Mummies, Saints, and Religion in the Andes

Andean peoples have a long history of incorporating new practices into their worldview. Just as the Inka institutionalized ritual life during the Late Intermediate Period (1000-1450 AD), Andean people were able to incorporate the rituals of Catholicism into their own religious framework after the Spanish conquest. In Catholicism, the body—be it the body of a deceased Christian, a saint, or the body of Christ—was used to convey meanings about life, death, and the promise of an ideal afterlife in exchange for devout living. Similarly, the body had an equally ritualistic role among the Andean people as ancestral mummies were consulted on matters of life and venerated long after death. In other words, the body in its preserved, mummified form had similar roles in Catholicism and Andean religion. The he fusing together two separate ideologies (Andean beliefs and Catholicism), or syncretism, may have been partly due to the importance the Andean people placed on mummified bodies. What are the similar ways  Andean people and Catholics from Europe perceived the body?

The body is not simply a biological entity, but is a carefully crafted artifact that continues to be worked and transformed after death. In death, the body transforms into a form of material culture created and maintained through social practices, historical circumstances, and other social forces (Sofaer, 2006). The body is used to convey representations of death and the afterlife, of a society´s boundaries, of the nature of humanness, and of the ordering of the social world. The treatment of the corpse embodies complex concepts about the living body (what it is to be human, how to follow codes of conduct) and society at large (how the social order is represented but also about the nature of death) (Pearson, 2008).

The dead, mummies in particular, were seen as an active group in the Andean world. One of the best-known techniques of transforming and utilizing the corpse is by means of its transformation into a mummy. Such bodies retained what Tung (2014) refers to as “post-mortem agency” in which the bodies, even in their altered, mummified state, remain politically and social active in death. These bodies are the culmination of rituals that serve to separate the dead from the living and install them within another dimension of human understanding (Pearson, 2008). Interestingly, the perceptions of the mummified body were similar between Catholics and Andean people, and, as I argue, allowed for the syncretism of Catholicism and Andean religion.

Mummification and Ancestor Veneration in Andean Religion

The Andean peoples had long venerated their ancestors and the mummified the remains of their most important relatives (mallquis), but the Inka institutionalized this process of ancestor worship by creating a system of religious corporations (panacas) to honor deceased rulers (Andrian, 2001). Theses practices continued through the Inka period and desiccation of the body continued to be the most notable funerary practice throughout the Andes at Spanish contact (Rakita and Buikstra, 2005).

After death, the living exerted great effort to embalm the body of the Inka emperor in a manner that preserved his appearance and likeness as in life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]; Cieza de León (1959 [1553]). The mummified Inka emperors were wrapped in large amounts of cotton and dressed in rich clothing and were enshrined in golden thrones in the Temple del Sol (Korikancha) in Cusco (Dillehay, 1991), or in their own homes where kin could provide attention and care for their bodies (Rowe, 1995). Cobo (1653, 1990) notes that some bodies over 200 years old were still found in Cusco and were so well preserved that the skin and hair were still intact, as if the individual had died less than a month before!

A portion of the gold and silver the deceased had accumulated in his lifetime were placed with the body while other sumptuary goods were buried elsewhere, specifically in places where the deceased usually went to enjoy himself during his life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]). A separate set of priests made offerings to the mummies of deceased Inkas and other prominent figures, providing ritual meals of chicha and other foodstuff, surrounding them with utensils used in life (such as textiles, hoes, and weapons), and including them to community religious celebrations (Cobo, 1990 [1653]); Cieza de León, 1959 [1553]).

From Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala: El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno

The body of the dead Inka emperor was dried and preserved above ground, guarded by attendants, and treated as if the ruler were still alive (Dillehay, 1995). The body itself preserved the memory of the dead ruler, and his descendants recited his deeds on public occasions. The mummified Inka rulers participated in public affairs, were brought to temples and houses to carry out functions that, in all appearances, were of a political character. For example, they were regularly borne on litters during the most important ceremonies that took place in Cusco’s plaza and often consulted on important matters (Pizarro, 1978 [1571]).

The palaces and other residences of a deceased ruler were not inherited by his successors; rather, the dead physically and symbolically were still believed to occupy their residences and palaces even in death. These residences served as monumental reminders of the ruler (Rowe, 1995). In other words, the deceased Inka ruler continued to physically and symbolically participate in society; he did not and could not wholly die.

Are there any similarities between the bodies of the Inka and Catholic bodies?

Incorruptible Catholic Bodies

The Roman Catholic Church has long practiced mummification to preserve the bodies of saints, priests, bishops, and other high-ranking church members. The bodies are named “incorruptible” because the bodies are believed to have preserved miraculously and are immune to decay (Jeremiah, 2012; Chamberlain and Pearson, 2001). The spontaneous preservation was believed to be evidence of the sanctity of the individual (Jeremiah, 2012; Chamberlain and Pearson, 2001); an individual believed to be pure and lived what is considered an “uncorrupted” life. While many of the so-called incorruptible bodies have been deemed as forgeries, the perception of the incorruptible nature of the bodies continues in the Catholic mindset (Jeremiah, 2012).

The display of these incorruptible bodies belonging to saints, priests, bishops, and other high-ranking individuals in the Catholic Church serves several purposes. Displaying bodies of the deceased functions as a constant reminder of the inevitability of death to encourage followers of the Catholic faith to live devout lives. Also, bodies belonging to divine individuals are believed to be immediate sources of supernatural power for good or for ill, and close contact with them or possession of them was a means of participating in that power (Geary, 1986: 176). Beginning in the 11th century and into the present, whole and partial bodies of saints were prized for their thaumaturgic power, particularly “their ability to substitute for public authority, protest and secure the community, determine the relative status of individuals and churches, and provide for the community´s economic prosperity” (Geary, 1986: 179). In sum, mummified bodies served religious as well as social, economic, and political purposes ultimately to legitimate the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Mummied head believed to belong to St. Catherine of Siena, Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico, Siena, Italy

Spanish Conquest and Dismantlement of Ancestor Veneration

The Spanish justified their conquest of Tawantinsuyu in 1532 by vowing to convert the indigenous souls with their pagan beliefs to the Catholic faith (Andrien, 2008). While the conquistadors initially sought the treasure held by mummy and their shrines, Spaniards quickly realized that the mummies were dangerous because they commanded considerable political and religious authority; they were still conferred with, and capable of, inspiring their followers to action against Spanish rule (Dean, 2010). Spaniards rapidly recognized the danger posed by the cadavers of the divine, ancestral deceased, control over the dead—both the bodies of the deceased and beliefs about them—was a critical element in the conversion efforts of early Christian evangelizers in the Andes (Harris, 1982).

Body, Soul, and the Afterlife: Modern Ethnographic Examples 

The idea that the spiritual identity and power of the dead is located in their desiccated physical remains is a very old one in the Andes. According to Inka religious traditions, the dead would reach their final destination or resting place (pacarina) after the performance of specific rituals and mummification. Yet, the individual’s mummified corpse and the objects belonging to that individual during life are both believed to house the essence of the individual after death while the essence of the individual journeyed to the afterlife simultaneously (Andrien, 2008; Dillehay, 1995). Similarly, in Catholicism, the deceased also go through a transition into the afterlife (heaven), while both the body and the objects associated with the individual continues to be sacred and possess the essence of the individual (Jeremiah, 2012).

In modern-day Peru, indigenous people in Huaquirca, Department Apurímac, Peru, prepare and process in a complex ritual of combining aspects of both Catholicism and Andean beliefs to ensure the soul reaches the afterlife. While a portion of Huaquircaños physically burry the deceased in a Christian burial, others preform a clothes-washing ceremony of the deceased’s clothing. This clothes-washing ceremony ensures that the soul does not return to the clothing he or she wore during life, but instead continues onto the afterlife (Gose, 1994). Similar to the Inka mummies, objects and the places the Huaquircaños habited during life potentially continue to possess the soul of the deceased (Gose, 1994).

The Sonqueños of the south-central highlands of Peru combine their indigenous Andean beliefs with Christian ideas about the afterlife. The Sonqueños burry their dead in their cemetery in the Christian tradition, yet they conceptually locate their ancestors in the chullpas (burial houses or towers) on their sacred hill located near their village (Allen, 2002). While the bodies are physically the cemetery and conceptually occupy the chullpas, the souls, or essences, of the deceased also travel to what the Sonqueños refer to as hanan pacha (upper world), which they also define as the Christian heaven (Allen, 2002). Thus, the concepts of the afterlife do not diverge dramatically from the original Andean beliefs; rather, the concepts of the afterlife are incorporated into the Catholic worldview.

