The Andean People, specifically the Incas have their core values rooted in Aesthetics (sensory perception) and Ascetism (discipline). The aesthetic superiority with which the Incas invested themselves was matched by ascetic superiority (Classen, 1990). Being able to control and regulate sensory indulgences conform to the balance of nature wherein opposites need to be maintained for society and cosmos to remain stable. As mentioned by Classen and Howes (1996), every culture molds its own idea of different values and emphases to different sensory perceptions. This paper focuses on the gustatory perception of the Incas that will help reveal and contribute to the knowledge on their spiritual (rituals, religious hierarchy, and pursuit for transcendence), social, political and economic dimensions such as ideas on civilization, food distribution, and procreation. These scopes of interest are apparently manifested as well in their mythology and cosmology. 

Before proceeding to the above discussions, it will be helpful to establish the process as to how sense perception, gustatory experience for this matter, translates and relates to cognition – as we aim to extract knowledge that corresponds to a variety of contexts. Through a gustatory experience we become aware of ourselves and, most importantly, it can become a modality of communicating with the “other,” of a union between two subjects (Albertson, 2008) – as in the sense of connection generated between an individual and the divine. Through the process of ingestion and digestion, ecstasy, a mystical experience leading to cognition can be reached through experimenting with flavors. This experience is uttered in Italo Calvino’s second short story entitled Under the Jaguar Sun- “Just as colonial baroque set no limits on the profusion of ornament and display, in which God’s presence was identified in a closely calculated delirium of brimming, excessive sensations, so the curing of the hundred or more native varieties of hot peppers carefully selected for each dish opened vistas of flaming ecstacy” (7).  Taste is therefore not just a matter of pleasure but also intersects with knowledge, between oral and intellectual.

On Relation to Mythology and Cosmology

As stated above, Inca Mythology bears encompassing information on the people’s holistic culture through understanding its symbolic implications. As in Inca practices and involvement of the senses (although highlighting the most valued sense, sight) Gary Urton wrote:

It is important to note that the divisions and passage of time are related to different crops and activities, and that these in turn are related to the different senses. Since the astronomical reckoning of time depends primarily on vision, the total perception of time and space will involve the union of all sensual perceptions of change in the environment (At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky, p. 32).

Levi-Strauss has convincingly shown that for many peoples of the Amazonian region, cooking represents a transformation from nature to culture (The Raw and the Cooked, 1973). This correlates at some point in the case of Andeans, for instance, considering similarities between Amazonian creation myth and the Viracocha cosmogony, this suggests that the use and control of condiments was one of the characteristics of civilization for the Inca (Classen, 1990).

Pertaining to condiments, the use of salt and pepper consequently forms an important part of the “culture” of the Incas imparted to their subjects in the Myth. In the story of their origin, the appearance of Cache and Ucho (literally salt and pepper) represented the introduction of these two condiments into the world and a re-enactment of transition from pre-Inca to the Age of Inca. However, it’s not only the use of these which was vital to the Incas, but also the practice of abstaining from it. This abstention was in fact, the primary elements of the ritual feasts which were an essential prelude to most Inca ceremonies. This is perhaps symbolized in the myth by the walling up of salt in the cave, and the petrifaction of the pepper (Classen, 1990).

On Religious Pursuit for Transcendence

            The fundamental urge of our species is transcendence (Firnhaber). This holds truth for the Inca as observed in their values on Aesthetics and Ascetism. Sensory experience accords marker of status and a conduit to supernatural. As earlier mentioned, in most Inca ceremonies, reflect a custom of intensive discipline and then followed by exquisite sensation practices. In Inca male puberty rite, fasting is also observed.

Ritual forms such as practiced sensory deprivation (darkness, silence, isolation, water, food, sleep, immobility, and sexual abstinence, for example) and sensory overload (audio driving, pain, fear, hyperactivity, sungazing, extreme temperature etc.) have its roots from shamanic practices (journey into the ethereal to have an encounter with the divine). These cultural actions which are viewed are viewed as purposeful and often become involved in the attempts to for example, “achieve trans states in order to perceive and contact the supernatural world” (Firnhaber).

With the abstention from salt and pepper and fasting of the Inca before rituals, it however emphasizes and gives importance to restraint from flavour (satisfaction and pleasure) apart from simply veering away from food or starvation. These special sensory powers are ascribed to the diviners and other religious officers, hence, having a high spiritual status. Inca priests for instance are required to long periods of fasting and abstention from sexual relations; while religious trainers who are about to assume position, undergoes a more severe case, for they are even forbidden to touch the body with their hands. (Arriaga, 1968).  This kind of ascetism would leave the body receptive to sensory expressions of ritual and of the sacred. This will serve as a protection from strong and intrusive physical sensations. Like the acllas, the chosen women who practice ascetism for life – they wore no clothes, ate roots and take fruits along their travels to sustain themselves with odours. (Murua, 1946)  This whole idea of deprivation makes sense in their belief, apart from spiritual transcendence, that to receive a desired thing, one must deprive oneself of certain things. They are then not allowed to partake in any mundane sensuality to be more attentive to the manifestations of the sacred. Acllas are technically out of social order, but as sacred conduits, they help uphold the social order.

