- Surrounded by mountains and eagles, a man from a highland community in Peru has built a stone and mud qolca, a food storage silo inspired by ancestral technologies.
- In his community, as in the rest of the Andes, increasingly erratic rainfall patterns and unexpected frosts and pest plagues threaten the rich local biodiversity and their generous harvests.
- Almost 500 years after the construction of the last qolca in the Cusco Valley, this new effort is a bid for a tomorrow without hunger in these times of pandemic and climate crisis.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Mario Quispe Hermoza, 37 years old and from the Peruvian Andes, is a man with long hair, deep reflections on nature and traditional wisdom, and few words. In response to an increasingly unpredictable climate and in view of a possible food shortage, he decided to build a large stone silo, known as a qolca, to preserve tubers and dehydrated grains.
Quispe is a farmer, an independent researcher and has worked on archaeological excavations. He lives in the vicinity of the Kircas Chico Indigenous community, in an area called Q’ente Killay, which in the Quechua language means “the hummingbird’s moon.”
His home on the summit of a natural lookout sheltered by the Q’ente Killay mountain has a wood-burning stove and no electricity. At 3,800 meters (more than 12,400 feet) above sea level, his only neighbors are the wind, hummingbirds, eagles, foxes and deer. The occasional roar of an airplane is the only reminder that the community lies close to Cusco, the oldest living city in the Americas.
During his latest bout of autodidactic research, he walked the 380 kilometers (236 miles) from Lake Titicaca to Apu Huanacaure — from the highest navigable lake in the world to the sacred mountain of Cusco, once the capital of the Inca civilization. That’s the same path that appears in the founding legend of the Inca civilization, collected in chronicles from the 16th century. According to the story, it was in Huanacaure where a couple sent by the sun god sank a golden rod into the ground, a sign that they had found the chosen place to build Cusco.
After more than two decades of journeys through mountains, forests and deserts, the seed of the qolca project was born in Quispe. The idea germinated, sheltered by the memory of his people, the impulse of self-taught research, and an attentive observation of the passing of the pacha: the Andean notion of time and space.
Back to the origin
“When I reviewed history, I read that in the ancient times there were food storage silos, such as qolcas. They still exist in Cusco and other places, but they no longer function. So I decided to do some concrete research and build one. Because the basis of life is our food. If there are no reserves, what awaits us?” Quispe says.
So he kept imagining and planning until the idea took shape. By November 2020, the plan was ready. He would build the qolca, a stone silo, on the northern face of the mountain, precisely where the icy wind blowing from Ausangate glacier packs even more force, guaranteeing adequate natural refrigeration for the stored food.
He overcame the challenge of gravity with an earthen platform on which the circular structure, more than 2 meters (almost 7 feet) high, was erected. He extracted rocks from the same place, using only his strength and his chisel. Finally, he assembled the carved stones with a mud mortar mixed with a big cactus known as aguancollay or gigantón.
The first few rains in Q’ente Killay made him aware that the time had come to build. Before starting, Quispe did what is done in the Andes when planting, starting out on a journey or building a house: he made an offering to the Pachamama, to Mother Earth.
Dressed in an old poncho that belonged to his family, he placed flower petals, corn and quinoa grains, molasses, coca seeds, corn chicha (a traditional fermented beverage) and sweet wine. Each of these elements was intended to be the best ingredients to give thanks and ask for the protection of nature.
Then the pututus were blown in the four directions, the wind instruments made with large seashells that have been used in ceremonies here for thousands of years. “Permission must always be asked for because everything has life, everything is energy. The pututus open, they are vibrations that connect,” Quispe says.
That day, instead of the symbolic first stone, a common practice to start a construction, the offering was placed. It was covered with earth still wet from the rain, marking the moment the heart of the qolca began to beat during the last months of 2020.
Ancient food storage
Qolcas were an important part of the agricultural technologies of ancient Peru. Designed for the conservation of tubers and grains in times of bad harvests, they were stone constructions located in high areas with a wind and temperature control system. Since the Spanish conquest, consummated in 1532, they fell into disuse, and food storage became a family activity rather than a societal one.
“Redistribution and the principle of reciprocity are the basis of the qolcas,” says Donato Amado, a local historian specializing in Andean studies. “Although the practice of storing products locally or communally already existed, the Incas turned it into a political-state practice.”
In that sense, under the Incan empire, each city or town had its own system of qolcas. In the case of Cusco, these were concentrated on the mountain slopes in an area called Hurin Qosqo, or Lower Cusco.
Today, the vestiges of the four main storage systems in the Cusco Valley can still be seen, defying the ravages of time and urban growth: Sillkinchani, Muyu Orqo, Qhataqasapatallaqta and Taukaray.
Amado says the location of Quispe’s contemporary qolca is key, and represents a promising initiative. Situated in what was once Hurin Qosqo, the Q’ente Killay qolca is directly aligned with Taukaray, itself located on the same mountain range as the ancient Inca systems.
However, according to Amado, this surprising geographical alignment does not represent a return to the past in the sense of recovering something lost. “There is a continuity in time, an inherited experience,” he says. “Part of this continuity is the validity of the principle of reciprocity or ayni], which is intact not only in rural communities, but also in cities.”
The qolca of Q’ente Killay
On a Sunday this past July, almost 500 years after the construction of the last Incan qolca in the Cusco Valley, it was time to put the roof on the first new qolca of this millennium. This contemporary food storage silo made with ancient technology took eight months of work, and its completion came on a sunny morning.
Quispe’s brother and his family were present. Hipólito Quispe has been more than a right-hand man to his brother throughout the project. They worked together for countless hours, loading, carving and wedging stones, through rain and burning sun.
That Sunday, the qolca was almost ready. The sketches in Quispe’s notebook had finally come to life: an imposing circular stone tower at the foot of the cliff. A subterranean wind circulation system built into the foundation to keep the food at a stable temperature was running.
The qolca is an example of one of the many technologies used here centuries ago, when the civilization in this region of what is today Peru was at its peak: transforming wild environments with its knowledge of agronomy, hydraulics and astronomy, setting the foundations for a megadiverse and multicultural territory.
A special lunch was prepared for the day: beef with colored potatoes and vegetables. The radio played cheerful huayno music featuring harp, violin and quena, a traditional flute.
In a display of skill and balance, the Quispe brothers covered the top of the qolca with bundles of q’olla, a type of yellow straw that grows in the Kircas highlands. They tied them together with wet ropes woven by their sister-in-law, Maritza Daza, and their nieces, Irene and Rocío Quispe.
For 12-year-old Rocío, it was her first time weaving these ropes, a tradition known as qeswa and passed down from one generation to the next. “My mom tells me that she was my age when she learned to qeswa and it feels good,” she said with an excited smile.
By mid-morning, the family decided to rest. During the break they drank frutillada, made from fermented wild strawberries. Then they shared and chewed coca leaves to recover lost strength, an Andean custom that has been kept alive for hundreds of years.
On roofing day, the female presence was greater than the male one. For Mario Quispe, this was no coincidence: “Women have a stronger bond with the Pachamama. They complement the man. They open me up to things I could not see or understand.”
Before the work break ended, Maritza Daza pointed out that they were in front of a warmi, or female, qolca: one that will keep food — life — inside her. Everyone laughed with joyful complicity.
Based on a study into colonial property titles, as well as 16th and 17th century chronicles, the historian Amado explains the form of administration of these food silos during the time of the Incas. “My hypothesis is that they were looked after and distributed by the panacas [important families], formed by women, by the sisters or qollas [wives] of the Incas.”
The Quispes haven’t decided yet how the food they will keep in the Q’ente Killay qolca will be distributed in the future, or by whom. However, the constant female presence suggests that women will continue to play an important role in the destiny of this warmi qolca.