Purity of the Preserved Body

Inka mummies were ancestors that were meant to be visited and preform as oracles. It would therefore follow that the preservation of their corporeal form was imperative. In fact, during the Spanish extirpation, Andean people removed the bodies because the deceased from Catholic cemeteries. They reported that the dead were unhappy with burial; they were alone and isolated, unable to breathe and move under the weight of the earth, and overwhelmed by the stench of their own rotting flesh which had not been allowed to desiccate naturally in the cool, arid air of the traditional crypt-cave (Doyle, 1988). Among the modern-day Sonqueños in Peru, Allen (2002) notes that after death, a sinful individual is unable to accomplish his or her transformation from the body to the afterlife, and therefore be forced to animate its rotting body.

Similarly, Catholic bodies of iconic religion figures preserved due to the purity of soul; they are thus the ideal examples of upholders of the Catholic faith (Jeremiah, 2012). The body of Margaret of Cortona (1247-1297), for example, did not decay after her death, but instead gave off a pleasant sent that was interpreted as the Odor of Sanctity. Her remarkable preservation later led to her canonization (Vago, 2007) and status as an incorruptible body in the Catholic Church (Jeremiah, 2012). The bodies of the ideal Catholic, therefore, would be spiritually pure and therefore immune to decay or putrefaction.

St. Margaret of Cortona

The importance of purity and perfection in the Inka ideology is best illustrated in the qhapaq huchas, or capacocha, a ceremony during which female and male children and teenagers of exemplary of physical purity and perfection, known as ahapaq hucha, were immolate tributes to the Inka Empire (Besom, 2010). Typically, the qhapaq huchas were virgin boys, girls, and young women who were selected specifically for their good looks and lack of blemishes such as warts, freckles (Cobo 1979: 235-238 [1653]; 1990: 111-113 [1653]).

The capacocha involved leaving objects in a burial that in some way mirrored, either literally or metaphorically, the deceased (Gaither et al., 2008: 108, 113, 115-116). The ahapaq hucha would be enshrined with objects that denote markers of gender and, arguably, objects representing the ideal professions and behaviors of living males and females. For example, feminine statuettes and markers of gender, such as tipus, were deposited with girls and young women (Ceruti, 2003; Linares, 1966; Reinhard 1996, 1999; Reinhard and Ceruti, 2000). Females and female statuettes were dressed like aqlla-kuna “chosen women,” who were virgins who served as imperial gods of state (Besom 2009). Camelids were exclusively placed with boys, perhaps because in Andean society it is usually males who herd and are in charge of the llama caravans (Besom, 2009).

In sum, both Catholicism and Andean religion place emphasis on the sacredness of unblemished bodies as an indication of the purity of the individual. The bodies of the saints were physical representations of the ideal Catholic. The ahapaq huchas, similarly, were meant to embody the ideas of perfection, both physically as well as in their gendered professions.

Inka Burial Objects and Catholic Relics

Statues depicting divine individuals are used as objects of veneration and meditation in religions worldwide. The Catholic Church defines relics as the remains of a saint or holy person. There are three tiers of relics: 1) saints’ bodies and instruments involved in the crucifixion of Christ, 2) objects in close contact with a saint, such as clothing or instruments of martyrdom, and 3) objects touched by a saint (Edwards, 1997). Jewel-encrusted reliquaries to hold the relics, images of the saints and other holy persons also had considerable religion value and power in the Roman Catholic church and were therefore installed securely in the chancels of the richest monasteries and cathedrals of Europe (Jeremiah, 2012).

The physical body of the saint, however, maintains the most power in the Roman Catholic faith. The bodies, and sometimes body parts, of a specific saint were thought to possess the spiritual essence of the deceased. These saints were believed to be simultaneously present in the bodily remains and in heave also (Bynum, 1995). When a saint or high-ranking member of the church died, the body is preserved and the pieces of the body, or even pieces of clothing or objects that belong to the individual are sent to various locations (Jeremiah, 2012).

