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Learning about Ushnus: Social Memories of the Inca State in a Modern School Setting in Highland Bolivia


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This chapter considers the meaning of ushnus in relation to the Inca Empire, but from the perspective of a very different political and ceremonial setting, namely modern-day school rituals observed in ayllu Qaqachaka in the Bolivian highlands, around the year 2000. Together with Juan de Dios Yapita, I was supervising some Bolivian students in the study of changes in educational practices as a result of the Bolivian educational reform of 1994, and we carried out part of this study in the rural community of Livichuco, a village that forms part of the minor ayllu of the same name, belonging to Qaqachaka (Abaroa province, Oruro Department). In this context, instead of participating passively as usual in the round of activities associated with Bolivian National Day in early August, we focused more on documenting the speeches, march pasts and related libations and other rituals that took place in the school grounds. Information about local perceptions of ushnus was acquired in these particular circumstances.
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Chapter 7
Learning about Ushnus: Social Memories of the
Inca State in a Modern School Setting in Highland
Denise Y. Arnold
This chapter considers the meaning of ushnus in relation to
the Inca Empire, but from the perspective of a very differ-
ent political and ceremonial setting, namely modern-day
school rituals observed in ayllu Qaqachaka in the Bolivian
highlands, around the year 2000. Together with Juan de
Dios Yapita, I was supervising some Bolivian students
the study of changes in educational practices as a result of
the Bolivian educational reform of 1994, and we carried
out part of this study in the rural community of Livichuco,
a village that forms part of the minor ayllu of the same
name, belonging to Qaqachaka (Abaroa province, Oruro
Department). In this context, instead of participating pas-
sively as usual in the round of activities associated with
Bolivian National Day in early August, we focused more
on documenting the speeches, march pasts and related
libations and other rituals that took place in the school
grounds. Information about local perceptions of ushnus
was acquired in these particular circumstances.
Livichuco is situated along the old tambo route from
La Paz to Challapata, in southern Oruro, before it goes
on towards Macha in northern Potosí, and finally on to
the former colonial capital of La Plata, now Sucre (Plate
7.1). The tambos were formerly stopping places or way
stations for travellers to take refreshments and rest along the
networks of prehispanic routes, as well as sites for meet-
ings and interchange of regional produce. The old school
building was built on the tambo site, where a medley of
old tambo rooms was adapted into makeshift and rather
Spartan classrooms (Plate 7.2). The tambo, reused in the
nineteenth century as part of the national postal service,
was last used in the 1960s. We had already documented the
memories held by elderly people who had served there in
their youth as a part of ayllu obligations to the state in those
years. These discussions concerned the rituals and ritual
Plate 7.1 The entrance to Livichuco on the old tambo route (photo ©
Denise Y. Arnold).
Plate 7.2 Children in the old school building (photo © Denise Y. Arnold).
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sites (certain stones in ritual enclosures called cancha) of
the tambo, as well as the tambo songs they sang, and the
libations they made to the tambo gods (Arnold and Yapita
2001: ch. 11).
The tambo rituals acknowledged the Inca origins of the
site, and in the libations to the tambo buildings, the ayllu
members would say in Aymara, in relation to the foundation
stones, ‘Inkataki’: ‘For the Inca’. They spoke about the way
potential school sites were identified by the primordial ayllu
ancestors as the sun rose for the first time in a kind of origin
myth that is also heard around Cusco (Ortíz Rescaniere
1973). The participants in these rituals spoke about the
fertility of the soil on the school sites and related the impor-
tance of specific sites in the school grounds, remembered
in the speeches on Bolivian National Day, to bones that
were buried there.
In our studies of the school site, with its tambo found-
ations and ties to an Inca past, we also found evidence
of local ideas held in parallel to modern ideas about
schooling that contextualised the school sites within the
social memories of former Andean states, above all the
Inca state. Key among these ideas were those concerned
with the school flagpole with its pyramid base (Plate 7.3),
the obvious focus of the nationalist activities, and those
Plate 7.3 A child butting his head against a ram, with the school agpole ushnu behind (photo © Laura Pusateri).
Plate 7.4 The school platform with the authorities watching the march past (photo © Denise Y. Arnold).
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concerned with the school platform, rostrum or tribuna,
whose power was also thought to direct the transformations
of the children attending school into citizens of the nation
(Plate 7.4). Both these elements in the school compound
concern comunario memories of the ushnu and its relation
to the Inca state.
Our initial anthropological interpretation of this set of
ideas was that sending children to school was still viewed
within the context of former tributary obligations (Arnold
and Yapita 2000: ch. 5; 2006: ch. 4). From the perspective
of the modern Bolivian state (of those years), the child-
ren were to be pummelled into ideal citizens, and in the
process alienated from their own local values. The idea that
the alienating school environment was a place that ‘eats up
children’ was widespread among the comunarios to whom
we spoke. Don Domingo Jiménez, from the same region,
was particularly inspired by an image we showed him of
the Chimbote urn in Posnansky’s book Tihuanacu: La Cuna
del Hombre Americano (1957) as expressive of this kind of
power relations (see Plate 7.5). In this figure, we interpreted
an ushnu-like image of what Posnansky calls the ‘staircase
sign with the volute’ as a variant of the ‘throne and tongue’
motif, where the tongue of authority, on top of a stepped
platform, is literally razing a small human figure under its
power of command.
