Inca Housing and Settlement


Architecture and housing affected the infestation of vinchucas in Cuzco. Inca rulers divided Cuzco into two parts, called upper and lower Cuzco; each was further divided into clans of pure‑blood Incas, half‑breed people, and foreigners (see Zuidema 1964). The clans were matrilineal, with matrilateral cross‑cousin marriages between the clans. Clustered gatherings of houses and their inhabitants provided T. infestans (harboring T. cruzi ) ample opportunities to hide and feed.

The imperial city of Cuzco provided many havens for insects. Imperial houses and temples were built of tightly fit dressed stone. Mortar and plaster were little used, providing openings at cornices and foundations for vinchucas to enter. Roofs consisted of wood primarily that preferred sites for T. infestans to nest. Houses in the suburbs were constructed of field stone, clay, or adobe. They were rectangular with gabled and thatched roofs. The rooms were built around a courtyard where animals were kept. The proximity of animals to sleeping quarters facilitates the transmission of T. cruzi from infected animals to humans through the bite of vinchucas.


Spanish Conquest and Vinchucas


The sequel to the Inca empire was the Spanish conquest in 1532, partially facilitated by civil war and diseases. As Tupac Yupanki lay dying in Quito about 1527, he was informed of white‑skinned people with hair on their faces and shining clothes riding on big animals, they having appeared around Panama. Tupac Yupanki established a dual government. One ruler, Atawallpa, wanted total control, attacked the other, and imprisoned him after five years of civil war. Francisco Pizarro met Atawallpa on the plains of Cajamarca in 1532, slaughtered thousands of Incas, held Atawallpa ransom for gold payments from Cuzco, and then beheaded him after receiving the shipment of gold.

It is not certain to what extent Chagas’ disease debilitated the Incas, but from the evidence of this disease among Inca mummies one can assume that at least some Incas suffered from chronic Chagas’ disease. Chronic Chagas’ disease is considered by some to be the greatest hindrance to development in Latin America today.

After the Spanish conquest of the Incas, Andeans were weakened with diseases of Old World origin (see Dobyns 1963). Smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, bubonic plague, and undoubtedly several other diseases were unknown in the pre‑Columbian New World (Ashburn 1947; Crosby 1976). Andeans were especially stricken by smallpox, which was accompanied by respiratory ailments, possibly measles and tuberculosis. These diseases are considered virgin‑soil epidemics because Andeans had no previous contact with them and were immunologically almost defenseless.

An epidemic of the 1520s in Peru was caused by either measles or smallpox. Smallpox is the prime suspect. It was a major blow to the Inca empire because it killed Wayna Capac, the Inca emperor, and as many as one‑half of the population (Crosby 1972:52). “When Wayna Capac died,” wrote Cieza de León (1959), “the mourning was such that the lamentation and shrieks rose to the skies, causing the birds to fall to the ground. The news traveled far and wide, and nowhere did it not evoke great sorrow.” Conquistador Pedro Pizarro (1921) recorded that had “Wayna Capac been alive when we Spaniards entered this land, it would have been impossible for us to win it, for he was much beloved by all his vassals.” Andeans of the Inca empire told Pedro Pizarro that they had no acquaintance with smallpox in pre‑Columbian times (see Crosby 1972:62, note 38). Smallpox is only one of the epidemics that decimated Andean populations. The pre‑Columbian population for the central Andes has been estimated at 6 million inhabitants; by 1650 the population had decreased to 1.5 million (see Dobyns 1966:397‑98).

Conquest also brought drastic social changes, one being that Andeans were expected to exchange resources, silver, and gold with Spain. Many of the ties across the Andes were diminished as others were created from the mountains to the coast and across the Atlantic. During colonial and post‑colonial times, large cities were established along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America. Trade routes were established between coastal ports and interior cities. A major route was established between the oceans from Lima, through Cuzco, across the central Andes to La Paz, to the mines of Potosi and Sucre, and down across Argentina to Buenos Aires. Infected vinchucas, animals, and humans traveled this and other routes until all the countries of Latin America had Chagas’ disease.

Vinchucas had become a nuisance in Chile in the 1800s. The following is a translation of Rodolfo Amando Phillippi’s Viaje al Desierto de Atacama hecho por orden del Gobierno de Chile en el verano 1853:


Fleas and lice are not found in Atacama, and the natives assure me that these animals die whenever they are introduced by chance. Instead of these, the houses abound with vinchucas. It is a species of flying bug with very large legs; its length is 11 lineas, but it is very slender, of dark color. They rarely fly, and during the day they principally hide in the thatch of the roof where they descend at night to feed themselves on human blood. Their bite does not cause pain, but sensitive people develop boils that become inflamed for several days, accompanied by a species of fever. If a vinchuca is squashed, it leaves a very black mark that never can be removed. One morning, I counted in my bed forty‑one vinchucas between large and small. They appear to belong to various distinct species, and there are some rare ones in the middle of the desert (Amando Phillippi 1860:54).


This account indicates that vinchucas continued to infest houses in the nineteenth century. The author also makes the point that vinchucas colonize areas not frequented much by other insects; he also emphasizes the insects’ abundance.


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