Possession of a relic body, piece of the body, and/or object belonging to the deceased was beneficial because the church or temple that houses these objects would become an important site for pilgrimages, and therefore made more money (Sharf, 1992). These bodies and body parts were believed to be reservoirs of divine energy with the power to protection and even offer advice and guidance to the faithful (Jeremiah, 2012).

Saint Coronatus, Heiligkreuztal, Germany

Similarly, the Andean people and the Inka shared similar viewpoints on the sacred nature of the body as well as the objects formally belonging to the deceased. Some of the of the treasures belonging to the deceased Inka were enshrined with the mummy, yet many objects were buried or placed in places where the deceased occupied during life (Cobo, 1990 [1653]). Because these objects were made for the ruler’s use when he was alive, Inka believed that no other person should use these objects after his death; they were considered property and remain at the service of their owner (Cobo, 1990 [1653]).

A variety of artifacts that denote the individual’s sacred status would accompany the qhapaq hucha during the capacocha. A male qhapaq hucha would be carefully entombed in a pit or bottom of a deep shaft. He would be seated, and around him would be placed or he would wear various offerings—Spondylus shell, an llawt´u (head band), a medallion, and a bracelet (Besom, 2009), along with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic statuettes made from gold, silver, copper, or Spondylus (Besom, 2010).

Just as relics served to connect Catholic cathedrals along pilgrimage routes oriented around Vatican City—the seat of the Roman Catholic faith, the qhapaq hucha were immolated in shrines that had a particular relationship with the Inka capital, Cusco. Cusco was the center of the ceque system—a series of imagined, ritual pathways radiating from Cusco and along which sacred shrines, or huacas, were placed (Bauer, 1992). Bernabé Cobo (1990 [1563]) first noted that the ceques of Cusco radiated out from the Koricancha and Bauer (1992) later found that many ceques do in fact originate at the Inka’s main temple.

Interestingly, the ceques, shrines, and the capacocha ceremony all may be intertwined. During capacocha, the selected children were taken to Cuzco and then distributed to the principal huacas—places believed to be imbued with sacred power—to be ritually sacrificed. These places were sacred shrines and sites in and around Cusco that were specifically for the offerings of children. Shrines that were further away required long processions and upon their arrival took part in festivals (Besom, 2010). Additionally, a number of Inka shrines had an oracular function, so whenever the Inkas asked for advice on important matters, they dispatched children to these shrines as immolations (Besom, 2010).

Besom (2009) argues that the child sacrifices reified the social stricter and political organization of the empire, particularly the asymmetrical relationship between Cuzco, the center of political and religious authority in the state, and the hinterlands. The capacocha was also intertwined with Inka economy—preforming these ceremonies were vital to good weather, water availability, and agricultural production (Benson, 2009). Considering the socio-economic and religious importance of the shrines and the qhapaq hucha, the capacocha ceremony is a religion procession that resembles a pilgrimage. Shrines are similar to churches and holy places that enshrine relics and the qhapaq hucha are, indeed, similar to the relics themselves. Interestingly, the ceque system links many of the shrines to Cusco as well as the Inka’s main temple—the Koriconcha—while Catholic churches also conceptually link themselves to the center of the Roman Catholic Church—the Vatican.

Capacocha of teenage girl, Museum of High Altitude Archaeology, Salta, Argentina

Bodies of Ancestors and Saints

The Catholic incursion into Peru sought to displace the visible role of the dead in the construction of social organization within the community (Sillar, 1992). In particular, the Spanish imposed a series of saint day celebrations; yet, such saint days have been adapted to serve the needs of Andean communities (Sillar, 1992). New Spanish towns in the Andes were named for a saint, and the likenesses of martyrs, apostles, and founders of religious orders were placed alongside images of Christ and the Virgin in the altar decorations and murals of churches. In the Andes, the annual celebration of the town’s patron became a major event in public ritual life. Individual saints were remembered on a daily basis. In fact, Felipe Guaman Poma, an Andean chronicler, incorporated the feasts of the saints in his monthly calendar of colonial Andean ceremonial life (Guaman Poma de Ayala, 1980 [1615/1616]).