However, we also noted that, as a form of local resist-
ance to these state demands, the schoolchildren had a
parallel role in the community’s eyes: of appropriating the
forces embodied in the enemy heads whose bones were
buried in the school platform, and then reapplying this
force as something positive for ayllu production in the
coming agricultural and pastoral year. We compared this
appropriation of enemy forces embodied in heads to what
the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro
(1992 [1986], 1998) calls ‘ontological depredation’ in a
lowland context: as the appropriation of enemy forces and
their conversion into more benign forces that can be used
by their own group (Arnold and Yapita 2006: 8).
In order to rethink the importance of the ushnu in these
rituals, first I shall describe the school rituals of Bolivian
National Day, directed at the modern-day ushnu and asso-
ciated sites in their own political and ceremonial setting
that we saw in those years, and the ideas held by the local
comunarios about their power and forms of expression.
Then I shall suggest some ways we might rethink Inca
ushnus as part of similar settings.
The rites of Bolivian National Day
Previous studies of school rituals on Indian Day, now
called Peasant’s Day or Día del Campesino, on 2 August,
and Bolivian National Day (Aniversario de la Patria), on 6
August, underlined their function as the expression of the
state apparatus. Reading and writing, disciplinary modes of
power, and above all a generalised militarisation in teacher
training and educational practices were all interpreted as
‘rites of the nation’, directed at the transformation of school
pupils into Bolivian citizens (see for example Howard-
Malverde and Canessa 1995; Luykx 1999). However,
these previous explanations did not account satisfactorily
for the alternative activities and discourses we witnessed
at these events.
It was not only the comunarios who managed these
ambivalent attitudes to state schooling; the teachers did
too. For example, it seemed more than a coincidence that
the teachers’ speeches made on the Día del Campesino to
celebrate the opening of August, perceived this date as the
anniversary of a whole series of key events: first the death,
during the Bolivian Wars of Independence, of the Quechua
poet Juan Wallparrimachi in 1815 (giving Independence
an indigenous tinge), second the passing of the Agrarian
Reform Law in Cochabamba in 1953, shortly after the
Bolivian Revolution, and third the creation of the famous
Warisata ayllu-school
(whose memory has been recently
revived as a model for a new Education Law passed in 2010
under the government of Evo Morales).
All these anniversaries coincide with 2 August when the
ayllu lands are traditionally ploughed for sowing in the new
annual cycle. So, in the presence of local parents and child-
ren, the teachers seemed to mould the new educational
struggle into the same timeframe as the former indigenous
struggle for land, but according to the tributary demands
of the nation.
The details of Bolivian National Day on 6 August 1999
confirmed this. The preparations for this anniversary began
on the night of 5 August. First we went to parade along with
Plate 7.5 The ushnu-like tongue and throne motif, and a razed being, in a
Chimbote urn (from Posnansky 1957: pl. V).
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the children, teachers and comunarios, at the entrance to
Ventilla hamlet, situated just before Livichuco along the old
tambo route, in a place called Uma jalsu (‘Where the water
comes out’). Heading the parade was a musical consort of
panpipes led by a huge drum, followed by the teachers and
various national flags and local banners. (Nowadays they
carry relatively more wiphalas or indigenous flags in the
march.) Then, waiting in line with their teachers were the
schoolchildren of three different age groups. Each group
carried coloured paper lanterns, first green, then yellow,
and finally red, forming from the colours of the Bolivian
flag, the social body of the nation. Behind this coloured
human serpentine of lanterns came women with babies
on their backs, and finally us. This ritual is still essentially
the same today, although the lanterns have been improved
(Plate 7.6).
We started marching in time to the panpipes and drum
along the old tambo route towards the school. The air was
animated every now and then by triumphant shouts of
liberty and fraternal prayer-like echoes: Glory to Bolívar,
Plate 7.6 Preparations in Uma jalsu (‘Where the water comes out’) before the march past in 2006 (photo © Denise
Y. Arnold).
Plate 7.7 A school skit, with military overtones, in the year 1999 (photo © Denise Y. Arnold).
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Glory to Sucre, Glory to Murillo, Glory to Tupac Katari
and Glory to Bartolina Sisa! ‘Up with the Qaqachakas,
down with the Jukumanis’, their traditional enemies. We
all sensed the emotion in what seemed more than a simple
civic duty.
After about five minutes we entered the main door of the
school and began to circle towards the right (in the direc-
tion of the sunrise, although it was still the middle of the
night). First we passed by the flagpole, and then the school
rostrum, to return once again to the main gate. After a short
pause, the teachers and pupils took turns speechmaking,
and singing the National Anthem and regional hymns, to
the accompaniment of taped music. They offered us the
place of honour on a bench in front of the rostrum to see
the skits by the children on the role of President Víctor Paz
Estenssoro in the Bolivian Revolution and Agrarian Reform
of 1952–3, the corrupt politicians of those years, examples
of military discipline, a traditional awki awki dance, a
burlesque on the Bohemian life of university students, a
devil dance or diablada, dances with Incas, with ekeko,
the Andean god of plenty, and so on, all according to the
programme painstakingly drawn up by the teachers (Plate
7.7). This kind of programme continues today, post-Evo, in
the new Reform School grounds in Livichuco, although the
themes have been updated.
The following morning, the patriotic feasts continued
with another parade in full daylight, this time beginning
from the opposite direction to the day before, in a place
called Uma jalanta (‘Where the water goes in’). From the
name, we realised that this place was cosmologically
opposed to that of the night before, and that, in the parades,
we seemed to be helping the cosmological cycling of water
in a kind of Pachakuti or cosmic return, to open the new
agricultural cycle.
The second parade was equally headed by flags and
banners to the accompaniment of panpipe music, in what
is called an Andean military jula jula. We marched again
along the main tambo route and then entered the school
premises, passing the flagpole again in the middle of the
precinct (Plate 7.8 and Fig. 7.1). We paused, giving time for
the different school authorities (feast sponsors and others)
to take up their positions on the official rostrum (a raised
platform beside the national flag and coat of arms). Then
we paraded past them at a very slow and ceremonial pace,
the men goose-stepping and the children, in rows of three,
backs straight, heads high, putting all their attention into
raising the left foot in an exaggerated manner, all in time
to the martial music.
After the parades, a more relaxed atmosphere was
doused with wheat beer (chicha), fresh bread, and a
banquet of meat for all, in which the teachers and their
families took the place of honour around a table in the
middle of the school precincts, near the flagpole ushnu,
served by the school mayors (called alcaldes) with unend-
ing food prepared by the community members. The feast
continued all night long. While the rest of the comunarios
played music and danced, the school authorities were
charged with making toasts at a certain spot in front of the
rostrum (called the school iskina shrine).
While this civic act has all the pomp of a national ritual,
I must also explain its details: the curious conjunction
of opposed toponyms for the places where the parades
begin each day, the meaning of the honoured ritual sites
in the school precincts (flagpole and rostrum), the nature
of the toasts and, above all, the ambiguous position of the
teachers who, in this instance, seem to operate not just as
functionaries of the state bureaucracy, but as a vital part of
the production of communal lands.
We gradually reinterpreted these events, locating
schooling in terms of a much broader regional history with
a long duration (Arnold and Yapita 2000: ch. 4). Given the
Qaqachaka reputation as ‘warriors of the Inca’ (from the
upper moiety), it seemed to us that they located schooling
in the hierarchy of warfare and territorial conquest that
accompanied their coming under the yoke of the Inca state
apparatus (when they formed part of the wider Qharaqhara
federation) (Arnold and Hastorf 2008: 40–41). In practice,
the immediate charge of the Qaqachaka forebears was
tilling the lands of the Inca and tending his flocks, as recom-
pense for their incorporation into the superior political
domain. In the following centuries, the colonial system of
tax tribute to the king of Spain replicated this former system.
As Tristan Platt (1987: 114) points out, this recognised the
rights of possession of ethnic groups to their lands as an
‘ancient socialization of the enemy’, through their political
incorporation into the new state apparatus under the charge
of the victorious ethnic lord or Mallku.
For the colonial state apparatus (as formerly for the Inca
state), tribute was a ‘duty’, called jucha in Aymara, towards
the functioning of the wider system, on a par with the com-
munal obligations of sponsoring feasts, standing their turn
as authorities or fulfilling an act of vengeance in war. In
the present-day language of the region, these obligations
are still experienced as ‘bearing a sin’ (jucha q’ipiña) or
‘assuming a debt’ (juch yanaña).
However, this perception of such duties as burdensome
in colonial times is in stark contrast to the way the comu-
narios hold that they performed more ‘willingly’ under
former Andean states. Here, the duty holders (husband
and wife) represented the victorious Inca and his Coya,
exercising sovereignty over their subjects in a common
realm according to differently constituted laws and symbols
of authority, when the killing of an enemy gave the Inca the
right to appropriate the lands of the defeated.
This regional logic also linked victory in war with the
burden of sponsoring a feast, as a celebration centred
on lands and their produce. In the past, comunarios
recounted how male feast sponsors in the region held in
their possession a ‘head’ (as a seed that would germinate),
but nowadays they carry nothing more than a decorated
woven coca bag (called a wallqipu) hung with tassels. It is
customary to carry this small coca bag slung behind the
head, and it is compared to the trophy heads of former
times. Nowadays, schoolboys carry their knitted hats in
much the same way (Plate 7.9). Importantly, the woven
coca bag worn by the incoming authorities is thought to
bestow upon them the power of speech, especially during
the rituals of changing ayllu authorities each year in early
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January, at the feast of Reyes. In this sense, the wearing of
woven coca bags by the ayllu authorities is a prerequisite
to obtaining the necessary oratorical power that they must
command as they stand on the ushnu platform to address
the ayllu members and schoolchildren.
