Andean Religion

Andean Religion
Andean Religion

Because of the diversified nature of Andean tribes and the Inca Empire, a complex system of religious beliefs and rituals developed. It is difficult to conduct a comprehensive examination that includes all of the different religions in the Andean region.

A closer look at the Moche, Chinchorro, and Inca societies and religions provides insight to understand the basics of religious belief and practice in this region. The Inca, Chinchorro, and Moche cultures developed a complex system of religious beliefs as a result of the sedentary or semisedentary nature of their societies.

Historians believe that after 7500 b.c.e., the indigenous inhabitants in Andean regions began experimenting with certain plants in order to determine the conditions in which they could best flourish.

This experimentation with agriculture was crucial as it allowed for an expanding population that developed craft specialization, a political hierarchy, and complex religious beliefs that later characterized a number of indigenous tribes in Andean societies and the Inca Empire.

The rulers of the Inca Empire and the Moche depicted themselves as possessing supernatural powers to help justify their ability to rule society. This depiction is evidenced by an archaeological examination of the Moche tomb in Sipán, which discovered that the skeletons in this tomb were clothed in regalia similar to that worn by the mythical individuals who were imprinted on Moche artwork. The desire of the Inca rulers to depict themselves with supernatural powers is illustrated in various myths.

The Inca incorporated the gods of the tribes they conquered into their religion as is illustrated by the Inca devotion to the gods Pachacamac and Viracocha. In fact, the gods of conquered tribes were sometimes popular and powerful deities in the Inca pantheon as Viracocha was believed to be one of the more powerful Inca gods, since he had the ability to give life. Besides sharing gods with conquered tribes to unite their empire, the Inca also used children from various tribes as human sacrifices.

Human Sacrifices

Human sacrifices were used by a number of indigenous tribes in the Andes for both religious and political purposes, as becomes clear when examining the Inca Empire and, to a lesser extent, the excavations at Tiwanaku.

Excavations at Tiwanaku have uncovered evidence that human sacrifices were practiced in this region in the seventh century c.e., but it is difficult to determine whether religious and/or political reasons motivated these sacrifices. Human sacrifices were used by the Inca to maintain social bonds among the various tribes in the Inca Empire, as children from these tribes were either taken or presented to the Inca for this particular purpose.

The families to which these children belonged were given a position of power in the Inca Empire or goods in return for giving up their children. Recent discoveries of three children of varying ages who were sacrificed in the mountains of Argentina during the late 15th or early 16th century illustrate that the Inca believed that children were not only offerings to their gods but also ambassadors between the Inca and their deities.

This tomb at Cerro Llullaillaco, which is 22,110 feet above sea level, held the remains of three children: one male and female, both approximately eight years old, and another female approximately 14 years old.

The goods that were deposited by the Inca near the three children provided archaeologists significant information regarding Inca religion. Archaeologists believe that the three llama statuettes positioned near one of the sacrificed children, two of which were made of spondylus (mollusk shell) while the other was constructed of silver, were offerings to Inca deities to seek divine assistance in guaranteeing that Inca herds remained fertile.

Archaeologists also hypothesize that the two male statues, one constructed of spondylus and the other constructed of gold, were depictions of either Inca gods or Inca nobles. Archaeologists are also able to hypothesize about the clothing that was deposited with the sacrificial victims. The tunic the male was wearing was too large for him, indicating that it was an offering to the gods or that the boy was expected to grow into this tunic in the afterlife.

Two extra pairs of sandals found by the boy also suggest that the Inca believed in life after death. The 14-year-old female victim was also wearing a tunic created for a male, which suggests that this was a present for the gods.


Oracles attracted large audiences and thus played a significant role in creating unity among various tribes situated in the Andes. Pachacamac was one of the more popular locations used by the local population for divination purposes. Individuals seeking to enter certain parts of this temple were forced to undergo certain rites such as fasting for 20 days to acquire access into the lower sections of the temple.

Individuals seeking to enter the upper levels of the temple were forced to fast for one year. A piece of cloth was hung between the idol and the priest who was seeking divine advice for a petition, preventing the priest from viewing the idol. Blood acted as nourishment for the idol, which was fed this substance on a regular basis.

Mummification was a practice used by the indigenous tribes of the Andes for several millennia prior to Spanish contact. The Chinchorro, in the area of Chile and Peru, practiced this death ritual at least seven millennia ago. Chinchorro culture did not just limit mummification to the elite of society, as archaeological discoveries noted that the Chinchorro mummified individuals regardless of gender, age, or class.

The mummification of Chinchorro corpses followed a certain procedure: the skin was stripped off, followed by attaching reeds and sticks to the remains to maintain the basic skeleton structure. After this was done, the Chinchorro stuffed the corpses with plants and ash or dirt and then painted them.

It is difficult to assess whether the mummification of the Chinchorro corpses influenced other cultures in the Andes region to mummify their ancestors, but mummification was an important aspect of many Andean societies.

Certain indigenous tribes used mummification to keep the corpses in their homes so that they could be escorted through the cities during the Festival of the Dead. The Inca practiced ancestor worship, and Inca royalty were mummified and their royal palaces maintained by a group of people known as the panacas.

It was the responsibility of the panacas to tend to the royal mummies. By examining this aspect of Inca society, historians can conclude that the royal mummies played an important social role since they were expected to participate in certain ceremonies and various social engagements.

Dynamics of Religion

The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean in 1492 changed the dynamics of religion in the Andean region when thousands of Spanish friars came after Columbus to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity. The flexibility of the Inca religion is a compelling reason why many of the indigenous people in the Andes converted to Christianity so readily.

The Spanish friars employed a variety of tactics to convince the indigenous populations to convert. The Spanish friars petitioned the Spanish Crown to alleviate the labor tribute imposed on the natives because they believed that it needed to be more moderate in order to ensure that Christianity flourished.

This issue resulted in a bitter debate between the church and secular individuals concerning the treatment of the indigenous populations. Today Roman Catholicism has a sizable following in the Andes region.

Various aspects in the lives of the natives illustrate that the premise of Christianity was accepted in the 16th century. This is evidenced through the artwork of Francisco Tito Yupanqui. His work shows the devotion of some natives to Christianity in pieces such as his sculpture of Our Lady of Copacabana in 1582.

The people who worship at this sculpture have attributed to it many miracles they have witnessed. The stories of these miracles are some of the reasons the image of Our Lady of Copacabana has such a large following and have motivated other artists to create similar images throughout Peru.

There is no doubt that a great number of indigenous people in the Andes accepted Christianity, but a number of these natives refused to reject completely their past religions. Historians have actively debated the degree to which syncretism (reconciling different religious viewpoints into a single belief system) developed among the indigenous populations in the Andes.

There is artistic evidence that suggests that a great deal of syncretism existed in the Andes. For example, within the cathedral in Cuzco, Peru, is a chapel called La Linda that is home to a painting of an Andean wearing a robe with symbols associated with Jesus Christ and the Inca god Inti.

The religions of the Andes are a complex and diversified facet of Andean societies. The Inca, Chinchorro, and Moche left indicators of their complex religious beliefs concerning the afterlife through their respective burial practices. The Moche and the Inca in particular used their religion in order to reinforce their political hierarchies.

Religion was also a way to unite various tribes as in the cultural sharing between the Inca Empire and the tribes that it conquered or the use of oracles. The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro in the 1530s, and the subsequent subjugation of other Andean tribes by the Spanish, changed the religious dynamics in the Andes.

In fact, that the Catholic Church attempted to convert the indigenous populations to Christianity, but the natives refused to renounce completely their existing religious beliefs, resulted in the blending of indigenous religions and Christianity.