Despite these incorporations of saints and celebrations into Andean life, indigenous populations continued to treat images and statues of saints in the same manner they treated their ancestral mummies. Chroniclers wrote that the Andean people intentionally mummified the bodies of their forbearers in order to worship them. The spirit of the ancestral mummy was thought to reside in the group’s place of origin, and could be called back to the mummy for consultation (Salomon, 1995). Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta argued that the transformation of a body, in this case the body of an Andean ancestor, into an object of veneration was the equivalent to making what the Spanish missionaries deemed a “false” religious image, or idol. (Ramos, 2010).

All Saints’ Day, Peru

A religion that combines Catholic as well as Andean perceptions on the nature of ancestral and saints’ bodies persists in modern-day Peru. The ceremony of Corpus Cristi preformed by the Sonqueños in south-central Peru is an excellent example that demonstrates the syncretism between Inka capacocha ceremony and Catholic religious celebrations. Corpus Cristi is a moveable feast, falling in late May or June (on Thursday after Trinity Sunday). About thirty Sonqueños embark on an arduous journey to the distant peaks of Qoyllur Riti range. According to legend, a miracle took place at Qoyllur Riti: the Christ Child appeared to a shepherd boy from the nearby village of Tayankani. After playing with the shepherd boy, the Christ Child disappeared into a rock, which was ever after marked with his imprint (Allen, 2002).

The Qoyllur Riti mountain range represents three important tenants in the Sonqueños’ Andean religion: the Riti (the snow), the Taytakuna (the fathers), and the great Apus (Lord Mountains). The rock bearing Christ´s image, now enclosed in a concrete chapel, is a prototype of Sonqo´s own small taytacha—a small portable shrine consisting of a red three-sided wooden box, about one foot square and six inches deep, painted inside with a simple picture of the crucified Christ. Their powerful object, the taytacha, begins with ritual travels within Sonqo, for he is carried around the community for contributions, then visits churches and households. After weeks of preparation, the taytacha sets out on a procession that transcends the community, leading the pilgrims through a landscape of greater and more powerful Places. During Corpus Cristi, the Sonqueños traveling to the glacier peak, carrying the tayacha with them. This ritual allows the Sonqueños to confirm their relationship with the Sacred Places of regional importance and reestablish themselves as an ayllu (Allen, 2002).

The Corpus Cristi exhibits several aspects of both Andean and Catholic religions. The journey itself is described as a pilgrimage to celebrate a Catholic miracle, yet the journey itself is similar to that of the capacocha ceremony: images of the individuals who embody purity and perfection (the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ) accompany the caravan and are taken to a mountain peak emplaced with both Andean and Catholic sacredness. The Qoyllur Riti mountain range remains to be a sacred site for the Sonqueños, be it similar to that of a Catholic pilgrimage site, or an Andean shrine. The goal of the journey is reestablish the ayllu’s social-economic ties within their community with a particular recognizing their ancient connection to the community’s ancestors, be they abstract ancestors in the afterlife, or the bones in the nearby chullpas, but not, unfortunately, the mummified remains venerated by their Inka forbearers. In sum, the Corpus Cristi ceremony combines both Catholic beliefs and Andean traditions, particularly the use of images of saints and holy individuals in lieu of actual bodies. The Sonqueños thus honor their Inka forbearers while also actively involving Catholic beliefs into their worldview.


In conclusion, the syncretism of Andean religion and Catholicism is apparent in the treatment of the mummified body through time. The perception of the preserved bodies of saints in Catholicism and Andean religion is quite similar in that both religions share similar perceptions on the post-mortem agency and socio-political power the bodies possess. This allowed for the Andean people to both readily accept and quickly modify Catholicism to fit into their ideology. The body, especially the mummified corpse, is therefore a power object that is both maintained and transformed by social and cultural forces in the Andes.

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Physiological and Evolutionary Mechanisms of Fertility at High Altitude: Part 2

Birth weights, Stillbirth Rates, and Infant Mortality

Exposure to hypoxic environments may increase the stress on an already vulnerable growing fetus, thus result in a higher frequency of low birth weight, higher stillbirths, and increased infant mortality among high altitude populations. Several scholars have reported reduced birth weight with increasing altitude due to inadequate maternal oxygenation later in pregnancy (Yip, 1987; Haas et al., 1977; Ballew and Haas, 1986; Jensen and Moore, 1997; Khalid et al., 1997). For pregnant women, oxygen saturation and hemoglobin concentration naturally decrease towards term, resulting in a fall in arterial oxygen at the end of pregnancy. If a woman is at high altitude, she has even less access to oxygen which may explain the reduction in birth weight at high altitudes (Hartinger et al., 2006).

