History of the Inca Empire

[ Latin American Studies ]

History of the Inca Empire

An Account of the Indians' Customs and Their Origin, Together with a Treatise on Inca Legends, History, and Social Institutions

By Bernabe Cobo

A seventeenth-century account of Inca history and customs.



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6 x 9 | 279 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-73025-0

The Historia del Nuevo Mundo, set down by Father Bernabe Cobo during the first half of the seventeenth century, represents a singulary valuable source on Inca culture. Working directly frorn the original document, Roland Hamilton has translated that part of Cobo's massive manuscripts that focuses on the history of the kingdom of Peru. The volume includes a general account of the aspect, character, and dress of the Indians as well as a superb treatise on the Incas—their legends, history, and social institutions.

  • Foreword by John Howland Rowe
  • Introduction
  • A Scientific Outlook of the Seventeenth Century
  • A Note on the Translation
  • Book I
    • 1. Concerning the sparse population of America and its causes
    • 2. Of the names which were given to the natives of the Indies and of their color
    • 3. Of the physical make-up, body proportions, and facial features of the Indians
    • 4. Of the natural make-up of the Indians
    • 5. Of the extreme ignorance and barbarity of the Indians
    • 6. Of the usages that the Indians have regarding their individual houses, clothing, and sustenance
    • 7. Of the most general customs common to all of the Indians
    • 8. In which the same topic is continued
    • 9. Of the many languages used by the various nations of Indians, and how these all seem to have a common origin
    • 10. In which all the Indian nations are divided into three categories
    • 11. On the origin of these peoples of America
    • 12. In which the same is continued
    • 13. How the animals and birds that we find here must have come to this land
    • 14. In which the same topic is continued
    • 15. In which is given the opinion of those who place within these Occidental Indies the region called Ophir in the Divine Scriptures, to which the ships of Solomon navigated
    • 16. In which the proposed opinion is refuted
    • 17. Of another argument with which the same thing is proven as in the last chapter
    • 18. The same thing is proven with other evidence
    • 19. The same subject is continued
    • 20. In which the arguments of the opposing opinion are answered and the location of Ophir is established
  • Book II
    • 1. Of the former inhabitants of Peru before the Incas reigned
    • 2. Of the efforts that have been made several times to ascertain the true history of the Incas and the rites and customs of their republic
    • 3. Of the legendary origin of the Incas, former kings of Peru
    • 4. Of Manco Capac, the first king of the Incas
    • 5. Of the second Inca, named Cinchi Roca
    • 6. Of Lloque Yupanqui, the third Inca
    • 7. Of Mayta Capac, fourth king of the Incas
    • 8. Of the Inca Capac Yupanqui, fifth king of Peru
    • 9. Of the sixth king of Peru, named Inca Roca
    • 10. Of Yahuar Huacac Inca Yupanqui, the seventh king
    • 11. Of Viracocha Inca, eighth king
    • 12. Of Pachacutic Inca Yupanqui, ninth king
    • 13. Of the rest of Pachacutic's victories
    • 14. Of Tupa Inca Yupanqui, the tenth king
    • 15. Of the rest of the events in the life of Tupa Inca Yupanqui
    • 16. Of Guayna Capac, the last king of the Incas
    • 17. In which the deeds of Guayna Capac are continued
    • 18. Of the Inca brothers Huascar and Atauhualpa
    • 19. Of the rest of the things that happened in this war
    • 20. Of the rest of the Incas, sons of Guayna Capac who had the king's fringe
    • 21. Of the sons of Manco Inca who maintained the title of king in Vilcabamba
    • 22. Of the name and locality occupied by the Kingdom of the Incas, and how these kings came to rule so many people and provinces
    • 23. How the Incas administered newly conquered lands by putting in these lands outsiders whom they called mitimaes, and the types there were of them
    • 24. How the Incas organized the people that they subjugated into towns, and the way they arranged the towns
    • 25. Of the governors, caciques, and other superiors to whom the Incas delegated the governance of their states
    • 26. Of the laws and punishments with which the Incas governed their kingdom
    • 27. Of the distinction between nobles and taxpayers that there was in this kingdom, and of the way that the latter had of
    • paying tribute, and the way the king paid salaries to his ministers and rewarded his vassals for the services that they rendered to him
    • 28. Of the division that the Inca made of the farmlands, and of the estate and rents that the Inca and Religion received from them
    • 29. Of the order in which the domesticated livestock was distributed, and the income that the Inca and Religion received in livestock and in clothing from its wool; and how the hunting grounds and woods were royal patrimony
    • 30. Of the storehouses belonging to the Inca and to Religion, the goods that were collected in them, and how these goods were used
    • 31. Of the roads that the Incas made throughout their kingdom and the labor service that was provided by the provinces to repair them
    • 32. Of the tambos and chasques and the tribute that the Indians gave in providing the labor service for them
    • 33. Of the rest of the tribute that the Indians paid their king in personal services
    • 34. Of the tribute of boys and girls that the Inca collected from his vassals and for what purposes they were used
    • 35. Of the control and great power that the Incas had gained over their vassals, and the fear and reverence with which the vassals obeyed and served the Incas
    • 36. Of the order they followed in installing the Inca, the royal insignias, and the Inca's great majesty and splendor
    • 37. Of their computation of time, of the quipos or recording devices, and the method of counting that the Peruvian Indians had
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Bernabe Cobo (1580-1657) became one of the New World's outstanding historians. Born in southern Spain, he spent a year on Hispaniola before continuing on to Peru in 1599. He was to remain in Peru for the rest of his life, except for a trip to New Spain between 1629 and 1642. Cobo was educated as a Jesuit and did extensive missionary work with the Peruvian Indians at intervals from 1609 through 1629. During his sojourn in New Spain and thereafter in Peru, he spent much of his time in the capital cities of Mexico and Lima doing research in archives and libraries for his monumental Historia del Nuevo Mundo, which he finally completed in 1653.