These local interpretations of the meanings of the
accoutrements of authority in Qaqachaka are much more
widespread. For example, they are surprisingly close to the
observations by George Lau (2004) concerning the bags
carried centuries ago by the enemies of Moche warriors,
and illustrated in various Mochica ceramics. In an older
article on the same theme, Elizabeth Benson (1984) identi-
fied these as coca bags. From the contextual evidence, Lau
suspects that these enemies came from the highland region
of Recuay (in Peru), and he calls our attention to statues
from Recuay that also wear such bags slung behind their
heads (Lau 2004: 172, fig. 8, 174, fig. 11).
The libations for 6 August, National Day
These origins of schooling in tributary obligations concern-
ing land and its produce are still evident in the intercalation
of school events with the farming year. The school year
begins with the opening rituals and initiation of school
activities in late February, when the rains end. On this
Figure 7.1 Diagram of the march circuits leading to the school grounds.
Plate 7.8 The march from Uma jalanta (‘Where the water goes in’) (photo © Denise Y. Arnold).
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occasion, the important Anxata ritual (named after the local
guardian mountain) promotes courage in the children to
battle with what they view as the ‘enemy’ letters of school
learning, incarnate on this occasion in a sheep. And every-
one does three rounds under the legs of a llama or sheep
raised by the authorities. The ushnu-like school flagpole is
nearby (Plate 7.10, see also Plate 7.3).
These are followed by the Pentecost rituals in May,
during the harvest, and then the patriotic rituals of August,
when the new period of sowing begins. The rituals at the
end of the school year accompany the start of a new cycle
of rains.
However, the most important libations of the whole
school year take place during the rituals of 6 August, on
Bolivian National Day, ‘when the earth is open’ at the
beginning of sowing. On this occasion, the comunarios
interpret the school precinct as a part of ‘their own’ by
assimilating there ‘the foreign elements’ of enemy forces,
incarnated in the letters learned during schooling, integrat-
ing the school into ‘one’s own pathway’, rather than that
of the Bolivian state.
The opening libations begin on the previous night (5
August), after the emotive parade and various theatrical
skits. The participants name the outstanding mountains of
the whole ayllu (the grandfather Lord Mount Turu and the
grandmother Lady Mount Jujchu) to define the ritual territory
included in the rounds of toasting. The patriotic toasts also
commemorate the pyramid of power in the state educational
system, beginning with the ‘national directorship’ in La Paz,
another ‘for the regional directorship in Challapata’, and
finally one ‘for the local directorship’ in the main school
of Qaqachaka. Parents participate, especially in the toasts
for their children: ‘for the babies’ and ‘their benches’. They
request that they learn better in the coming year and do not
forget their teachers’ explanations.
Then begins the series of libations ‘for the flag’ and ‘the
coat of arms’. As a local man Don Juan Maraza explained
to us, ‘to record the national flag is an honour’, but more
importantly when the flag waves ‘toward the rising sun …
it’s good, as it’s something that’s ours and not the teacher’s’.
At this moment, the wise ones of the community comment
that the flag ‘has spirit (ispiritu)’.
The actual siting of the flag evokes older historical
memories than the official history of the nation expressed
in the teachers’ annual discourse in the first week of August.
These ideas are region-wide. For example, for Don Domingo
Jiménez, from the Jukumani valleys (the traditional enemies
of the Qaqachakas), the combined flag and pedestal are a
‘stand-in for the Inca’ (Inka lanti), perhaps even ‘the same
as the Inca’. This is why the pyramid of steps ‘is the same
in all rural schools’.
For Don Domingo, the place where the flagpole stands
‘would be the Inca grandfather and grandmother’, and
‘so you must toast them before toasting for good luck’
in certain months of the year. He said that in the time of
the Inca, the place where the flag stands was ornamented
with ‘gold and silver’ (uru qullqi) and inside there was a
‘good pathway’ (suma kamiri) and the Inca’s ‘life of riches’
Plate 7.9 Schoolboys with their knitted caps hanging behind like heads (photo © Denise Y. Arnold).
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(qhapaq wira). His Aymara term kamiri denotes a ‘pathway’,
perhaps because of its association with a birthplace that
has Inca ties.
Don Domingo believes that good luck is assured by
toasting the flag in June and again at the beginning of
August. On each occasion, the long series of libations name
the flag and then all its elements from the tip of the flagpole
to the steps at its base. The verticality of the sequence has
to do with the earth being ‘open’ in this month of the year,
ready for the next sowing. So the comunarios toast for the
flagpole (lawataki) that ‘conducts luck internally’ to the
earth. For Don Domingo, the specific power of the flagpole
is that it ‘helps the sowing begin each year, by introduc-
ing energy (animu) and soul (ajayu) into the food seeds’.
It also sends the solar warmth (lupi) that emanates from
Pachamama herself.
