Mapuche history

The Mapuche people of southern Chile has a long history dating back as an archaeological culture to 600–500 BC. The Mapuche society had great transformations after Spanish contact in the mid–16th century. These changes included the adoption of Old World crops and animals and the onset of a rich Spanish–Mapuche trade in La Frontera, Chile La Frontera and Valdivia. Despite these contacts Mapuche were never completely subjugated by the Spanish Empire. Between the 18th and 19th century Mapuche culture and people spread eastwards into the Pampas and the Patagonian plains. This vast new territory allowed Mapuche groups to control a substantial part of the salt and cattle trade in the Southern Cone.

Between 1861 and 1883 the Republic of Chile conducted a series of campaigns that ended Mapuche independence causing the death of thousands of Mapuche through combat, pillaging, starvation and smallpox epidemics. Argentina conducted similar campaigns on the eastern side of the Andes in the 1870s. In large parts of the Mapuche lands the traditional economy collapsed forcing thousands to seek themselves to the large cities and live in impoverished conditions as housemaids, hawkers or labourers.

From the late 20th century onwards Mapuche people have been increasingly active in conflicts over land rights and indigenous rights.

Pre–Columbian period


Archaeological finds have shown the existence of a Mapuche culture in Chile as early as 600 to 500 BC.[1] Genetically Mapuches differ from the adjacent indigenous peoples of Patagonia.[2] This is interpreted as suggesting either a "different origin or long lasting separation of Mapuche and Patagonian populations".[2]

There is no consensus on the linguistic affiliation of the Mapuche language, Mapudungun. In the early 1970s, significant linguistic affinities between Mapuche and Mayan languages were suggested.[3] Linguist Mary Ritchie Key claimed in 1978 that Araucanian languages, including Mapuche, were genetically linked to the Pano-Tacanan languages, to the Chonan languages and the Alacalufan languages.[3] Croese (1989, 1991) has advanced the hypothesis that Mapudungun is related to the Arawakan languages.

A hypothesis put forward by Ricardo E. Latcham, and later expanded by Francisco Antonio Encina, theorizes that the Mapuche migrated to present-day Chile from the Pampas east of the Andes.[1] The hypothesis further claims that previous to the Mapuche, there was a "Chincha-Diaguita" culture, which was geographically cut in half by the Mapuche penetrating from mountain passes around the head of the Cautín River.[1] [4] The Latcham hypothesis is rejected by modern scholars due to the lack of conclusive evidence, and the possibility of alternative hypotheses.[1]

Tomás Guevara has postulated another unproven hypothesis claiming that early Mapuches dwelled at the coast due to abundant marine resources and did only later moved inland following large rivers.[5] Guevara adds that Mapuches would be descendants of northern Changos, a poorly known coastal people, who moved southwards.[6] This hypothesis is supported by apparent linguistic evidence linking the Chango language (called Chilueno or Arauco) with Mapudungun.[7] This linguistic link is not fully proven.[7]

Possible Polynesian contact

Mocha Island off the coast of Arauco Peninsula, Chile.

In 2007, evidence appeared to have been found that suggested pre-Columbian contact between Polynesians from the western Pacific and the Mapuche people. Chicken bones found at the site El Arenal in the Arauco Peninsula, an area inhabited by Mapuche, support a pre-Columbian introduction of chicken to South America.[8] The bones found in Chile were radiocarbon-dated to between 1304 and 1424, before the arrival of the Spanish. Chicken DNA sequences taken were matched to those of chickens in present-day American Samoa and Tonga; they did not match the DNA of European chickens.[8][9] But, a later report in the same journal, assessing the same mtDNA, concluded that the Chilean chicken specimen may with the Indian subcontinental/Southeast Asian sequences if gone few thousands years back. Thus it may not support a Polynesian introduction of chickens to South America.[10]

In December 2007, several human skulls with Polynesian features, such as a pentagonal shape when viewed from behind, were found lying on a shelf in a museum in Concepción. These skulls turned out to have come from people of Mocha Island, an island just off the coast of Chile in the Pacific Ocean, today inhabited by Mapuche. Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith of the University of Otago and José Miguel Ramírez Aliaga of the University of Valparaíso hope to win agreement soon with the locals of Mocha Island to begin an excavation to search for Polynesian remains on the island.[11]

Inca expansion and influence

The Inca Empires southern border defined by Maule or Maipo River. Inca troops never crossed Bío Bío River.