Hartinger and colleagues (2006) compared birth weights of 84,173 neonates between 1995 and 2002 from the cities of Lima (150 masl), Huancayo (3280 masl), Cusco (3400 masl), and Juliaca (3800 masl). The authors found that birth weight is lower at high altitude, but there is no linear relation between altitude of residence and birth weight (Hartinger et al., 2006). In fact, in Juliaca (3800 m) where the population has resided the longest, birth weight was higher than that of Huancayo (3280 m) where indigenous populations have resided the shortest. In Cusco (3400 m), where there is increased admixture among Spanish and indigenous populations, birth weight was also lower compared to Juliaca (Hartinger et al., 2006). The data suggests that women from families who had lived at high altitudes for at least 3 generations maintained their oxygenation better during pregnancy (McAuliffe, 2001), allowing for a higher birth weight and suggesting that adaptation occurs when groups are exposed to a hypoxic environment over generations (McAuliffe, 2001).

Several studies have confirmed an association between high altitude and a higher stillbirth rate (Gonzales et al., 2007; INEI, 2001) due to an effect of low barometric pressure and colder temperatures common in these hypoxic environments (Gonzales, 2007). For example, populations in the Sarata district of southern Peru almost 20 percent of children do not survive beyond age five (Collins, 1983). Local health personnel and native healers state that the leading cause of infant mortality is respiratory failure, possibly related to the hypoxic environment (Collins, 1983). In fact, respiratory symptoms are reportedly responsible for 58-68 percent of deaths among children under one year of age, and for 49-55 percent of deaths among children aged one to five (Collins, 1983).

To offset the effects of high altitudes, indigenous Peruvian mothers often tightly swaddle and enclose their infants in a set of clothes and blankets, referred to as a manta pouch. The manta pouch modifies the internal microenvironment so that, compared to the ambient environment, the temperature is higher and more stable, the humidity is higher, the partial pressure of oxygen is lower, and stimulation levels are reduced. It appears to be a solution the lower the infant mortality rate among indigenous women (Tronick et al., 1994).

Gonzales and colleagues (2007) compared stillbirth rates from a sample of 22,662 births between 2005 and 2006 for the cities of Lima (150 masl), Huancayo (3280 masl), Cuzco (3430 masl), and Puno (3850 masl), and reported that stillbirth rates were higher at high altitude (>3000m) compared with low altitude (Gonzales et al., 2007). Yet, inhabitants from the South Andes (i.e. Cusco, Puno) actually have lower stillbirth rates compared with the central Andes (Huancayo) (Gonzales et al., 2007). Similar to Passano (1983), Gonzales and colleagues attribute this discrepancy with a vague description of an “ancestry effect,” in which populations with longer multigenerational residence in the southern Andes population may be linked to lower still birth rates (Gonzales et al., 2007).

To summarize, there appears to be no association between an increase in fetal mortality with increasing elevation. High altitudes pose several environmental stressors (e.g. low oxygen and cold temperatures) which increase infant mortality; to counteract these stressors, Peruvian mothers tightly wrap and swaddle their newborns in mantas, creating a protective microenvironment. Interestingly, the rates of perinatal and neonatal mortality are, however, lower in populations that have resided at high altitude for longer; populations inhabiting the southern Andes have a longer antiquity at high altitude and lower rates of fetal and neonatal deaths than those in the central Andes with a shorter residence at high altitude.

Post-Partum Behaviors

Female physiology after birth may contribute to lower fertility levels, but most research has indicated that post-partum behaviors account for a decrease in reproductive rates. The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics of Peru documented longer durations of exclusive breastfeeding at high-altitudes than at sea level as revealed by an increased prevalence of lactation amenorrhea (absence of menstruation)(INEI, 2001). Yet, Gonzales (2007) noted that fertility rates among high altitude populations in Peru are higher compared to those at sea level despite the prevalence of lactation amenorrhea and prevalence of >2 years sexual abstinence after parturition.

Couples living in the Sarata district of Peru take an active role in preventing and regulating births family sizes after reaching the desired number of children size. Collins (1983) reported that women sought herbal specialists who provided herbs, fruits, and seeds thought to induce miscarriages if taken within a month or two of conception. Infanticide is also a common practice, especially if the infant was in some way abnormal, because the harshness of the environment and lack of health care services made the burden of raiding an abnormal or weak child too costly for many families. Other methods approved by the local Catholic nuns included abstinence and the rhythm method. Also, seasonal migration is sometimes prescribed to young couples that were having children more rapidly, and Collins (1983) noted two accounts in which fathers-in-law recommending that their sons–in-law migrate seasonally in order to space births.

Similarly, Laurenson and colleagues (1985) noted that females living in Central Nepal (12,400 feet) experienced lower fertility frequencies than females living at 8500 feet. Though the females at high altitudes reported longer post-partum ammenorhea and breast-feeding periods, the pregnancy gap was due to the later age of marriage and controlled birth spacing (Laurenson, et al., 1985). Overall, it appears that both male and female parents actively seek solutions to control birth spacing in order to achieve desired number of offspring.

Onset of Menopause

Similar to the age of sexual maturation, high altitudes may contribute to an earlier or later onset of menopause. Studies have documented that the age at menopause occurs earlier at high altitude than at sea level (Gonzales, 1994) and therefore result in a shorter reproductive span for women living at altitude (Gonzales and Villena, 1996). Women living at Cerro de Pasco (4340 masl) experienced accelerated menopause compared to women in Lima (150 masl) due to high levels of serum follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and accelerated oocyte loss observed in regularly menstruating women at high altitude (Gonzales and Gonez, 2000).

Studies have estimated medium age of menopause to be between 45.4 years and 46.1 years among rural Bolivian Aymara, (Crognier et al. 2002; Burch and Vitzthum, 2011). Among women living at high altitude in Nepal, menopause occurs between 45–50 years (Lang and Lang, 1971; Beall, 1983), an age range that is within the average onset of menopause worldwide. Vitzthum (2013) notes, however, that these ranges are similar to those of other populations that have poor living conditions and high mortality risks (e.g., India = 44.0 years; also see Wood, 1994). Like age at menarche, variation in age at menopause may be due to factors other than, or in addition to, hypoxia. Yet, there appears to be little, if any, demographic impact of perhaps a year less at the end of the reproductive life span of women (Vitzthum, 2013).

Evolutionary Mechanisms and Ethnicity/Ancestry Influences on Fertility

Evolutionary processes may have acted differently on the populations who originally migrated into high altitude environments and thus resulted in different patterns of adaptation. These results suggest that longevity of life at high altitude may be an important component of adaptation. For example, the reduced survival of Spanish children at high-altitudes suggests that the newcomers lacked an adaptation to the hypoxic environment (Gonzales, 2007). The indigenous Peruvian population—Aymara and Quechua—was later mixed with the Spaniards who colonized Peru during the 16th century. As a result, the Peruvian population has three important admixture groups: first, the Quechua or Aymara populations with long-term residence in highland zones particularly at the Southern Andes (Cuzco and Puno), and the second is admixture of Spanish with the indigenous Quechua and Aymara populations, and third, the Spanish who moved to high altitude relatively recently in the last four centuries (Rupert and Hochachka, 2001). This introduction and mixture of genes may have stopped or reversed the adaptive processes preformed during more than 10,000 years of life at high altitude. Natives with longer ancestry in high altitudes appear to have an unknown genetic component that make them better adaptive to their environments compared to individuals of Spanish descent.

Evolutionary processes may have acted differently on colonizing populations of the Andes verses those of the Himalayas, resulting in different pattern of adaptation (Beall, 2006). Compared to Andean residents, Tibetans with 20,000 years of antiquity at high altitude demonstrate less intrauterine growth retardation and elevated arterial oxygen content which increases uterus-placental oxygen delivery during pregnancy (Moore et al., 2004; Wiley, 1994). The ability to sufficient deliver oxygen to the fetus and the fetus’ ability to incorporate the oxygen into its system is necessary for the offspring’s survival (Moore et al., 2004; Wiley, 1994).