Gustatory indulgence, as another value of Inca sensory experience, has its own contribution to the cultivation of their culture. Examples are drinking of Chicha and eating of yahuar sanco. The ritual drinking of chichi is performed in order to confirm a relationship of reciprocity; while eating of yahuar sanco (balls of corn mixed with the blood of sacrificed llamas) is done following the swearing of an oath to allegiance to the Inca (Classen, 1990). The incorporation of the ritual substance and the concepts associated with it into the body would seem to be more important than the food’s flavour in this case.

While the Incas considered it necessary to stimulate and interrelate the senses in rituals, these had to be done in ways they were able to control (Classen, 1990).

On Procreation, Food Distribution, and Ideas on Civilization (Social, Political, and Economic Dimensions)

            The relationship between food and social or political variables is a multifaceted one and, “the political structure of the group (Inca) Is highly integrated with subsistence patterns in a complex feedback relationship” (Curet & Pestle, 2009).

            One of the larger avenues of political and social knowledge is to provide implications on ideas of civilization.  When the Inca Empire was colonized by the Spaniards, minding the values of Aesthetic and Ascetism, the latter were actually perceived as “savages” by the former. “The uncontrolled sensuality of the Spanish occasioned both fear and ridicule in the part of the Andeans” (Titu cusi Yupanqui, pp. 17-18). At times, the Spanish appeared to suffer from a complete perversion of the sensorium: all they could see, hear, touch, taste or smell was gold and silver (Classen, 1990, pp. 243-244). Apart from the Spaniards, Andeans in general, continue to regard themselves as civilized in contrast to the Indians of the lowland (Aesthetics and Ascetism in Inca Religion, 1990). The non Incas lack sensory refinement – they wore no clothes and they cannot regulate sexuality through marriage. The Incas continue to pride themselves of being highly civilized due to ability to both cultivate and control their senses.

Other Inca rituals which take into account ingestion and indulgence would be the use of Aphrodisiacs as a function to human perpetuation and procreation.  Some foods known to have aphrodisiac property become highly valuable.  Instead of botanical aphrodisiacs, the Inca use animals and insects with that property since these are more potent and longer lasting. For example is the flesh of the back of the alcaltetepon (lizard which resembled crocodile) (Blake, 2013).  In Aztec and Inca culture, aphrodisiacs were used to modulate to modulate sexuality and at the same time, they used food to get closer to high powers that would grant them the ability to reproduce.  (ibid.)

Lastly, to take into account economic factors of gustatory perception of the Incas, we talk about food distribution. Remember that political and economic faces governing Inca state are intertwined in so many ways – at least referring to reciprocity and mutual beneficial system between the state and society. Maize for example, is an ideal staple finance food among Andeans state societies since it is productive and an excellent stable resource that is compact and very transportable. Maize however was differentially distributed by the Inca state between males and females, resulting in differing bone chemistry (Gumerman, 1997). This is because males usually work for the state which occurred an increase in their maize consumption, including maize beer, through feasting (ibid.). Food distribution was crucial in sustaining political, hierarchical, and gender relationships within the state.



Throughout the discussion, we have established that Aesthetics and Ascetism formed a part of religious system of the Inca which is central to civilization and at the same time, plays as a fundamental means of establishing communion with the divine. Their mythology on cosmology however bears the integral body of both of the above dimensions (religion and civilization). Apparently, the gustatory perception of the Inca provided knowledge beyond notions of sensory experiences, which extended to economic, political, and gender relationships within the community.




Primary Sources:

Albertson, H. (2008). From Perception to Cognition: the Five Senses and the Search for Meaning in Italo Calvino’s Last Short Stories. Language and the Scientific Imagination (pp. 7-8). Finland: HELDA.

Blake, J. (2013). The Use of Foods as Aphrodisiac in Ancient Cultures.

Classen, C. (1990). Aesthetics and Ascetism in Inca Religion. Anthropologica, 101-106.

Classen, C. (1990). Inca Cosmology and the Human Body. 99-138. Montreal.

Curet, L. A., & Pestle, W. J. (2009). Identifying High-status Food in the Archaeological Record. Chicago, United States.

Firnhaber, R. P. (n.d.). Mapping the ASC: A Cultural-Physiological Construct.

Gumerman, G. (1997). Food and Complex Societies. Plenum Publishing Corporation.

Levi-Strauss. (1973). The Raw and the Cooked. (D. Weghtman, Trans.) New York: Harper and Row.

Urton, G. (n.d.). At the Crossroads of the Earth and the Sky. 32.


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