Susan E. Ramirez

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


To Feed and Be Fed: Legitimacy and Cosmology in the Andes

"An essential key to understanding another culture," says Andean scholar Susan Ramirez, "is the peoples’ world view or cosmology the underlying principles and assumptions that motivate behavior and organize society." In the case of the Incan empire, however, Ramirez contends that this essential key has been obscured for centuries by the western biases of sixteenth-century Spanish chroniclers.

The Incan empire was not organized as a constantly-expanding economic territory or somehow patterned after the human body, as the prevailing models of the last few decades hypothesize. Ramirez contends that Andean cosmology including multi-tiered ritual, folk religion, and ancestor worship provided an ideological underpinning of rulership and society at both the Inca and provincial levels.

This new perspective on the link between Andean political power and cosmology began to surface for Ramirez as she read general empire-wide accounts written by the chroniclers of the 16th and 17th centuries, after years of working in provincial archives with more localized documents. Certain inconsistencies led her to suspect that a fundamental presumption about the Incan empire was incorrect.

Based on the chroniclers’ reports, "the empire had always been portrayed as a territorial empire with a geographic center, a ‘capital’ like Washington, D.C.," explains Ramirez. The Spanish accounts put everything they saw and didn’t understand into their own cultural mold so the huge Andean empire was mistakenly assumed to be organized like a European one. But this wasn’t the Andean way at all. The empire’s center, or the "navel of the universe," was a person, not a place. The empire was hegemonic, based on authority, not territory. It did not have fixed boundaries. Further, the Incans had no merchants, no markets, and no money. The Andeans were a non-western peoples with a different kind of society and culture.

This pivotal shift led Ramirez to document the significant role of religious beliefs, sacrifice, divination, magic, and ritual in ordering traditional Incan society. More broadly, she examines and illustrates the problems of describing and understanding a non-western society using sources written with heavy western biases and in a European language. "Basically what I’m trying to do," Ramirez says, "is to be a political scientist for the Incas. I want to explain what allowed them to create and hold together this huge empire made up of hundreds of small ethnicities."

Affiliation at time of award:
Professor of Latin American History, DePaul University

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