Finally toasts are made for the pyramid’s steps (grara
grarataki), which for Don Domingo ‘are three at present,
but will be some six to twelve in the future’, with their
different names (‘upper step, middle step, and the six of our
own’) and functions (‘for the steps of silver and gold, what a
good pathway that is!’), since ‘one step is of solar warmth,
another is of silver, and the last one is the step of life’. The
series of toasts ends recording the way the flag flies as ‘it
makes the spirit play’ (ispirit anatt’ayi), and ‘the wind plays’
(wayranatt’i) since the flag is ‘calling everything inside’.
The world inside the pyramid is not named as such,
but certain comments implied its fearsome nature. As the
flag domain concerns the health of the children, it was
the custom in Livichuco to bury something under the
pyramid at the flagpole base, ‘so that the children don’t
get ill’. According to Doña Antonia Ayka, who had served
as school authority on more than one occasion, the wise
person (yatiri) in charge of the ritual puts ground corn and
other ingredients there. Elvira Espejo mentioned other
elements placed in the equivalent place in the central
school in Qaqachaka, among them a ‘dog’s fang’ (anu kiwu)
buried at the base of the pyramid to give strength to the
pupils in their struggle with the letters.
About the Incaic ushnu
These unexpected communal meanings of the Bolivian flag,
flagpole and its pyramid base in the school compound,
transmitted through oral tradition, seem to derive from
archetypes of the Inca state. In Livichuco, they draw on the
Inca ushnu whose form was similar to the flagpole pyramid.
There the Inca was seated when he met his military chiefs,
or supposed allies, such as Francisco Pizarro. This use is
illustrated in Guaman Poma’s drawings (1980 [1583–1615]:
ff. 369, 374, 398), and his comment that the ushnu was
a place of encounter (an interstitial space between state
and locality). In Pedro Cieza de León’s commentary (1946
[1553]) the ushnu of Cusco’s central plaza was ‘a war
stone’. The long history of these sites has an even older
Andean precedence in the Moche pyramids (Golte 2009).
The school setting of the Livichuco libations also reminds
us of John Hyslop’s descriptions of Inca ushnus as platforms
often constructed at the centre or to the side of tambo
plazas (Hyslop 1990) where they had a public function
oriented to Inca political, religious and military imperial
strategies, especially in the provinces, where the platforms
were larger and made with stone walls.
Meanings of the term ushnu in an Inca setting also
overlap with many of the functions of the Livichuco school
version. Evidently the word ushnu did not have its origins
in Cusco but rather in the north, in Chinchaysuyu (Zuidema
Plate 7.10 The Anxata ritual of passing below the legs of a llama (photo © Laura Pusateri).
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1989a: 413, cited in Pino Matos 2005: 144), hence its
usual pronunciation as ushnu with a -sh. The archaeologist
José Luis Pino Matos carried out a period of ethnographic
fieldwork in the region between Tarma (Junín) and Sirhuas
(Ancash) in Peru, ascribed to the Chinchaysuyu region in
the Inca period, and found that some local meanings of the
term ushnu described holes, the underworld, ruins, stone
walling, places occupied by the dead, the ancestors called
‘gentiles’ that made up prehispanic populations, places
where water filters through the earth, or where the water
is sucked down, pools, places with lots of gravel or stones,
as well as the platforms on top of the highest mountains
(Pino Matos 2005: 146).
Pino Matos also found that in a small village, some
10 km north of Huari, the villagers described the relation
between ushnus and those places with a great deal of gravel
or angular stones, as particularly adaptable to the cons-
truction of agricultural terraces, since the water filtered out
from them quickly, returning to the local rivers. This also
made them ideal places for liquid offerings, particularly for
making public libations rather than private ones (as in the
offerings made to the Livichuco flagpole base).
Tom Zuidema’s classic essay ‘El ushnu’ (1989a [1980])
suggests how, in Inca times, these constructions also served
as important astronomical observation sites of the setting
sun on two precise dates in the year, in August and April,
when agricultural activities began and ended. On these
dates, the sun passed the nadir or antizenith, while the
moon was at the opposite pole, in the zenith. To make
the astronomical observations, a gnomon was placed on
the ushnu. This gnomon (like the modern flagpole) also
facilitated communication during the rituals with the sub-
terranean world, as a kind of axis mundi (Zuidema 1989a
[1980]: 407–8; this volume). When the sun passed over
these constructions, the same site, in the form of a pillar,
served as the ‘seat of the Sun’.
According to Zuidema, these astronomical observations
had important state functions: ‘it was the most important
instrument that the Incas used to achieve the integration
of local calendars, tied to regional farming and herding
activities, within the more general and abstract system
demanded by an imperial organization’ (Zuidema 1989a
[1980]: 402). Perhaps the way Livichuco comunarios locate
the school compound and its ritual sites as local ceremonial
outliers dedicated to the lands of the Sun god, which are
integrated in turn into the more extensive state hierarchy of
ritual sites, harks back to this kind of function.
Within the Inca state context, the ushnu also had mili-
tary functions necessary for the successful management of
the empire. Zuidema cites Molina on military ceremonies
held there, when the ushnu platforms constructed in tambo
plazas and along Inca roads were important receptacles of
Plate 7.11 The school platform decorated with textiles in the new school grounds of Livichuco, in 2006 (photo © Denise Y. Arnold).
