Food Culture, Ingredients

Incas Come from the Ground like Potatoes

Different Kinds of Potatoes

Dark and rich, like the night, the earth and its produce filled the background of Inca life. Even when the focus was on the sun and its gleam, whether from the sky or its massive temple on a hill in Cuzco, still the earth and the night were important. The official, Imperial Inca ritual emphasized corn and its relationship to the cult of the sun, but the first Incas came out of the dark and clinging earth just like new potatoes.

The chronicler Betanzos, who married into the royal Inca family, begins their history as follows.

In ancient times, they say, the land and provinces of Peru were dark and neither light nor daylight existed. During this time of total night, [. . .] Viracocha created the sky and earth but left everything in darkness.

During this time he created people but turned them into stone. Once he had made the sun, moon, and stars he made more people in stone and had them placed in the land across Peru and designated the places from which they would come, whether springs or caves.

Viracocha stationed himself next to the place where these people had to come out, and then said in a loud voice,

So and so, come out and people this land which is now uninhabited because Contiti Viracocha, who made the world, has so ordered it.

Stone on the Copacabana Peninsula of Lake Titicaca
Stone and Cave on the Copacabana Peninsula of Lake Titicaca

The creation happened as if people were so many potatoes (according to some stories of origin potatoes also began as stones) called from the earth at harvest. Right now, the harvest of potatoes is beginning, rains permitting.

Denise Arnold, an ethnographer, recently published a book on potatoes and their lore. She mostly studies people in the altiplano, the high plateau on which Lake Titicaca sits, and not the area of Cuzco. This is the area where potatoes are the most important staff of life, just as they are in the highlands above the Sacred Valley’s floor and above Cuzco itself. Furthermore, like potatoes, Viracocha came from the altiplano as did the Incas, according to one version of their myth of origin.

Arnold writes (p. 199) that stories say the potato comes from the earliest times, long before the present and even before the Incas. They belong to the time of the chullpas (pre-Incan burial towers that dot the altiplano.)

According to one story (p 89):

Potatoes appeared in a pile of stones. [. . .] The potato was crying. “No one loves me,” it said. A person was walking through the pile of stones. It heard the potato’s voice and got frightened. But she could not do anything.

“I am the sticky girl. Listen lady, don’t be afraid.” [. . .] then the lady asked [. . .] “What is your name?”

“I am the black potato girl”. [Others said] “I am the white girl”, “And I am the black girl.”

From that moment potatoes appeared with names. In the years before, the potatoes had no names. [. . .] Since then they have names. The potatoes came from a pile of stones. That is why, at harvest time, the potato expands like stones. That is why [when harvested] they are piled up. Even when harvested they are placed in a pile in the home.

The potato is the same as a stone. [. . .] Potatoes are like stones in that they never run out.

Chuño, stone-like dried potatoes for storage
Chuño, stone-like dried potatoes

In the same way, when they came out of the earth, the Incas were given names. Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa tells us:

Six leagues S.S.W of Cuzco by the road which the Incas made, there is a place called Paccari-tampu, which means “the house of production” at which there is a hill called Tampu- Tocco, maning “the house of windows.” It is certain that in this hill there are three windows [. . .] From the chief window of Ccapac- tocco came four men and four women, called brethren. These knew no father nor mother, beyond the story they told that they were created and came out of the said window by order of Ticci Viracocha, and the declared that Viracocha created them to be lords. For this reason they took the name of Inca, which is the same as lord. They took “Ccapac” as an additional name because they came out of the window “Ccapac-tocco” which means “rich,” although afterwards they used this term to denote chief lord over many.

Viracocha harvested them from the earth as a kind of father, as if he called and then received the child coming from a womb. But the idea they had no mother ignores the role of the earth from whose womb they came, just as it does the woman who first heard the potatoes speak.

Arnold tells another story (p. 200) that says that the moon made the first potato by blowing across the face of the earth, and from that single potato come all the other, myriad, varieties of potatoes found.

This story pairs nicely with the story of Viracocha. The moon blows across the earth creating potatoes and Viracocha–strongly associated with the sun — blows (speaks) and the Incas (potatoes) come forth.

Full Moon over Cuzco
Full Moon over Cuzco

We can write about it like this, just telling the beginning and the end–and the Incas could just focus on what happened after the Incas were called out by Viracocha, but the time in the ground, when potatoes grow from nubs into plants with roots while tubers sprout, nourish themselves, and grow, is important to the farmers.

So, it is not surprising that during this in-between time, when the potatoes are underground, the famers do a lot of ritual to make sure the potatoes grow.

Right now, April, the harvest has either begun or is soon to begin. The period of growth is almost over.

During Holy Week, people from the altiplano told Arnold and her students (p. 253),

there is the custom of singing [. . .] to make the fields and plants happy while we cultivate them. We go to them and sing. People of different ages dance there. Those who are costumed as blacks also dance there. The costumes of those dancers are like potato sacks. [. . .] On the day we begin the harvest those black dancers also go [. . .] and they take coca, sweet wine […], pure alcohol to sprinkle with the finger tips, to stop bad things. […] They offer it in the middle of every potato field. Then they kneel and say to the Pachamama.

Oh mother twin,
today your children have come to sing and harvest.
Dear mother twin,
now the blacks are going to harvest quietly and with respect.

Then from every field they will harvest just two plants. […] the next day the people will cook those potatoes.

Then they can perform the full harvest. The Incas, who also came from the earth in pairs, could now go on to plant corn and establish the city and Empire of Cuzco where they worshiped the sun.

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