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People, Languages & Religions in Peru
 
 
 

People

According to the latest estimates, about 45% of the inhabitants are Amerindian, 37% Mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry), 15% White, and 3% Black, Asian, or other.

Of the 4-7 million Sierra Amerindians under Inca domination, fewer than one million were left when the first colonial census was taken in 1777. A failing food supply and new diseases, such as smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles, were lethal to the young. Despite continuing disease and poverty found among the Amerindians today, they have increased to more than eight million. The main groups are the Quechua- and Aymará-speaking tribes, but there are also some other small tribes in the highlands. Peru's lowland forest Amerindians were never subjugated by Incas or by Spaniards and continue to be fishermen, hunters and foragers. In the mid-1980s, at least 225,000 rainforest Indians were grouped in 37 tribes. A 20-year plan announced in 1968 called for the full social, economic and political integration of Peru's Amerindian population. Nevertheless, in the 1980s, sociocultural distinctions based on ethnic background were endemic to Peruvian society, with Whites (especially the Criollos, those of early Spanish descent) at the top of the hierarchy, Mestizos and Cholos (acculturated Amerindians) below them, and monolingual Quechua- or Aymará-speaking Amerindians at the bottom.

Small groups of Germans, Italians and Swiss are important in commerce, finance and industry. Chinese and Japanese operate small businesses, and some Japanese have been successful in agriculture.

Languages

Peru has two official languages – Spanish and the foremost indigenous language, Quechua. Spanish is used by the government and the media and in education and commerce. Amerindians who live in the Andean highlands speak Quechua and Aymara and are ethnically distinct from the diverse indigenous groups who live on the eastern side of the Andes and in the tropical lowlands adjacent to the Amazon basin.

Peru's distinct geographical regions are mirrored in a socio-economic divide between the coast's Mestizo-Hispanic culture and the more diverse, traditional Andean cultures of the mountains and highlands. The indigenous populations east of the Andes speak various languages and dialects. Some of these groups still adhere to traditional customs, while others have been almost completely assimilated into the Mestizo-Hispanic culture.

According to official sources, the use of Spanish has increased while the knowledge and use of indigenous languages has decreased considerably during the last four decades (1960-2000). At the beginning of the 1960s some 39% of the total Peruvian population were registered as speakers of indigenous languages, but by the 1990s the figures show a considerable decline in the use of Quechua, Aymara and other indigenous languages, when only 28% is registered as Quechua-speaking (16% of whom are reported to be bilingual in Spanish) and Spanish-speakers increased to 72%.

For 2005, government figures place Spanish as being spoken by 80.3% of the population, and is the language used by government, media, and in education and formal commerce. But among Amerindian languages another decrease is registered. Of the indigenous languages, Quechua remains the most spoken, and even today is used by some 16.2% of the total Peruvian population, or a third of Peru's total indigenous population. There has been an increasing and organised effort to teach Quechua in public schools in the areas where Quechua is spoken. The number of Aymara-speakers and other indigenous languages is placed at 3%, and foreign languages 0.2%.

The drastic decline in use and knowledge of indigenous languages is largely attributed to the recent demographic factors. The urbanisation and assimilation of Peru's Amerindian plurality into the Hispanic-Mestizo culture, as well as the new socioeconomic factors associated with class structure have given privilege to the use of Spanish at the expense of the Amerindian languages which were spoken by the majority of the population less than a century ago.

The major obstacle to a more widespread use of the Quechua language is the fact that multiple dialects of this language exist. Quechua, along with Aymara and the minor indigenous languages, was originally and remains essentially an oral language. Therefore, there is a lack of modern media which use it: for example books, newspapers, software, magazines, technical journals, etc. However, non-governmental organisations as well as state sponsored groups are involved in projects to edit and translate major works into the Quechua language; for instance, in late 2005 a superb version of Don Quixote was presented in Quechua.

The percentage of native speakers of Quechua who are illiterate has been decreasing lately, as 86.87% of the Peruvian population is literate. More encouraging, nationwide literacy rate of youth aged 15 to 24 years is 96.8%.


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