While Argentina’s natural landscapes, flora, and fauna are fascinating and enchanting, the country also has a cultural landscape, one transformed by human agency over the millennia. Few parts of the country are truly pristine, but their landscapes are no less interesting for all that.
As an outlier of the great Andean civilizations, northwestern Argentina shows tangible testimony of those times. While their monuments are not as grand as those of Perú and Bolivia, many pukarás (fortresses), pircas (walls), agricultural terraces, and pre-Columbian roads survive in sites like the Quebrada de Humahuaca and Quilmes.
Except for the shifting cultivators of the upper Mesopotamian provinces, most of the rest of pre-Columbian Argentina was a thinly populated place of hunter-gatherers who left few conspicuous landmarks—notwithstanding aboriginal rock-art sites like Santa Cruz Province’s Cueva de las Manos. Some of the continent’s most important early human archaeological sites are just over the border from Santa Cruz, in the Chilean region of Magallanes.
In immediate pre-Columbian times, bands of nomadic Querandí hunter-gatherers peopled what is now Buenos Aires and its surrounding pampas. Living in smallish bands with no permanent settlements, they relied on wild game like the guanaco (a relative of the domestic llama) and the flightless ostrich-like ñandú (rhea) as well as fish, for subsistence. What remains of their material culture is primarily lithic (arrowheads, spear points, and the rounded stone balls known as boleadoras) and ceramic.
Agriculture and the Landscape
In some areas, such as the more remote parts of Quebrada de Humahuaca, local communities have retained control of their better lands and constructed durable terrace systems that have conserved soil and maintained productivity. Native crops such as quinoa are still grown here, while indigenous llama herders persist in the northwestern puna well upward of 3,000 meters. Cultivation along the eastern Andean slopes extended south into what is now Mendoza Province.
The pre-Columbian peoples of northern Mesopotamia were shifting cultivators, and as such their impact on the landscape is less obvious. Because they cut the forest and used fire to clear the fields before planting, their impact was significant, but long fallow periods allowed the woodlands to recover. Much of what seems to be virgin forest may in fact be secondary growth.
The arrival of the Spaniards, of course, brought major transformations. At first content to collect tribute from the indigenous population, they became landholders as that population declined from various causes, primarily introduced diseases. Their large rural estates, known as haciendas, consisted of relatively small areas of intensively cultivated land surrounded by large areas that grazed cattle, horses, and other European livestock.
From the pampas south, the European invasion utterly transformed the landscape into first an open-range cattle zone and then, successively, sprawling sheep and cattle ranches known as estancias that dominated the rural economy for more than a century. Parts of the pampas, in turn, became large-scale grain ranches. In Patagonia, the sprawling sheep estancia, producing wool for export to Europe and North America, was the dominant agricultural institution.
After the Spaniards took control of Argentina, as in the rest of their American dominions, they tried to institute a policy of congregación or reducción. This meant concentrating native populations in villages or towns for the purpose of political control, tribute (taxation), and religious evangelization.
The only area where this really worked was the Andean northwest, which had much in common with the highland civilizations of Perú and Bolivia; still, descendents of the same natives who had resisted the 15th-century Inka invasions made things difficult for the Spaniards. For indigenous peoples, who lived in dispersed settlements near their fields or their animals, this was an inconvenience at best, and contributed to land disputes both within indigenous communities and between indigenous communities and Spaniards.
Still, in many areas, the need to be close to one’s fields or animals has reinforced a dispersed rural settlement pattern—in the puna, for instance, some villages have become primarily ceremonial sites where people gather for the festival of their patron saint. The standard house is often an adobe, usually with a thatched or tiled roof, and small windows to conserve heat; frequent earthquakes, though, have encouraged reinforced-concrete-block construction, and galvanized roofing has become more common.
A different model prevailed in the northeast, where Jesuits organized Guaraní-speaking peoples into self-sufficient missions against the raids of Brazilian slavers. While the Jesuits may have been paternalistic, they also taught useful skills, such as carpentry and masonry, which helped create the monumental mission architecture that survives in ruins along the upper Paraná drainage in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil.
In the Mapuche country of the northern Patagonian lakes district, traditional rucas, plank houses with thatched roofs traditionally erected with community labor rather than by individual families, have nearly disappeared; they are more common on the Chilean side, where the indigenous population is larger and more cohesive. In southern Patagonia, 19th century “Magellanic” houses often affect a Victorian style, with wooden framing covered by metal cladding and topped by corrugated zinc roofs.
Cities, of course, differ greatly from the countryside. By royal decree, Spanish cities in the Americas were organized according to a rectangular grid surrounding a central plaza where all the major public institutions—cabildo (town council), cathedral, and market—were located. Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities were no exception to the rule; though the transformation from colonial city to modern metropolis obliterated some landmarks, the essential grid pattern remains.
Traditionally, as in Buenos Aires, colonial houses fronted directly on the street or sidewalk, with an interior patio or garden for family use; any setback was almost unheard of. This general pattern has persisted, though building materials have mostly changed from adobe to concrete, and high-rise apartment blocks have replaced single-family houses in many city neighborhoods.
At the same time, many wealthier Argentines have built houses with large gardens, on the North American suburban model, in a frenzy of conspicuous consumption—but still surrounded by high fences and state-of-the-art security in so-called countrys (gated communities) that surround Buenos Aires.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Argentina, 3rd edition