In the prologue to the Historia, Father Cobo explains that his work contains forty-three books divided into three parts; the first part deals with pre-Columbian America, the second with the discovery and conquest of the West Indies and South America, and the third with New Spain. Unfortunately, most of the Historia has been lost; what remains is only the first part, composed of fourteen books, plus three books from the second part concerning the foundation of Lima. The loss of such a large portion of Cobo's Historia is not as regrettable as it may seem because, for contemporary scholars, the account of pre-Columbian Peru is his most important piece of scholarship. He collected a vast amount of material in Peru. This includes the judicious use of the best written sources on the Incas, which Cobo tells us he confirmed through interviews with the descendants of the royal Inca lineage in Cuzco around 1610. Cobo also took careful note of the customs of the plebeian Indians with whom he did his missionary work. This mass was then organized into the most comprehensive and lucid study of its kind. As the eminent Peruvianist John H. Rowe so aptly put it, Cobo's account "is so clear in its phrasing and scientific in its approach that it is pleasant as well as profitable to work with."

The manuscripts of the Historia found their way to Seville, where they remained unnoticed until around 1790, when Juan Bautista Muñoz had copies made for his collection in Madrid. Muñoz's research assistants used two separate manuscripts; one was a large volume containing the ten books from the first part which deal with natural history; the other had the three books on the foundation of Lima. Today the holograph manuscripts for these two volumes are housed in the Biblioteca Universitaria de Sevilla, identified respectively as MSS. 331-2 and MSS. 332-33.

