The Indigenous Peoples of Peru’s Lake Titicaca
By R. Tucker Muth
Surrounded by the breathtaking peaks of the Andes Mountains, Lake Titicaca, the largest fresh water body in South America is truly a sight to behold. Amongst all of this natural beauty, native populations of people called the Uru, or Uros, have thrived for thousands of years. This essay offers a brief overview of the Uros people located on the waters of Lake Titicaca. Providing insight into the groups origins and history in regards to the culture, economy, and social structures of the Uru, it also discusses the ways in which their adaptation to “modern” living and involvement in the twentieth century capitalistic tourist economy assists their efforts today in preserving cultural factors such as dress, economic practice, and island living.
The origins of the Uru peoples are compelling but disputed by scholars due to the number of tribes in the region. It is largely believed that the Uru are simply a smaller faction of what used to have been a much larger Aymara tribe, which split off from one or several of the native groups also present in the region, although they do possess a distinct genetic ancestry to the populations around them.[i] [ii]
The Uros people occupy a region of South America that lies within Peru and Bolivia, where they have lived on a cluster of over forty floating islands potentially dating back as far as thirty-seven hundred years ago following their move from the Altiplano, or “high plane” of the Andes. In Uruquilla, the ancient language of the Uros, they refer themselves as “Qhas Qut suñi”, which translates to “people of the lake”, although the population also speaks variations of Aymara and Quechua. [iii];[iv] The floating islands upon which the Uru live are made of the abundant totora reeds from the lake, which the natives bundle and weave together to create these structures. These floating islands were originally constructed by the Uros as a means to protect themselves from combative neighbors such as the Collas and Incas.[v] Submerged in water, the reeds constructing these self-constructed islands rot, requiring full new layers to be added every six months, with base level maintenance being done routinely every few weeks. The consistent maintenance of the Urus floating islands is integral in the sustainability of the community physically and culturally, as youth are trained in practicing the methods of constructing the islands, and how to harvest reeds responsibly in order to protect the natural resources the community relies upon.[vi]
The custom economy of the Uru, centered on their aquatic resources, was a subsistence economy, primarily serving to feed their own people. These resources include a variety of fish and bird species within Lake Titicaca’s ecosystem, which the Uru hunted for subsistence.[vii] Potatoes are another viable resource occasionally utilized by the Uru, planted in the soil made as a product from the decaying dead reeds making up the floating islands.[viii] Despite this, the Uru should not be described as an agricultural people, as the potato serves as a single exception to their otherwise hunter-gatherer culture.
Today, their floating islands on the waters of Lake Titicaca still serve a valuable function in the lives of the Uru, but in a different way. With the majority of these people living amongst the rest of the community on the mainland, no longer are the dwellings on these lakes simply homes to these people. Uru originally began to move off of the floating islands in the 1950s and onto the nearby mainland due to harsh winter conditions, although the Uru people have long claimed to have “black blood” and be immune to the cold, and the developments of nearby towns.[ix] The waters of Lake Titicaca measured at just fifty-one degree Fahrenheit during the summer months.[x] The Uru dress in thick layers of alpaca wool clothing when on the lake, as low water temperature at high altitude and the wind burns the skin.[xi] With the majority of the twenty-five hundred Uru residing on the mainland for the past fifty years,[xii] they often wear non-traditional “European style” clothing when off the lake, and have access to public schools, and housing with modern amenities such as heating and dishwashers.[xiii] Uru on the mainland also have the economic benefit of raising livestock for food and profit.[xiv]
Like many indigenous populations across the globe, the Uru face a number of challenges posed by the external forces of twenty-first century globalization. The Altiplano, the plane in the Andes transcending Peru and Bolivia, has been identified as the second most important tourist destination in Peru, trailing only Machu Pichu.[xv] The increased popularity of the region brought pressures of twentieth century society to what is an otherwise relatively remote region, potentially putting native culture at risk of destruction by western influence. Rather than allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the encroaching tourist industry, the Uru people have embraced it and used it to their advantage. The indigenous population of Lake Titicaca not only welcomes tourists, but also assists them in finding their way to their water based settlements to visit the islands, at a cost.