Troops the Inca Empire are reported to have reached Maule River and had a battle with Mapuches from Maule River and Itata River there.[12] The southern border of the Inca Empire is believed by most modern scholars to be situated between Santiago and the Maipo River or somewhere between Santiago and the Maule River.[13] Spanish chroniclers Miguel de Olavarría and Diego de Rosales claimed the Inca frontier lied much more to the south at the Bío Bío River.[13] Regardless of these differing claims on the frontier of the Inca Empire, Inca troops appear to have never crossed Bío Bío River.[14] The main settlements of the Inca Empire in Chile lay along the Aconcagua River, Mapocho River and the Maipo River.[12] Quillota in Aconcagua Valley was likely their foremost settlement.[12] As it appear to be the case in the other borders of the Inca Empire, the southern border was composed of several zones: first, an inner, fully incorporated zone with mitimaes protected by a line of pukaras (fortresses) and then an outer zone with Inca pukaras scattered among allied tribes.[14] This outer zone would according to historian José Bengoa have been located between Maipo and Maule Rivers.[14]

Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala's picture of the confrontation between the Mapuche (left) and the Inca Empire (right)

Incan yanakuna are believed by archaeologists Tom Dillehay and Américo Gordon to have extracted gold south of the Incan frontier in free Mapuche territory. Following this thought the main motif for Incan expansion into Mapuche territory would have been to access gold mines. Same archaeologists do also claim all early Mapuche pottery at Valdivia is of Inca design.[13]

Through their contact with Incan invaders Mapuches would have for the first time met people with state-level organization. Their contact with the Inca gave them a collective awareness distinguishing between them and the invaders and uniting them into loose geopolitical units despite their lack of state organization.[15]

Mapuche society at the arrival of the Spanish

Demography and settlement types

At the time of the arrival of the first Spaniards to Chile the largest indigenous population concentration was in the area spanning from Itata River to Chiloé Archipelago—that is the Mapuche heartland.[16] The Mapuche population between Itata River and Reloncaví Sound has been estimated at 705,000–900,000 in the mid-16th century by historian José Bengoa.[17][note 1]

Mapuches lived in hamlets, mainly along the great rivers of Southern Chile.[18] All major population centres lied at the confluences of rivers.[18]

Mythology and religion

Mapuche graveyard.
Main article: Mapuche religion

The machi "shaman", a role usually played by older women, is an extremely important part of the Mapuche culture. The machi performs ceremonies for the warding off of evil, for rain, for the cure of diseases, and has an extensive knowledge of Chilean medicinal herbs, gained during an arduous apprenticeship. Chileans of all origins and classes make use of the many traditional herbs known to the Mapuche. The main healing ceremony performed by the machi is called the machitun.

Wampus were used in funerals and they are present in narratives about death in Mapuche religion.[19]

Social organization

The politics, economy and religion of the pre and early contact Mapuches were based on the lineages of local communities called lov. This kind of organization was replicated at the larger rehue level that encompassed several lov.[20] The politics of each lineage were not equally aggressive or submissive, but different from case to case.[20] Lineages were patrilineal and patrilocal.[21] Polygamy was common among Mapuches and together with the custom of feminine exogamy it has been credited by José Bengoa with welding the Mapuche into one people.[22]

Early Mapuches had two types of leaders secular and religious ones. The religious were machi, hechicero and the boquivoye. The secular were the reche, ülmen and gentyoke. Later the secular leaders were known as lonko, toki, ülmen and weupin.[21]


