- The Lettered Mountain: A Peruvian Village’s Way with Writing by Frank Salomon and Mercedes Niño-Murcia
The Lettered Mountain explores the “way with writing” of the people of Tupicocha, a village located about 100 km (a full day’s bus ride) east of Lima, in the storied highland province of Huarochirí. Its title is a homage to Ángel Rama’s hugely influential The Lettered City, which argued that hierarchical practices of alphabetic writing shaped the colonial origins of Latin American societies. A number of recent books have built on Rama’s emphasis on writing as a constitutive social practice while challenging his assumptions that it was restricted to Hispanic bastions (the lettered cities) and that it operated in a vacuum. This The Lettered Mountain also does, but it is unique in a number of respects.
Unlike most of the Rama-inspired research, which is colonial, this book is an ethnography, albeit one with deep historical foundations. Its origins lie in anthropologist Frank Salomon’s long-term engagement with Huarochirí. In 1994, in the course of research on the Huarochirí Manuscript, Salomon discovered that the people of Tupicocha were the custodians of khipus of relatively recent manufacture. The art of making and interpreting khipus had only just faded out of living memory. This discovery resulted in his 2004 book, The Cord Keepers (also published by Duke), which reconstructs the history and functions of the Tupicocha khipus. The Lettered Mountain is a companion volume to The Cord Keepers: both books are “ethnographies of literacy” in Tupicocha, one dealing with khipu literacy (now in its “half-life” or “afterlife”) and the other with alphabetic writing. To write this book, Salomon joined forces with sociolinguist Mercedes Niño-Murcia, who studies linguistic ideologies, standardization projects, and cultures of literacy involving Spanish in the Andes. Unlike the Quechua or Aymara speaking areas that Andeanist anthropologists tend to gravitate toward, the people of Huarochirí have spoken (and written) only Spanish for some time.
This important and innovative work will be of interest to a wide range of readers, including non-Latin Americanists (in particular scholars of literacy). I will point out some findings that will be of special interest for historians. Modern Tupicochans have a penchant for producing detailed written records (constancias) of all public activities and events, not only in the life of the community (that is, the communidad campesina of Tupicocha) but also, and above all, of the ten ayllus (corporate descent groups) that compose it. The community and each of the ayllus has its own administrative [End Page 151] archives, with ledgers in which the authorities recorded various kinds of agreements, most importantly participation in faenas (communal labor days). One of the book’s main contributions is an analysis of the circumstances that caused the ayllus to transition from khipus to alphabetic records in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These factors include government recognition of indigenous communities (particularly after the 1920s) and the availability of notebooks with tabular formats. Prior to these developments, khipus remained in use, not because Tupicochans lacked access to writing, or rejected it, but simply because khipus were more effective (chapter 2).
By the late nineteenth century, long before the arrival of state schools, Huarochirí had a surprisingly high literacy rate, a reflection of the fact that the province was by then overwhelmingly Spanish speaking and that considerable importance was attached to literacy as a badge of citizenship. Literacy spread further, especially among women, as a result of the introduction of public education beginning in the 1940s. However, Salomon and Niño-Murcia emphasize that the arrival of state teachers meant the imposition of a particular and highly dogmatic regime of literacy that was often at odds with local forms of literacy (chapter 3). A particularly innovative final chapter deals with the written production of the Tupicochan “diaspora” in Lima and throughout the world. Here the authors float the important concept of “provincial print”—the semiformal self-publishing that...