Patsa Puqun: Ritual and climate change in the Andes

It was a chilly predawn morning in 1984 when I enthusiastically joined my Quechua speaking host family in their field at the base one of Peru’s highest glacial snow peaks, Hualcan, to plant oca, a variety of native Andean tuber that grows at elevations over 10,000 feet. We turned the bend of a steep southeast facing hill and were suddenly confronted with the majestic snow peak. Family members dropped their loads of tools and provisions, taking deep breaths of rarefied mountain air before squatting or sitting at this resting place, called hamana, a ritual point along a direct sightline to the glacier.

“This will help you acclimate,” Don Antonio said, as he handed me a wad of coca leaves, while his wife served him a small gourd of fermented maize beer, spilling a bit on the ground in devotion to the earth. Doña Francisca motioned for me to rest on an accommodating rock as the sun rose from behind the mountain. Just then, bright sunlight reflected off the metal tools and a shiny adornment on Don Antonio’s wrist – it was a watch, an item only recently accessible to the general population. Curious, I inquired, “What time is it?” Don Antonio first looked up toward the position of the sun before looking at his watch finally he turned to me and explained, “Inti hatunnam, which means, the sun is [getting] big.” I came to understand that as the sun cycles through the sky, he is considered “to grow larger” until midday, after which he begins to shrink as he travels along his route toward the western horizon. One day, I asked an older villager when would be a convenient time to visit her, she thought a moment and replied, “Inti ichikllam,” meaning when the sun is tiny and low in the sky, referring to sundown.

For the Andes region of South America, studies reveal the inextricable nature of time-space concepts as explained by Inca elites, and deeply embedded in the cosmovision of present day Quechua speaking peoples. Human–environment relations lend much to interpretations of the world and society in which we live, as illustrated here in a brief description of the results of a changing climate on knowledge and actions of the inhabitants of the Andes.
Time in Andean thought is cyclical, entwined with both biological and social processes that give form and meaning to concepts of chronology and appropriate moments for determined human action based on understandings of biological cycles and social reciprocity. From this viewpoint, humans and nature are merged in undifferentiated consequential relationships where rituals are means of communication and reciprocation. Diurnal, nocturnal as well as life cycle processes, are expanded and applied to describe annual seasons and significant eras, as comprehended in the use of the Quechua terms, patsa and puquy.

Ritual and Climate Change

Our research and training center the Center for Social Well Being, in the Hualcan valley (Quebrada Hualcan) of the Cordillera Blanca, works in collaboration with traditional Quechua communities as well as with researchers from a wide array of disciplines (glaciology, geography, environmental studies, public health, anthropology, etc.) to explore issues of climate change here in the highest tropical range on the planet, where the glaciers are a storehouse for a significant reserve of fresh water. Our team of indigenous experts note that the term “Patsa Puqun” emerges in local expression, brought into use with reference to the current era of global climate and culture change. While patsa (equivalent to pacha in Cuzco Quechua) is often translated as “earth,” it actually refers to a combined concept of time–space, or the world in which we live. The verb puquy – to mature or ripen, refers to agriculture, humans, and the fermentation of grains. In the yearly agricultural cycle, puquy is a season that commences with the December solstice, when plants sprout and there should be plenty of rainfall that continues up until the month known as puqu quilla in pre-Spanish times that coincides with the March equinox and important harvest celebrations, now merged with Christian Carnival and Easter traditions.

An important aspect of Andean seasonal fiestas is a ritual harvesting of the glacial ice that is consumed at lower elevations in celebration of the community relationships with the high mountain deities that provide essential water, a key element in crop propagation to ensure prosperity. This special kind of ice is considered medicinal, categorized as “hot and dry” applied to ailments caused by cold and wet elements. Ceremonial ice harvest is a focal point of the largest pilgrimage on the South American continent, Quyllur Rit’i (“star snow”), that draws tens of thousands of believers annually on the full moon prior to the June Solstice in the southern Cuzco region, to the mountain Qolqepunku (literally, “storehouse door,” in reference to the star that leads the constellation Pleiades observed from that perspective at that moment in time). However, as the glaciers recede not only is it more difficult to reach the ice, but touching, harvesting and dancing on the ice are now prohibited. This limitation gives rise to creative enactments of human interaction with glaciers by troupes of dancers, worshippers and musicians who continue to fulfill their spiritual obligations, climbing to where the glacier once existed to carry out symbolic performances.

In the Callejón de Huaylas, consumption and appreciation of ice still goes on, but differently. Elderly ice harvester, Sr. Teodoro, has made the provincial town of Carhuaz famous for ice cream flavored with seasonal native fruit. He tells us,

We would leave the house around 3am to reach the ice before dawn. At the high lake, Shonquil, we would place our chewed coca leaves to appease the mountain, and quickly approach the glacier. This is the most dangerous moment. You must be sure of yourself and know how to relate with the mountain, or you may be killed or later become very ill and die. It is important to work fast; you must cut the ice, tie it to your back and then run down the mountain at top speed without looking back. I would rush home and by 10am we would be serving flavored shaved ice in the plaza for the Fiesta de Mama Meche (Celebration of the Virgen de las Mercedes, patron saint of Carhuaz at September Equinox).

Because of traditional land use practices, communities in the Quebrada Hualcan manage communally-owned land all the way up to the glacier and still may permit ice harvesting for ritual and medicinal purposes by community members only. On a visit to communal pasturelands over 12,000 feet with retired ice harvester, Don Eulogio, he pointed out to us the place on the dark rocky mountainside where the glacier once reached. He expressed sadness as he remembered his experiences of receiving the ice as a reciprocal gift from the mountain to the people as a sign of mutual care and respect between the environment and inhabitants. Our team specialist in Quechua language, knowledge and concepts explains that the impacts of climate change are felt by local farmers in terms of patsa puqun, a notion that the earth is in an advanced stage of maturity, perhaps even fermentation, and thus the warming of the high altitude ecological zones that affect agropastoral activities.
Andean perceptions of time do not conceptualize astral and seasonal processes to cycle inevitably and effortlessly, but rather that purposeful human activity, in forms of ritual actions and responsible work, must take place to guide and ensure desired outputs of human–environment relationships. Patsa, as time–space, may be verbalized as patsaakaatsiy, which refers to adaptation and acclimatization of humans and plants to changing environmental conditions. Puquy, refers to ripening, but maturation has its peak expression of suitable ripeness, after which fermentation and/or spoiling commences that may lead to a rotten state, rather than the desired cycle when fruits of harvest return to seed to bring new life.


We must dispel the myth that indigenous peoples are unaware of climate change and its implications, a belief held by academics, scientists and others who influence government decisions with regard to water and land use. On the contrary, contemporary Quechua communities who interact daily with their environment, are not only highly sensitive to and observant of ecological erosion and transition, but are key actors to include in the development of viable sustainable adaptation and mitigation strategies, of which they bode thousands of years of wise experience, continually acting in response to the consequences of global climate and culture change as lived in the Andes.

By Patricia J. Hammer
Director of the Center for Social Well Being

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