The northwestern area of Patagonia spanning the north and central parts of the current province of Neuquén in Argentina and Chile’s VIIIth, IXth and Xth Regions were peopled by the Mapuche (who in the past were also known as Araucanian, a name that has now fallen out of use).
They are apparently not related to the older populations that inhabited the rest of Patagonia. In fact, their origin is quite a mystery.
Originally established in central Chile, they were first dislodged southwards by the Incas who invaded the region in the mid 1400s incorporating it to their Empire. Spanish “Conquistadors” after destroying the Inca Empire entered Chile in 1541. Conquistador is a Spanish word meaning conqueror; they were the adventurers, soldiers and explorers who took the New World by force, seeking gold, silver and precious stones and forced the natives to work in the mines that produced them. Violent and merciless, they found their match in Chile. Mapuche and Spaniards engaged in a war that continued for over three hundred years; the longest standoff between natives and Europeans in America. Spanish conquest gradually forced the Mapuche to move south towards the Island of Chiloé and deeper into the southern forests.
They also moved westwards across the Andes, settling on its eastern foot-hills in what is now Neuquén, where they “Araucanized” the local natives, who adopted their very convenient language (Mapudungun). The Mapuche progressively extended their influence eastwards towards the Pampas, and through war, trade and cattle rustling, absorbed and “Araucanized” the original “Puelche” inhabitants of Tehuelche blood during the XVIIIth and XIXth centuries.
The Mapuche were sedentary farmers who made pottery and wove wool. This distinguishes them from all the other Patagonian natives who were nomadic hunter-gatherers, lacking pottery and textiles, living in leather tents, the “toldos”, hunting guanaco and ñandú (The Patagonian ñandú or choique Rhea pennata, is a flightless bird similar to an ostrich. It is 1 m [3 ft.] tall and weighs 20 kg [44 lb.]. It can run at speeds of up to 60 km/h [37 mph]. )
After military campaigns conducted by the Argentine and Chilean governments in the 1870s, the Mapuche territory was occupied by both countries. There is still a sizeable Mapuche population of about one million in Chile and some 200.000 in Argentina. They fared far better than the other Patagonian natives, which were virtually wiped out by disease, alcohol and the disruption of their culture.
More on the Mapuche: Mapuche International (in English).
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©