The Kallawaya are a group of traditional healers from the Bautista Saavedra region; a mountainous area north of La Paz, Bolivia. Their medical tradition extends through the Tihuanaco (400-1145), Mollo (1145-1453), Inca (1438-1532), Spanish (1532-1825) and Bolivian Republic (1825-present) periods (Bastien 1987). Many scholars suggest Kallawaya healers were chosen to serve as exclusive medical attendants for Inca Royalty. They accrued international popularity in the 1900s when they successfully treated laborers of the Panama Canal infected with Malaria using quinine containing plant remedies.
Kallawaya healers are known to travel extensively on foot, providing medical service throughout northwestern Bolivia and parts of Chile, Argentina, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru. Traveling such vast distances, they were able to assimilate a diverse array of healing techniques and plant resources into their knowledge base. Additionally, their homeland’s strategic position between tropical valleys and highland plateaus, provides access to a diverse range of ecological climates and medicinal herbs. With over 900 identified species, their botanical pharmacopoeia is believed to be the most complete of all indigenous nations.
While Kallawayas are largely recognized for their botanical acumen, they are also proficient in ritual healing and divination. They frequently employ animal and mineral resources as well talismans, music therapy and good luck charms to treat their clients. They are known to perform a range of ceremonies including weddings, baptisms and funerals.
Their cosmovision is based upon the notion that humanity must live in harmony with the world around them. Illness is frequently understood as a spiritual dissonance, or imbalance, caused by a disconnect between the individual and his habitat. To be healed, the Kallawaya works to restore spiritual equilibrium to both the imbalanced individual as well as the environment.
Kallawayas are also noted for their use of Machaj Juyay (or Sejo Juyay), a “secret” language, spoken exclusively among healers. Unlike Quechua, Aymara, and Spanish, Machaj Juyay is nobody’s mother tongue. It is acquired through Kallawaya medical apprenticeships and used to coordinate ritual activity. Ina Rösing’s extensive studies on Kallawaya rituals, has drawn attention to the disappearance of Machaj Juyay among practicing Kallawayas. The 2008 documentary film The Linguists (2008), highlights this loss through interviews with Kallawayas and residents from the town Chari.
While extremely friendly and willing to assist anyone in need, Kallawaya’s are famously guarded about their plant knowledge. In November of 2003, UNESCO named the “Kallawaya Culture” an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.” International recognition opened the floodgates to development and research; however it also blurred the previously well-defined control of expert knowledge allowing any area resident to claim Kallawaya status. According to Mollie Callahan’s study Signs of the Time: Kallawaya Medical Expertise and Social Reproduction in 21st Century Bolivia (PDF), the UNESCO recognition has created internal divisions between community members and spawned a form of secretism that has been internalized and projected as a marker of authentic expertise. Simply put, outsiders can’t control or manipulate what they don’t know or understand. As Kallawaya’s seek to control the trajectory of their culture and knowledge, secrecy is key.
• Bastien, Joseph William. Healers of the Andes: Kallawaya Herbalists and Their Medicinal Plants. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1987.
• Callahan, Mollie. Signs of the Time: Kallawaya Medical Expertise and Social Reproduction in 21st Century Bolivia (PDF). Dissertation submitted for Doctor of Philosophy (Anthropology); University of Michigan 2011.
• Rösing, Ina. 1990 Introducción al mundo Callawaya: curación ritual para vencer penas y tristezas. Volume Tomo 1: Introducción y Documentación. Cochabamba/La Paz: Editorial “Los Amigos Del Libro.”
Additional Articles of Interest:
• Kallawayas: The Sacred Healers of the Andes by Mailis D. Soler
• Kallawayas: The Nomadic Medicine Men of Bolivia by Debbie K. Becht
• Nomadic Healing by Camilla Swift
• Traditional Herbal Medicine in Bolivia, South America by Dr Vivian Lunny
• La Sedna de Los Kallawaya (PDF) por Juan van Kessel
• Testimonio Kallawaya: Medicina y Ritual en los Andes de Bolivia (PDF) por Dr. Gerardo Fernández Juárez
• Perfil social y cultural del pais de los Kallawayas por Dr. J.J.M.M. van Kessel
• Vida y fuerza del ayllu Kallawaya por Dr. J.J.M.M. van Kessel
• El saber Kallawaya: interrogando y aprendiendo por Dr. J.J.M.M. van Kessel