Basic Andean Social Structure. Ayllu:The Social Group


Ayllu:  General

1.  In prehispanic Andean times, complex societies were characterized by an elaborate hierarchy of social and political units bound together by rules of kinship affiliation and reciprocity.  The minimal socio-economic unit was the household.  Households were divided and grouped into ayllu.  The ayllu, while somewhat flexible in its construction, was a land-owning social unit defined by kinship links.  The group is regulated internally by an ethic of cooperation. 


2. The ayllu groups, which may occupy a number of villages located in different areas, is historically and conceptually associated with specific lands through religious belief and occupancy.


3.  In its purest form the ayllu is an egalitarian society without formal institutions of political or religious power or established political or religious positions.   However, in practice the ranking of moieties and descent lineages intruded an element of kinship-defined inequality into the system.


4.  The ayllu structure as noted above possesses both economic and organizational implications.  As such it can be viewed as the basic political as well as productive unit of Andean society.


5.  The exclusive ayllu identity is reinforced by its members wearing distinctively decorated clothes (especially textiles) and on occasion performing ritual “battles” with other groups.



Ayllu: Affinity as the Organizing Principle

1.  Links of affinal relationship are central to all aspects of organization and cohesion of this “kinship-ordered” social group.  Thus concepts of sub-group membership and descent are expressed through both relational and “ideological” levels.


2.  Seniority in what is at base a relatively “egalitarian” system is measured by the closeness of the various descent lines to the mythical founding ancestors.  Thus a number of ayllu comprised a moiety (saya).  Ideally there were two moieties, an upper (senior) one called hanansaya and a lower (junior) one called hurinsaya. The senior moiety usually contained lineages more closely related to the founding ancestor.  The head of each saya represents the highest political authority This division reflects the basic Andean concept of duality the fundamental structure that ordered all economic, social reproductive, and political functions of the group.   


3.  Exceptionally, in more complex constructions of this system like the Incas, the members of the senior lineage became the ruling dynasty of the empire with other related lineages being the ruling elite.


 4.  Given the importance of descent in this kinship-centered social unit (in terms of ascribed social position, moiety and clan seniority), measured by closeness to the founding mythic Creator, ancestors receive great reverence from the living.  Belief in the ongoing presence of ancestral spirituality in the community leads to special treatment of the dead body of ancestors and ascription of sacredness to places (springs, caves, hills) connected to ancestors.  Indeed the body of the dead ancestor is regarded as a powerful spiritual thing in itself, a sacred huaca.   Thus ancestral rites are central to religious life and practiced in order to mobilize these spiritual forces for the benefit of the living descendants.  Failure to honor the ancestors in this way can lead to misfortune.  Thus on the spiritual level the organizing kinship system is reinforced by myth and ritual.


5.  The integrity of the various social groupings (lineages/moieties) that define the ayllu is sometimes reinforced by mock battles between them (tinku).  These can result in injury and, rarely, death.  Internal tinku serve to define groups by emphasizing the distinction between them.  In the Andes almost everything is understood in juxtaposition with its opposite, thus internal tinku serves the function of asserting the existence of contrasting pairs and reasserting the social order of the ayllu.  In addition mock or ritual battles often take place between separate communities.  These external tinku act to distinguish them as discrete social units but also to establish a ritual partnership between them – the battle is their relationship.  The blood of the injured in these battles is regarded as a sacrifice to the earth spirits to maintain the affinal balance between human and natural that is essential for reproduction and existence.    


Ayllu: Reciprocity as Social Practice

1.  Within the ayllu all members owe each other mutual obligations with every social member both receiving benefit from his co-members and expecting to return. 


2.  At the basic subsistence level, community reciprocity is the driving organizing dynamic for agricultural production.  Each able-bodied member of the community is obligated for work in the community fields as a form of “labor tax” (ayni).   In return everyone participating in this labor receives support from the community for such tasks as house construction or other essential physical needs.  Thus all physical work is shared by either the clan/moiety rather as a whole rather than seen as the sole responsibility of a landowner (in the ayllu system most land is communally owned) or the specific community member or family who has need. 


3.  Reciprocity also operates on the administrative and religious level in what is essentially an egalitarian society.   Senior members of the ayllu take on the responsibilities for providing the feasts and rituals that accompany all agricultural and social occasions.  These cargo duties are usually held by specific individuals for a certain time period and seen as obligations by the officers to the community as a whole.  Following the appointed period the administrative/ritual obligations rotate and pass to other qualified seniors.


4.  Shamans (informal religious officiates and curandero/as) are also seen as acting on behalf of the community as a whole in the furtherance of the ayllu interests in their interaction with the supernatural world.  Again the functions are seen as reciprocally fulfilling responsibilities rather than the arena for the enhancing personal power.


5.  Although reciprocity was (and is) embedded in concepts of equality and balance, in practice the redistribution of commodities involved unequal redistribution by elders or moiety heads.  Thus the moiety head received the agricultural and textile products etc. and was responsible for their redistribution on behalf of the community as a whole.  In fact, especially in the more complex levels of social organization, he kept back portions for the large feasts and festivals that he provided as part of his community obligation, and also as a means to underwrite his authority.

The Ayllu as Spiritual Community

1.  Religion in general is an integral part of ayllu life.  All functions and events of the community are accompanied by ritual and associated with spiritual importance.  In the ayllu sense religious belief and practice take on very practical purpose, mobilizing the forces of nature and the ancestral members of the community to assist in facing the daily challenges of the living.


 2.  Thus religious belief and practice are linked to the agricultural cycle, to the maintenance of cosmological balance (which in turn ensures basic physical and social reproduction), to healing, to communal land ownership, to settlement location and layout, and to all aspects community management and administration.