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POPULATION: 29,180,899
LANGUAGE: Spanish; Quechua
RELIGION: Roman Catholicism, intertwined with native beliefs
RELATED ARTICLES: Quechua, Aymara, Shipibo


Archeological excavations have found evidence of a human presence in the Peruvian territory since 11,000 BC. The oldest culture was the so-called Norte Chico civilization, which flourished between 3000 BC and 1800 BC. In the 12th century, the Inca civilization emerged as a powerful state when Manco Capac founded the kingdom of Cuzco. In 1442, the Incas began a far-reaching expansion under the command of Pachacutec, forming the Inca Empire of Taiwantinsuyu, which would become the largest empire in pre-Columbian America. However, the empire suffered a civil war, which pitted the brothers Huascar and Atahualpa against each other in competition for the throne of emperor, a scenario that facilitated the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.

In 1532 the Spanish conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, reached Inca territory in the middle of the war of succession. Pizarro, who did not have a formidable force, originally offered diplomatic negotiations as a means of gaining control. His intentions were questionable, however, since both brothers were put to death within a year.

After the conquest of the Incas, Peru's capital, Lima, became the center of Spain's colonial power structure in the Americas. Often called the "city of kings" in honor of Charles V, its name is a modification of the river that divides it, the Rimac. In Quechua, Rimac means "river that speaks." This combination of a strong Spanish influence with a rich indigenous heritage has shaped Peru's traditions, politics, and culture.

The Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808 initiated a wave of independence movements in Spanish colonies in South America, but the Peruvian aristocracy remained loyal to the Spanish crown. However, this loyalty did not prevent General José de San Martín of Argentina—whose aim was to secure Argentine control of Upper Peru's silver—from destroying the remaining Spanish power in South America. Peruvian independence was declared on 28 July 28 1821.

Peru's political history in the 20th century has been characterized by swings from democracy to military dictatorship. A leftist military government, the result of a military coup on 27 August 1976, instituted an economic program that promoted agricultural cooperatives, expropriated foreign companies, and decreed worker participation in modern industry. A return to democracy took place in 1980, when different administrations reorganized the economic system, while reducing the government's involvement in the productive sector and encouraging private capital investment in the country's industries. However, an explosive increase in imports injured the nation's industry. Lower prices of Peru's major commodities and the devastating effects of El Niño in 1982–83, made impossible the amelioration of the Peruvian economy. In this dire context were born two powerful guerrilla movements: the neo-Maoist group known as Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. The existence of these two paramilitary factions forced the government to spend important resources in combating the guerrillas and repairing the damages inflicted during the conflict.

In 1985 a young and compelling politician, Alan García, was elected president of Peru. His economic plans were quickly defeated as the International Monetary Fund declared Peru ineligible for future loans. With inflation, guerrilla warfare, and drug-trafficking on the rise, the 1990 presidential elections brought a political outsider to the highest office. After winning the presidential race, Alberto Fujimori implemented a harsh economic plan, which stopped inflation but caused immediate hardships, especially among poor Peruvians. In 1992 Fujimory, in alliance with the military, staged a self-administered coup, in which congress was dissolved and a new constitution was promulgated. From 1992 to 2000, Fujimory's administration implemented neoliberal economic policies, leading to a rapid recovery of the economic situation. In addition, Fujimory led a successful antiterrorist campaign that ended with the capture of the main figures of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement. Even though Fujimori won a second term in 1995, charges of fraud and unconstitutionality accompanied his election to a third term in 2000. Growing allegations of corruption made Fujimori flee to Japan.

In 2001, Alejandro Toledo became the first democratically elected Quechua as president of Peru. During the five years of his presidency, the Peruvian economy grew at an average of 6%, one of the highest growth rates in Latin America, while inflation averaged 1.5%. In 2006 former president Alan García won the election in spite of criticisms to his performance during his previous term. The fact that his opponent, Ollanta Humala, was openly supported by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, ultimately helped García in his bid for a second term.