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offerings, mainly chicha, amid rites to the regional wak’a
(Zuidema 1989a [1980]: 414). Another characteristic of
ushnus mentioned by Zuidema is how they were covered
with textiles on these important ceremonial occasions. This
manner of covering an ushnu-like platform with textiles
still happens in the school rituals in Livichuco, especially
during the skits on 5 August, when the raised school plat-
form becomes a dance floor, and the schoolchildren who
dance are themselves covered with weavings from head
to foot (Plate 7.11).
Another anonymous chronicler (Anónimo (1951 [1586])
confirms how offerings were made to the ushnu, and the
nexus between the beginning of sowing and the tipping
of chicha into its fountain, which he describes as a place
‘coated with gold’ (comparable to Don Domingo Jiménez’s
memory of the present-day school flagpole base).
Another important aspect of ushnu siting within tambos,
mentioned by Pino Matos, was the use of the ushnu axis
as a reference point within a radius of astronomical points
associated with the roadways, bridges and in some cases
enclosures called canchas, and water sources, radiating out
from the ushnu point (Pino Matos 2005: 149). This permit-
ted the supervision of important calendrical moments,
such as those associated with solstices and equinoxes, and
the passing of the sun and moon in zenith and antizenith
respectively. According to Pino Matos, these kinds of
observations took place from the ushnu platform in the
tambo at Huánaco Pampa (ibid.: 151). Another structure
there, called the inka wasi, was oriented directly toward
the sunrise point the day after the sun reached zenith (ibid.:
156–7). Such observation points were often indicated by
engravings of facing felines, and in general by the imagery
of a child flanked by serpents and felines, the child image
being related directly to the sun, probably moving through
a new passage (Zuidema 1974/76: 199–210; Pino Matos
2005: 158).
It seems pertinent here that ushnus, according to local
memories in Qaqachaka, were associated not only with
the movement of celestial bodies but also of human ones.
Don Daniel Espejo remembered how the ushnu platforms
in his region of southern Oruro (Bolivia) were sites where
returning migrants brought handfuls of soil (p’ujtu) from
places they stayed on their travels. These quantities of
soil collected gradually from the four directions formed
mounds, whose size and scale served as a rough estimation
for the ayllu authorities of the movements of the populations
under their charge over time. An alternative local name for
these sites was ‘laq’a q’ipi’ (‘earth bundles’), as they were
considered measures for both tracing population movement
and then resettling them. The differently coloured soils
were laid out in a spiralling form and bones of the ayllu
authorities were buried at the central point of this spiral.
These accumulations of distinct colours and textures of soil
were highly valued by the community and served many
uses including local rainmaking and other curing rituals.
Other data collected by Zuidema confirm the more
feared aspects of the ushnu in connection with the
dead – that out of its interior came ‘dangerous emana-
tions’ associated with the burial of the ancestors and gold,
which had the power to ‘suck’ the souls of people, making
them ill (Zuidema 1989a [1980]: 421). Even so, Zuidema
perceives in the ushnus telluric powers the necessary ritual
criteria for opening the agricultural cycle, by ‘sucking’ great
quantities of water (represented by the chicha) from the
underworld in anticipation of the coming rains in the next
period of farming. These practices also acknowledged the
power of certain underworld deities, such as the serpent, to
release waters in the near future. So the ushnu had aqueous
as well as solar alignments. The way Zuidema interrelates
the opening of sowing, offerings of food and drink, the wind
and solar heat, with the Inca ushnus power to procure the
‘bringing of the rains’ (ibid.: 452), could equally well be
describing the contemporary school ushnu in Livichuco.
Anne-Marie Hocquenghem (1989a), writing on Mochica
culture, also sheds light on the possible meanings of the
offerings buried at the school ushnu base, such as the dog’s
fang mentioned by Elvira Espejo. In Mochica culture, canines
signified ‘the power of the wak’a’ while, together with the
serpents, they denoted ‘the forces that animate’, being the
‘immortal power of the ancestors’ (Hocquenghem 1989a:
204, 208). Hocquenghem also narrates how a large chain
of gold (related by Molina with the serpent) surrounded
the plaza in Cusco during the feast of Qapaqjucha and
the initiation rituals of the young warriors as they danced
wearing feline skins (ibid.: 204) – how the Incas danced
and sang in the plaza at the end of these rituals (according
to Cieza de León), ‘taking a thick and coloured rope, called
muruurcu, that was then deposited into the ground, rolled
up like a serpent … and it was offered a sacrifice when …
the rains fell’ (ibid.: 204–5). The Andean term muruq’u,
used in both Aymara and Quechua languages, describes
something rolled up in this way.
Both the modern school flagpole-pyramid complex and
the social body of the nation that stirred on 5 August in
the tricolour human-serpentine parade find homologies in
these former Andean symbols of power. These historical
associations continue as lived memory only for the older
people of rural areas, nevertheless they are not entirely
forgotten by the modern-day teachers and school directors
of the region. For example, Don Amado Cahuana, director
of the Colegio Litoral in San Miguel (Carangas province,
Oruro Department), confirmed that his college called the
flagpole base ‘ushnu obelisk’ in acknowledgment of this
same historical archetype. This was the most overt associa-
tion between the flagpole and the ushnu used by outsiders
to the community that we came across in the study.
