other agriculturists built villages in easily defended sites and prepared irrigated fields below, as at this ruin in northern Tucumán Province. (Photo by Cyrus S. Cousins)

Some of the cultural groups shared language patterns, but most Diaguita spoke a language different from the Aymara and Quechua dominant in the Andean highlands. The Diaguita built granaries of stone and dams on rivers and streams to divert floodwater into marshlike depressions around which they planted crops, especially corn. This staple crop originated in present-day Mexico and migrated through Peru to northwest Argentina well before the birth of Christ. The ancient Argentines of the northwest also hunted turkey and other small game, fished in the streams and rivers, and collected algarroba pods and prickly pears to supplement their diets.

Characteristically, while the Diaguita remained the dominant group of the region just before the European incursion, northwest Argentina supported an abundance of cultural diversity. Peoples of many cultures, such as the Atacameño, Humahuaca, Chicha, and Lule, shared the landscape, all of them living in relative harmony with the Diaguita, enforced by the imperial Inca hegemony. Everyone chewed the coca leaf as a mild stimulant and as an important cultural mark. A mildly intoxicating beer was made from wild algarroba beans that formed a variation of the corn chicha still prevalent today in the Andes. (Chicha is an alcoholic beverage popular among Andean peasants. Traditionally, women prepare chicha by masticating the algarroba pods or corn in their mouths and fermenting the resulting mix of juice and spittle.)

The tunic, a shirt of woven llama wool, was the principal garment of men and women, though the women’s tunics were ankle length. In the winter, a woolen cape provided warmth. Everyone wore Andean-style sandals on their feet. Though agriculturists, the men still reveled in their status as warriors. They wore their hair long and adorned their heads with feathers and headbands as a mark of their warlike status. The main weapons were spears, bows and arrows, stone-headed clubs, and the distinctive weapon of the plains hunters, the bolas.

Among the Diaguita, there apparently existed none of the caste structure and social differentiation common among the imperial Inca, and they possessed little in the way of sumptuous goods such as gold and silver ornaments. Diaguita families formed into clans descended from a common ancestor. Important clan leaders may have had two wives (a principal indication of wealth among them), but most men were monogamous in marriage. In the absence of a well-organized priesthood, the shamans took charge of religious ceremonies and passed along the folk medicines from one generation to the next. They remained a relatively decentralized agricultural people, in which the chiefs of small units generally wielded modest political powers, although several chiefs did unite into informal political and military alliances. A Spaniard testified, “It is notorious that no village which has a cacique is the subject of another cacique or pueblo” (Steward 1946, II: 683).

Most chiefs inherited their leadership status from their fathers and uncles and confirmed that leadership with valor in battle, thereby proving his political authority. Otherwise, a council of elders shared decision-making power within the group. The Diaguita’s political decentralization meant that any large valley might be inhabited by several different groups, each in tense and hostile contact with the others. The Inca imperial alliance may have mitigated the competition among the various clans of the Diaguita, although the stone fortresses that still dominate the narrow passages between the valleys of northwest Argentina give vivid testimony to the heritage of political competition among these agricultural peoples.

The Argentine northwest came very late into the Inca Empire. The emperor Topa Inca (1471–93) gained the submission of the indigenous groups of the region, but Inca influence never penetrated across the Córdoba mountains to the Pampas or through the Gran Chaco into modern-day Paraguay. Some chieftains of the Diaguita came to understand the Quechua language of the Inca, but the imperial powers rested lightly among these comparatively poor agriculturists. On the opposite side of the Andes, the Argentine Diaguita’s counterparts inhabited most of present-day Chile down to what is now the city of Santiago. They too submitted to the Inca. But farther south, another agricultural group of different ethnic and linguist stock, the Araucanians, resisted the ancient Peruvians. These peoples—the Huilliche, Picunche, and especially the Mapuche—would also become important later in Argentina, rallying all remaining indigenous groups on the Pampas in resisting the Spaniards.