Vegan and Vegetarian Before It Was a Thing

Veganism and Vegetarianism are leading alternative diets in the developed world. These diets attract a wide variety of people for a variety of reasons. A few common motives are animal rights, a holistic way of eating, health and respect for life.

Many vegans and vegetarians are not aware that these diets wouldn’t be as feasible without the contribution of Andean foods and people. The Andeans were the fathers and mothers of modern veganism because of plant-based diet they created through generations of selective breeding and trading. They also respected the earth and animals and went to great lengths to give humane treatment to all living things. Inkas shunned hurting animals, lived an active and athletic lifestyle, made hunting illegal, and gave thanks when any product was taken from the animal. Today, Peru and Ecuador are among the first countries to ban GMOs.

Quechua woman holding a vegan staple food of quinoa.

The relationship between Inkas and animals aligned well with the modern relationship shared between animals and vegans. To some level, this relationship was prompted by respect of the living (Andean dogma taught that everything shared the same life force and thus everything required the same respect as a human), but some of it was out of necessity. The largest game animal found in the Andes during Inka times was a llama. At most, a llama can only provide 100lbs of meat. For a culture that didn’t have a convenient way to store meat and that relied upon llamas for their fur, llama meat and sacrifice was reserved for the most ardent festivals, and then only enjoyed by the upper classes. Since the Inkas only ate meat seldomly, they domesticated and found plants that fulfilled their needs. Many of these plants are used by vegans and vegetarians today to provide a similar lifestyle.

Vegan and Vegetarian Staples from the Andes

Quinoa, potatoes, sweet potato (different than yam), corn (maize), chia are a few of these foods that are common for vegans and vegetarians that Andeans played a key role in domesticating and popularizing.

*A quick side note, maize was domesticated in southern Mexico and made its way to South America. Once in the Andes, Andeans cultivated several different strains of maize which assisted in the modern prevalence and resilience of the crop.

The Inkas were able to trade for many different foods that weren’t necessarily found in the mountains such as, peanuts (image no peanut butter guys. It would be a travesty), avocados, cacao, cashews, and cassava.

If the Inkas didn’t popularize these foods they may not have made it to the developed world.

The Inkan Relationship with Animals.

Alpaca herd

As already noted the Inkas maintained great respect for animals, as with all natural things in the world. They viewed everything as living and believed everything had to exist in strict balance. The Inkas created one of the most restrictive laws in the Andes by outlawing hunting outside of state-sanctioned hunts. These hunts, according to Inka Garcilaso de la Vega in the 16th century, only occurred once a year. A different area was selected each year based on the overabundance of animals, and even then, only enough animals were killed to accomplish their designs. This was typical to fulfill the requirements of upcoming rituals. (You know those scientifically backed rituals that kept the rain coming, the sun-rising, and sickness away…)

Using farmed llamas and alpacas for meat wasn’t worth it.

The Inkas lived in a frigid environment. Cusco, their capital has an elevation of 4,000m (11,000ft). This is considered low elevation by Andean standards. In some areas of the Empire temperatures rarely would get above freezing. The naturally warm fibers of alpacas and llamas were key to survival. The textiles formed from these fibers was the highest status symbol there was in Tahuatinsuyu. In a land that consisted of plentiful plant-based food, there was little reward in butchering a llama or an alpaca for their meat when their fur was most prized. Even coy (guinea pigs), was rarely used for meat because their droppings provided great fertilizer. While obtaining these animal products the utmost respect was paid to the animal. Rituals were typically performed to give appreciation to the animal or the earth for its offering.Festivals were one of the rare times that the Inkas intentionally harmed animals

So what role did meat play? The Amount of Meat Intake Varied by Class and Time Period

There is evidence that meat eating was never popular among the Inkas. Considering the Inkas continued many traditions that pre-dated their culture it’s likely that eating meat wasn’t ever popular among the agricultural societies of the Andes. This was only on occasion and at the most important festivals and rituals. At these festivals, those that were of lower classes either received the leftover meat or none at all. For the rest of the year, people of low economic standing had to make do with little to no meat.

More vegan athletes emerge every year debunking the myth that a meatless diet impedes health.

More vegan athletes emerge every year debunking the myth that a meatless diet impedes health.

Limited meat intake didn’t limit their physical capabilities. Without meat, the Inkas-commoners and nobles alike-accomplished physical feats deemed nearly impossible by modern standards. They didn’t rely on meat to fuel or recover from sprints at alpine elevations, nor to move stones that weighed 20-tons. The Inkas maintained a network of sprinters to relay messages over mountains and through forests, from one end of their empire to the other. The sprinters did so without meat to supplement their diet, instead, they had potatoes, corn, or peppers with salt to fuel themselves. The Inkas moved stones that weight several tonnes over distances exceeding a thousand kilometers without relying on meat. The Inkas typically lived longer than the average American. 

Us meat eaters are the oddballs here.

Continuing the tradition

The continuance of the balanced relationship between human and other organisms survives until today in the Andes. Peru and Ecuador have both banned the cultivation and importation of GMOs. This falls in line with their unbeknownst habit of leading the world in food trends. They don’t want these pseudo-plants crossbreeding with their unique ecosystem, nor do they want to hamper the strong small-farm industry they rely on. This traditions goes back thousands of years and perhaps saved them from famines resulting from crop failure such as the Irish Potato Famine.

Don’t get me wrong, these developing countries still have a long way to go in restoring their ecosystem from centuries of neglect and abuse. They are trying. If more of the world appreciated their efforts they would be able to do more.


If anyone region was eliminated from the historic world and its removal was weighed against the lifestyle that vegans and vegetarians enjoy, the Andes would have had the greatest effect. It was almost like destiny led Andeans so that they could live without animal products. They did an excellent job and the tradition lives on today with Peru taking a lead with banning GMOs. They can be termed the forefathers of veganism.