Food from the highlands
More than 2.2 million small family farmers in Peru continue to use ancestral technologies in their daily efforts, according to the Ministry of Agrarian Development and Irrigation.
These traditions still live in the andenes, the farming terraces carved into the Andean slopes, and in the irrigation canals, and in the selection of seeds. Experts have increasingly pointed out the urgency of recovering, systematizing and promoting these ancestral practices in the field, in research and in universities.
“The society of the present must turn to the past for a more adequate understanding of its territorial, cultural and social reality,” said archaeologist Ruth Shady at the Lecture on Agrobiodiversity organized by the National Council for Science, Technology and Innovation. Shady, who uncovered the ancient Caral civilization, the oldest in the Americas, added at the event: “Our new generations must acquire the Andean wisdom so that if they set out to do something, they know they can achieve it. We have the human conditions to achieve it.”
The 30 families who make up the Kircas Chico Indigenous community are dedicated to agriculture. A good harvest ensures a full year’s supply of food. In frosty weather, part of the potato production will be freeze-dried into chuño or moraya under an artisanal process of dehydration that will make them last up to six or seven years in storage.
Each family works their plots in a crop rotation system. “It is a three-year chronology. First the potato, then native tubers such as oca or olluco, then fava beans or wheat,” Mario Quispe says. “The soil loses its nutrients little by little and when another crop grows, the microorganisms are renewed.”
Although their names have been erased over time, at least 20 varieties of potatoes and corn are still grown in Kircas. As in thousands of Andean farming communities, the people here practice what the late anthropologist and Inca scholar John Murra called “the vertical control of ecological floors” — the productive adaptation to the multiple ecosystems and challenges presented by the Andean topography.
In the highlands, for example, they group potatoes and oca. Further down, there’s quinoa, barley, peas, beans and vegetables. Even lower, different varieties of corn are planted, such as chullpi, qello, hanka and chiqchi. The plots in the warmest areas are where the sweet fruits grow.
“The efforts of the Andean peasant family, which for centuries has converted wild plants into food plants, are not sufficiently valued,” says Mario Tapia, an agronomist and expert in Andean crops. This is the reason why the central Andes is one of the main genetic centers for the domestication of plants, such as potatoes, corn and pumpkins, which today feed the planet.
And it is this amazing diversity — Peru has 3,500 varieties of native potatoes — that is renewed each agricultural season when Andean men and women dedicate themselves to “breeding” the crops. For here, agriculture and life work under the principle of uyway, or reciprocal breeding, where each seed and plant is looked after with dedication because it will feed the one who sows it; just as parents raise their children and, in turn, children look after their parents.
The strength of ayni
It’s just before dawn on a day this past June, a month before the roofing event. The silhouette of the mountains peeks out of a blue sky still full of stars. It’s the right time to cut the q’olla that will cover the roof of the qolca.
Although the cold makes breathing difficult and covers everything with ice, the people whom Quispe called for the tutapa, or early morning work, appear one by one. At some point he worked for them, in ayni. So, in reciprocity, they attend today for the work in the grasslands.
By dawn, the work has advanced. At the edge of a stream they cut the straw, sickles in hand. With the first ray of sunlight, Quispe interrupts his work and greets it with his hands on his chest. He is moved. When they have the necessary amount of q’olla, they walk down the hill with the large golden plumes on their backs.
When they reach the house they are greeted by Irene Quispe, who has prepared a broth of moraya, dehydrated potatoes. She’s 25 years old and, like thousands of Peruvians, has returned to live in her native community because of the crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Kircas Chico Indigenous community lies just 14 km (9 mi) from the city of Cusco, but there’s more than just physical distance that separates the two. Irene Quispe used to work with computers in the city; here, she uses her hands to work the land. “It has been a great time for reflection,” she says. “We understood that you cannot solely depend on the city. Here in the countryside we have everything, the richness of food. I believe that here people are freer.”
When Tapia is asked about this phenomenon, he is optimistic. “It is a great opportunity. Faced with living a precarious life in the cities, young people realize the security they have in their land and in dedicating themselves to what their parents and grandparents have always done: working the land.”
