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    Land of winds > The land > History | Issue 07 (Sep.-Oct. 2011)
    By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

The Chilean Pre-Hispanic Andes


The Chilean Pre-Hispanic Andes

According to the recent archaeological theories, it is believed that the first human beings to inhabit Chile came along the Pacific coast in a southwards direction and settled in close to the coastline as well as in the fertile valleys of this region some 15,000 years ago. The site known as Monteverde, near Puerto Montt (southern part of the country) is the oldest found in Chilean territory (dates back to 14,800 years), closely followed by Paleo-Indians remains from Laguna de Tagua Tagua (Central Chile, 11,500 years).


Prehispanic history of Chile, in Wikipedia.
Monte Verde (archaeological site), in Wikipedia.
Tagua Tagua Lagoon, in Wikipedia [es].
Book. “Chile antes de Chile” (“Chile before Chile”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “El arte rupestre en Chile” (“Cave art in Chile”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Chinchorro was among the earliest cultures to inhabit Chile. They were sedentary fishing communities located along the coastline of the Atacama Desert and date from a period between 7000 and 1500 B.C. Their main settlement was in the area now occupied by the modern city of Arica and the Valley of Camarones. Their burial rites set this culture apart from other groups of hunters and gatherers in the region, and their early mummies are thought to be the world’s first mummies.

All that remains from the rest of northern societies are the famous “conchales” (huge rubbish dumps of sea-shells) found in present day cities such as Arica, Pisagua, Taltal and Antofagasta.


Chinchorro mummies, in Wikipedia.
Chinchorro culture, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Chinchorro culture, in Tarapacá University of Arica [es].
Book. “Arica, diez mil años” (“Arica, ten thousand years”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Picture 01. Chinchorro mummy.
Picture 02. Chinchorro cap made of human hair.
Picture 03. Chinchorro child mummy.
Picture 04. Chinchorro burial.


Video 01. The Chinchorro culture [es].
Video 02. Chinchorro culture [es].
Video 03. Chinchorro mummies, Arica (part 1) [es].
Video 04. Chinchorro mummies, Arica (part 2) [es].


In Chile, hunter-gatherer societies evolved into agricultural-pottery societies, of which Llolleo (200-700 A.D.) and Pitrén represent the earliest development. The former settled between the rivers Choapa and Aconcagua (Central Chile). Their diet was based on quinua, an Andean grain very high in protein. In addition, their archaeological remains document the ritual use of hallucinogenic plants

The Pitrén culture was located further south between the Bío Bío River and the Llanquihue Lake, where they grew maize and potatoes on a small scale. They also produced pottery, often decorated with zoomorphic and anthropomorphic images, such as the famous “duck pitcher”, today known with the Mapudungu term ketru metawe. Pitrén was the first agricultural-pottery society to inhabit in southern Chile.


Llolleo culture, in Wikipedia [es].
Pitrén culture, in Wikipedia [es].
Llolleo culture, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Pitrén culture, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Ketru metawe (vessel), in Wikipedia [es].


Picture 05. Ketru metawe.
Picture 06. Llolleo mask.
Picture 07. Pitrén pottery 01.
Picture 08. Pitrén pottery 02.


After the Llolleo culture period, the central part of Chile was inhabited by the Aconcagua culture (900-1470 A.D.), whose agriculture was based on maize, squash, beans and quinua. Their most important legacy was their pottery: coffee-coloured pots and pitchers as well as bowls with elaborate black designs over orange clay background.


Aconcagua culture, in Wikipedia [es].
Aconcagua culture, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Picture 09. Aconcagua pottery 01.
Picture 10. Aconcagua pottery 02.
Picture 11. Aconcagua pottery 03.
Picture 12. Aconcagua pottery 04.


Northern Chile (between the country’s northernmost point and present-day region of Coquimbo) was home to agricultural-pottery societies strongly influenced by neighbouring cultures such as Tiwanaku in Bolivia. Among those societies, the Aymara, the Atacama or Lickan Antay, the Diaguita and the Camanchacos or Changos have been renowned for their importance and cultural influence. Both Aymaras and Atacamas still live in the country and they are considered as native peoples.