There is a third manuscript including Books 11-14 of the first part; this volume, dealing mainly with pre-Columbian Peru, is located in the Biblioteca Capitular y Colombina de Sevilla; for the sake of brevity, I will refer to it as the Colombina-Cobo MS. It does not bear the author's signature, and it has never been adequately described. The first sign of it came in 1892-1893, when the contents were published by Marcos Jiménez de la Espada, but he made no reference to the manuscript. This was done by Philip A. Means: "The original manuscript, holograph, is in the Muñoz collection in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid." Although Means is a very trustworthy scholar, in this case he made the mistake of using González de la Rosa (see note 1) instead of inspecting the primary sources in Spain. I have personally studied the manuscripts for Cobo's works in the Muñoz collection in Madrid. These are only the copies made around 1790, and they are in the Biblioteca del Palacio Real. Moreover, this collection does not even include a copy of the Colombina-Cobo MS.

The only scholar to identify the Colombina-Cobo MS. Was R. Vargas Ugarte; under the heading "Biblioteca Colombina—Sevilla," he states as follows: "416.-MSS. 83-3-36. 1 vol. en 4.0 encuad. en pergamino, 363 pág. n. Al dorso: Historia del Nuevo Mundo. 2 p.p. 1 Historia del Nuevo Mundo, la. Parte. Libro Undécimo. Cap. 1 Que la América estaba poco poblada y por qué causas. Comprende hasta el Libro Decimocuarto, inclusive. Escrito todo de una misma mano. Origl. Se trata, como el lector habrá advertido, de la obra del P. Bernabé Cobo..." The only error here is the call number. When I visited the Biblioteca Colombina in 1974, the call number was 83-4-24. It should also be noted that this text is done in a clear and careful style of handwriting which makes it easy to work with.

Later scholars who have used Vargas Ugarte have either been noncommittal or have not accepted his identification of the Colombina-Cobo MS. as the original. Porras Barrenechea does not say whether the Colombina- Cobo MS. is original or not, and Francisco Mateos indicates that the originals are missing. In order to remove all doubts about the matter, I have made a comparison of the three surviving letters signed by Cobo and the Colombina-Cobo MS. All of the letters were written in New Spain. The first is dated 7 de Março de 1630 in La Puebla; the second, 21 de Junio de 1633 in Mexico; both of these letters, reports of Cobo's trip through New Spain to members of the Jesuit Society in Peru, are now in the Biblioteca Nacional de Lima. The third letter, dated in 1639, was written in an effort to get the Historia published in Seville; it is in the Biblioteca Universitaria de Sevilla. I have studied the entire text of the Colombina-Cobo MS. as well as the known handwriting and signatures of Cobo as found in the aforementioned letters. I have paid particular attention to the proportional size, spacing, and slant of the letters as well as the use of upper- and lower-case letters and the lack of abbreviations. There is no question that the Colombina-Cobo MS. is the original holograph.

Now that the manuscripts have been identified, it must be pointed out that none of the originals were used for the publication of Cobo's works. The botanist D. Antonio Josef Cavanilles did the first publication of parts of the Historia. He used the Muñoz copies for an article that came out in 1804. The scientific accuracy of Cobo's descriptions of New World flora was illustrated with extensive quotations. As a botanist, Cobo was far ahead of his time, but even by the latest scientific standards of the early nineteenth century, his practical approach, with special emphasis on medicinal plants, was more valuable for ethnobotany than for natural science.

Next, M. González de la Rosa published the Historia de la Fundación de Lima in 1882, using a copy found in the Biblioteca Colombina. It is unfortunate that he did not find the original, also in Seville. This work remains an important source of information on early colonial Lima because many of the documents that were used have now disappeared and Cobo is an original source for events in Lima during the first half of the seventeenth century.