In South-Central Chile most Mapuche groups practised glade agriculture among the forests.[23] Other agriculture types existed; while some Mapuches and Huilliches practised a slash-and-burn type of agriculture some more labour-intensive agriculture is known to have been developed by Mapuches around Budi Lake (raised fields) and the Lumaco and Purén valleys (canalized fields).[24][25] Potato was the staple food of most Mapuches, "specially in the southern and coastal [Mapuche] territories where maize did not reach maturity".[26] The bulk of the Mapuche population worked in agriculture.[27]

In addition the Mapuche and Huilliche economy was complemented with Araucana chicken and chilihueque raising[25][28] and collection of Araucaria araucana and Gevuina avellana seeds.[28] The southern coast was particularly rich in molluscs, algaes, crustaceans and fish and Mapuches were known to be good fishers.[23][28] Hunting was also a common activity among Mapuches.[28] The forests provided firewood, fibre and allowed the production of planks.[23]


The llolle in picture is a traditional Mapuche fish trap.

Tools are known to have been relatively simple, most of them were made of wood, stone or —more rarely— of copper or bronze.[25][27] Mapuche used a great variety of tools made of pierced stones.[27] Volcanic scoria, a common rock in Southern Chile, was preferentially used to make tools, possibly because it is ease to shape.[29] Mapuches used both individual digging sticks and large and heavy trident-like plows that required many men to use in agriculture.[29] Another tool used in agriculture were maces used to destroy clods and flatten the soil.[30]

The Mapuche canoes or wampus were made of hollow trunks.[31] In the Chiloé Archipelago another type of watercraft was common: the dalca. Dalcas were made of planks and were mainly used for seafaring while wampus were used for navigating rivers and lakes. It is not known what kind of oars early Mapuches presumably used.[31][32]

Early Hispanic period (1536–1598)

First contacts (1536–1550)

Toki Lautaro, an early Mapuche military leader. Painting by Pedro Subercaseaux.

The Spanish expansion into Chile was an off-shot of the conquest of Peru.[33] Diego de Almagro amased a large expedition of ca. 500 Spaniards and thousands of yanaconas and arrived to Aconcagua Valley in 1536. From there he sent Gómez de Alvarado in charge of a scouting troop south. Alvarado reached Itata River where he engaged in the Battle of Reynogüelén with local Mapuches. Alvarado then returned north and Diego de Almagro's expedition returned to Peru since they did not found the riches they expected.[33]

Another conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, arrived to Chile from Cuzco in 1541 and founded Santiago that year.[34] In 1544 captain Juan Bautista Pastene explored the coast of Chile to latitude 41° S.[35] The northern Mapuche, better known as Promaucaes or Picunches, unsuccessfully tried to resist the Spanish conquest. Little is known about their resistance.[36]

War with Spaniards (1550–1598)

Further information: Arauco War

In 1550 Pedro de Valdivia, who aimed to control all of Chile to the Straits of Magellan, traveled southward to conquer Mapuche territory.[35] Between 1550 and 1553 the Spanish founded several cities[note 2] in Mapuche lands including Concepción, Valdivia, Imperial, Villarrica and Angol.[35] The Spanish did also established the forts of Arauco, Purén and Tucapel.[35]

Following these initial conquest by the Spanish the Arauco War, a long period of intermittent war, between Mapuches and Spaniards broke out. Contributing factors were the lack a tradition of forced labour like the Andean mita among the Mapuches who largely refused to serve the Spanish.[38] On the other hand, the Spanish, in particular those from Castile and Extremadura, came from an extremely violent society.[39] Since the Spanish arrival to the Araucanía in 1550 the Mapuches frequently laid siege to the Spanish cities in the 1550–1598 period.[37] The war was mostly a low intensity conflict.[40]

The Mapuches, led by Caupolicán and Lautaro, succeeded in killing Pedro de Valdivia at the Battle of Tucapel in 1553.[35] The outbreak of a typhus plague, a drought and a famine prevented the Mapuches from taking further actions to expel the Spanish in 1554 and 1555.[41][42] Between 1556 and 1557 a small party of Mapuches commanded by Lautaro attempted to reach Santiago to liberate the whole of Central Chile from Spanish rule.[41] Lautaros attempts ended in 1557 when he was killed in an ambush by the Spanish.[41]

The Spanish regrouped under the governorship of García Hurtado de Mendoza (1558–1561) and managed to kill Caupolicán and Galvarino, two key Mapuche leaders. In addition during the rule of García Hurtado de Mendoza (1558–1561) the Spanish reestablished Concepción and Angol that had been destroyed by Mapuches and founded two new cities in Mapuche territory: Osorno and Cañete.[43][44] In 1567 Spaniards conquered Chiloé Archipelago which was inhabited by Huilliches.[45][46]

In the 1570s Pedro de Villagra massacred and subdued revolting Mapuches around the city of La Imperial. Warfare in Araucanía intensified in the 1590s.[47]

Adaptations to the war

In the early battles with the Spaniards Mapuches had little success but with time the Mapuches of Arauco and Tucapel adapted by using horses and massing the large quantities of troops necessary to defeat the Spanish.[36] Mapuches learned from the Spanish to build forts in hills, they also begun digging traps for Spanish horses, use helmets and wooden shields against arquebuses.[36] Mapuche warfare evolved toward guerrilla tactics including the use of ambushes.[36] The killing of Pedro de Valdivia in 1553 marked a rupture with the earlier ritual warfare tradition of the Mapuches.[41] By the late 16th century a handful of Mapuche warlords had emerged near La Frontera as result of the constant Mapuche–Spanish warfare.[48] Mapuche organization changed in response to the war and the aillarehue, a new macro-scale political unit consisting of several rehue, appeared in the late 16th century.[20] This scaling-up of political organization continued until the early 17th century when the butalmapu emerged, each of these units grouped several aillarehues.[20] At a practical level this meant that the Mapuches achieved a "supra-local level of military solidarity" without having state organization.[21]

Population decline

Mapuche population decreased following contact with the Spanish invaders. Epidemics decimated much of the population as did also the war with the Spanish.[36] Others died in the Spanish gold mines.[38]

Independence and war (1598–1641)

Settlements of the Conquistadores before the Destruction of the Seven Cities

A watershed event happened in 1598. That year a party of warriors from Purén were returning south from a raid against the surroundings of Chillán. In their way back home they ambushed Martín García Óñez de Loyola and his troops that were sleeping without any night watch. It is not clear if they found the Spanish by accident or if they had followed them. The warriors, led by Pelantaro, killed both the governor and all his troops.[49]

In the years following the Battle of Curalaba a general uprising developed among the Mapuches and Huilliches. The Spanish cities of Angol, La Imperial, Osorno, Santa Cruz de Oñez, Valdivia and Villarrica were either destroyed or abandoned.[50] Only Chillán and Concepción resisted the Mapuche sieges and attacks.[51] With the exception of Chiloé Archipelago all the Chilean territory south of Bío Bío River became free of Spanish rule.[50]

Chiloé did however also suffer Mapuche (Huilliche) attacks when in 1600 local Huilliche joined the Dutch corsair Baltazar de Cordes to attack the Spanish settlement of Castro.[37][52] While this was a sporadic attack the Spanish believed the Dutch could attempt to ally the Mapuches and establish a stronghold in southern Chile.[53] The Spanish knew of the Dutch plans to establish themselves at the ruins of Valdivia so they attempted to re-establish Spanish rule there before the Dutch arrived again.[54] The Spanish attempts were thwarted in the 1630s when Mapuches did not allow the Spanish to pass by their territory.[54]

