Hunter Gatherers of South-Central Chile

  • History

    Living through the climate changes that followed the end of the last ice age, these early colonists of the southern lands were forced to adapt to the new environments of lakes and woodlands. This process had already occurred with their Paleo-Indian predecessors at Monte Verde, but the extinction of the megafauna (very large land mammals) forced these groups to seek new subsistence methods. Somewhat later, around 5000 BCE, a new kind of adaptation centering on coastal resources gained force, providing the stability necessary to launch a transformation towards a more sedentary way of life, including the use of boats to colonize nearby islands. Around the first century of our era a new horticultural way of life began to emerge, now known as the Pitrén culture.

  • Environment and Geography

    These hunter gatherers inhabited the south-central part of Chile between the BíoBío River and the Reloncaví Sound, occupying the moist coastal and island ecosystems as well as the temperate forests of the central valleys, the lake basins of the Andean foothills, and the high mountains on both sides of the Andean Divide.

  • Economy

    Two hunter gatherer groups existed, with marked specializations and differences between them. First, there were the groups adapted to a hunter gatherer lifestyle in the temperate forests, with a strong emphasis on collecting wild fruit and balancing their diet with freshwater fish and mollusks and small game animals such as the Pudú (Chilean dwarf deer), rodents, and birds. These groups seem to have moved around locally according to seasonal cycles, with some longer journeys linking them with the coastal and trans-Andean regions. The other groups lived in communities that were specially adapted to the coastal environment, and subsisted on shellfish, fish and marine and land mammals. Their seafaring skills allowed them to colonize offshore islands such as Quiriquina, Santa María, and Mocha.

  • Art

    The hunter gatherers of south-central Chile crafted their tools and utensils from stone, wood, and bone. Notable artifacts include two varieties of points for spears and projectiles—one triangular and the other leaf shaped. These were made from obsidian or volcanic glass and basalt, probably corresponding to two different cultural traditions that flourished in different times and places. They also made seashell necklaces and animal tooth pendants. Since the region’s damp environment accelerates the decay of organic matter, there is little evidence left to allow us to understand this important part of their culture.

  • Social Organization

    These groups organized themselves around small family groups that moved through their territory in seasonal cycles in search of food. As their way of life became better adapted to local conditions, they probably roamed over smaller territories.

  • Beliefs and funeral rites

    Little evidence remains to shed light on how these peoples buried their dead. They certainly practiced both individual and group burials, leaving different grave goods for men, women, and children. In Chan Chan, a coastal site to the north of Valdivia, the body of a young person was found buried on its side in a highly flexed position, covered with red pigment and accompanied with seashells, projectile points, and other stone artifacts. The burial dates back around 5300 years. A similar pattern was found at the Piedra Azul site, on the coast of the Reloncaví Sound. The same pattern of burial and ritual seems to have been followed with infants, with the bodies tied or bundled with cords, in a tightly flexed position. These burials have been associated with campfires and in some cases red ochre, and have included grave goods consisting of stone and shell pendants placed near the head.

  • Settlement pattern

    The inland groups inhabited caves and rock overhangs located near the lakes of the Andean foothills, and practiced a highly mobile lifestyle. In contrast, on the coast the environmental conditions were well suited to gathering the resources needed, which allowed these groups to establish semi-sedentary nuclear settlements near stable water sources. Their dwellings consisted of tent-like structures containing a small hearth surrounded with stone slabs. These sites were occupied repeatedly, as the dense middens of sea shells nearby indicate. The groups probably formed networks of settlements along the coast based on the family as the basic productive unit but gathering in larger groups at specific times of the year.