Cosmology and Worldview in the Central Andes: An Interpretation

Part of the Cosmology in the New World project

Author(s): William Isbell

Year: 2007


Participants in the workshop have been instructed to prepare position papers to share with other members in a discussion of worldview and cosmology in North and Meso-America. I have the exciting task of presenting a South American perspective, focused on the cultures of the Central Andes. As I quickly re-reviewed much of the most pertinent material I found myself increasingly attracted to a position that I would not have articulated previously, and that rather surprised me.

I emphasize that this is a “position paper” not a summary of what is known, or even an attempt to present the most popular interpretation(s). I argue that Central Andean cosmologies were not primarily concerned with a totalizing explanation of the cosmos, its creation from nothingness, or its logical and analytically consistent order. Rather, the universe and humans in it were taken for granted.t For Central Andean myth and cosmology the issues were the resolution of chaos into complementary dynamic, binary relationships; the creation of a landscape – perhaps “sacred landscape,” or just “place” – from geographic chaos; the assignment of people to places in terms of a dynamic and on-going process of memory construction; the description of different rights, privileges and wealth; and the legitimization of inequality--all at a very local scale. Meaningful landscape included the sun, moon, stars, rainbow, Milky Way and dark constellations, and even the ocean – and/or Lake Titicaca – that participated in the local landscape as the source of water, as agents of time and calendrics, as patrons of animals, and other essential functions, but were not accounted for. Again, they were simply taken for granted from the start – if a start could be defined. I suspect that historiographic chronology and fixed hierarchy were not important in Central Andean cosmologies or worldview, at least not until very late (unless perhaps during an earlier time of empire, in the Middle Horizon).

Late in Central Andean society significant changes were made in cosmology. It is difficult to determine whether they began during Inca times, perhaps because of political expansion beyond the sacred landscape of local experience and myth, or perhaps because of the genius of Inca Pachacuti, the first great Inca conqueror. Alternatively, the changes may have been provoked by European philosophical traditions, and especially the totalizing worldview of Christianity. Be that as it may, the complex historical processes in Central Andean worldview provide an exciting laboratory for investigating relationships between cosmology and society.

Cite this Record

Cosmology and Worldview in the Central Andes: An Interpretation. William Isbell. Presented at Cosmology Conference, Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 2007 ( tDAR id: 4872) ; doi:10.6067/XCV8V40SJC


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