Commentary

Peru is Far More Native American than Most Think

The Three Parts of a Great Lomo Saltado (Photo: Walter Coraza Morveli)

Peruvian cuisine celebrates ethnic and cultural mixing. Out of the history of indigenous peoples and the immigration of Spanish, Chinese, Italians and more developed a diverse and varied cuisine which is justifiably celebrated as one of the world’s great cuisines.

This idea, of mixing, fits a national political ideal of mestizaje, mixing, which under a different pronunciation and spelling, is also the term for the great gastronomic festival, held in Lima every year, Mistura. As many scholars have pointed out, the idea of mestizaje, with its norm of creating a cosmic race from the various people of Latin America, fits in a political space where the Indian or Indigenous also exists as a contrast. Today in Peru there is also the competing ideal of Lo Andino, the Andean, as a means of identifying its population differently.

Given the power and force of ideal of mixing, you would think the Peruvian population is heavily blended, such that people with Chinese last names have some Andean genetics like people with Spanish last names while those with indigenous patronyms have European, Asian or African genes in addition to their local heritage.

Of course the idea of blending does not have to refer to population genetics. It can simply refer to culture and to the massive spread of Creole cuisine such as saltados and chifa throughout the country, as well as the growth of a modern commercial Peruvian food, pollo a la brasa. It can also refer to the development of a Peruvian Spanish as majority national language filled with native words as well a words from all kinds of other origins.

Nevertheless, the genetics of Peru’s population are interesting to assess the degree of blending.

Not long ago this would have been an impossible task, but with the decoding of the human genome and a host of close studies of genetics it is possible. In some cases it may be necessary.

A year and a half ago, a host of authors published an article in the prestigious Plos One journal, whose argument relied on looking carefully at the distribution of ethnic genetics within Lima’s population to answer an important medical question.

The Andean region, which includes Peru, has one of the highest incidences of gastric cancer in the world. It is five times higher here than in the US and twice as high as Brazil, the authors report.

The authors were concerned to disentangle the factors that might explain this. They write. They were intrigued to see the relationship between people whose bodies were adapted to indigenous forms of h pylori that were not as virulent, as opposed to Asian and European forms that are much more aggressive.

As a result they recruited people for a study who were seeking gastroenterologic treatment in three large Lima hospitals.

The sample turned out to be overwhelmingly Native American, to the great surprise of the researchers who had thought they would find a much more mixed population in this capital city. More than 74% of their research subjects were Native American and a surprisingly low percentage had African genetics, less than 5%.

Large cities in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Northern Argentina host populations whose usual cultural identification as mestizo likely ignores their large Amerindian genetic background . . . Our results suggest that large cities of Western South America host millions of individuals of predominantly Amerindian genetic background. Contemporary international South-to-North migrations from South American cities from the Andean region are also spreading the genetic background of Native Americans worldwide, and it is expected that the almost one million United States immigrants coming from Andean countries [36] have high levels of Native American background. It would not be surprising if these populations, classified as “Hispano/Latino” in the United States, had more Amerindian ancestry than US individuals classified as Native American.(p.6)

While the authors found a strong correlation between gastric cancer and Amerindian genetics, the authors argued this had less to do with the relationship between the genes and h pylori, than it did with the ways in which indigenous Peruvians tend to be shunted into poverty. They see poverty as the major explanatory factor for the high incidence of gastric cancer, and not ethnicity.

For us, this suggests a related issue, the ways in which ideas of mixing and mestizaje, systematically minimize and even dismiss the cultures, foods, and ways of Amerindian Peruvians. Strangely, this gastronomic hegemony may be part of the explanation for the high rates of gastric cancer in Peru.

Reference: Latife Pereira, Roxana Zamudio, Giordano Soares-Souza, Phabiola Herrera, Lilia Cabrera, Catherine C. Hooper, Jaime Cok, Juan M. Combe, Gloria Vargas, William A. Prado, Silvana Schneider, Fernanda Kehdy, Maira R. Rodrigues, Stephen J. Chanock, Douglas E. Berg, Robert H. Gilman, and Eduardo Tarazona-Santos,”Socioeconomic and Nutritional Factors Account for the Association of Gastric Cancer with Amerindian Ancestry in a Latin American Admixed Population” PLoS One. 2012; 7(8): Published online Aug 3, 2012.

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