When tourists visit Lake Titicaca, they are able to access the island by boats provided by the Uru, either by motored ferry or traditional reed boats. Tourists see the Uru dressed in traditional clothing, with “women wearing bowler hats and bright, layered clothing and of men standing in reed boats” and where they can experience the spongy feel of walking upon these unique constructions. Throughout the day, Uru men fish and hunt for food, which they eat and sell to visitors, while women tend to the housing on the islands and work on traditional native trinkets to sell as souvenirs. [xvi];[xvii];[xviii] This lifestyle and embracing of the tourist economy allows for the Uru to preserve their culture and interact with it daily, while also utilizing it as a means to generate profit. Uru men and women pose for pictures to get tips, but also to allow them to continue what they are doing.[xix] Individuals of the community take home several hundred to a few thousand dollars per year, while the majority of the revenue, an unclear amount but estimated to be much higher, is placed in a communal fund for education, housing, and sustainability of the community.[xx]
Like other indigenous groups, the Uru faced challenges involving the protection of their land. Until the 1980s, the surrounding land was under pressure for natural resources, when the Peruvian government made various parts of Lake Titicaca and the surrounding Andes Mountains into a national park.[xxi] Aided by the geographic beauty of the area, the struggle for this was not as difficult as that of other groups, although it did still take an extended period of time since they had to argue for their right to live on what was labeled a nature preserve, and continue utilizing the resources in ways customary to Uru culture. [xxii] With the park now protected as a nature preserve, it is free from being encroached on by any type of large corporation so many other indigenous populations must deal with, and the Uru are able to reap the benefits of this growing tourist spot.
The Uru people are an indigenous population who, to a considerable extent, has been able to successfully adapt to the mainstream twenty-first century economy, while also being able to simultaneously preserve many aspects of their native culture and livelihood. While not necessarily a model that could be recreated everywhere, the Urus ability and willingness to achieve balance between preserving their culture and involving themselves with “modern” society and reap the benefits of both should be duly noted. Their success noticed not just by indigenous groups of the globe but by the mainstream populations as well, as it could be beneficial to these groups to understand the possibilities in using their environment, culture, and traditions as leverage into the global economy.
[i] Colby Bishop. "Uros People of Peru and Bolivia Found to Have Distinctive Genetic Ancestries." National Geographic Society Press Room. September 11, 2013. Accessed December 11, 2014. http://press.nationalgeographic.com/2013/09/11/uros-people-peru-bolivia-distinctive-genetic-ancestries/.
[ii] Catherine J. Julien. "The Uru Tribute Category; Ethnic Boundaries and Empire in the Andes." American Philosophical Society 131.1 (1987): 53-91. JSTOR. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/987116?uid=3739656&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=211054374039532014.http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/987116?uid=3739656&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21105432102863
[iii] Heritage Daily. "Uros People of Peru and Bolivia Have Distinctive Genetic Ancestries." Heritage Daily. Heritage & Archaeology News, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://www.heritagedaily.com/2013/09/uros-people-of-peru-and-bolivia-have-distinctive-genetic-ancestries/98981
[iv] Catherine J. Julien
[v] Sara Shahriari. "A Life Afloat: The Uros Who Live on the Surface of Lake Titicaca." Indian Country Today. Indian Country Today Media Network LLC, 5 May 2012. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/gallery/photo/life-afloat-uros-who-live-surface-lake-titicaca-110704
[vi] SouthAmerica.CL. "Floating Islands of Lake Titicaca." SouthAmerica.CL. Woodward LTDA, 11 June 2014. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://www.southamerica.cl/Peru/Floating_Islands.htm
[vii] Heritage Daily
[x] Tara Tidwell. "Uru Life More than a Tourist Attraction." Cultural Survival. Cultural Survival, n.d. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://www.culturalsurvival.org/ourpublications/csq/article/uru-life-more-a-tourist-attraction
[xii] Charles Stanish. "Ancient Titicaca: The Evolution of Complex Society in Southern Peru and Northern Bolivia." JSTOR. University of California Press, Feb. 2003. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/j.ctt1pnmgj?searchUrl=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Duros%2Bperu%2Bhistory%26amp%3Bprq%3Duros%2Bperu%26amp%3Bhp%3D25%26amp%3Bacc%3Doff%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bfc%3Doff%26amp%3Bso%3Drel&Search=yes
[xiii] Tara Tidwell
[xiv] Sara Shahriari
[xv] Heritage Daily
[xvi] Sara Shahriari,
[xvii] Tara Tidwell
[xviii] Joshua Foer. "The Island-dwelling Uros of Lake Titicaca: Visiting a Misunderstood Tourist Trap. (VIDEO)." Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 25 Feb. 2011. Web. Accessed December 11, 2014 http://www.slate.com/articles/life/world_of_wonders/2011/02/the_island_people.html
[xx] Zeppel, Heather. "Indigenous Ecotourism." Google Books. Google Scholar, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=noFNSuofi6IC&oi=fnd&pg=PR5&dq=Zeppel,+Heather.+%22Indigenous+Ecotourism.%22&ots=kil7iKltIu&sig=tXoeqX_nHcMQSvCM0fAHrERE2WQ#v=onepage&q=Zeppel%2C%20Heather.%20%22Indigenous%20Ecotourism.%22&f=false
[xxi] Tara Tidwell
[xxii] UNESCO. "Lake Titicaca." - UNESCO World Heritage Centre. UNESCO World Heritage Center, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5080/