Human occupation of the Americas, unlike that of Africa, Europe, and Asia, is relatively recent. The earliest immigrants reached North America from East Asia more than 12,500 years ago, when sea levels fell during the last major continental glaciation and united the two continents via the Bering Strait land bridge. Some researchers believe this migration, interrupted by interglacials during which rising sea levels submerged the crossing, began tens of thousands of years earlier. Nevertheless, by the time the bridge last closed about 10,000 years ago, the entire Western Hemisphere was populated, at least thinly, with hunter-gatherers bands in environments that varied from barren, torrid deserts to sopping rainforests to frigid uplands and everything in between.
Evidence of Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers is relatively scarce in Chile, but one of the continent’s oldest archaeological sites is at Monte Verde, just north of Puerto Montt. Radiocarbon dating there has given a figure of 13,000 years at a site that, according to archaeologist Tom Dillehay, has some of the continent’s earliest evidence of architecture, as well as use of wild potatoes and other native tubers. The most geographically proximate early man sites—later than Monte Verde—are at least 900 kilometers north. Dillehay’s research, while generally accepted, has earned some criticism for its early dates.
As important as hunting was to the first Americans, gathering wild foods probably contributed more to the diet. As the population gradually reached saturation point under hunter-gatherer technology, they began to rely on so-called incipient agriculture. In the process of gathering, incipient agriculturalists had acquired knowledge of the annual cycles of seed plants, and they selected, scattered, and harvested them in a lengthy domestication process. The earliest domesticated plants may have been Amazonian root crops such as manioc, but as these are perishable tubers rather than durable seeds, there is little supporting evidence.
In any event, starting about 6000 B.C., beans, squash, and potatoes became the staples of an agricultural complex that, as population grew, supported a settled village life and then the great Andean civilizations. When the Spaniards finally arrived, according to one scholar, they found “the richest assemblage of food plants in the Western Hemisphere.” Domestic animals were few, though—just the dog (sometimes raised for food), the guinea pig (definitely raised for food), and the llama and alpaca (both raised for food and fiber, with the llama also serving as a pack animal).
Slower to develop than the Andean region, mainland southern Chilean society remained semisedentary and more egalitarian until only a short time before the Spanish invasion. In Patagonia, some indigenous peoples sustained a hunter-gatherer way of life even into the 20th century.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition