The Apple of the Amazon: an Ethnography of Pijuayo
by Robin Van Loon, Executive Director of Camino Verde
Ch'unchus in the Highlands
Every year in the high Andes of Peru, tens of thousands of pilgrims walk a cold stony trail to the base of one of the region's many glaciers. Some go barefoot, while others crawl on hands and knees in penance to a miraculous apparition housed in an isolated chapel.
The destination of the pilgrims’ sojourn sits at 4,200 meters (14,000 feet) above sea level. The Lord of Qoyllorit'i is an image of Christ that appeared on a boulder that was previously the site of reverent pre-Columbian rituals of a mountain-honoring nature. The Qoyllorit’i shrine’s feast day attracts devotees who seek cures for the incurable, blessings for marriages and baptisms, and auspicious signs of good fortune in the coming year.
But many of the pilgrims simply come to dance.
Donning elaborate outfits and masks, adorned with parrot feathers, colorful cloth and talismans of various kinds, the dance troops at Qoyllorit’i form an unbroken lineage with those who have paid homage to this shrine for hundreds of years or more. Their ritual dances are rooted in myth.
Andean legend passed down as oral history describes how an ancient race of giants was wiped out with the coming of the Inkas, an event described symbolically as the first ever dawning of the sun. Before that there was a pre-Inka race of giants called ñawpa runa (ancient people) or machukuna (old ones), names that inspired reverence and fear. We are told the old ones were worshipped by the humans of those distant times but were considered moody and dangerous, fierce and sometimes unjust rulers who nonetheless possessed god-like spiritual power.
The arrival of the Inkas (who claimed to trace their bloodline to the sun itself) ostensibly marked the beginning of human – and humane – rule. At the time of the first dawning of the sun, many of the old giants realized their reign was over and fled to hiding places where the light could not reach them. Others capriciously stood their ground and were turned to stone on the spot by the sun’s rays — hence the Andean identification of strangely shaped boulders with local divinities called huacas.
The hiding places chosen by the giants that fled from the sun were in themselves sites of reverence – the highest glaciers and mountaintops, still called apu (lord) to this day in many parts of Quechua-speaking Peru; and the lowland forests far below the final flanks of the Andes to the east, shrouded in mystery and seen by some pre-hispanic Andeans as a repository of magic. Those legendary giants who successfully slipped into the jungle were called ch'unchus, a name still frequently used by present day Andeans in reference to Amazonian people.
The Dance of the Ch’unchos
Legend has it that one particular giant, a powerful but fair lord, was making his escape to the peak of Sinak'ara, belonging to the Qolqepunku glacier in whose shadow now sits the chapel of the Lord of Qoyllorit'i. Out of loyalty to their master, the giant's human subjects followed him en masse to beg him to stay among them. Knowing that he would be turned to stone, the giant agreed to stay if the people would make him one promise: that each year they come dressed as ch'unchus to dance before him. One tradition states that the annual festivities at Qoyllorit'i do not begin until the ch'unchus from the nearby town of Paucartambo dance the first dance.
The image is a tender one: the giant's request was that the people join him in celebration, assuming the appearance of his peers who had escaped to the forests below. Each year, the people come to fulfill that pact. They come in groups called comparsas, dance troops, often representing a specific group or traditional guild. Troops of high tundra-dwelling llama herders line up to dance behind troops dressed in satire as corrupt urban officials swilling alcohol. Some costumes include long white sleeves in representation of wallatas, the gull-like birds of the highland lagoons.
Other dancers are the religious event's equivalent of police, dressed in a guise that has been interpreted as Andean spectacled bears or perhaps young alpacas, there to enforce the ceremony's rules and to carry out the sacred task of marching up into the glacial ice fields. Many elements of the Andean cosmovision are included: colorful devils or saqra move in hypnotic synchronization as troops of women in tall hats perform a dance meant among other things to demonstrate marriageability. There are even dancers who dress in a kind of black face as Africans. The sad, slow song of the Qhapaq Negros is a sympathetic homage to the Spaniard's imported slaves who in some sense shared the fate as the conquest-era Andeans.
But the most vital dance troops of all are the ch'unchus, whose role it is to begin the celebration. At Qoyllorit'i, dance is an offering made to a divinity, once a stone-encased giant and now a mysterious image of Christ appearing upon the same boulder. There is joy but also great solemnity in the dancing, and in no dance is this more evident than in that of the ch'unchus. Bamboo flutes blow out a simple repeating melody and rawhide drums tap a festive Amazonian rhythm while dancers move in graceful loping skips.
There are several kinds of ch'unchu dancers – the wayri ch'unchus, the q’ara ch’unchos (warriors), and the qhapaq ch'unchus (representing nobility). The wayri ch'unchus are the favorites of the petrified giant and are the first to dance. They are dressed in representation of Amazonian natives and have parrot feathers rising from their heads. The qhapaq ch'unchus look comparatively regal in colorful, silky garb and with long brilliant macaw tail feathers standing straight up from their heads as a sign of nobility.
Each carries in his hand a long, sturdy staff. As the dancers weave between each other in looping patterns they hit each other's staffs with a resounding crack. In keeping with tradition, the staffs are made of chonta, a kind of wood from the jungle. If asked, many dancers are unaware that this same chonta was used frequently by their Inka ancestors. Little do they know that year after year they dance with the wood of a tree that could in a sense be called the apple of the Amazon: pijuayo, or Bactris gasipaes, known in English as the peach palm.
The Trees of the Rising Sun
Some believe the Inkas maintained a kind of obsession with entering the rainforests to the east of their Andean domain. The jungles to them were the realm of the antis, fierce tribes who took their collective name from their location within the Inka landscape. Anti is the rising sun, the sun at dawn and in the early morning, the eastern sun. The Amazonians or antis were thus essentially the people of the rising sun, so-called not simply because of their physical location to the east, but also due to the highland perception that the sun rose each morning out of the blanket of green and mist that is the Amazon. To this day, an annual festival at the overlook point of Tres Cruces near Paucartambo bears witness to the solar emergence from out of the jungle's depths.
For a people who worshipped the sun, claiming themselves as his children as the Inka reportedly did, the fact of the solar orb's daily rise from the forests was enough to sanctify that landscape.
But the Inkas' fascination with the rainforest extended beyond the symbolic. The Amazon provided an enormous variety of products that were otherwise unavailable to the highlanders. Coca, often called the divine leaf of the Inkas, is thought to have originated at the intersection of Andes and Amazon. Important foods such as fruit trees and cassava (manioc) were traded with the people of the high sierra for thousands of years before the appearance of the Inkas. The sixteenth century chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega describes talkative parrots kept as pets in Inka Cusco, a city at 3,300 meters (11,000 feet) above sea level. Jungle goods formed an important part of what might be called the religious economy: items whose use was largely ceremonial, including the feathers and staffs that we have seen carried down into our own times.
In reality the Inkas were the enthusiastic inheritors of a long lineage of exchange between the high sierra and the lowland rainforests. At Chavin de Huantar, the central temple of one of the Andes' oldest cultures, stone monoliths are carved with decidedly Amazonian motifs: harpy eagles and caimans mingle in hallucinatory congregation with manioc and peanut plants, and this at an altitude where none of these plants and animals are found. The highland perception of the rainforest as a source of spiritual power is a theme that endures today. Even as far away as the Peruvian coast, certain ruins feature prominent portrayals of the Amazonian jaguar.
Legends abound in reference to the Inkas' intentions to enter the rainforest. One story has the Inka emperor Wayna Qhapaq sending an army of thousands of soldiers to bring back a mated pair of boa constrictors and a pair of jaguars. Another tale tells of the defeat of the Andean conquerors under fire from swift arrows and silent, poisonous blow-darts. Other chronicles attest to the presence of jungle sorcerers of the antis tribes kept on as valued spiritual advisors in the Inka court. And, in the days of written record, during the Spanish conquest the Inkas staged a legendary retreat into the forests of their final refuge at Vilcabamba near Machu Picchu.
Perhaps the most widely-known story of the Inkas' symbolic connection with the Amazon is the mythic account of Paititi, the city of gold that may have been the original El Dorado of the Spanish conquistadors' imagination. Even contemporary Andean villagers suggest that Paititi may be just around the corner, just hidden in the cover of the next valley over, a place of spiritual significance in which the descendants of the final Inkas are said to dwell to this day. Several of Pizarro's original Spanish invaders were lured into the forest by tales of a king who was painted from head to toe in pure gold dust every day. This king's bathing pool was the subject of great excitement: years of rinsed-off gold dust would be caked in the water.
Yet we need not comb the annals of myth and lore to understand the profound influence of the Amazon on the psyche and culture of Andean people. It is well-recorded by Spanish and indigenous chroniclers alike that of all the important members of the extensive highland pantheon of gods and spirits, the tree maintained a unique position of wonder and awe.
In the Quechua language, a single word – mallki – was used to signify both tree and mummy. Embalming was a high science in the Andes. Past Inka rulers in mummified form were treated with much of the same pomp and deference as their living counterparts. Lands held in the name of Inka mummies were maintained by their extended families, and each new Inka had to build a new palace, so as not to infringe on the holdings of his predecessors. Some historians argue that the mummies' ownership of extensive territories was a primary factor in the Inkas' rapid expansion: a ruler would have to conquer new lands to have anywhere to put his own name.
Theologically, the mummies may have been understood as living ancestors, a bridge between the incarnate and the beyond, founts of supernatural power and otherworldly wisdom. These same traits could be used to describe the position of the tree in the Andean religious cosmos. Though the Andes were extensively forested before the arrival of the Spanish, there were simply no highland trees that matched the size and majesty of their Amazonian relatives.
It is curious to note that among trees, the Inkas considered the palms to be some of the holiest. Curious because of the parallels to holy palm fronds in Old World religious traditions. Curious also because the Andes were rather poor in palm species. The Amazonian lowlands on the other hand were and are a dramatic showcase of the family known to modern botanists as Arecaceae. Palms abound in the rainforests, both in the vast number of species and in their importance within the forest structure. In a mega-diverse landscape that abhors a monoculture, extensive areas of Amazonia are dominated exclusively by palms. There are practically no Amazonian forest types where palms are absent.
Anyone who has walked in a tropical forest knows that palms are present everywhere. Yet the importance of palms as economic mainstays would have been equally apparent to ancestral native people. The Andean highlanders happily utilize local grasses for roof thatching. Their Amazonian contemporaries have always preferred palm fronds. In fact, many forest-dwelling cultures of South America continue to build their dwellings out of nothing but palms – trunks for posts, floor, and walls, leaves for roof material. Many palm woods are remarkably hard and resilient. And of these palm timbers there is none to rival that which comes from the tree known rather unimpressively in English as the peach palm.
Wood vs. Chonta
In the Peruvian Amazon, many jungle dwellers are reluctant to call palms “trees.” They are a category of plants unto themselves. And as would logically follow, the timber of palms is not called wood. Trees provide wood. Palms provide chonta. Many species of palms provide useful timbers – pona (Iriartea deltoidea and Dictyocaryum lamarckianum) trunks are split open longitudinally to form mats used as flooring. The slats of huasaí (Euterpe precatoria, the Peruvian version of the more famous Brazilian açaí) are a durable material for walls. Sturdy posts made from the impressive aerial roots and trunk of the walking palm (Cashapona or Socratea exorrhiza) were once a favorite building material among natives and rubber tappers in the Brazilian state of Acre. Palm timbers are ever-available, quick to prepare for use, with a remarkable ease for longitudinal splitting and extraordinary strength perpendicular to the grain.
Drawing parallels, the palm equivalent to wood's grain is the chonta's fiber. Palms can be likened to bundles of vertical cords running the length of the trunk, hence the ease in splitting lengthwise, and the difficulty in breaking across the grain. No Amazonian palm possesses quite the same kind of density and toughness as the species known to botanists as Bactris gasipaes – or pijuayo, as the peach palm is known throughout Peru. Bows, arrows, and spears are all fashioned from the shiny black chonta of this species, as are the ceremonial staffs of the ch’unchus, those dancing descendants of the Inkas at Qoyllorit’i.
The strength of chonta de pijuayo is the stuff of legend. These tall-growing palms are thought to "pull" lightning, and the charred, still standing remains of many tall peach palms confirm this observation. Its usefulness for basic tools and weapons made this species an obvious candidate for early domestication, and in fact it is thought to be one of the first trees bred by humans in the Americas. Yet it was not only for the amazing chonta that pijuayo caught the interest of ancient Amazonians. In a forest of abundant providers, palms are outstanding in their production of extraordinary quantities of fruit. A tree of many gifts, pijuayo was also planted early on for its value as an important edible staple crop.
The Apple of the Amazon
Pijuayo’s English name, peach palm, is misleading for several reasons. First, the peach palm is unlike a peach in that its starchy, oily fruits are not soft, perfumey, or sweet – and are boiled before consumption. Second, the size and shape of peach palm fruits varies greatly but rarely resembles the shape or size of a peach. From grape-sized, high oil content wild varieties to large, potato-sized starchy fruits slightly cone-like in shape, variability of the fruit is one of the hallmarks of pijuayo.
Variability for example in colors. Red and yellow are the main varieties. Then less commonly orange, and even red with white striations striping the fruit and called “Peruvian flag.”
