Peru Table of Contents

The special configuration and character of Peru's modern society owe their start to the Spanish conquest, when Europeans and Africans came into sexual contact with what had been a racially homogeneous population. In its own conquests, however, the Inca Empire had embraced a wide range of cultural groups that spoke over fifty languages and practiced diverse customs. As a multicultural state, the Incas had grappled with the problem of tribal diversity and competition, often resolving their disagreements with conquered peoples through violence and repression. Another Inca solution to such dilemmas was to forcibly relocate recalcitrant populations to more governable locations and replace them with trustworthy communities. Peoples resettled in this manner were called mitimaes, and the process contributed significantly to the complications of Andean ethnicity. In addition to these measures, the Incas often took the children of local leaders and other key personages as hostages to guarantee political tranquility. In some ways, then, the Inca experience harshly prefigured the Spanish conquest.

With the arrival of conquering migrants from the Old World, new mixed races were born. The initial importance of these offspring of whites and Africans with native American mothers was minimal, however, because of the "great dying" of the indigenous population instigated by European diseases and the subsequent collapse and demoralization of the native society and economy. The continuous impact of repressive colonial regimes did not permit any resurgence of native vitality or organization, although there were a number of rebellions and revolts. Under these conditions, Peru reached its nadir in 1796, near the end of the colonial period, when fewer than 1.1 million inhabitants were censured. This figure marked a fall from an estimated pre-Columbian total of at least 16 million, although some scholars think the figure may be twice that number, and others less. Peru recovered slowly, only slightly exceeding its minimally estimated preconquest population size in 1981.

The critical factors in population growth since the midnineteenth century have been the rapid emergence of the mestizo population, which grew at a rate of over 3 percent per year throughout the colonial period until the 1980s, and the reduction but not the disappearance of sweeping epidemic diseases. Another factor that played a role in this increase was the influx of foreign migrants from Europe, and especially from China and, more recently, Japan. The rate of growth became very high during the twentieth century owing to a number of factors. The then dominant mestizo and other mixed populations were obviously more resistant to the diseases to which the native peoples, lacking natural immunities, succumbed. The mestizos also enjoyed important cultural advantages in a colonialist society, which actively discriminated against the native population on racial and ethnic grounds. From conquest to the present, it has been the fate of the native peoples not to prosper.

The Spanish colonial policy regarding population management in the viceroyalty, as throughout the hemisphere, was to create bureaucratic order through an official hierarchy of caste, with obligations and privileges attached thereto. The system attempted to keep people sorted out according to genealogical history and place of birth. Thus, white Spaniards ranked first, followed by all others: a male offspring of a Spaniard and a native American was called a mestizo, or cholo; of a Spaniard and African, a mulatto; of an African and a native American, a zambo; of a mestizo and indio, a salta atrás (jump backward). The order encompassed all of the combinations and recombinations of race, with over fifty commonly used terms, many of which--such as mestizo, mulatto, zambo, cholo, criollo, indio, negro (Negro or black), and blanco (white)--survive in common usage today. For both white Europeans and Africans, there were two categories--those born in the Old World were called peninsulares and bosales, respectively, whereas those of both races born in Peru were called criollos (Creoles). In the case of whites, the fact that Creoles were lower in rank than their peninsular counterparts was resented and contributed eventually to the overthrow of colonial rule.

There were six basic castes in Colonial Peru: Spaniards, native Americans, mestizos, Negroes, mulattos, and zambos. In theory, these categories defined a person's place of residence and occupation, taxes, obligations to the viceroyalty under the mita, which churches and masses could be attended, and which parts of the towns could be entered. Sumptuary laws determined the nature of one's clothing as well, and prohibited natives in particular from riding horses, using buttons, having weapons, and even owning mirrors and playing stringed instruments. Such a system was hard, if not impossible, to keep on track, and its rules and powers were irregularly applied. Nevertheless, vestiges of the colonial social caste system and its associated behavior and attitudes linger in present-day Peruvian society in many ways.

Although largely replaced along the coast by mestizos, Afro-Peruvians, and Chinese laborers, the native peoples survived biologically as well as culturally in the highlands. Their survival was attributed to many factors: the sheer numbers of their original population; their relative isolation, resulting in part from the collapse of the society and inefficiency of the colonial regimes; and this assumption of the kind of passive defensive posture of silence and apparent submissive behavior that has been characterized as a "weapon of the weak." In numerous cases, communities managed to place themselves under the wing of religious orders and, ironically, the hacienda system, with its conditions of serfdom. This developed with the demise of the system of serfdom called the encomienda and the state monopoly of selling goods to the native peoples called the repartimiento. If nothing more, by becoming serfs on the haciendas, native Americans were defended by landlords, who were inclined to protect their peons from exploitation by others and especially from having to serve in the mita de minas (the mine labor draft). Consequently, the bastions of highland indigenous culture have been the small, isolated mountain villages and hamlets; dispersed farming and pastoral communities; and haciendas, where populations were encapsulated under protective exploitation and ignored by their absentee landlords.

Settlement Patterns
Urban, Rural, and Regional Populations
Demography of Growth, Migration, and Work
Regionalism and Political Divisions

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about Peru.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress