Southern Ecuador was once home to a fascinating indigenous game which was a literal battle for survival. Deeply rooted in the cultural traditions of the provinces of Azuay and Cañar, Pucara, also known as shitanacuy, was a form of ritualistic combat integral to Carnival festivities held annually in February or March. This nerve-wracking tradition prevailed until the 1980s, leaving an indelible mark on the region’s history and cultural heritage.
At the heart of Pucara were two rival teams, each aiming to claim victory over the other. The players, adorned in several layers of clothing, embarked on this challenging endeavor to protect their honor and bring glory to their communities. However, what truly set them apart was their impressive defense mechanism – the cobijón. This enormous leather hat, measuring nearly 4 feet wide (1.22 m), became a vital shield against the onslaught of projectiles.
The participants also fortified their spirits through the consumption of chicha, a traditional fermented beverage. This potent elixir was believed to instill courage, preparing the players for the intense battles that lay ahead. The combination of the cobijón and chicha created an aura of invincibility among the competitors, elevating the game to a mystical and symbolic level.
The primary weapon employed in Pucara was the honda, a specialized slingshot used to launch various objects, such as stones and bones, towards the opposing team. The objective was to strike the opponents with precision, knocking them to the ground. When a player fell, their adversary claimed their cobijón and hondas as trophies, symbolizing victory.
Representational image of a slingshot weapon made from alpaca wool in Bolivia. (Peter van der Sluijs / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Remarkably, the shedding of blood during Pucara was not viewed as a gruesome consequence of combat but rather as a sacrificial offering to the earth. This bloodshed and sacrifice was considered necessary to ensure a bountiful harvest for the triumphant team, emphasizing the game’s spiritual significance and its connection to the land.
Despite dating back to pre-Columbian times, the game managed to endure in regions with limited resources and ongoing local conflicts. According to historian Juan Martínez Borrero, Pucara’s survival throughout the centuries serves as a testament to its significance within communities and its ability to bring people together in the face of adversity. While Pucara may have faded away over time, its legacy lives on in stories, reenactments and certain customs during the Carnival celebrations.
Pucara-like games were not limited to southern Ecuador. These Pan-Andean rituals and practices reflected the spiritual beliefs ingrained in Andean cosmology , where slings were used for hunting and warfare at least as far back as 2500 BC. These customs were deeply rooted in the reverence for nature, ancestral spirits, the interconnectedness of all living beings and ancestral wisdom. Pucara remains a cherished part of Ecuador’s cultural heritage, a reminder of the resilience and spirit of the indigenous Andean communities in Azuay and Cañar.
Top image: Representational image of man with slingshot. Source: emerald_media / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard
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