Under the ground | Peru

The earth needs to rest

In Quechua culture, life above ground is closely linked to the subterranean. From birth to after death, the Pachamama plays a vital role

On black stones lies a bottle gourd. In the gourd was drawn naked woman with long hair sitting on the side.

A carving of the Pachamama on a bottle gourd ("mate")


Dead people are the only ones who know the Ukhu Pacha, or the underground. We don’t, yet. But we do know how important it is to treat mother earth with respect and to feed her to sustain her. Pachamama, or mama earth, is vital to us, she contains our ancestors and sustains us. Moreover, she is our mother! But for this relationship to work, it is important to care for her, to feed her with offerings, which helps maintain the equilibrium.

For those living above the ground, the underground world is something to treat with great respect. That means not just extracting from the earth, but giving back to it too. It’s a two-way conversation. When we plant potatoes, we must allow the earth to rest and recover after some years of planting. The earth needs sleep! For us, planting maize or potatoes in September and October is an important and ceremonial time: We eat and drink together, women - the daughters of mother earth - sing verses. To please the earth, we kiss the maize before we put bury it in the earth. 

To keep Pachamama sustained we have to look after her. August is the month of the Pachamama and we make offerings, which we bury in the soil to help it recover from the long barren season of cold. These packages may contain coca leaves and fruits from the rainforest or the coast. Its contents vary according to the region. In Cusco, for example, it is traditional to bury a lama fetus, although more contemporary offerings include sweeties as Pachamama has a sweet tooth. During the ceremony, we share food and chew coca leaves, we give our thanks to the earth and the mountains, we throw confetti. It has an artistic element, as well as being performative and ritualistic and symbolic. We bury our offering wrapped in paper or a blanket. Until around five years ago it was typical to burn everything, put it all into a hole and cover it over. Now we don’t burn offerings as our environment is too dry due to the impact of the changing climate. We treat these offering sites with deep respect – they shouldn’t be disturbed by people or animals. Otherwise, the Pachamama will become annoyed. 

“This is an ongoing tradition – these days many people in cities go to restaurants to eat Mancapacha, even though it has lost its sense of ritual and community.”

In the past, in Apurímac, where my mother came from, the offerings were put into a pot, then the pot would be smashed, so that the contents could fall apart and be absorbed by the soil. It was important for the contents to be absorbed by the soil to sustain the circle of life. As a curious child, my mother found pieces of the broken pots. They were old, maybe even dating from the pre-Spanish era, and she was told by her parents to keep her distance or she would get ill: They don’t belong to us but to the earth, to Pachamama. 

The other half of my family come from Huánuco, in the Central Andes, which has another underground tradition: Pachamanca which is literally a meal from under the earth: Pacha means “earth” and Manca is “pot”. Held in February and on special occasions, it reinforces our close bond to the earth and our community. We dig a hole in the ground, fill it with hot stones, then potatoes (which, when they come out, taste better than any others I’ve tried), sweet potatoes, maize and marinaded meat. In the past, llama, alpaca or guineapig was used but today it can be any other meat. We add a layer of stones, a thick covering of banana leaves, a blanket, then cover it all over with a layer of earth. The community then celebrates, drinking chicha, or today, more likely beer. When we drink but always pour a share onto the ground for mother earth. Often, she gets an entire bottle. 

Music and celebration ensue until, after around an hour, we open the Pachamanca and eat. This is an ongoing tradition – these days many people in cities go to restaurants to eat Mancapacha - even though it has lost its sense of ritual and community. I was lucky that my granny always made pachamancas and I continue the tradition to this day, I’ve even made one in Boden See in Germany and in Berlin. 

“The Mallkis should be left untouched, beneath the ground.” 

We also turn towards the underground world on the Day of the Dead. We go to the graveyard with lots of food. Our ancestors connect us to mother earth and we have to care for them. When my granddad was buried, we gave him food, clothing, extra shoes for the long journey he needs to take in the underworld. I need to retain my link of love and affection that I had with my grandfather through rituals. That helps secure my life above ground. Sometimes our ancestors come and visit us in our dreams. In particular they come to warn us about something or to communicate a message. 

Where I come from, we have the Mallkis, the mummies of the Andean culture which are buried with small bags for their journey in the Ukhu Pacha. The Mallkis should be left untouched, beneath the ground. I was shocked to find one of them in on display in the ethnological museum Darlem. They were taken out of the ground in the name of science, to learn something about the Incas – but why didn’t they leave it to lie in peace? The Humboldt Forum in Berlin will exhibit another mummy, which hailed from the coast of Lima, it is a grandfather and a child. They are in a bundle together, alongside a bag of seeds to plant, tools, a little bag of cotton and other important items. We see death as a new birth, which is why the deceased are put into the earth. Removing them disrupts our world.

As told to Jess Smee