Q&A with Sarah Bennison on khipu boards, water governance, and Indigenous ritual

Q&A with The Entablo Manuscript author Sarah Bennison on khipu boards, water governance, and pre-colonial ritual

In the dry season in the Andes, water from springs, lakes, reservoirs and melting glaciers feeds irrigation canals that have sustained communities for thousands of years. Managing and maintaining these water infrastructures is essential, and in 1921, in the village of San Pedro de Casta, Peru, local authorities recorded their ritual canal-cleaning duties in a Spanish-language document called the Entablo. It is only the second book (along with the Huarochirí Manuscript) ever seen by scholars in which an Andean community explains its customs and ritual laws in its own words.

In this Q&A, The Entablo Manuscript author Sarah Bennison discusses khipu boards and gender, water scarcity and governance, how Indigenous rituals can guide climate change mitigation, and her advice for ethnographic fieldwork. The Entablo Manuscript is out wherever you buy books! Click here to order your copy, and learn more about our other titles in Latin American Studies here!

As local community water governance is increasingly a global discussion with water sources around the world becoming scarce, what is the significance of the local rituals documented in the Entablo that draw from Indigenous customs?

The rural highland Lima village of San Pedro de Casta has been involved in global water discussions for decades. It even hosted some in the late 1980s when the United Nations held workshops in Casta on traditional water technologies. Conversations about reviving the disused local pre-colonial rainwater harvesting systems have been going on here for decades too, with projects funded by the local municipality, NGOs and big corporations such as drinks giants Backus and Coca-Cola recently restoring this infrastructure’s functionality. That is to say that locals have been engaging with development workers on issues concerning water for a long time. They’re acutely aware of the impact of climate change on their crops, herds, and livelihoods.

Casteños and residents of neighboring communities are affected by water scarcity as well as flooding and landslides brought on by the El Niño phenomenon. Locals also know that water scarcity in the Santa Eulalia valley—a tributary of the Rimac River—can have knock-on effects down in the parched desert megacity of Lima, so they understand the external interest in water-focused development projects here.

While locals in the highland Lima province of Huarochirí where Casta is located do not tend to identify as Indigenous, locals do describe their local water customs as an inheritance from the pre-colonial era (and comprising traditions from the Inca, pre-Inca, and colonial eras). With water being such a scarce resource, managing it fairly and efficiently is serious business in Casta. The arduous collective work required to maintain the irrigation infrastructure at various points in the year is considered a moral duty toward the ancestors who built and maintained the local canal systems. The effort put into setting down the Entablo canal-cleaning regulations in minute detail on paper a century ago is a case in point! The early sections of the Entablo manuscript explain the significance of the annual canal-cleaning ceremony—the “champería”—beautifully, and from a local point of view. For example, one section explains that the custom enables Casta’s people to quench their thirst from birth until the final moments of their lives. When you are totally dependent on your canal during the dry season, you look after it and you value it.

A key aspect of local community water governance involves taking care of the water-owning ancestors and appeasing their demands. Many of the water laws set out in the Entablo are concerned with appealing to the ancestors for access to water. Examples include the handicrafts that the workers have to produce at the champería and the special genres of water songs that must be sung at specific sites associated with the ancestors; these are all practices that acknowledge the dependency of life and production—including cultural production—on water. Extreme weather events and water scarcity make proper ritual conduct all the more vital: the community elders and ritual experts will not run the risk of offending the ancestors, who could withhold water. In addition to the regular annual water customs performed in Casta and described in the Entablo, in times of water scarcity, ad hoc rainmaking rituals are performed today by some of the community authorities and a team of ritual specialists.

Many of the customs described in the Entablo persist in Casta today. While modifications are inevitable and not necessarily something to lament (unless locals do), the degree of persistence in Casta’s water traditions is quite remarkable. The Entablo illuminates the tremendous amounts of organization, local expertise, and hard physical labor that go into keeping Casta’s reservoirs and canals functional. Collaboration is very much at the heart of all the Entablo’s precepts. And some healthy competition is a big part of local water management too!

Indigenous languages are not spoken conversationally in this part of the Lima highlands anymore, so ancestral water customs play an important role in the production and reproduction of local identity, as well as reaffirming bonds with kin, neighbors, friends, and ancestors. A strong sense of local identity and values permeates the pages of the Entablo and the ancestor-focused water customs that the manuscript was produced to regulate. Casta’s water customs are all about valuing, honoring, and celebrating water and the local irrigation infrastructure. They are also concerned with social renewal, accountability, and resolving conflicts.

These traditions and approaches to water management highlight the role of strong institutions and systems of justice in fostering cooperation, collaboration and minimizing conflict. Nevertheless, it is important not to romanticize the traditions described in the Entablo. Local women explained that a century ago and within living memory, the canal-cleaning customs saw women brutally and publicly punished for “crimes” such as talking too much or having illegitimate pregnancies. Punishments could include having their hair cut off or being beaten with thorny branches. A century ago in Casta, robust water management could include treatment of women that some today describe as highly oppressive.

A new El Niño phenomenon is taking hold in Peru with devastating impacts in the Huarochirí province, including Casta and neighboring villages. How have locals sought to manage weather through ritual means in response to more unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change?

Today, many locals worry that if the various annual water customs are not performed correctly, then the water-owning ancestors will withhold water or punish the community with landslides, illness, or accidents. It is not uncommon in Casta and in other Andean villages for drought, floods, and severe weather events to be attributed to a ritual performed incorrectly. The younger generations are regularly drip-fed reminders about how the water rituals must be conducted. The regulations for the canal-cleaning ceremony are very specific, covering even the smallest of details. During the 2022 ceremony, handfuls of coca leaves (for chewing) had been arranged in a generous pile across a wooden tabletop in the Governor’s office—without the mandatory cloth being laid down on the tabletop first. On noticing this, an elder took the floor to express concern that the Entablo regulations had not been followed closely enough. A lot of effort goes into policing and upholding customary water laws with the aim of keeping the ancestors happy. It’s thought that what happens during the champería will impact weather conditions for the rest of the year so this is not the moment to take any chances!

Some ethnographic sources suggest that human sacrifices were still occasionally taking place in Casta around the time the Entablo was written a century ago. Nevertheless, a famous 1923 article by the Huarochirano archaeologist Julio César Tello and his fellow Huarochirano co-author Próspero Miranda—a Casteño—claimed that human sacrifice had been abandoned in Casta long before the 1920s. Whether human sacrifice was abandoned here in the early twentieth century or further back in Casta’s history, there was evidently a lot of fear surrounding the need to appease the powerful water-owning ancestors. I was told that when the sacrificial offerings were switched from young maidens to llamas, this was considered quite controversial and risky at the time. Some locals were apparently worried that Suqta Curi—the principal local water deity, said to be a womanizer—would not be satisfied with a mere llama, however lovely it was. Complaints reportedly followed; some believed that locals “paid” for the switch with a decline in weather conditions.

While these practices persist only as a relatively distant memory, community members today manage the weather through other ritual means. The rainmaking rituals that I described earlier involve sending a delegation down to coastal Lima (a three-to-four-hour car ride away) to fetch seafoam in the dark of the night so that it can be brought back to Casta and used to generate rainfall. Scooping up seafoam by night and singing shoreside water songs after a long, bumpy nighttime journey down the dry rocky mountain road is a lot of effort to go to! I’m told that collecting seafoam is dangerous work because it involves finding the choppiest waters, where it’s possible to be pulled out to sea by the waves. But locals attest that these ceremonies work, so in times of water scarcity they’re considered necessary. While people from Casta don’t tend to self-identify as Indigenous, their ways of understanding and relating to the environment resemble those sometimes referred to as “Indigenous ontologies.”

The kinds of expertise employed in generating rainfall through ritual means are not incompatible with “Western” ways of knowing and understanding the environment. Residents in Casta and nearby villages were cut off from Lima and its suburban neighborhoods earlier in 2023 when flooding destroyed a bridge. Some communities close to Casta have also experienced water shortages this year. Both extremes have been attributed to the El Niño phenomenon.

How does the document contribute to scholarly interpretations of the use of khipu boards? What role does gender play in khipu records?

