Of all the traditions practiced by indigenous communities in the Bolivian Andes, perhaps none appears so strange to outsiders as the Tinku, a form of ritual hand-to-hand combat that still takes place on certain feast days in some small rural towns in the northern areas of Potosí department. During the Tinku, young men from two rival communities (ayllus) take turns to engage in bloody one-on-one fist fights in the midst of a drunken and raucous fiesta. The young fighters wear leather helmets modeled on those worn by the Spanish conquistadors, and leather breastplates for protection. They bind their fists with woven belts, sometimes adding a stone in the palm of their hand to add extra force to their blows.
The two-or three-day fiestas start with the arrival of the young men from their home villages, marching in close order and playing long panpipes known as suqusu. The individual clashes take place in a charged atmosphere of music, dancing and drunkenness. Townspeople and sometimes the police oversee proceedings, but as the fiesta goes on things often escalate beyond their control, with pitched battles between rival ayllus breaking out, and it’s rare for a year to go by without someone being killed in the Tinku somewhere in the northern Potosí region. That said, bloodshed is perhaps the most important part of the ritual: as well as serving as a warlike rite of passage for young men, the Tinku acts as a fertility rite during which blood must be shed on both sides to satisfy the earth goddess, Pachamama, and ensure a bountiful harvest. The Tinku is also an important way of reaffirming indigenous cultural identity, and can help defuse all too real conflicts between communities that can otherwise erupt into more serious violence. Unmarried young women also sometimes fight in the Tinku, though their aim is usually to pull hair and rip clothes rather than draw blood. The Bolivian authorities generally disapprove, considering the Tinku primitive and atavistic, although anyone who’s seen the blood lust of spectators at a boxing match will recognize that such violent rituals are by no means confined to the Andes.
The best-known Tinku takes place in the community of Macha, 75 miles north of Potosí, in the first week of May, but there are several others in small villages in the region at other times of the year (including Torotoro).