The remainder of the Atacama’s territory lies within the Atacama Desert (mostly in the surrounding of the Loa River) and on the slopes of the Atacama puna. First inhabitants were nomadic hunters that followed herds of wild camelids. Later, camelids breeding and a squash-, quinua-, beans- and maize-reliant agriculture in the oases with the help of irrigation contributed to the development of sedentary culture. Lack of resources forced them to trade with other peoples (e.g. Camanchacos that lived in the coast and Diaguita in the neighbouring Argentina) for food. They used caravans of llamas to carry products between the Andean highlands (dried meat or charqui) and the coast (fish and guano manure) as well as with the north of Argentina (potatoes). We know from archaeological evidence that they would have inhaled narcotic substances. Many geographical names were coined in their Kunza language, which is nowadays extinct except as the language used for ceremonial and sacred purposes such as the talátur. These songs, along with a handful of other traditions, are the only traits that make Atacameños different from the rest of the rural communities in northern Chile.


The Chilean Pre-Hispanic Andes

The Diaguita culture developed in the Norte Chico (Chilean Small/Near North) and what are now the provinces of Salta, Catamarca, La Rioja and Tucumán in north-western Argentina. They were experienced agriculture workers, who grew squash, quinua, maize, ajíes (chilli peppers) and beans using a complex and ingenious network of irrigation channels and terraces. The fruits of the algarrobo (and the chañar) provided bean pod flour that was ground and made into a type of bread called patay and a fermented alcoholic beverage called aloja. Like their Atacameños neighbours they herded llamas and alpacas, using them as a means of transport and as sources of protein and of wool for making clothing. Diaguita people were also skilful potters and their pottery is considered by many to be among the most beautiful Pre-Columbian ceramics in South America. In addition they were eminent copper- and bronzesmiths, but rarely worked with gold. Their language, known as Kakán, disappeared after the arrival of European conquerors and a lot of suppositions have been made but very little hard facts have been provided yet about it.


Aymara people, in Wikipedia.
Atacama people, in Wikipedia.
Diaguita people, in Wikipedia.
Chango people, in Wikipedia.
Aymara People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Atacama People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Diaguita culture, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Tesoros de San Pedro de Atacama” (“Treasures of San Pedro de Atacama”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Diaguitas, pueblos del norte” (“Diaguitas, northern peoples”) in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Diaguitas, pueblos del norte verde” (“Diaguitas, people of the green north”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Pescadores en la niebla. Los Changos y sus ancestros” (“Fishermen in the mist. The Changos and their ancestors”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Picture 13. Diaguita pottery 01.
Picture 14. Diaguita pottery 02.
Picture 15. Diaguita pottery 03.
Picture 16. Diaguita pottery 04.


Between 1470 and 1536, the region that spans from the northern border of present-day Chile to the Maule River was part of the Kollasuyu, the Inca Empire’s (Tawantinsuyu) southernmost limits. As in the rest of their territory, in today’s Chile the Incas constructed an elaborate system of roads and pathways (popularly known as “the Inca trail” or kapaq ñan, “main road”), several tampu (“tambos”, administrative settlements where supplies were stored and travellers could rest) and at least one pukara, a fortress located on top of the Cerro La Muralla (O’Higgins region). Despite their numerical superiority and their powerful army, the Incas were not able to subdue the Araucanian peoples. The result of the confrontation was that the Inca conquest of the territories of present-day Chile ended at the Maule River while the Mapuche fiercely defended their land (Wallmapu) against the Spanish for 300 more years.


Qullasuyo, in Wikipedia.
Inca Empire, in Wikipedia.
Pucara del Cerro La Muralla (fortress), in Wikipedia.
Wallmapu, in Wikipedia [es].
Book. “Tras la huella del inca en Chile” (“In the footsteps of the Incas in Chile”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Chile bajo el Imperio de los Inkas” (“Chile under the Inca rule”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Picture 17. Inca fortress in Santiago de Chile.
Picture 18. Inca figurine (Chile).
Picture 19. Inca roads system (Chile).
Picture 20. Inca bronze mace head (in 6-pointed star shape).


The Chilean Pre-Hispanic Andes

The Mapuche (the term means “people of the land” in Mapudungu) live in the south central part of Chile and the southern half of Argentina. At the time of the Spanish arrival (16th century) the Mapuche were one of three groups –Pikunche, “people of the north” in Mapudungu; Mapuche; and Huilliche, “people of the south” in Mapudungu– identified by the newcomers in present day Chile. They were nomadic people who depended mostly on hunting and gathering. During the two following centuries they established permanent settlements and adopted agriculture and cattle raising as their main productive activities. In addition, they expanded their borders and extended their influence further east reaching the territory of Argentina (Pampa and Patagonia) and merging with local peoples such as the Tehuelche.

It is estimated that there are more than a half-million Mapuches living today in Chile. Despite the many attempts of acculturation, negation or rejection of their customs and living under the pressure of white society and national governments, they have managed to retain much of their original identity and culture (including their traditional clothing, their musical instruments and some of their religious celebrations). Their language, Mapudungu, still has a substantial number of speakers and maintains its vigour thanks to the cultural, social and political forms of resistance that are deeply embedded in their communities.


The Mapuche, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche language, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche religion, in Wikipedia.
Mapuche People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
The Mapuche people, in Memoria chilena [es].
Book. “Voces Mapuches” (“Mapuche voices”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Platería Araucana” (“Araucanian silverwork”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Mapuche. Semillas de Chile” (“Mapuche. Seeds of Chile”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Mapuche”, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Picture 21. Mapuche demonstration (with Mapuche flags).
Picture 22. Mapuche ruka (traditional house).
Picture 23. Mapuche kultrún (drum).
Picture 24. Mapuche trarilongko.
Picture 25. Mapuche cemetery (archive photograph).
Picture 26. Mapuche stone flute.


Video 05. Mapuche video channel [es].
Video 06. Mapuche story about the Creation [es].
Video 07. Mapuche tale (“La niña de la calavera”, the skull-faced little girl) [es].


The southernmost part of Chile was inhabited by several native peoples. The Chiloé Island was home to the Cuncos or Chonos, who belonged to the Huilliche and, over the centuries, developed their own characteristics more in line with their southern neighbours (known as “canoeros”, canoe people) than with the northern Mapuche. The mountainous region between the Chiloé archipelago and Tierra del Fuego was occasionally inhabited by Tehuelche groups from the Argentinean Patagonia, while this area’s coastline, dotted with islands and fjords, was home to Qawásqar, Kaweshqar or Alacaluf groups, nomadic “canoeros” who depended mostly on gathering seafood and fishing. The Yagán or Yámana, another “canoero” people, settled along the coasts of Tierra del Fuego and its adjacent islands, while the interior of the island was inhabited by the Selk’nam or Onas, a nomadic people organised in small family groups who lived mainly from hunting guanacos. With the exception of the Qawásqar, whose last mestizo descendants still live in their original homeland, the other peoples became extinct shortly after the Europeans arrived. Only small and scattered fragments of their history were rescued before they were swept away by the architects of the New World, emphasizing the full extent of the lost.


Cunco (people), in Wikipedia.
Tehuelche people, in Wikipedia.
Alacaluf people, in Wikipedia.
Yaghan people, in Wikipedia.
Selknam people, in Wikipedia.
Tehuelche People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Kawashkar People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Yámana People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Selk’nam People, in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Book. “Hombres del Sur” (“Southern Men”), in Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].


Picture 27. Chono or Cunco people (archive photograph).
Picture 28. Alacaluf people on their canoe (archive photograph)
Picture 29. Yámana children (archive photograph).
Picture 30. Selk’nam men (archive photograph).


Picture A | Picture B | Picture C


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