Three times the size of California, Peru has an extremely varied geography ranging from tropical rainforest to arid desert. With Ecuador and Bolivia, it is one of the three Andean countries on the Pacific coast of South America. Peru can be conveniently divided into three basic geographical areas. The sierra, or Andes mountains, which covers 27% of Peru's land area, is the home not only to domesticated llamas and alpacas, but also to the majority of Peru's population of 29 million people. On the Pacific coast is one of the world's driest deserts. The capital city of Lima is located on the coastal desert, making access to water problematic for its nearly 8 million residents. In sharp contrast, areas of the Amazon rain forest in the north and east of Peru receive a massive 190 to 320 cm (75–125 in) of rain annually. The tropical rain forest covers 67% of Peru's landmass but is rapidly being destroyed by logging companies.

Peru's population of 29 million people can be subdivided into the following groups: Quechuas, who constitute almost half of Peru's population; mestizos (of mixed Amerindian and European descent), comprising slightly less than one-third; and people of European ancestry, who account for about one-eighth. There are also small minorities of Aymaras and Chinese.

Many Amerindians are illiterate and speak only their native language and no Spanish. Ethnic identity in Peru, however, tends to be culturally defined. For example, if an Amerindian speaks Spanish and adopts Western dress, he or she may be considered a mestizo or cholo. Although the percentage of the population that is indigenous is not declining, Peru's culture is becoming increasingly mestijado; that is, a mix of Western and traditional customs.


The two official languages of Peru are Spanish and Quechua. Quechua, the language of the Incas, which is still widely spoken throughout the Andes, was made an official language by the military government of 1968–1975. The dominant language in urban areas, however, is Spanish. Although there are some vernacular differences between the Spanish spoken in Spain and in Peru, the primary difference is the accent.

In Peru, as in other Hispanic countries, names comprise three parts: the given name, the father's surname, and the mother's maiden name. A name, for example, would be Pedro (given name) Suárez (father's name) Durán (mother's name).


Many of the beliefs and practices that comprise Peruvian folklore are associated with the native faith and customs that prevailed before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. For example, the Incas believed that they descended from the Sun God, Inti, and that the reigning Inca was an offspring of the Sun. Though they did not practice human sacrifice, many were headhunters. The Incas believed that the possession of another's head increased the owner's spiritual strength. While head-hunting no longer exists, a blending of Indian and European beliefs often persists in current festivals and other observances. In Pacaroztambo, November 30—St. Andrew's Day—signals the close of the planting season. Eight crosses taken from the churches are set up on the mountains that overlook the fields to protect the crops from natural disasters. They remain there until May 3 (Cruz Velakuy), the beginning of the harvest. There is one cross for each of the four ayllus (the basic unit of Inca society) of the two moieties (the two main divisions of the tribe). The latter take turns preparing the annual celebration.

At San Pedro de Casta, la fiesta del agua takes place the first Sunday in October. The gates of the principal river, the Carhuaymac, are opened to fill the irrigation ditches, which have been cleaned and repaired. Close to La Toma, the river gate, is a cave in which the God of the Water, Pariapunko, lives. The head of the festival goes into the cave bearing gifts of coca, cigarettes, and chicha beer. He begs the god to favor the community with the water it needs.


Even though Peru's constitution provides for freedom of religion, Peruvians are fervent Catholics. Catholics comprise 90% of the population. No Peruvian town, no matter how small or remote, is complete without a church. As with many Andean customs, their religious practices carefully intertwine modern and traditional beliefs. The Peruvian version of Catholicism, for example, has incorporated some of the traditional gods and spirits by referring to them as saints or lords. In fact, when the Spanish converted the Amerindians to Christianity, they moved many of the Christian holidays to coincide with existing traditional festivals. In so doing, many traditional festivals continue to be practiced, with minor modifications, within the Christian framework. It is also considered appropriate in Peru for a Christian to make the sign of the cross while walking or driving by a church.


One of the most colorful festivals is the month-long celebration of the Lord of the Earthquakes in October. Peru is subject to constant tremors and earthquakes, and in the past many of its cities have been severely damaged by them. In October, a weekly procession through the streets of Lima features a painting of Christ that has survived successive quakes, trailed by throngs of followers dressed in purple robes. Strict Catholics will dress in purple on these days, whether they are able to attend the procession or not.