The century-old Entablo manuscript is an exciting and valuable source on hybrid khipu-alphabetic devices known as khipu boards. It is the only source known to scholars that discusses khipu boards from the perspective of a community using them at the time of writing. Although the Entablo doesn’t spell out the intricacies of khipu board notation, it reveals a great deal of contextual information about how these devices were used to keep track of labor tribute and compliances in twentieth-century Casta. The manuscript describes many different kinds of accounts ceremonies used to track people’s performance at different points during the week-long champería; these corresponded to various different subsets of community members. Some recorded duties at the kin group (“ayllu”) level, which divided the population into two groups. One set of accounts focused on the two different kinds of maize beer that had to be submitted by the women according to their ayllu affiliation. Some accounts were concerned with everybody’s individual duties at the level of a smaller kin grouping (the “parada”), which divided the population into four groups. Another account saw the population divided by gender for an assessment of people’s conduct and moral standing throughout the entire year. Some of the ceremonies seem to correspond to the household as an accountable unit, while others focus on the duties of individuals. There’s a lot going on, so it’s quite complicated!

But I can summarize a few points that were not known to the scholarly community before the Entablo came to light. Firstly, the Entablo tells us that—in Casta, at least—khipu boards were used to record labor tribute during community canal-cleaning ceremonies as recently as the mid-twentieth century.

Secondly, the Entablo tells us that some khipu board accounts were gender-specific, while others were mixed. Thanks to the writings of the United States journalist and politician Friedrich Hassaurek, we already knew that khipu board accounts in nineteenth-century liturgical contexts could involve gendered roll-calls, with men and women split into separate groups. During his travels through Ecuador, Hassaurek observed khipu boards in action in the community of Cotacachi. where khipu boards were used to record attendance at rehearsals of the Christian doctrine and to subsequently administer punishments. He was appalled by what he witnessed. The “Indians” who had failed to turn up to the latest rehearsal were whipped on the back during a public ceremony where men and women sat apart. Men and women who’d been absent were subjected to slightly different punishments. The Entablo makes it clear that some khipu board accounts in Casta were entirely gender-specific.

You felt that your research analysis of the Entablo would be richer with insights into the terminology and local knowledge of the khipus, insight only gained by conducting ethnographic fieldwork. What challenges do marginalized scholars face in disciplines that rely on ethnography—like anthropology, area studies, and geography—in conducting fieldwork?

Marginalized scholars can face additional challenges when doing fieldwork, and this is something that could be discussed more. For example, navigating any caring responsibilities during fieldwork might mean bringing family members to the field and covering any additional costs. It could mean having to reduce the duration of fieldwork or structuring the timing of fieldwork around the availability of suitable alternative care for dependents at home. For some disabled scholars, the copious amounts of paperwork involved prior to any fieldwork trips could be challenging (think ethics forms, risk assessments, funding applications, etc.). In some cases, the field site(s) may need to be selected based on the researcher’s access or healthcare needs. Some disabled researchers may be dependent on carers for traveling or managing their fieldwork.

The cost of doing fieldwork can be prohibitive for those from low-income backgrounds, particularly for researchers without access to dedicated fieldwork funding to help cover flights, accommodation, travel injections, and so on. In my case, I needed to apply for funding to cover fieldwork costs in Casta, but I was fortunate that my university has pots of internal funding opportunities that I could apply for. I also had to structure fieldwork around my child’s school holidays and a heavy service workload combining teaching and serving as Director of a research center.

Some scholars may face additional challenges during fieldwork based on their racial or ethnic background, or due to their gender or sexuality. These are all important considerations. I think the broader research community has a role to play here. For example, viva examiners and reviewers of publications or funding bids should be accommodating if access issues result in atypical ethnographic fieldwork design. Sessions exploring issues of fieldwork access and inclusion can and should be incorporated into research training programs.

Although fieldwork can bring additional challenges for marginalized scholars, it can nevertheless also be an incredibly rewarding and enjoyable experience.

What advice do you have for young scholars pursuing ethnographic fieldwork?

My advice to any junior researcher pursuing fieldwork, regardless of their circumstances, would be “start planning the practical aspects of your fieldwork as early as realistically possible.” When’s good to go? Are there times of the year when people might be too busy to talk? Will you have access to electricity to charge your devices?

As well as reviewing the existing academic literature about your site(s), scout out non-academic sources of information about your field site(s) like online videos, newspaper and magazine articles, blogs, publicly available social media groups, and hashtags. If nothing else, doing this could give you some ideas for conversation-starters for when you arrive! On the academic side, keep an open mind about the direction your research might go in. With ethnographic fieldwork, you cannot always anticipate what will come up. That’s one of the many reasons why I find doing fieldwork so exciting!

Sarah Bennison is an interdisciplinary postdoctoral research fellow and an honorary research fellow in social anthropology at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.