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How do traditional societies change as a result of contact with the modern age?

06.11.2013
A Treasure from the Archives

How do traditional societies change as a result of contact with the modern age? You can only tell if you know what they looked like before that. For the rural culture of the Peruvian Chancay Valley, this has just become easier–with help from the University of Bonn, a Peruvian anthropologist just saved 50-year-old records about this region from oblivion.

For centuries, the small rural village somewhere in the mountains slept its peaceful sleep. Peacefully, the locals followed their ancient traditions. Then, a street came. Then, electricity. Then, the first TV. And today, only a few years later, the locals don't even recognize themselves anymore. The way in which established societies change under the influence of global one-size-fits-all culture is a research subject in Anthropology – and such studies require descriptions of what those societies used to look like before the road, electricity and TV arrived. Anthropologist Dr. Juan Javier Rivera Andía calls this “filling the ethnographic gap.” This is exactly what he did for his own homeland, the Peruvian Andes. He rediscovered the long-lost records of a fellow anthropologist, and edited them for publication. He was able to find the last pieces of this academic puzzle during a research stay at the University of Bonn's Institute for Archeology and Cultural Anthropology. “The Department of Anthropology of the Americas there has always had a significant reputation regarding Andean cultures research.” Dr. Rivera Andía's stay at Bonn was supported by the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation.

The earliest documents date from 1962

The rediscovered records were from the Peruvian anthropologist and musician Alejandro Vivanco Guerra (1910-1991). They tell about everyday customs and music, myths and legends, and the cultural and religious life of rural culture in the valley of the Chancay River, which is about 120 kilometers long and empties into the Pacific some 60 kilometers north of Lima. According to Dr. Rivera Andía, Vivanco traveled to this region “at least three times between 1962 and 1982.” It is not known whether there were additional research trips because three notebooks (of probably 15) are still lost. Alejandro Vivanco was not the only researcher studying the Chancay Valley – but it was his work in particular that awakened Dr. Rivera Andía's interest. For Vivanco was “the only scholar who actually spoke the language of the people there” – namely Quechua, formerly the language of the Inca Empire and still the third most frequently spoken language in South America.

According to Dr. Rivera Andía, finding the dozen of Vivanco's notebooks we have now was already “some kind of treasure hunt.” When he himself went on his first trip to the Chancay Valley in 1999, he noticed that “Vivanco had published very little about his field studies – and I wondered why.“ Dr. Rivera Andía was certain that Vivanco must have left some records behind, even though initially, there were no real indications. “Nobody had mentioned the existence of such records anywhere, neither in a publication nor a lecture.” Dr. Rivera Andía searched for dependents of the scholar, who today is almost completely forgotten also in Peru, and he finally found his widow. And in her house, Vivanco's documents.

Difficult translation from Quechua

Dr. Juan Javier Rivera Andía wrote out the 12 notebooks page for page, as well as the many examples of musical pieces that Vivanco (an impassioned player of the native Quena flute) had recorded in the Chancay region. The scholar reconstructed the itinerary his predecessor had followed, and if information on individual topics was found in several different places in the notebooks, he compiled it into tables and lists – such as, from which local native sources Vivanco had received his information. A particular difficulty during editing was translating the Quechua terms (such as place and landscape names) Vivanco had provided – for the specific Quechua dialect of the Chancay Region is almost completely extinct now.

“Just about everything we know today about the region's cultural heritage comes from Alejandro Vivanco,” explains the Peruvian expert, and that Vivanco’s records “provide an accurate picture of an indigenous culture that is going through very rapid and profound changes due to the modernization of society.” To ensure that this knowledge cannot get lost a second time, Vivanco's notebooks are now being safeguarded in the library of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru in Lima.

Publication: Alejandro Vivanco Guerra: Una etnografía olvidada en los Andes. El Valle del Chancay (Perú) en 1963. Edición de Juan Javier Rivera Andía. Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas. 344pp., 44 euros

Contact:

Dr. Juan Javier Rivera Andía
Email: jjriveraandia@gmail.com

Johannes Seiler | idw
Further information:
http://editorial.csic.es/

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