According to folklore, it is an evil monster-like man, often a stranger and often a white man, who seeks out unsuspecting Indians, to kill them and abuse their bodies in disgusting ways, primarily by stealing their body fat for various nefarious cannibalistic purposes or cutting them up and selling their flesh as fried chicharrones. Pishtaco is derived from the local language Quechua word: "pishtay" which mean to "behead, cut the throat or cut into slices".
Preoccupation with body fat has a long tradition in the Andes region. In pre-Hispanic times, fat was so prized that a deity for it existed, Viracocha (Sea of fat). It is also natural for the peasant rural poor to view fleshiness and excess body fat as the very sign of life, good health, strength and beauty. Many illnesses are thought to have their roots in the loss of body fats and skeletal thinness is abhorred. The Indians were horrified when they saw the practice of the Conquistadores of treating their wounds with fats taken from enemy corpses.
Spanish missionaries were feared as Pishtacos by the Andean aboriginals, who believed they were killing people for fat with which to oil churchbells to make them specially sonorous. In modern times similar beliefs held that human fat was needed to grease the machinery of sugar mills or that jet aircraft engines could not be started without a squirt of human fat. Pishtaco beliefs have affected international assistance programs, e.g. leading to rejection of the US Food for Peace program by several communities, out of fears that the real purpose was to fatten children, and later exploit them for their fat. Survey geologists and other Europeans working on the Peruvian and Bolivian altiplano have been attacked by natives in the belief that they were Pishtacos. The work of anthropologists has been stymied because measurements of fat folds were rumoured to be part of a plot to select the fattest individuals later to be targeted by Pishtacos. In 2009 the Pishtaco legend was cited as a possible contributory factor in the apparent fabrication of a story by Peruvian police of a gang murdering up to 60 people to harvest their fat.
The pishtaco is prominently referenced in the novel Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa. In the book, two members of the Peruvian Civil Guard investigate the disappearance of three men, trying to determine if they were killed by the Shining Path guerilla group or by mythical monsters.
- Canessa, Andrew (2000). "Fear and loathing on the kharisiri trail: Alterity and identity in the Andes". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute: 705–720. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.00041.
- McLagan:216. Marrin:76
- Collyns, Dan (2 December 2009). "Peru human fat killings 'a lie'". BBC News. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- Llosa, Mario Vargas (1997). Death in the Andes. Penguin Books.
- Canessa, Andrew (2000). "Fear and loathing on the kharisiri trail: Alterity and identity in the Andes". Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6: 705–720. doi:10.1111/1467-9655.00041.
- Weismantel, Mary J. (2001). Cholas and pishtacos: stories of race and sex in the Andes. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-89154-2.
- Gow, Peter (2001). An Amazonian myth and its history. Oxfor d University Press. ISBN 0-19-924196-1.
- Benson, Elizabeth P.; Anita Gwynn Cook (2001). Ritual sacrifice in ancient Peru. University of Texas Press.
- del Aguila, Ernesto Vásquez (2007). Pishtacos: Myth, Rumor, Resistance and Structural Inequalities in Colonial and Modern Peru. New York: Columbia University-Mailman School of Public Health. Retrieved November 20, 2009.
- Marrin, Albert (1986). Aztecs and Spaniards: Cortés and the conquest of Mexico. Atheneum. p. 76. ISBN 0-689-31176-1. Retrieved 22 November 2009. "Melted fat taken from the body of a dead Indian was then used to soothe the raw wound."
- McLagan, Jennifer; Leigh Beisch (2008). Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. Ten Speed Press. pp. 216–217. ISBN 1-58008-935-6. Retrieved 22 November 2009.
- Franco, Jean; Mary Louise Pratt, Kathleen Elizabeth Newman. Critical passions: selected essays. Post-contemporary interventions. Duke University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-8223-2248-X. Retrieved 22 November 2009. -->
- Temptation of the Word: The Novels of Mario Vargas Llosa.
- Kristal, Efraín (1999). Vanderbilt University Press http://books.google.com/books?id=RRAFGXNtgKEC&pg=PA192&dq=pishtaco+grease+the+machinery#v=onepage&q=pishtaco%20grease%20the%20machinery&f=false. Retrieved 23 November 2009. Missing or empty
- Nordstrom, Carolyn; Antonius C. G. M. Robben (1995). Fieldwork under fire: contemporary studies of violence and survival. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-08994-4. Retrieved 23 November 2009.
- Scheper-Hughes, Nancy (1993). Death without weeping: the violence of everyday life in Brazil. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-07537-4. Retrieved 23 November 2009.