The best books about Andean life, landscape, and personhood

Catherine J. Allen Author Of The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community
By Catherine J. Allen

Who am I?

My connection with the Andean highlands of southern Peru stretches back to 1975 when I spent about a year in a small community of Quechua-speaking potato farmers and llama herders. I have returned there many times over the years, most recently in 2019. Its people, their way of life, and vision of the world are dear to my heart and are the subject of The Hold Life Has as well as a play, creative nonfiction, and, more recently, poetry. I love the way anthropology forces me to think outside the box and experience the world with different eyes, something I aim to convey in my work.


I wrote...

The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community

By Catherine J. Allen,

Book cover of The Hold Life Has: Coca and Cultural Identity in an Andean Community

What is my book about?

The Hold Life Has is about ways in which people in a small Andean community connect with their land and, in the process, define and express their cultural identity. The land, which bears their crops, feeds their animals, and supplies adobes for their houses, is also a landscape of sacred places, a parallel society of animate and powerful personalities. The ritual use of coca connects people with this living landscape. Maintenance of this bond is a constant process, carried on in the daily routine as well as in the more intensified context of religious ritual. Because coca signifies the presence of social and spiritual bonds and appears in virtually every aspect of life, it serves as a kind of leitmotif for the book.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Andean Lives: Gregorio Condori Mamani and Asunta Quispe Huamán

By Ricardo Valderrama Fernández, Carmen Escalante Gutiérrez, Paul H. Gelles (translator), Gabriela Martínez Escobar (translator)

Book cover of Andean Lives: Gregorio Condori Mamani and Asunta Quispe Huamán

Why this book?

This was a groundbreaking book when it came out in Peru in the 1970s. It’s the life stories of a street porter in the city of Cuzco and his wife, a market vendor, as they were told to a pair of Peruvian anthropologists. Monolingual in Quechua and living on the street, Gregorio and Asunta were at the very bottom of the social ladder, yet they recount their hard lives with such eloquence, humor, and grace that their words leap from the page. This is essential reading for anyone interested in Andean people, and a book you’ll never forget.


To Defend Ourselves: Ecology and Ritual in an Andean Village

By Billie Jean Isbell,

Book cover of To Defend Ourselves: Ecology and Ritual in an Andean Village

Why this book?

This was a foundational book for me as I completed my first fieldwork and wrote my dissertation. Isbell draws the reader into life in a highland village in the Ayacucho region of Peru shortly before it was upended by guerilla warfare, describing strategies villagers used to relate to, and maintain independence from, outside social forces. With vivid examples she provides in-depth analyses of social organization and ritual life, as well as a chapter on urban migration and a postscript about impending violence. 


At the Mountains' Altar: Anthropology of Religion in an Andean Community

By Frank Salomon,

Book cover of At the Mountains' Altar: Anthropology of Religion in an Andean Community

Why this book?

This is a wonderful, sophisticated yet accessible book that provides readers with a vivid community study that is also a wide-ranging introduction to the anthropology of religion. The title refers to a small adobe house in the community of Rapaz that serves as a temple for religious practices directed to sacred mountains. Each chapter explores aspects of the temple and related ritual practices from a different theoretical vantage point, in order to “put before students’ eyes one case, an Andean temple, and treat it as an example for pondering the possibly pan-human matter of sacred ritual” (p.9). It’s beautifully written, personal and thought-provoking.


Intimate Indigeneities: Race, Sex, and History in the Small Spaces of Andean Life

By Andrew Canessa,

Book cover of Intimate Indigeneities: Race, Sex, and History in the Small Spaces of Andean Life

Why this book?

What does it mean to be “indigenous”? The answer is never simple, and I particularly like the way Andrew Canessa approaches the question by drawing us into people’s lives in an Aymara-speaking community in highland Bolivia and exploring how the people themselves understand different ways of being indigenous in different contexts. In the process he shows how “indigenous” identity is complex and situationally defined.


Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds

By Marisol de la Cadena,

Book cover of Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds

Why this book?

This book is about an unexpected meeting of minds. De la Cadena intended to write an account of a peasant campaign for land led by indigenous peasant leader Mariano Turpo during the 1950-60s.  But early on it became clear that she and Mariano were talking past each other, for Mariano understood his successful activism in terms of his relationship with animate places in the landscape (“earth beings”). The book contains a moving account of how the urban intellectual and traditional Andean leader learned to appreciate and communicate with each other. De la Cadena argues that attention to cultural difference—far from perpetuating false consciousnessmight open the way to radically new politics. Some readers may wish to pass over some dense theoretical passages, but the book is organized so one can do this without losing the larger picture.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in Peru, the Andes mountains, and medicine?

5,810 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Peru, the Andes mountains, and medicine.

Peru Explore 28 books about Peru
The Andes Mountains Explore 12 books about the Andes mountains
Medicine Explore 58 books about medicine

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Antisuyo, Tristes Tropiques, and Relic if you like this list.