Finally, between the years 1890 and 1893, Marcos Jiménez de la Espada published all fourteen books of the first part of the Historia. Unfortunately Jiménez de la Espada died before finishing the introduction, and he never told which manuscripts he used for this edition. However, since he was working in Madrid, he probably used the Muñoz copies for Books 1-10, and, although it has been assumed that he used the Colombina-Cobo MS. for Books 11-14, I have found evidence that he had a copy that now seems to have disappeared with the notes for the introduction. The fact that a copy was made is borne out by a number of emendations and omissions. For example, the Colombina-Cobo MS., f. 66, v., reads "vilcas," but the printed editions read "Vilgas" [Vilcas] (BAE, 92: 53); the Colombina-Cobo MS., f. 117, v., reads "Collatupa," the printed editions have "CoyaTupa," and note 17 says "Probablemente Colla-Tupa o Tupac" (p. 9o). The Colombino-Cobo MS., f. 134, r., reads "unbuhio"; the printed editions have "bujio" [buhio] (p. 102). Furthermore, the Colombina-Cobo MS., f. 49, r., reads "y de los animales peregrinos, y estraños que vemos en algunas islas, como no quedo casta en otras partes?" This whole passage was omitted (p. 40). Other examples of omissions are found in the following places: Colombina-Cobo MS., f. 50, v. (p. 4r); f. 76, r. (p. 59); f. 177, r. (p. 134). The list could be extended, but this is sufficient; no doubt these emendations and omissions were based on the shortcomings of a copy made for Jiménez de la Espada.

In fine, the manuscripts of the Historia, all located in Seville, are in excellent condition. Nevertheless, all published editions are based on imperfect copies. Therefore, new editions, based on the holograph MSS., are urgently needed, especially for the account of pre-Columbian Peru contained in the Colombina-Cobo MS.

I will begin the treatise concerning the nature and characteristics of the Indians who inhabit America by explaining why the first Spaniards who came here found such a small number of them. Certainly, if all this fourth part of the universe, which is so expansive, were as densely populated as any region of Europe, no monarch of past centuries would have been as powerful as our King of Spain. In fact, no one is shown on historical records to have possessed such a large portion of the world. But since the number of people that inhabited it was so small, and since the number it has at the present time is even smaller in proportion to its size, this empire turns out to be less impressive than is indicated by its immense boundaries, which extend from pole to pole. Though it is true that some provinces were found to be more densely populated, such as the province of Mexico in North America, and in South America the provinces of Santa Fe de Bogota in the New Kingdom of Granada, those of Cuzco and Quito in Peru, Chile, and some others, nevertheless, the sparsely populated and nearly unpopulated ones were more numerous. This circumstance cannot be attributed to a recent settlement of these lands; rather, based on the evidence which I have observed and considered, it may be concluded that America was populated before the Flood. As will be demonstrated, there are some traces and ruins of towns of so strange a kind that they permit no less an estimate of antiquity. And there is clear evidence that resettlement started many centuries ago.

In order to remove whatever doubt might arise as to how a land so extensive, rich, and fertile as this could be so sparsely populated, even though it has become famous throughout the world for so many great and marvelous things, I will explain here the causes of its sparse population; my conclusions are based on observations made during the more than fifty years that I have lived here.

The first and most general cause is the lack of water; the problem affects extensive parts of the New World. In some places it never rains, in others there is not enough rain for cultivation; and in both instances either there are no rivers or not enough water for irrigation. For example, on the coast of Peru it does not rain and there are only a few rivers in comparison to the large amount of fertile land which could be planted if there were plenty of water. The plains of the coast extend from north to south for more than six hundred leagues and are from ten to fifty leagues wide. Because of the lack of water, not a twentieth of this large stretch of land is productive. Here there are many unpopulated areas extending for twenty, thirty, and up to fifty leagues which lack even enough water for foot travelers to drink, as can be seen in the provinces of Piura and Atacama; so the Indians did not settle in these plains except on the river banks, and the rest was devoid of man or beast. In the inland areas of this same Kingdom of Peru, we also find large stretches of land which, though not totally useless like the land of the plains, are almost as uninhabitable. Here it rains sometimes during the year, but not enough for crops. A lot of it is not inhabited either for lack of rivers to irrigate or because it is very broken and the mountains are too rugged for irrigation ditches. In spite of all this, it produces grasses and firewood with the few rains that it receives; thus it is not completely unutilized.