Earth in crisis
Rising temperatures, floods, droughts, heat waves and cold snaps. Climate refugees. Famine. With the recent publication of a report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (https://www.ipcc.ch/assessment-report/ar6/), the emergency of the climate crisis on the planet has been confirmed.
However, this was already being discussed decades ago in the scientific community. And on their lands, farmers all over the world also knew it. Those in the Peruvian Andes were no exception.
From his community, Mario Quispe has seen how, every year, the rains are delayed and the weather is increasingly extreme. “Instead of starting in August or September, the rains start in November or December. There are families who lose their harvest. Not only because of the lack of rain, but also because the frost falls at the wrong time or because of insect pests,” he says.
Despite the gloomy forecasts, agronomist Tapia does not lose his optimism when talking about climate change and the Peruvian Andes. “Fortunately we have around 450,000 peasants [who] have conserved the local biodiversity. This variety guarantees food security because climate is a modifying factor in food production,” he says. “It is better to have a well-managed and diverse agriculture.”
In that sense, Andean communities such as Kircas Chico that have passed down from generation to generation the agricultural knowledge that safeguards this biodiversity, have and will continue to play a fundamental role for an uncertain tomorrow. One step ahead will be Quispe and all those who recover the ancestral technologies that once turned arid deserts and rugged mountains into fertile croplands.
A better tomorrow
There’s a full moon on July 24, the day the qolca is to be sealed up, a couple of weeks after the roofing.
With the sky still dark, Quispe is dressed in the same old poncho as at the earlier ceremony, as a way of remembering his ancestors, his origins.
He lights incense before beginning. He moves nimbly despite the lack of light, and gives brief indications to the rest of the family in a low voice. Like someone returning to his mother’s womb, he squats through the small doorway and goes inside the stone silo. He notes the exact time, measures the temperature inside and outside, and calls for the food to be stored.
From the door, he silently receives the sacks of woven llama fiber, each containing 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of chuño, or dehydrated potatoes; 25 kg (55 lb) of oca; and 20 kg (44 lb) of corn. A dozen kilos (26 lb) of quinoa are also stored in a clay pot. With each product that reaches Quispe’s hands, he closes his eyes and holds it for a few moments with a mixture of gratitude, tenderness and respect.
When the food is finally sheltered in the bowels of the qolca, the Quispe family closes the small door from the outside. The first ray of sunlight falls upon the stones held together by mud that is still wet and shiny. The pututus are heard at sunrise. They sound deep, of mountain, of river, of grandfathers and grandmothers. The stones and the wind will now be the guardians of the qolca of Q’ente Killay.
“The qolca is the beginning of a real new space or time for those who are willing to understand,” Quispe says. With a look full of calmness and satisfaction, he hopes that his initiative will be replicated in his own community, in other provinces or regions, and, hopefully, create bridges with research institutes and universities. “All this goes beyond me, my effort speaks for itself. This is going to open doors, open hearts. It’s going to break schemes,” he says.
In his research notebook, he recounts the progress to date and outlines the upcoming stages of his project. The next step will be the analysis of the stored products in a laboratory to monitor how well they’re being preserved. Before that, he will have to travel to the Peruvian coast, where he has a pending ayni to help a friend who months ago participated in the stone crushing in Kircas.
Life goes on in Q’ente Killay. The first rains are expected soon, along with the planting season. A new cycle will begin, because in the Andes time is a circle, where past, present and future walk together. And each new cycle opens up the possibility of learning from the past, transforming the present and changing the future.
Everything will begin again under the flight of the eagles and hummingbirds and the rush of the wind. This year’s sowing will be special because some of the seeds will be the qolca and the dream, distant but not impossible, of a tomorrow without hunger, and of a more harmonious relationship with the Pachamama that makes everything possible.
Banner image: Mario Quispe burns palo santo to purify the contour of the qolca. Photo courtesy of Sharon Castellanos.