Elderly Uro woman selling handicrafts
|Regions with significant populations|
|Lake Titicaca islands, Puno, Peru and Bolivia|
|Aymara, Spanish, Uru–Chipaya languages|
|Related ethnic groups|
The Uru or Uros (Uru: Qhas Qut suñi) are an indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia. They live on an approximate and still growing 120 self-fashioned floating islands in Lake Titicaca near Puno. They form three main groups: the Uru-Chipaya, Uru-Murato, and Uru-Iruito. The Uru-Iruito still inhabit the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca and the Desaguadero River.
According to legend, the Uru descend from a people that spoke the Puquina language. They considered themselves the owners of the lake and water. According to the legend, Uru used to say that they had black blood, because they did not feel the cold. They historically called themselves Lupihaques ("Sons of the Sun"). Although most Uru languages have been lost, but maintain their identity and some old customs.
The purpose of the island settlements was originally defensive; if a threat arose the floating islands could be moved. The largest island retains a watchtower almost entirely constructed of reeds.
The Uru traded with the Aymara tribe on the mainland, intermarrying with them and eventually abandoning the Uru language for that of the Aymara. About 500 years ago they lost their original language. When conquered by the Inca empire, they had to pay taxes to them, and often were made slaves.
Reed island construction
The larger islands house about ten families, while smaller ones, only about thirty meters wide, house only two or three families.
The islets are made of totora reeds, which grow in the lake. The dense roots that the plants develop and interweave form a natural layer called Khili (about one to two meters thick) that support the islands. They are anchored with ropes attached to sticks driven into the bottom of the lake. The reeds at the bottoms of the islands rot away fairly quickly, so new reeds are added to the top constantly, about every three months; this is what makes it exciting for tourists when walking on the island. This is especially important in the rainy season when the reeds rot much faster. The islands last about thirty years.
Each step on an island sinks about 2-4" depending on the density of the ground underfoot. As the reeds dry, they break up more and more as they are walked upon. As the reed breaks up and moisture gets to it, it rots, and a new layer has to be added to it. It is a lot of work to maintain the islands. Because the people living there receive so many tourists now, they have less time to maintain everything, so they have to work even harder in order to keep up with the tourists and with the maintenance of their island. Tourism provides financial opportunities for the natives, while simultaneously challenging their traditional lifestyle.
The Uru's islands are located at 3810 meters above sea level, and just five kilometers west from Puno port. Around 2,000 descendants of the Uru were counted in the 1997 census, although only a few hundred still live on and maintain the islands; most have moved to the mainland. The Uru also bury their dead on the mainland in special cemeteries.
Food is cooked with fires placed on piles of stones. To relieve themselves, tiny 'outhouse' islands are near the main islands. The ground root absorbs the waste.
Much of the Urus' diet and medicine also revolve around the same totora reeds used to construct the islands. When a reed is pulled, the white bottom is often eaten for iodine. This prevents goitres. This white part of the reed is called the chullo (Aymara [tʃʼuʎo]). The Uru rely on totora reeds in the same way that the Andean people of Peru rely on the coca leaf for relief from hunger and the harsh climate. When in pain, they may wrap the reed around the body part that is in pain. If it is hot outside, they sometimes roll the white part of the reed in their hands and split it open, placing the reed on their forehead. In this form, it is very cool to the touch. The white part of the reed is also used to help ease alcohol-related hangovers. The totora reeds are a primary source of food. The Uru also make a reed flower tea.
Local residents fish ispi, carachi and catfish. Trout was introduced to the lake from Canada in 1940, and kingfish was introduced from Argentina. Uru also hunt birds such as seagulls, ducks and flamingos, and graze their cattle on the islets. They also run crafts stalls aimed at the numerous tourists who visit ten of the islands each year. They barter totora reeds on the mainland in Puno to get products they need, such as quinoa and other foods.
The Uru people have domesticated local animals to assist with producing food and other purposes. For example, cormorants, waterbirds who catch fish, are kept tethered with wool tied to their feet, so that they can catch fish for human consumption. Another local bird, the ibis, is domesticated for laying eggs. Ibis are also butchered for meat. To control rats on the reed islands, domestic cats are also kept by the Uru islanders.
The Uru do not reject modern technology: some boats have motors, some houses have solar panels to run appliances such as televisions and the main island is home to an Uru-run FM radio station, which plays music for several hours a day.
Early schooling is done on several islands, including a traditional school and a school run by a Christian church. Older children and university students attend school on the mainland, often in nearby Puno.
Historically, most of the Uru islands were located near the middle of the lake, about 9 miles from the shore; however, in 1986, after a major storm devastated the islands, many Uru rebuilt closer to shore.
As of 2011[update], about 1,200 Uru lived on an archipelago of 60 artificial islands, clustering in the western corner of the lake near the port town of Puno. The islands have become one of Peru's tourist attractions, allowing the Uru to supplement their hunting and fishing by conveying visitors to the islands by motorboat and selling handicrafts.
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