The second cause, which is almost as general as the first, is the excess of water which other lands have; this also makes them uninhabitable. These waters are distributed among lakes, rivers, estu aries, marshes, and swamps. The lakes occupy large areas because, in addition to those that are famous for their unusual largeness, such as the Lakes of Chucuito [Titicaca], Paria [Poopo], Lipes [Coipasa], Maracaibo, and others which are found in New Spain, there are innumerable other smaller and lesser-known ones which are from eight to fifteen or twenty leagues around; if it were not under water, the ground covered by these lakes would be sufficient to support large cities and provinces. Large rivers which spread across this land cover just as much ground. Some of these rivers run over six hundred and even a thousand leagues from the beginning of the flood plain to where they empty into the sea; for this entire distance they are one, four, ten, twenty, forty, and up to fifty leagues wide. Apart from the large amount of ground which the riverbeds occupy, the rivers cover much more with their floods, spreading their water over the riverbanks for six, twelve, twenty, and more leagues on both sides, making the land uninhabitable because it is marshy the year round. The water of the lakes and rivers is added to the sea estuaries so that these also take up a stretch of land; for this reason, along the ocean a great deal of land is left uninhabited. Since this land is very low and flat, the sea flows into it at high tide, forming large estuaries so covered with mangroves and underbrush that it is impossible to walk through them.

Many other ponds and estuaries result from the rains on the flat lands; these bodies of water last most of the year without drying up. Besides these, there are many swamps, caused either by springs or by the extreme humidity of the soil, from which water is always pouring forth without draining in any direction; and in areas with much rain there are extensive flood lands and quagmires which will not even hold up under foot traffic, let alone permit habitation.

As a result of this abundance of water, there is another equally troublesome hindrance to human habitation: the many forests and arcabucos which grow in the hot and rainy lands of yunca climate. These forests were never inhabited by man; no trace of settlements can be seen in them because these forests are very high and dense. There are great trees, many thickets, and much underbrush; moreover, the soil, which is never reached by the sun, is very boggy. The Indians who lived in these woodlands and forests had their dwellings on the high banks of the rivers. They sustained themselves more by fishing than by agriculture because of the difficulty which they experienced in having to clear the arcabucos to make their cultivated fields. Whatever is cleared one year sprouts again the next year with such vigor that the luxuriant growth overcomes the industry and strength of man. This is especially true of people who, for lack of our tools, had to put in an incredible amount of work and zeal to clear a space no larger than the palm of the hand. To the inconvenience which these woody lands cause must be added the abundance of wild beasts and poisonous vermin which ordinarily inhabit them; they are no small bother and even consume the local residents. In fact, we know of provinces which are kept nearly uninhabited because of the multitude of savage tigers [jaguars].

Although other places neither lack water nor have excessive amounts of it, as we have just stated, but have enough to cultivate and populate the land, nevertheless large stretches of land are left unused. This is true on the one hand because of the rigors of the climate, and on the other hand because of the physical make-up of the soil. As a result of the excessive cold which produces killing frosts, none of the lands of the first zone of the sierra can be used to grow fruits and vegetables. This zone, with such a severe climate, is composed of the punas, the paramos, and the snowcapped cordilleras of Peru; and we can even include here a good measure of the land of the second zone of the sierras, which also has uninhabitable paramos. Nevertheless, in this second zone, a large amount of native livestock and Castilian sheep and cattle is raised. Because of the physical make-up of the soil there are lands which, though they have a good climate, nevertheless are not suitable for cultivation, owing to one of three causes: first, because they are saltpeter beds, such as the ones we see in many parts of Peru; second, because the ground is very sandy or rocky, both in the countryside and in the mountains; and third, because some of these mountains have numerous crags and rough, brambly ground covering many leagues. Other mountains have good soil, but they are so rugged and lofty that they cannot be worked. All of these causes make the majority of the Indies impossible to cultivate and uninhabitable, as I have noticed numerous times while walking through many of the provinces.

The fertile lands were not uniformly populated; some were densely populated, others sparsely. This uneven distribution of the population was comprehensible; the great and powerful kingdoms were much more densely populated than the smaller provinces ruled by caciques and than the tribal groups and behetrias. Some of the more densely populated areas are the kingdoms of New Spain, Peru, the New Kingdom of Granada, and others.

The reason why the powerful kingdoms were more densely populated is that the vassals of the monarchs and great princes lived longer because they did not make war among themselves and were better able to defend themselves against outsiders. Since the tribal groups and behetrias were continuously at war, they would destroy and consume each other. These Indians would go around hunting their neighbors in order to sustain themselves. In fact, nations of cannibals were found that annihilated entire provinces, leaving them uninhabited. And, without going farther afield, the Chiriguana Indians of Peru will suffice as an example: they have eaten up many Indian nations and now they possess the lands of their victims. The Chiriguanas wreaked so much havoc along the borders of this Kingdom of Peru during the times of the Inca kings that although it was among the most populous lands of the Indies and the best and most fertile in Peru, its borders were uninhabited. For this very reason, the Spaniards forced the Chiriguana Indians out to the roughest part of the woods and founded rich farms, as we see in the entire Diocese of Charcas, especially in the provinces of Tarija, Pazpaya, Tomina, Mizque, and Cochabamba. While it is true that some of the fertile lands were densely populated when the Spaniards arrived, the contrary is true of other fertile lands. This is easiest to prove in Peru, where the whole kingdom was distributed among its conquistadores and settlers. In the densely populated provinces, it was possible for them to have large, rich encomiendas of Indians, but in other provinces, although the climate there was good and the land fertile, repartimientos of Indians were not designated for the Spaniards. This is because these provinces were uninhabited. In many of them, which have been populated since the Spaniards arrived, no vestige of an ancient population is found. If they had been populated previously, it would be impossible for this fact to be unknown now because some vestige or ruins of the previous population would be left, as we see in other places; and, more importantly, because if there had been many Indians, they would have been mentioned in the first repartimientos, just as the few Indians that used to inhabit them are mentioned.

Besides these arguments, there is another very strong one in the reports and histories concerning the discoveries and conquests of diverse provinces of the Indies. In some of them we read how it happened that our Spaniards found no people in large areas of land, and that for this reason many of them died of hunger; this happened because the provisions which they were carrying were used up, and in such large, uninhabited areas they did not find any kind of sustenance. And even if all the previously stated arguments were not to hold, the knowledge that we have of many expeditions which have been made in recent years into the lands of heathens from this Kingdom of Peru is sufficient proof of this truth. The entire eastern side of this kingdom for more than seven hundred leagues borders on several of these nations; all of these heathens live in behetrias, under caciques with very small domains, located beyond the uninhabited areas which lie between the boundaries of this Kingdom of Peru and its first settlements and farms. Within the domains of the heathens it is amazing to see the small number of people found wherever one may travel. For example, the priests of the Society of Jesus, who went on two expeditions made by order of the Archbishop of this city of Los Reyes, Gonzalo de Ocampo, found, throughout the large expanse of land which they crossed, only a few Indians and such small cacicazgos that the biggest one had no more than fifteen hundred subjects; and all of them were so engaged in wars that the priests were unable to make any headway in converting them.