What’s eaten is the pulp of the fruit, in between the bright-colored peel that’s removed and a hard pit. The pulp of yellow fruits is usually a pale, potato-like color. Red fruits can have egg-yolk yellow or bright red-orange flesh. This pulp is eaten as fruit in hand, sometimes with salt or hot pepper concoctions; it tastes like corn on the cob, a potato, or squash, and has an oily taste reminiscent of unrefined red palm oil. In the other most common form on consumption, the pulp is mashed up and made into a thick, mildly fermented beverage called chicha or masato de pijuayo, which often has sugar added and a sour tang. While not traditional, the peeled, pitted fruits can also be used effectively in soup not unlike cream of squash or in salads and stir fries.
In all the various sizes and colors of fruit, the seed or pit within the fruit is roughly the same size and has certain peculiarities to it. First, it’s edible. You have to crunch through a hard outer layer, but inside the seed is a sweet, milky kernel that’s delicious, similar a tiny coconut. It’s another source of food apart from the fruit pulp.
The second curious thing about the seed is that it looks like a tiny skull. There are two small dimples spaced like eye sockets in the pit’s shell. The similarity gives rise to mythic stories about how the first pijuayo grew from where the skull of an enchanted young man was buried. It shouldn’t surprise us that there are colorful stories about this tree. It was after all clearly one of the most important domesticated crops in the impressive agricultural heritage of the Amazon. And indigenous cultures perceive special value in their staple crops, as at Chavin de Hauntar.
Some modern tribes continue to observe taboos that perhaps were widely held among the millions of Amazonians alive in 1492. For example, there are taboos that prohibit the hunting of macaws in the time of fruiting of pijuayo. Macaws nest and mate during this season, and macaws can be pests pecking at the unripe fruits. As such, perhaps the prohibition was a needed one to keep the ecologically significant macaw populations robust.
These are trees that feed many. In addition to the parrots, monkeys and other tree-dwelling mammals nab fruits right from the trunk. Fallen fruits are food for many species of rodents and peccaries, the wild pigs of the Neotropics.
Like many palms, pijuayo is an extraordinary producer. Fruits are clustered on bracts called racemes, bundles of rope-like strands dangled heavy, as each raceme carries dozens of fruits. A single trunk of pijuayo can hold up to sixteen racemes. And this is a clumping palm, meaning that it is possible to have as many as four producing stalks to a clump. When pijuayo is in season, this productivity is noticed by the forest – and utilized. Mega-abundant fruiting was surely one of the reasons pijuayo was selected as an early species for domestication. People, like other animals, came to rely on pijuayo as an important food source.
But the fruit and its seeds aren’t the only sources of food from this remarkable plant. Its growth bud is also a sort of cabbage.
A Palm’s Heart
Many non-tropical people have trouble imagining what part of the plant exactly is the so-called heart of palm, best known to many as the protagonist of brine-filled cans or jars. Some erroneously imagine a column of soft flesh running up the interior of the entire trunk of the palm. In reality, the heart of palm or palm cabbage – most commonly called chonta or palmito in Peru – comes from the growth bud of the palm, the place where new leaves emerge at the top of the trunk.
In the area between where the uppermost “neck” of the hard trunk of a palm ends – and below where its leaves shoot out to the sides – is a green-sheathed cylinder from which new leaves and racemes of flowers and fruits emerge. This green cylinder just so happens to be the largest growth bud of any plant in the world.
To be clear, the top ranking is applied to the growth buds of palms and not to the species, peach palm, in particular. Worthy of note is that almost all Amazonian palms have edible palmito, though taboo and ease of harvest are strong determinants in deciding which species are utilized and which are spared. Because of the wide scale of cultivation, much of the heart of palm on the market comes from those clumping palms whose fruits are economically signficant.
B. gasipaes (peach palm) and Euterpe oleracea (açaí) are probably the most important species in the Latin American heart of palm industry. At present, something similar unfortunately cannot be said for peach palm’s delicious, oily seeds.
Not a Peach, Not an Apple
Calling pijuayo the peach palm is an obvious misnomer because pijuayo bears little resemblance to the peach. Calling pijuayo the apple of the Amazon is also a limited comparison deserving caveats. There are several ways in which pijuayo is very unlike an apple. Most apparently, in botanical terms pijuayo is a member of the palm family Arecaceae while apple is a tree’s tree from the family Rosaceae. In other words, no botanical relation. No less importantly, the apple’s wide distribution and success as an eating fruit has been based on its sweet taste – nothing like the starchy, oily taste and dietary value of pijuayo.
To complete this roundup of the most important differences between the species, the ethnography of each fruit and the history of cultivation is also very much of interest. While it is clear that pijuayo has been grown, selected, and transported to new growing locations by humans for at least several thousand years, the propagation of this palm has always been seed-based. The genetic selection performed by humans undoubtedly helped emphasize attractive features (like tastier fruits or lack of spines on the trunk and leaves), but this was over a period of many hundreds of plant generations.
On the other hand, for thousands of years the selection and propagation of apples as we know them has relied on grafting. It is forgivable to believe that grafting is a modern plant propagation technique, but in fact we have clear documentation showing that the ancient Chinese and Greeks knew all about it. With a variety of tree species including apple, clones are taken in the form of twigs or budwood from the best producing or most delicious-fruiting trees and from there grafted onto rootstock – meaning plants from sprouted seed selected for hardiness and disease-resistance.
For almost any fruit, grafting can provide a variety of benefits to the farmer: precocious production, because the budwood is vegetative tissue from a mature branch, not from a young sapling; for the same reason, trees stay smaller making harvest easier; and varieties that normally would not grow well in a region can be helped via hardy rootstock to tolerate unfamiliar soil conditions, climate, or pathogens. This can allow the grower to produce a greater range of varieties, diversifying market crop or family nutrition and potentially lengthening the growing season.
But an additional benefit of grafting or other clonal forms of propagation is that it ensures that new trees are genetically identical to the parents. Curiously and significantly, part of the reason why grafting is so important in the case of the apple is because of its exceptionally diverse genome. Normal sexual reproduction involving the trading of pollen by trees – or even via the “inbreeding” of a tree with itself – will most likely produce fruits that are completely unlike the predecessor. In other words, planting an apple seed gives little or no promise of a tree producing similar fruit to the one from which the seed was plucked.
This means that all true Granny Smith apples are clones of one original apple tree. Despite millennia of propagation of pijuayo over a vast geographical region, you cannot make similar claims about the history of its cultivation.
In many traditional and indigenous cultures in the Peruvian Amazon it is common to revere the pijuayo as a sacred plant. The resemblance of the seeds to small skulls is presumably not taken lightly – especially since this is such a unique feature in such a diverse forest. In fact, in some native communities the fable that explains why the seeds look like skulls is a high drama involving people who are selected by spirits and can converse with animals. The original skull planted, resulting in the very first pijuayo plant, was of a young man who was “chosen” by the Anaconda, probably the most spiritually significant animal in the Amazon for many communities. The fact that the peach palm “draws” lightening is also ostensibly not insignificant.
In a way that may seem to test Western ideas regarding the sacred and the profane, pijuayo is a plant that appears in Amazonian daily life in a variety of ways (as food, as tools, as bow and arrow) but is also considered sacred. The madre or mother (i.e., spirit) of the plant is often described as powerful.
Of course the human understanding of staple food crops as sacred plants is nothing new. The mentioned example of Chavín de Huantar (with its carved representations of peanuts and cassava) dates back thousands of years. Corn was (and is) revered in Mexico. It is almost more sensible to argue for the near-universality of this principle of staple foods as sacred rather than to continue naming examples.
Certainly the development of what we now call Western priorities and sensibilities over the last millennia (but especially in the last 500 years) has distanced many of us from concepts of common food crops as sacred, as carriers of a rich interior or spiritual life to which humans may achieve access. But that certainly was not the case until recently, and we do not have to look far for a relevant example in the Western world.
We only have to look to the apple – a sacred plant that is surely significant as the first botanical species mentioned in the book upon which Western civilization as we now know it was founded. Though the story of Adam and Eve may not have been related to an apple at all (as some researchers posit), for Westerners reading the Bible closely, the apple is observed as having moral and spiritual significance. Perhaps modern culture no longer emphasizes these mysterious attributes of plants – but this may be more a statement about our era’s unique cultural trajectory than about our cultural roots, which seemingly spring from the same, nearly universal soil.
For the ch’unchus dancing at the foot of tropical glaciers with macaw feather headdresses, there can be no substitute for pijuayo as they crack their staffs together in homage to an ancient god. For the “mayors” of Andean communities carrying silver-adorned chonta sceptres wrought from this jungle palm, there can be no substitute for pijuayo. And for the Amazonian people – indigenous and not, that see this fruit as a source of fruit and of game hunted or fished by arrow or lance – there can be no substitute for pijuayo. And so, as with other sacred plants, this special palm finds its way into the day to day – until we can no longer imagine life here without it.