Libations to the school rostrum and its
Andean meanings
The rites directed at the school rostrum form another cer-
emonial point of reference in the August parades, and a
pertinent nexus between social memory, textual strug-
gle and ancestral power, as the rostrum is a crucial place
of transformation in the bellicose cycle of ontological
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depredation, in which ancestral remains are converted into
a new harvest of babies.
Don Daniel Espejo remembered how, in Qaqachaka,
when the original ushnu sites on the high ground became
too remote to use for practical purposes, they were rein-
vented as ‘earth bundles’ in the school compound. For a
few years, returning migrants continued to bring handfuls
of soil from the places they had stayed, to deposit on the
school platform, where they were mixed with the bones of
the ayllu authorities buried there. A migrant returning from
Las Yungas in La Paz is remembered to have brought rich
dark soil from that lush region as a reminder that his child-
ren had to return at some stage to their schooling there, as
did a migrant who had been working in Argentina. Then the
custom gradually died out, the heads of revered authorities
were replaced with those of white rams, and the platform
uses became restricted to the cycle of patriotic feasts.
In the valley community of Don Domingo Jiménez, the
school rostrum is called ‘litrira’ (‘notice board’), and the acts
performed there on 6 August are still vibrant, transforming it
into a meeting place for all comunarios: ‘We dance there,
marriages are performed there, with the godparents and all
those present … we all used to go there to watch, women
and men, it’s usually full’. These begin with a sample of
‘reading’ in which the schoolchildren are covered all over
with paper and writing, with wings of paper as appendages.
Drawn on the paper-covered bodies of the children who
‘know best’ (of the fourth and fifth grades) are the different
elements in the rostrum construction, above all its adobe
mud-bricks and the mud, ‘that sucks and makes the rostrum
stand; if not it could just fall over’.
Communal meanings of the school rostrum in both
places still pay attention to ‘Father Spirit’ (Ispirit Tatala)
and the ‘mountain peaks’ (kumrira) where offerings are
made, both addressees reiterating the historical memory
that binds the ritual action of the place to a wider cycle
of blood offerings. In this respect, the school rostrum has
strong ties to the ritual site called taqawa, important in the
interethnic wars in Qaqachaka. It was on the rostrum of
stones called taqawa where they displayed ancestral heads
and the trophy heads of enemies conquered in battle. Of
all the ritual sites replaced long ago by the school, the
principal one is said to be taqawa.
Don Domingo Jiménez confirmed that the rostrum
called litrira ‘has the power of all the mallkus, the great
personages of the place’, because their bones and heads
are ‘inside there’. When the comunarios make the adobes
for the base of the rostrum, they grind the ancestral bones
with the accumulated handfuls of earth, and then the rest
of the platform is constructed on top. The bones placed
there ‘give spirits to the children … in order to bestow on
them reading power’ for their school tasks, so the complete
name of the rostrum in his village is liyiñ taqawpa: ‘their
platform for reading’.
Don Domingo’s commentaries about the school rostrum
confirm its ancestral ties with the place called taqawa.
They also recall the Inca platforms sited strategically where
military exercises were carried out in the great plazas con-
structed not so very far from the ushnu, whether in Cusco,
Saqsawaman or Huánuco Pampa. Don Domingo told us
how in those years the real enemy was the Bolivian state
‘run by whites’, who disregarded the protection of national
boundaries, and how the military aspect of schooling
helped children learn to defend these. This confirmed other
comments we heard in those years justifying the extreme
militarisation of schooling. In essence, rural populations
such as those of Qaqachaka felt that those who governed
Bolivia were ignorant of its territorial extension and need
for adequate defence, ‘as it wasn’t really their land, was it?’
This chapter has discussed how the Livichuco school rituals
around the modern ushnu are incorporated into a much
wider political and ceremonial setting, and how the comu-
narios perceive the driving force behind this wider political
From the origins of tambo way stations as sites where the
heads of conquered groups were buried, and the original
ushnu platforms where handfuls of earth were mixed
together with the bones of the ayllu authorities, the modern
school rostrum has emerged as a newer state institution, but
one founded on similar traditions. This is why the school
rostrum is built from a mixture of ancestral bones and earth
bricks, as a substitute for the taqawa platforms of the past
where enemy trophy heads were displayed after battle, and
the ushnu platforms where the heads of revered authorities
were formerly buried. Even now, the heads buried under
the school rostrum are considered to have the potential to
inspire the children with the energies necessary to battle
with the lines of enemy letters in their notebooks, and then
to apply this appropriated enemy force to the seeds in the
furrows of the ayllu lands in the coming agricultural year.
We also have the school flagpole, with its pyramidal
base, as the site of key ceremonial offerings, both interred
in the earth below the platform, and also in the liquid liba-
tions made to the earth around the flag base in early August.