The Indians had no general name for all the peoples of America; they had no equivalent to our names African for everyone from Africa, Asian for everyone from Asia, and European for everyone from Europe. This was not because they did not have information concerning all this fourth part of the globe (although it is true that they were not informed about it). It is because they were not accustomed to giving such general names for all the inhabitants of an entire region. Even though the Peruvians had all of the boundaries of this kingdom very clearly delineated, they used no single name for all of its inhabitants. They had a proper name for the natives of each province, no matter how small it might be; this name applied to all of the inhabitants of a province and to them only. For this reason we find so many different names in Peru, each one for a different nation, such as Charcas, Amparaes, Chichas, Carangas, Lipes, Quillacas, Pacages, Lupacas, Collas, Canas, Collaguas, Chumbivilcas, Cotabambas, Chocorbos, and innumerable others. There is only one name from the Quechua language which we can say has now taken on a universal meaning among the Indians of Peru; it refers to all of the Indians who are native to America; this word is runa. Although in their language it signifies "man," the Indians of Peru have restricted it and applied it to the Indians, distinguishing them from the Spaniards and people from other nations of Europe. Moreover, they use the name viracocha for all white men. And in accordance with this, when they talk with us and mention some man who is coming or is looking for us, they distinguish between Spaniards and Indians with these names, and they want us to speak in the same way when we make reference to someone whom they do not know; therefore, they ask us if he is viracocha or runa. With the word runa, they mean only the Indians, despite the fact that it used to signify "man" in general. But runa, in this sense, is only used by the Indians of this kingdom and by us when we speak with them.

There are three names that the Spaniards have given to all the natives of this New World: Indians, Natives, and Americos; all of them are modern and artificial, invented since this land was discovered. The name Americos is not very widely used; the other two are more common. The name Indians was given to them because this land was called the Indies by the ones who discovered it, and the name Natives was given to distinguish them from the Europeans who live here. But, although these two names have the same meaning, there is a slight difference between them in our usage. The word Indians is used when we Spaniards speak to each other; but since its meaning is now derogatory, we do not use it when we speak with Indians (if we refer to them specifically), although we do use it if the ones we are speaking about are not present. I will give an example: I am talking with some Indians; if I make reference to other Indians from some other place, I could use this name and say: "Look, brothers, the Indians of New Spain, of Chile, etc." But if I make reference to them, personally, I would use the term Natives, which is accepted as more respectful, and I would say: "You Natives have this obligation, etc."

One of the most surprising things that we find in the Indies is that although it is such a big land with such a wide variety of climes and weather, inhabited by an infinite number of people of different languages, customs, and rites, nevertheless, with regard to their appearance, physical make-up, and natural properties, especially with regard to their color, the inhabitants of the Indies look as similar to each other as Europeans born in the same province and within the same European clime.

The Indians are rather dark in color; this is commonly described by our writers with words such as the following: dark brown, olive, tawny, yellowish-brown, the color of cooked quince, light chestnut-colored, and, the one that describes it best of all, mulatto-colored. It must be pointed out that, although the color of a Spaniard is always of the same hue of white, in the Indies it varies by being more or less reddish, according to the characteristics of the land where he lives. In the sierra of Peru the Spaniard conserves the same colors which he had in Spain, and he has a white, reddish face, with rosy cheeks; but if he dwells for very long in yunca lands, which are very hot and humid, he loses his good color and takes on such a pale hue that he seems to be sick. If he comes again to the sierra, in a short time he regains his colors. In the same way, the sierra Indians can be distinguished from the yunca Indians, but not by the hue of whiteness, because they are all the same in this respect, rather in that the sierra Indians have a more reddish color, while the yunca Indians are as pale as a dead man, similar to the color of cooked quince. But if those of the yunca land go to live permanently in the sierra, they take on the same color as the sierrans; and if the sierrans move to yunca land, they take on the same color as the yunca Indians.

