Chilean territory was inhabited by different native peoples before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors in 1536. These included Incas, Atacameños and Diaguitas in the north and Mapuches, Yaganes, Tehuelches, and Onas in the south.
Long before the arrival of the Spaniards conquerors, the territory called Chile was inhabited by diverse indigenous peoples. The first vestiges of human presence date back 12.500 years to the area of Monte Verde, near Puerto Montt, 1,000 kilometers south of Santiago.
The traces of the Chinchorro people in the country’s north date back around 7,000 years. The mummies buried seven centuries ago, prior to the Egyptian ones, are a testimony to this culture. The Incan people dominated the territory down to the current central zone when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. The Mapuches were the majority in the south, while the Aymaras, Diaguitas, and Changos lived in different parts of the north.
The oldest mummies in the world
The Chilean north coast witnessed the emergence of the Chinchorro culture, expert fishermen and weavers. Their sophisticated method for mummifying their dead is remarkable. The Chinchorro mummies are older than the Egyptian ones and they come in black, red and with mud patinas; some of them are showcased in the University of Tarapacá collection in the city of Arica, where visitors go drawn by the oldest mummies in the world.
The area also includes the largest geo-glyph in the world: the Giant of Atacama is 86 meters tall.
Also the Atacameño indigenous people inhabited northern Chile. Their main activities were agriculture, llama breeding, mining, and metallurgy, in addition to textile and pottery handcrafts. Remains of the Atacameños, such as for example the Quitor pucará (fortress), can be found in the area around San Pedro de Atacama. Archeologists’ and anthropologists’ research also reveals that another characteristic of the Atacameños was that they were also stargazers. Until today, the transparency of the sky in Chile during most of the year allow different astronomers from all over the world to contemplate the southern sky.
The Diaguita culture emerged between Copiapó and the Choapa River and was a people of potters, miners, and textile artisans. The Changos also inhabited the area near the coast and were skilled fishermen who challenged the ocean water aboard vessels made with sea lion skins.
The Mapuche’s warrior spirit
The ancestral lands of the Mapuche people, also known as the Araucanos, lie between the Bio Bio and the Toltén Rivers. Their indomitable spirit allowed them to resist the invaders of their lands for over three centuries.
They are the largest native ethnic group, comprise almost 4% of the total Chilean population, and preserve their traditions and their language, Mapudungún. The Mapuche world view is particularly appreciated for its rich symbolism and unity with nature. Blue is the sacred color for the Mapuches and the sky is the land above. They are also known for their textiles and unique jewelry and are the native people who have most influenced the country’s racial and cultural blend.
Patagones at the end of the world
In the southernmost lands in the world, in Patagonia between the Gulf of Reloncaví and Tierra del Fuego, lived the Ona and Yamana peoples, the Tehuelche or Aonikem, also known as Patagones, an expression that means people with big feet. The first European explorers dubbed them thus intrigued by the enormous tracks that they would find. The explanation lies with the footwear that the natives used, crafting it of skins that protected them from dampness and the cold. While the Patagones did not have big feet, they did stand out for their height, measuring an average of 1.80 meters.
A little further to the south, between the Gulf of Sorrow and the Beagle Channel, lived the Acalufes, a seafaring people who traveled aboard canoes made of bark or hollowed-out tree trunks. They would cover their bodies with sea lion oil to protect themselves from the rain and the intense cold. Their surroundings were not suitable for agriculture or raising livestock and they dedicated themselves to hunting seals and to fishing. They would keep a fire alive in their canoes that would give them light at night. In 1520, the expedition of Hernando de Magallanes (Magellan) came across these small craft belonging to the Alcalufes and they christened the area with the name Tierra del Fuego (Fire Land).