Pre-Columbian Civilization and Cultures
In Pre-Columbian times, then, what is now Chile comprised a diversity of native peoples ranging from small isolated bands of hunter-gatherers to semiurbanized outliers of Tiwanaku (in present-day Bolivia) and Inka Cuzco (in present-day Peru).
Inhabiting the westward-sloping precordillera and the altiplano of today’s the Norte Grande, politically subordinate to the Inka, the Aymara were part of an exchange system between peoples occupying different ecological niches. The coastal Chango, for instance, moved products such as fish and guano up the transverse river valleys in return for agricultural and livestock products such as maize, chuño (freeze-dried potatoes), ch’arki (freeze-dried meat), and llama and alpaca wool. Llamas, of course, carried the goods from sea level to the puna.
South of the Río Loa, the Atacameño practiced a nearly identical subsistence, but both they and the more southerly Diaguita operated on a looser tether from the Inka state and its tributary obligations. South of the heartland, where the Inka had an equally tenuous control over the sedentary Picunche, other Araucanian peoples—the semisedentary Mapuche and the closely related Pehuenche, Huilliche, and Puelche, as well as the Cunco—withstood both the Inka expansion and, for over three centuries, the Spanish invasion. Among the reasons they survived were their mobility, as shifting cultivators, and their decentralized political structure—not easily dominated by the bureaucratic Inka.
In Patagonia, hunting, fishing, and gathering were the primary means of subsistence for peoples such as the Chonos, Tehuelche, Kawéskar (Alacaluf), Yámana (Yahgan), and Selkn’am (Ona), who proved unconquerable until sheep occupied their hunting grounds and introduced European diseases nearly obliterated them.
The Inka Empire and Its Collapse
At the time of the Spanish invasion, the Inka ruled a centralized but unwieldy empire; their hold was especially tenuous on the southern Araucanian (Mapuche) frontier. Though Inka political achievements were impressive, they were relative latecomers, only consolidating their power about A.D. 1438. Building on earlier Andean advances in mathematics, astronomy, and other sciences, they were literate and sophisticated, but their hierarchical organization, like that of the modern Soviet Union, proved unsustainable.
As the 16th century approached, because of internal divisions after the premature deaths of the Inka ruler Huayna Capac and his immediate heir, there developed a struggle between potential successors Atahualpa and Huáscar. The fact that the Inka empire was a house divided against itself helps explain why a relatively small contingent of Spanish invaders could overcome vastly superior numbers, but it’s only part of the story.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition