In the early 1960s, many historians and ethnographers who studied pre-Columbian Quechua civilizations (which we may identify here as encompassing the territories that formed the Inca state known as Tawantinsuyu, the "Land of the Four Quarters"), were of an almost mystical bent, relying on metaphor and symbol rather than on factual data to illuminate the nature of Quechua society. Unlike those of their contemporaries who based their conclusions on archaeological findings and on new interpretations of the quipu (the knotted cords used by the preliterate Quechua for account-keeping and historical recording), these magic-loving writers expressed themselves in a prose that was often more obscure than the mysteries they sought to elucidate.
A prime example of this "poetic" school of historical writing can be found in the Organization of American States’ publication Américas (vol. 15, 1963), in which one writer describes the Quechua as "submerged, so to speak, in a cosmic magma that weighs heavily upon it. It possesses the rare quality of being, as it were, interjected into the midst of antagonistic forces, which in turn implies a whole body of social and aesthetic structures whose innermost meaning must be the administration of energy."
What sense are we to derive from this somewhat feverish piece of description? The writer is attempting to create a metaphor for the pressures-physical, economic, spiritual-that the Quechua people endured. That much we can comprehend. But the metaphor is flawed-the Quechua world is simultaneously weighed or pressed down by the magma in which it is submerged and interjected or inserted into some welter of antagonistic forces-a fact that the writer himself appears to acknowledge by qualifying his assertions with "so to speak" and "as it were." The difficulty with this approach is that it provides no measurable data that we can use to assess the degree of adversity the Quechua bore and its effect on them as a culture. True, life on the high Andean plateau was harsh: the Quechua faced extremes of temperature, cycles of flooding and drought, thin soil, an inhospitably steep terrain. But the very harshness of these living conditions inspired the Quechua to make advances in agricultural technique that allowed them to feed the millions of people who constituted the Inca Empire, advances that unfortunately are obscured or masked by this writer’s approach.