In this sense, the meaning of ushnu in the school compound
in Livichuco includes both the notions of a hollow place
where liquid offerings filter down into the earth, as well as
that of a raised platform nearby, also with resonances of
fertility, but this time associated with the ancestral bones
buried there, where other complementary rituals are carried
out, including those of rainmaking.
This level of political and ceremonial control over
local ayllu lives possibly dates to the Inca period, when
the expansion of agricultural production demanded greater
state control over rainmaking rituals to guarantee sufficient
production each year. A part of this state control concerned
the ritual power of young children, perhaps related to the
role of the sun in astronomical observations at particular
junctures in the calendar. Another important aspect of
schooling practices is their interminable classroom recita-
tions each day, which seem to play on the positive role
of young children in rainmaking rites and accompanying
ISS-07-Arnold v2.indd 89 10/04/2014 15:41
prayers, or incantations, disguised in the school recitations.
And there are associated contexts in which the crying and
suffering of children in rituals on local peaks (perhaps as
substitutes for real sacrifices in the more distant past) is held
to attract the rains, a power thought to be held by children
because of their sexual purity, and the fact that the children
are the obvious products of ayllu fertility (Meddens 1994:
145; Sillar 2000: 120; Arnold and Yapita 2006: 200–203).
I should add that the platform called taqawa, where
trophy heads were displayed in the past, and its surrogate
in the school platform also called taqawa, is the site of the
presence during the rainy season, and finally the dispatch in
Carnival each year of what are called locally the jira mayku,
warrior spirits of the dead. These jira mayku are associated
with the Inca past, and their annual presence in the ayllu
during the rainy season is compared to a periodic Inca
presence. I interpret these jira mayku as a virtual manifesta-
tion of regional ideas about the driving forces motivating
political hierarchy. Theirs is a vital presence in times of war,
when the jira mayku are considered capable of making the
whole ayllu territory ‘slide’ one way or another, depending
on who is winning the war stakes. When they are around,
the jira mayku inspire all kinds of ayllu activities: such as the
growth of plants in the agricultural cycle, and inspiration
in weaving, as a complementary female activity to men’s
activity in warfare.
A final reflection on the relationship between these
contemporary ideas on schooling and the possible func-
tion of the ushnu complex, concerns the way cosmological
forces are thought to operate in the region, and the part that
mixing substances has in this. The soil mixed into the bones
of the school platform, like that of the school grounds in
general, is regarded as especially fertile. It is important in
this case that the ancestral bones, to be effective, must be
‘finely ground up’. It is also relevant that in a particularly dry
year, special water rituals take place beginning in the water
source called Uma jalsu in Livichuco, where the school
parades set out from on the night of 5 August. In this ritual,
as a corollary to the mixing of earth from different sites in
the ushnu platform, water is collected from a number of
different places, and mixed together in a large clay pot, with
the aim of replicating and so restoring the wider circulation
of waters throughout the ayllu, including the rains (Arnold
and Yapita 2000: 333; 2006: 199–204). So we have sites
for the circulation of earth and in parallel other sites for the
circulation of water. In the school rituals, we seemed to be
enacting this same circulation of elements, but through the
common movement of our own bodies.
Another ritual, called willja, performed at a communal
level in really bellicose contexts, takes place in the common
large agricultural fields (Arnold and Hastorf 2008: 130).
There, the power of buried heads (nowadays of sheep), in
the four corners of the field and in its centre, are drawn
upon in a collective effort to radiate power outward from a
ritual centre to generate health among the ayllu members,
and successful production for the coming year. The Aymara
verb willjaña means ‘to spread out’. Reiterations of this kind
of regional perception of force and its directed appropria-
tion towards the good of the ayllu, its land and members
at various levels, are evident in rites by young people, in
men’s warfaring activities and in women’s weaving. In each
of them, at issue is the appropriation of alien resources,
embodied in heads, soil and water, from the periphery, and
their relocation in the ayllu centre, sometimes in the main
plaza, as part of regenerative rites of transformation for the
new productive year. In part, ritual practice in this context
concerns reinstating a whole which has been torn apart
through warfare (or outmigration), through a process of cul-
turally controlled deconstruction prior to renewed growth.
It is interesting to speculate whether Inca domination in
the region functioned in a similar way. The Inca might, in
their territorial expansion, have used ushnu sites as ceremo-
nial centres where they accumulated heads taken from the
conquered peoples, and soil to justify their appropriation of
local lands. They might have considered that the mixture of
these heads with waters, earth, and other elements, taken
from different regional sites, helped generate production in
the lands now under the dominion of the ushnu platform.
They might have threatened local populations with real
or symbolic violence to provoke alienation to communal
values in favour of Inca ones. And rural communities such
as Qaqachaka may have resisted by remembering these
same heads as those of their own ancestral dead, reabsorb-
ing their values in parallel rituals to help regenerate the
same ayllu production.
1. With thanks to Luisa Alvarado for her participation in that
part of the study.
2. The Escuela Ayllu Warisata founded in 1931 was the first
school in Bolivia which had a curriculum aimed at the needs
of indigenous students.
ISS-07-Arnold v2.indd 90 10/04/2014 15:41
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