Bolivia’s Chipaya and the Altiplano

The Chipaya people are the living relic of an ancient past. They are the only remnant of the Tiwanaku civilization, which predates the Inca by 2,500 years.Johnny Langenheim & James Morgan

ABOVE: Samuel Mamani Chino gazes across the Altiplano as he prepares to go hunting for flamingos. More and more Chipaya youngsters are leaving their ancestral lands and crossing the border into Chile, looking for work in the salt mines.

Jose Luis Mamani Chino waits, motionless.

The young Chipaya boy is pressed against the earth, one arm extended, his llama-wool poncho blending with the salt rich soil.

A flock of flamingos flap lazily across the sky and he leaps to his feet, whipping a length of lead-weighted nylon called a sconi round his head three times before letting it go. One of the birds falters in its flight and plummets to the ground in a chaos of pink feathers.

ABOVE: As a low flying flock of flamingos approaches, Jose Luis Mamani Chino leaps to his feet and swings his sconi throwing weapon — versions of which are used throughout the Andes. The brightly coloured bits of thread make it easier to find after it has been flung

As the ten year old trots off to fetch his prey, I’m trying to square the whole spectacle with…well anything familiar.

One tends to associate flamingos with the tropics. But we’re on a wind-whipped plateau high in the Bolivian Andes, snow-capped volcanoes breaking the horizon. And a little boy has just killed one of these iconic birds at 60 metres with a piece of string, some volcanic rock and a couple of lead balls. Presumably to eat it.

ABOVE: Jose Luis Mamani Chino prepares to take home his prey, a James’s Flamingo. The bird’s beaks are specially adapted to remove mud and silt from their food, which is almost exclusively shrimp and algae found in lakes. 

The Chipaya are the living relic of an ancient past. Anthropologists believe the tiny indigenous group to be the only remnant of the Tiwanaku civilization, which predates the Inca by 2,500 years.

Neither their language nor their customs have changed for millennia and they are cut off both geographically and culturally from the Quechua and Aymara ethnic groups that dominate the Altiplano today, the world’s second highest plateau after Tibet.

ABOVE: A Chipaya village with an estimated population of 200. The distinctive Chipaya costume — poncho and wide brimmed hat for the men, hooded poncho and a hairstyle with 62 braids for the women — is thought to have survived for thousands of years.

The Chipaya seldom get visitors. They live in and around the small town of Santa Ana de Chipaya, on the starkly beautiful pampas that fringe the Coipasa salt desert, a smaller version of the Salar de Uyuni.

The town itself is non-descript — adobe houses with corrugated iron roofs, a church, a cemetery. But most still live out on the plain, building circular homes of mud and thatch near the Lauca River, which swells and recedes with the passing seasons. It provides enough fresh water — just — to grow quinoa and tend llamas and sheep.

ABOVE: Eloi Mamani Alabi prepares coca leaves for chewing outside his home. Coca is used almost universally amongst the people of the Andean Altiplano, serving both a practical purpose (it stimulates mental faculties and suppresses appetite) and a ritualistic role in their lives

We leave Jose Luis to the hunt and meet his father Eloi Mamani Alabi, a 37 year old father of three, who welcomes us outside his conical home. He is wearing the distinctive felt hat, white shirt and llama wool poncho by which Chipaya males are recognised.

His wife’s poncho is darker and hooded. She sits at a loom, deftly manipulating the thick threads using a stick and a shell — Chipaya textiles are highly prized, fetching hundreds of dollars in the capital and can take weeks to complete. Jose Luis and his brother Samuel appear and their daughter Veronica peeps out shyly from the doorway.

ABOVE: Isabel Chino Condori works on a traditional Chipaya poncho. 

Whether Jose Luis and his brother Samuel will still be living here a decade from now is uncertain. “A lot of the young people are leaving this place,” Eloi tells us. “There is not enough land, not enough grazing for the sheep you need to raise a family.”

ABOVE: The most significant modern addition to Chipaya life is the motorcycle. Distances that take days on foot can now be covered in a few hours. Petrol, however, remains prohibitively expensive for the Chipaya.

The biggest problem according to Eloi is that the Lauca is drying up. “The river is the only reason we can live here,” he tells me. “If there is no more water, we must leave.”

On the left, Eloi Mamani Alabi sits outside his home in Chipaya village. On the right, Eloi helps his youngest son, Jose Luis Mamani Chino, pluck two flamingos that the boy has just killed with his sling. His sister leans against the mud wall of their home.

Many Chipaya cross the border to work in Chilean mines, or move to Bolivian cities like Oruro in search of work. But according to Eloi, they still feel like outsiders, and are often made unwelcome. “Our neighbours don’t want us — we are equal human beings, but they don’t want to recognize us.”

When I ask Eloi where the Chipaya came from, he says, “We have always been here. Before the chullpas we were here.” Chullpas are ancient funerary towers that can be found scattered throughout the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. Many still contain human remains, ancestors of the present day Aymara.

ABOVE: Jose Luis Mamani Chino and his brother Samuel display the flamingo they have just caught. Flamingos are actually grey in colour, the pink pigment comes from the shrimp they eat. The Chipaya’s dogs are used for hunting, helping to retrieve prey. 

Anthropologists believe that the Chipaya are direct descendants of the Uru ethnic group, which populated the Altiplano thousands of years before the Aymara came here.

ABOVE: The ‘sconi’ is the Chipaya hunting weapon of choice. Traditionally, it was made using flamingo tendons, though nylon is now used, attached to two lead balls. The weapon is flighted with volcanic rock.

Like all indigenous Andean peoples, their religion is a syncretism of Christianity and animistic belief. The Chipaya revere Pachamama, the ancient earth mother, an autochthonous deity whose presence is so ubiquitous in the Andes that when the Spanish sought to replace her with the Virgin Mary, Pachamama simply absorbed her identity.

ABOVE: Eloi Mamani Alabi helps his youngest son, Jose Luis Mamani Chino, pluck two flamingos the boy has just killed with his sling. 

After Jose Luis has killed another flamingo with the same relaxed assurance as the first, he sits plucking the birds’ feathers with his father. Veronica winds thread around a spindle, while their mother prepares a fire of dry tola brush inside one of the houses.

The Chipaya burn an evergreen known as yareta that grows at a rate of just 1mm a year, but which generates a great deal of heat. Once plucked, the flamingo carcass will be gutted and the meat boiled.

ABOVE: On the left, Isabel Chino Condori removes the remaining feathers from the flamingo her son has caught by holding it over an open flame. On the right, Jose and Eloi rest after a hard day on the altiplano in their traditional circular Chipaya house. 

As the afternoon passes, I am flooded with the sense of an ancient past, a way of living that endured on this unforgiving plateau for millennia.

The feeling of suspended time soon passes though. Driving back through town, I spot some Chipaya boys who’ve climbed on top of a wall. I realize they are trying to get a mobile-phone signal.


Johnny Langenheim

Producer and journalist whose interests include human ecology, travel, and the environment. Working extensively in Asia, particularly Indonesia, as well as in Europe, Africa and the Middle East.


James Morgan

Photojournalist and film maker focused on projects that explore indigenous cosmologies and the human ecology side of the environmental movement.

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