In regard to the color of the Indians, I have often heard wise men discuss the matter and argue about whether it is inherent in their race or if it comes from the atmospheric conditions of the land. In the latter case, this land would not produce only white men, as in Europe, or only blacks, as in Guinea; rather it would produce men of an intermediate color like that of the Indians. This is as general a problem as the one concerning the inhabitants of different regions of the world; some people are very white and others coal black, and between these two extremes there are different hues. What I hold to be certain is that the clime where a person is born does not cause this variety of colors; rather, it is inherent in men and we get our color by nature, in spite of the fact that we all come from the same source, from Adam and Eve. Actually, God ordained this diversity of colors in order to beautify the universe and to demonstrate his infinite wisdom and omnipotence. I will briefly tell the reasons which move me to feel about this matter as I do. The first is (returning to our Indians) that if the clime and the mellowness of the land were the cause of their color, in America there would have to be men of as many different colors as are found on the whole globe, some whiter than Germans or Flemings, others blacker than the Ethiopians of Guinea, still others moderately white, like the Spaniards, and others of as many different colors as are found in different regions of the world. In fact, just within the torrid zone of the Indies, between the tropics, we find as many different climates as are known in the world; there are lands colder than Flanders or Germany, as extremely hot as Guinea, as temperate as Italy or Spain, and there are places not only with all the different kinds of climates on earth, but also with all those that the human mind could imagine; and outside of the tropics there are regions in both hemispheres, northern and southern, of the same latitude, climate, and characteristics as those of Europe. In spite of all this, the natives throughout America are the same color and the same hue of whiteness, both those that live within the torrid zone and those that live outside of the tropics in the temperate zones up to the fiftieth and sixtieth parallels of latitude toward either pole. Therefore, although some Indians from distant provinces may be somewhat different from each other, this difference in color is always within the same hue of white. This is borne out by the fact that there are no people in the Indies who are as white as the Spaniards or as dark brown as some East Indians from Malabar whom I have seen.

The color of the Americos cannot be attributed to their nudity because they do not all go naked; nor are the ones who cover their nakedness with clothes of wool and cotton whiter than the others. We can see in Peru that the caciques, who were always well dressed and enjoyed all the luxuries of the land, are no different in color from the common folk and the mitayos. And another factor which adds not just a little to this opinion is that the Indians are born with the same color as their parents. Actually, if this color were so accidental and extrinsic as to be contracted from the inclemency of the heavens, rain, sun, and wind, it could not be inseparably transmitted to them in their mother's womb.

The strongest argument is, in my opinion, that the Spaniards who live here do not slowly lose their color and take on that of the Indians, which inescapably would have to be the consequence if, in fact, the characteristics of the land determined the color of the natives. If the clime really caused the Indians' color, it would produce the same effect on the Spaniards who are born here. Thus, in the course of time, everyone, Spaniards and Indians alike, would come to be the same color. However, the experience of one hundred and sixty years which have passed since the Indies were discovered and first populated proves the contrary because the Spaniards born here are as white as those who come from Spain. In spite of the fact that there are a great many Spaniards born in this land who are the sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons of criollos (a name we commonly give to the Spaniards born in the Indies), there is no difference between them and those who come from Spain. The sons of Spaniards here turn out to be as handsome, fair, and blond as in Spain. Moreover, I have often heard many people assert, and their opinion does not displease me, that there are more beautiful children reared in this city of Lima and in Mexico City than in many Spanish cities.

It is equally important to note that just as the Spaniards born here are white, the sons of blacks from Guinea turn out to be similar to their parents in their color and in their tightly curled hair; and the sons of Flemings and those of other northern nations are blond. In short, we notice that the sons of an Indian mother and a Spanish father get half their color from each parent, and that the farther they become removed from either of their parents, as generations pass, the less they retain of that parent's color. All of the preceding is sufficient proof that the clime and weather of various regions do not cause the diverse colors which we see in men of different nationalities, nor do the atmospheric conditions of this land cause the color of its natives.

By Bernabe Cobo

“While Cobo’s Historia is not a pristine account, it is hard to imagine what our knowledge of Andean societies would be without it. Four hundred years after Cobo landed in Lima, Roland Hamilton should be congratulated on his translations of the Historia del Nuevo Mundo, which remains a monument to the breadth of vision and intellectual energy of its author.”
American Antiquity