Oral tradition and Incan memories
Revision and translation by Sara Plaza
One of the first written pieces on the oral practices in South America was carried out by the pen of the Hispanic chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, a character with a very hazardous life who ended his days almost forgotten by his contemporaries, and whose last great heroic deed was to intend to colonize the inhospitable coasts of the Tierra del Fuego (a fruitless attempt, by the way, which cost countless lives). Sarmiento de Gamboa's best known work is "Incan History", written in 1572 (we have a copy from 1942, published by Editorial Emecé in Buenos Aires). From this book we have extracted a quite large fragment, which we would like to share with you as a sort of tribute to the "oral history" and an old testimony of a practice that, in spite of the passing centuries, has not disappeared at all: it continues to be alive, certainly at other levels though.
The Spanish chronicler tells us, in this text, how the Incan aristocracy had quite precise oral systems that perpetuated their history through generations. At the present time, many other histories are also preserved going round from one mouth to another and from some hands into others. Certainly, our fondness for writing and books leads us, in many occasions, to have a low opinion of orality, since we presume that it is not accurate or objective enough. However, are not the history books touched by the subjectivity of the historians who write them? Do not our libraries tell what the authors of the works that we preserve wanted to write down for the future to read? Do not they silence what those authors decided to put aside? Do not we continue to hear in the street bits of recent histories that our official records do not want to recognize, no matter how real they are?
Orality is as full of errors and forgetfulness as writing. Maybe, in the comfort of our books, we have lost the ability (or the custom) of remembering and telling what those memories remind us. Nevertheless, by doing so, we have sacrificed a great part of our reality as human beings, a great part of the experiences that we have had, of our past and our identity. We are allowing others to write down (and save from silence for the future) only some fragments of our complex world. The rest will die with us. What a very sad fate for such a large quantity of knowledge!
Argentinean writer Alejandro Dolina once wrote: "We should remember, remember all the time". We should also tell, listen and share. We have to recover the voices that are being muffled, the sounds that are made quieter and less clear day after day, if we do not want them to be lost. In the end, we are no more than the memories we left once we have passed on. If those memories, those little histories are lost... who will know about our way through the world?
We leave you in the company of Sarmiento de Gamboa and his description (the original it is written in old Spanish, so we have done our best effort to translate his lines into English) of the Incan techniques and methods of preserving the past for the future.
"Before moving further into Incan history, I want to advise, or properly speaking, to lessen a worry, which might be a matter of concern to those who do not think this history to be true, since it has been elaborated on grounds of what this barbarians retell; those people might believe that without literacy, their descendants cannot keep in their memory so many particularities as the ones that I write here, which date from very ancient times. To this, it can be answered that, in replacement for their lack of literacy, these barbarians had a great and true curiosity, and ones to others, from parents to children, they have gone on transmitting their memories until nowadays, repeating them many times, as we do when we have to learn a lesson, and making the listeners to repeat them as well until they had fixed those stories in their minds too. This way, their descendants continued to communicate their annals in order to preserve their history, their achievements, their antiquities, and the number and names of peoples, villages and provinces as well as of days, months, years, battles, deaths, defeats, fortresses and cinches ["Sinchi", headman].
Finally, it is worth noticing that the most remarkable things, which consist of content and numbers, were –and still are– noted down in a sort of thin ropes, named quipo ["khipu" or "quipu"], where a number of knots are made. They are able to know what is written along the string by observing those joins and the colors used in tying them, as if they were reading letters. One cannot avoid admiring the amount of information that can be stored in those ropes. In fact, there are masters of quipos among the Incans, as skilled persons at writing surrounding us.
In addition to what has been said, there were, and there are still, particular historians of these nations, a profession that is inherited from father to son. It was thanks to the great diligence of the ninth Inca, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, that most of the old historians from all provinces and kingdoms were called to the city of Cuzco for a long period of time, through which he was asking them about the antiquities and the origin and most remarkable past events of those kingdoms. It was immediately after knowing those many histories when he order to paint them on big wooden boards, and chose an enormous room in the Sun House where those boards –covered with gold– would be exhibited in the same way as we show our bookshelves. This Inca encouraged the establishment of a group of scholars who would know how to interpret and explain them. Nobody, apart from the Inca and the historians, could enter in this room without the Inca permission.
In this manner it was known and collected everything concerning the ancient times, and today it is remembered by almost every Indian, even thought in some cases their opinions can be different attending to diverse interests. It was by considering very carefully a great number of elders from different conditions, and finally choosing the oldest and most judicious ones, who are thought of more authority, that I discovered and collected this history, referring each of them the declarations and sayings of their enemies, and asking them to remember their past and the past of the rival faction (since they were grouped in different factions). And these memories, which I have in my hands, compared and corrected with their opposite ones, were, in the end, ratified in the presence of all the factions and ayllos ["ayllus", clan, large families] who had to take the oath in front of an authorized judge. What is written here was translated by faithful experts in general languages, also under oath".