A secular holiday that is of great importance to Peruvians is their Independence Day on July 28. This occasion is celebrated with much festivity, especially dancing, eating, and drinking. On this day, all homes are obligated by law to fly the Peruvian flag.


Baptism of infants, first Communion, and confirmation of children in church are common. About half of all couples live together without formalizing their unions with a license or a church ceremony. A birthday may not necessarily be celebrated; the person's namesake saint's day is likely to be observed instead. A novena (nine consecutive days of special prayers) for the dead is usually held in the home of the deceased, with friends invited on the final night. Often a second novena is held later.


It is poor manners to arrive on time if invited to a dinner or a party. Tardiness of an hour or more is expected. If hosts expect the guests to arrive more promptly, they will ask them to observe hora inglesa (English time). When being introduced to a woman at a social occasion, the proper greeting is a kiss on the cheek. Men, when introduced to each other, will shake hands.

At an informal gathering, when a group of friends are drinking together, it is a sign of friendship to share the same glass. When a large bottle of beer is opened or a pisco (a Peruvian alcoholic beverage) is made, the bottle or glass is passed around in a circle. One is expected to serve oneself a small serving, drink it quickly, and then pass both the bottle and glass to the next person. To ask for a separate glass would give offense.

The "okay" sign (touching your finger to your thumb) is considered a rude gesture in Peru.


Approximately one-third of the entire Peruvian population lives in Lima. Of the nearly 8 million residents of Lima, over half live in urban squatter settlements, known as pueblos jóvenes (young towns). Migration to Lima from the Andean region drives the development of pueblos jóvenes. Uninhabited land is selected and invaded overnight by a group of settlers. The initial housing is usually made out of light reed matting. More-permanent structures are built gradually, bit by bit as the family can afford to buy bricks and mortar. The vast majority of dwellings in the pueblos jóvenes are still under construction years after the initial incursion into the area.

In addition to poor housing, residents of the pueblos jóvenes suffer from a lack of basic services. While the majority now has electricity in their houses, water is scarce. Most homes have a large water tank behind the house, which the residents fill with water purchased from water trucks. These unsanitary conditions create serious health hazards. Restricted access to safe water puts children and the elderly at high risk for gastrointestinal infections. The largest killer of infants in Peru continues to be one of the most easily treated ailments: diarrhea. In 1991, a cholera epidemic swept the country, killing nearly 3,000 people.

The residents of the modern suburbs of Lima have living standards comparable to those found in the United States. Suburban houses range from high-rise apartments to grand colonial houses. In periods of drought, however, even these sectors have their water and electricity rationed by the municipality.

Men have an average life expectancy of 68 years; women, of 72 years.


In countries without a welfare system, such as Peru, families tend to bond together not only as a social unit, but as an economic one as well. The basic household unit includes parents, children, and, in many cases, grandparents or aunts and uncles. In middle-class households, it may also include a live-in servant or nanny to look after young children. These small extended family groups share household chores and tasks, and those who are able generate income for the family. Financial difficulties mean that children live at home until they get married as young adults.

Bonds between families also supplement bonds within families. Compadrazgo (godparenthood) is an important tie between friends and forges bonds of obligation between two families. Godparents are expected not only to contribute a modest amount of financial support for the godchild, but to provide emotional support and guidance to the family. These interfamily social arrangements expand a family's support network.

Although machismo, an attitude of male superiority and sexism, is widespread, Peruvian women are neither meek nor shy and participate actively in important family decisions. Women play an active role both in family and community life. In the urban squatter settlements, or pueblos jóvenes, women often take a leading role in community organizations that lobby the municipality or provide services to the community. They also make significant contributions to family income.


In Andean areas, women wear colorful woven skirts with many layers of petticoats underneath. Solid-colored llama wool sweaters offer protection against the cold Andean night air. Hats are used throughout Peru. Each region has its own style of hat, and it is possible to tell which region an Amerindian is from by his or her hat. Men wear simple trousers, Western-style button-down shirts, and sandals.

As the process of urbanization in Peru has advanced, so has the process of Westernization. Most Peruvians don Western clothes for both everyday and special occasions. Young Peruvians in urban areas prefer jeans, American tennis shoes, and Western-style skirts over the traditional alpaca and llama wool clothes worn in the Andean regions. Upon arrival in Lima, most migrants abandon the use of their traditional clothes in favor of tee-shirts and skirts. One useful custom that is often retained, however, is the use of a shawl across the shoulders to carry small children.


Peru has one of the most developed national cuisines of Latin America. Many dishes are a delicate combination of indigenous, Spanish, and African ingredients and cooking traditions. Seafood is the dominant ingredient on the coast, yucca and plantains in the jungle, and potatoes in the Andes. In fact, potato originates in Peru, and there are over 100 varieties still being grown in the Andes.

The national dish of Peru is ceviche, a spicy dish of onions and seafood. In ceviche, the fish is cooked not by applying heat but by soaking it for a few hours in limejuice. The acid in the limejuice has the effect of breaking down the protein, thus "cooking" the fish. Sliced onion, hot peppers, and chopped coriander are then added. Ceviche is purported to have beneficial effects on hangovers, thus it is customary for partygoers to eat ceviche at dawn.

The high cost of living has led many mothers living in low-income neighborhoods to organize and form communal kitchens. These groups, now recognized by the government, receive subsidized food and cook for 100 or so people for a small fee. Most of Lima's shantytowns, or pueblos jóvenes, will have communal kitchens, organized and operated by the residents themselves. It has been estimated that 1.5 million people in Lima alone rely on these kitchens for affordable meals.


Children are obligated to attend school. Peruvian children, dressed in solid gray uniforms, attend either the morning session or the afternoon/evening period. The literacy rate in Peru is relatively high, reaching 93% for males and 82% for females.

The relatively small number of universities in Peru means that it can be difficult to gain admission. Only 3% of the population is able to attend university. An informal rite of passage common in Lima is for friends to tackle a successful male entrant—and shave his head.

The Peruvian army, because of its dedication to civic action, has worked to counteract illiteracy, especially prevalent among its Amerindian draftees. Measures are taken to teach induct-ees to read and write. During the final three months of service, the draftee undergoes special training to provide him with a trade.


The different ethnic groups that have migrated to Peru have left a rich musical heritage. Both música criolla of Spanish influence and Andean folk music are popular. Traditional music, recently becoming popular with young Peruvians, is Afro-Peruvian melodies. This rhythmic music has its roots in the protest songs of the Black population of Peru. The cultural center of Afro-Peruvian music is the town of Chincha, on the Pacific coast south of Lima. In the 1980s and 1990s, Afro-Peruvian music has witnessed a strong revival and is now popular in the bars and dance halls of Lima. Musical shows for tourists feature the alcatraz, a traditional Afro-Peruvian fire dance. Alcatraz dancers tuck a piece of paper into their back pockets or around their waist, leaving a short tail hanging out. A second dancer follows behind with a lit candle trying to set the tail on fire. The first dancer must move his or her hips vigorously to prevent the paper tail from catching fire. Other dances include el zapateo, in which intricate footsteps on hard wood are used as percussion.

Peru also has a strong literary tradition. Available in English translation is José María Arguedas' novel about life in the Andes entitled Yawar Fiesta, as well as the writings of poet Cesar Vallejo, whose masterpiece is Trilce. One of the most revered contemporary writers in Peru is the novelist Mario Vargas Llosa. Vargas Llosa is known worldwide both for his writings and for his bid for the presidency in 1990. His comic autobiographical narrative, Aunt Julia and the Script Writer, was made into a Hollywood movie starring Keanu Reeves. Other outstanding writers include the novelist Ciro Alegría, dramatists Salvador Bandy and Gregór Díaz, and poets Cecilia Bustamante and Cesar Moro.


Formal paid employment is difficult to find in Peru. Most families are forced to seek varied and innovative means to generate an income, struggling to earn a living by whatever means possible. Approximately 80% of the population are either subsistence farmers or operate their own tiny enterprise. Both women and children make important contributions to family income, either from small-scale cottage industries in their homes, or as traders outside the home. Common economic activities include part-time tailoring, kerosene sales, food processing, or even charging neighbors for watching one's TV. Children may contribute by selling goods on the street or through activities such as collecting tin cans. Even if the father is working, most families will be involved in a multitude of economic activities. Other economic survival strategies include labor for labor swaps with neighbors, or raising chickens for family consumption.

Outside urban areas, Peruvians are largely subsistence farmers. The dry Andean terrain makes agriculture a challenge. Steep slopes are farmed by a process of terracing, in which multileveled steps are created to provide flat areas for planting. Potatoes and corn, which adapt well to high altitudes, are the primary crops.


As in most other Latin American cultures, soccer is the dominant sport in Peru. The love of soccer is one of the few cultural traits that transcend both ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries. Even in densely populated urban shantytowns, large pieces of land are often set aside for a soccer field. Middle-class children set up goals and play in the streets.

Lima's two soccer teams, Alianza Lima and Universitaria, have an intense rivalry that has kept Limeños (residents of Lima) fascinated for years. This rivalry has a particular poignancy. In 1987 the plane carrying the members of Alianza Lima crashed when landing in Lima, leaving no survivors.


Popular culture in Peru is varied. In the evenings, young people flock to both Western-style bars and discos or to peñas where traditional Peruvian folk music is played. In Lima, an old colonial suburb of the city called Barranco has become the focus of trendy and artsy activities. A variety of music halls, theaters, bookshops, and art galleries attract crowds of middle-class youth.

Also popular in Peru are televised soap operas. Produced largely in Venezuela or Mexico, these evening shows attract a vast following. Soap operas are also produced in magazine format. Fotonovelas, as they are called, present soap operas with a series of photos and captions. Fotonovelas are the reading material of choice of many in the pueblos jóvenes.


See the article on the Quechua in this volume.


Peru has one of the worst human rights records in the world. The Peruvian government battled the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas in the 1980s and 1990s. In its battle to eliminate this violent terrorist group, the military kidnapped and killed many suspected Shining Path sympathizers. Trade union officials, university professors, and students were the main targets. The military has been successful in eliminating the Shining Path movement, but human rights abuses remain a serious problem.


Peru has improved its gender equity conditions at a slow pace. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Woman and Social Development (MIMDES), the government has aimed to build gender equity conditions under an integral perspective with the application of the Equal Opportunity Plan 2000–2005 and its new version 2006–2010. Although the budget assigned to MIMDES has increased by 28% during the period between 2003 and 2006, it only represents 2.4% of the public sector expenditure and 2.5% of the total GDP.

The largest gender gap can be observed at the economic level, in which Peruvian women receive an average income that only represents 27% of what men make. In addition, 84% of women are employed in the service sector, while 10% is in industry and only 6% in the agricultural sector. In Metropolitan Lima, 49% of women work without labor protection or social security rights. Moreover, while 8.1% of women in urban areas are jobless, almost half of working women are underemployed, which means that one of every three women is receiving income that does not meet the minimum family basket requirements.

Illiteracy for 15-year-old women or older is 18%, while the Latin America average is 11%. In South America, Peru has the second-highest maternal death rate, after Bolivia, and rural women who live in poverty have the highest risk of maternal death. Another problem for Peruvian women has been the increase of HIV incidence in the last decades. In 1986, for every nine men there was only one woman infected with HIV. In 2005 the ratio was three to one.

Regarding political participation, 18% of the country's congressional representatives were women as of 2008. At the local level, about 26.3% of district council members are women, but only 2.7% of mayors were female.


Burt, Jo-Marie. Political Violence and the Authoritarian State in Peru: Silencing Civil Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Femenias, Blenda. Gender and the Boundaries of Dress in Contemporary Peru. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Jenkins, Dilwyn. Peru: The Real Guide. New York: Prentice Hall, 1985.

Lobo, Susan. A House of My Own: Social Organization in the Squatter Settlements of Lima, Peru. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1982.

MacDonald, Margaret, ed. Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992.

Mendoza, Zoila S. Creating Our Own: Folklore, Performance, and Identity in Cuzco, Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

—revised by C. Vergara

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