Jesuit activity

The first Jesuits arrived to Chile 1593 and based themselves in Concepción to Christianize the Araucanía Mapuches.[55] Jesuit Father Luis de Valdivia believed Mapuches could be voluntarily converted to Christianity only if there was peace.[55][56] He arranged with Spanish authorities the abolition of Mapuche servitude and the start of a defensive war strategy. Luis de Valdivia took away warlord Anganamóns wives as the Catholic church opposed polygamy. Anganamón retaliated killing on December 14 of 1612 three Jesuit missionaries.[55] This incident did not stop the Jesuit Christianization attempts and Jesuits continued their activity until their expulsion from Chile in 1767. Activity was centered around Spanish cities from where missionary excursions departed.[53] No permanent mission was established in free Mapuche lands during the 17th or 18th century.[53] To convert the Mapuches Jesuits studied and learned their language and customs. Contrasting with their high political impact in the 1610s and 1620s Jesuits had little success in their conversion attempts.[56]

Age of Parliaments (1641–1810)

Mapuches during a malón raid


Main article: Araucanization

Republican period (1810–1990)

Role in Chilean Independence War (1810–1820)

See also: Guerra a muerte

Coexistence with the Republic of Chile (1820–1861)

Mapuche lands around south of Bío-Bío River began to be bought by non-Mapuches in the late 18th century, and by 1860 land between Bío-Bío and Malleco River was mostly under control of Chileans.[57][58] The Chilean wheat boom increased the pressure to acquire lands in Araucanía by Chileans and lead to numerous scams and frauds against Mapuches.[59] A limited number of speculators obtained control over vast lands through frauds and maintained control over their assets with the help of gunmen.[60]

The encroachment of settlers that had advanced over time from the north across Bío Bío River into Mapuche territory and the appearance of German settlers in the south of the Mapuche territory lead chief Mañil in 1859 to call for an uprising to assert control over the territory.[61] Most Mapuches responded to the call, except the communities at Purén, Choll Choll, and the southern coastal Mapuches who had strong links with Valdivia.[61] The towns of Angol, Negrete and Nacimiento were attacked.[61] A peace proposal made by settlers was accepted in 1860 during a meeting of several Mapuche chiefs.[61] In the agreement it was established that land transfers could only be made with the approval of the chiefs.[61]

End of Mapuche independence (1861–1883)

Cornelio Saavedra Rodríguez in meeting with the main lonkos of Araucania in 1869
Vintage engraving of Mapuche

In the 19th century Chile experienced a fast territorial expansion. Chile established a colony at the Strait of Magellan in 1843, settled Valdivia, Osorno and Llanquihue with German immigrants and conquered land from Peru and Bolivia.[62][63] Later Chile would also annex Easter Island.[64] In this context Araucanía begun to be conquered by Chile due to two reasons. First, the Chilean state aimed for territorial continuity[65] and second it remained the sole place for Chilean agriculture to expand.[57]

Between 1861 and 1871 Chile incorporated several Mapuche territories in Araucanía. In January 1881, having decisively defeated Peru in the battles of Chorrillos and Miraflores, Chile resumed the conquest of Araucanía.[66][67][68]

The campaigns of the Argentine Army against Mapuches in the other side of the Andes pushed in 1880 many Mapuches into Araucanía.[69] Pehuenche chief Purrán was taken prisoner by the Argentine Army and the Argentine Army penetrated into the valley of Lonquimay which Chile considered part of its legal territory.[69] The fast Argentine advance alarmed Chilean authorities and contributed to the Chilean-Mapuche confrontations of 1881.[69]

On January 1 of 1883 Chile refounded the old city of Villarrica ending thus formally the process of occupation of Araucanía.[59][65]

From dispossession to vindication (1883–1990)

Historian Ward Churchill has claimed that the Mapuche population dropped from a total of half a million to 25,000 within a generation as result of the occupation.[70] The conquest of Araucanía caused numerous Mapuches to be displaced and forced to roam in search of shelter and food.[71] Some Chilean forts responded by providing food rations.[71] Until around 1900 the Chilean state provided almost 10000 food rations monthly to displaced Mapuches.[71] Mapuche poverty was a common theme in many Chilean Army memoirs from the 1880s to around 1900.[71] Scholar Pablo Miramán claims the introduction of state education during the Occupation of Araucanía had detrimental effects on traditional Mapuche education.[72]

In the years following the occupation the economy of Araucanía changed from being based on sheep and cattle herding to one based on agriculture and wood extraction.[73] The loss of land by Mapuches following the occupation caused severe erosion since Mapuches continued to practise a massive livestock herding in limited areas.[74]

Recent history (1990–present)

Further information: Indigenous peoples in Chile

Many ethnic Mapuche now live across southern Chile and Argentina; some maintain their traditions and continue living from agriculture, but a majority have migrated to cities in search of better economic opportunities. Many are concentrated around Santiago.[75] Chile's Araucanía Region, the former Araucanía, has a rural population that is 80% Mapuche; substantial Mapuche populations occupy areas of the regions of Los Lagos, Bío-Bío, and Maule.

In the 2002 Chilean census 604,349 people identified as Mapuche, and of these the two regions with the largest numbers were Araucanía with 203,221, and Santiago Metropolitan Region with 182,963.[76] Each major population is greater than the total Mapuche population in Argentina as of 2004-2005.[77]

In recent years, the Chilean government has tried to redress some of the inequities of the past. The Parliament passed in 1993 Law n° 19 253 (Indigenous Law, or Ley indígena),[78] which officially recognized the Mapuche people and seven other ethnic minorities, as well as the Mapudungun language and culture. Mapundungun, which use was prohibited before, is now included in the curriculum of elementary schools around Temuco.

Despite representing 4.6% of the Chilean population, few Mapuche have reached government positions. In 2006 among Chile's 38 senators and 120 deputies, only one identified as indigenous. The number of indigenous politicians in electoral office is higher at municipal levels.[79]

Representatives from Mapuche organizations have joined the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO), seeking recognition and protection for their cultural and land rights.

Modern conflict

Main article: Mapuche conflict

Land disputes and violent confrontations continue in some Mapuche areas, particularly in the northern sections of the Araucanía region between and around Traiguén and Lumaco. In an effort to defuse tensions, the Commission for Historical Truth and New Treatments issued a report in 2003 calling for drastic changes in Chile's treatment of its indigenous people, more than 80 percent of whom are Mapuche. The recommendations included the formal recognition of political and "territorial" rights for indigenous peoples, as well as efforts to promote their cultural identities.

Composite of Mapuche activists killed in confrontations with the Chilean police in the 2000s.

Though Japanese and Swiss interests are active in the economy of Araucanía (Mapudungun: "Ngulu Mapu"), the two chief forestry companies are Chilean-owned. In the past, the firms have planted hundreds of thousands of acres with non-native species such as Monterey pine, Douglas firs and eucalyptus trees, sometimes replacing native Valdivian forests, although such substitution and replacement is now forbidden.

Chile exports wood to the United States, almost all of which comes from this southern region, with an annual value of $600 million and rising. Forest Ethics, a conservation group, has led an international campaign for preservation, resulting in the Home Depot chain and other leading wood importers agreeing to revise their purchasing policies to "provide for the protection of native forests in Chile." Some Mapuche leaders want stronger protections for the forests.

In recent years, the delicts committed by Mapuche activists have been prosecuted under counter-terrorism legislation, originally introduced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet to control political dissidents. The law allows prosecutors to withhold evidence from the defense for up to six months and to conceal the identity of witnesses, who may give evidence in court behind screens. Violent activist groups, such as the Coordinadora Arauco Malleco, use tactics such as burning of structures and pastures, and death threats against people and their families. Protesters from Mapuche communities have used these tactics against properties of both multinational forestry corporations and private individuals.[80][81] In 2010 the Mapuche launched a number of hunger strikes in attempts to effect change in the anti-terrorism legislation.[82]


  1. Note that the Chiloé Archipelago with its large population is not included in this estimate.
  2. These "cities" were often in fact more forts than cities.[37]


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