It’s The Serranos That Count

By Nicholas Asheshov

I’m expecting that the census the other day will show an upsurge in the rural population. We out here in the campo may even be getting back to the population levels of the Inca Empire.

There’s been only a modest increase over the past couple of decades. But anyone traveling round the southern sierra and in the montaña east of Cusco will see bigger villages, more roads and above all more school-children.

Every valley in the massive Cuzco core of The Empire is heavily-populated. The forest is being cut back aggressively.

By contrast all over rural England and elsewhere in Europe they have been shutting primary schools. But here in Urubamba and in the great hinterland beyond the Valley, primary schooling is a big focus. For nearly two decades the government has been opening primary schools and kindergartens for three-to-fives, even crèches called here wawa wasi.

A while back I was in Occabamba, one of Cuzco’s hidden, exciting cacao-coca-coffee valleys. Spectacled bear, deer and eagles are close by but you also see truckloads of school kids going to and fro at around eight any weekday morning and after one in the afternoon. Five of every 10 people is under 16.

Richard Webb, with his Cuanto? organization, the only people in town for numbers, tells me that the figures show that only 7.6 million Peruvians are classified as “rural.” But he suspects that often “tiny little hamlets are included as urban, meaning that the rural population is in reality higher. Whatever, around three out of every 10 Peruvians live out in the country.

The amazing thing is that the rural population of Peru is still lower than it was under the Incas even though the total population of Peru is three times greater. Of course everyone in Inca times lived en el campo apart from a few tens of thousands in Cusco, Chan Chan, Huanuco Viejo and Pachacamac.

The low point over the past six or seven thousand years came in 1620, with only 600,000. These would all fit today into Miraflores and San Isidro with room left over.

The Conquest produced one of the great population disasters of history. It was worse even than the Black Death of the 14th century where half of Europe was wiped out.

In Peru, out of every 20 people, only one survived.

Vital censuses were carried out by Viceroy Toledo in 1570, in Huanuco and in Yucay, just up the road from Urubamba. These were followed up in 1603 and 1620.

On the basis of the 1570 head-counts, carried out less than 40 years after the Spaniards had arrived in Cajamarca and just as Tupac Amaru was being executed in the Plaza de Armas de Cusco, Toledo estimated that the population of pre-Conquest Peru at eight and a half million.

This was a pretty good shot. according to the best work done on Inca population, David Noble Cook’s “Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru 1520-1620”.

Cook looked, for instance, at how many people would live off a hectare of tilled land –seven, according to a 1960s study– and came up with 6.5mn people living on the Coast in 1520, which was when Atahualpa and Huascar were getting ready to destroy each other, a decade before Pizarro landed in Tumbes.

Using statistical regressions based on Darfur-like disasters he calculated how many people had died from disease and warfare, and came up with a total population for Inca Peru of 9.4mn; the 0.4 there is William Devevan’s calculation of the population of the montaña. There’s a good case, he also says, for numbers of around 14mn.

So within less than a century the population had dropped by around 95% to 600,000, almost all of whom were sierra Indians. The native population of the Coast had dropped to zero. No one was left.

Ever since, Peru has been massively underpopulated, the classic land without people, and people without land. By the early 20th century, 100 years ago, the population of Peru had inched up to just over three million, according to my 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. By 1940 Peru had just over seven million. In 1961 it was 10.4mn, more or less as it had been before the Conquest.

The sierra saved a small genetic something of Inca and pre-Inca Peru. The sturdy Quechua tradition, with its Quispes, Mamanis, Usquamaitas, Corimañas, Orqohuarancas and Yupanquis is all that remains of the Incas, the Lords of Sipan, the Dukes of Chavin, the Earls of Huari and the Kings of Tiahuanuco.

Much more interesting than counting how many people spend their lives in unproductive cities would be some DNA studies of the ancient families of my neighbours here in the Sierra to tie them to the glories of seven millennia of one of the great success stories of civilization. We can be sure, in any case, that the per capita GDP of the Inca Empire was substantially higher than it’s ever likely to be under today’s slash-and-burn efforts. ENDS

Published in Caretas Magazine Oct 28 2007

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