It appears that a phenotype of high saturation of oxygen may exist among populations with antiquity in high altitude environments. For example, Bealls’ (2006, 2007) research has supported the hypothesis that the higher oxygen saturation allele might be favored by natural selection among Tibetans, but not Andean peoples. To test the hypothesis that high oxygen saturation genotypes have higher Darwinian fitness, Beall (2006, 2007) gathered genealogical, oxygen saturation, and female fertility data from 905 households in 14 villages at 3800-4200 masl in rural areas of the Tibet Autonomous Region and found that infants who were homozygous and heterogygous for oxygen saturation gentoypes had higher likelihood of surviving infancy (Beall 2006, 2007, 2014). This suggests that high-altitude hypoxia acts as an agent of natural selection on the heritable quantitative trait of oxygen saturation via the mechanism of higher infant survival of Tibetan women with high oxygen saturation genotypes (Beall et al., 2004; Beall, 2006, 2007, 2014).

In sum, there are evolutionary forces selected for increased oxygen saturation among Tibetan populations with the greatest antiquity in the Himalayas. Though Andean samples lacked the allele associated with this mechanism, it is possible that similar adaptive forces have been acting on the indigenous populations of the Andes.


Historic chroniclers found that indigenous Andean females maintained capacity to reproduce while Spanish colonists were reportedly unable to carry fetus to full term or experienced high infant mortality rates. Low oxygen environments may delay the onset of sexual maturation among Himalayan and Andean populations; however, menarcheal age is well within the range of variation worldwide. Whether or not socio-economic status impacts sexual maturity remains unclear. Overall, it appears to have no demographic consequence because marriage and sexual behaviors typical begin well after puberty between highland Himalaya and Andean populations. Studies documenting gamete formation and testosterone production have demonstrated that exposure to high altitudes negatively impact male reproductively abilities for a short period of time. Mechanisms of ovulation vary between highland and lowland females in both the Andes and Mongolia yet are well within the range of worldwide variation. At times, differential barometric pressures appear to impact female ovulation, but there appears to be no negative impact on female fertility. In fact, it appears that overall health and socioeconomic status may impact overall fertility among high altitude populations. Lower oxygen levels may be linked to lower birth rates among high altitude infants, yet there is no linear relation between altitude of residence and birth weight. In fact, better oxygenation during pregnancy appears to be an adaptation among women with greater ancestral antiquity in high altitudes. Low barometric pressure and cold temperatures are traits of high altitudes and are attributed to the high stillbirth and infant mortality rates. Infants born into populations with greater antiquity in the highlands, however, appear to be more likely to survive compared to infants born to recent immigrants to the highlands. Post-partum behaviors such as breast-feeding, abstinence, herb-inducing miscarriage, and rhythm method, indicate that females actively attempt to regulate reproduction and control birth spacing, thus actively attempt to control their fertility.Variation in age at menopause between highland and lowland populations may be due to hypoxic environments as well as poor living conditions and overall health. However, there appears to be little, if any, demographic impact on the earlier age of menopause among women in high altitudes.

The stressors associated with high-altitude environments impose severe, lifelong stress upon every resident regardless of age, sex, or individual characteristic. Populations living in high-altitude environments do not adapt behaviorally to create non-hypoxic microclimates, people must adapt biologically. In fact, genetic research is beginning to elucidate the how populations with the longest antiquity in high altitudes have certain genes that allow them to live, and thrive, in an otherwise physiological stressful environment.


High altitude environments appear to impact the reproductive physiology of males and females, yet individuals who have a longer ancestry at high altitude appear to have adapted to the low oxygen environments. While socioeconomic factors sometimes negatively impact fertility, it appears that high altitude ancestry appears to have a greater impact on reproductive success. Native populations with a long ancestry in high altitudes have fewer reproductive issues while those who have a mixed ancestry (e.g. Spanish verses Quechua or Aymara; Han Chinese verses Tibetans), are more likely to have issues with fertility. In sum, an examination of fertility in the Andes and Himalaya mountains illuminates complex relationship between proximate behaviors and dynamic evolutionary adaptations which together impact reproductive functioning in high altitude environments.

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