• Environment and Geography

    The Chango people inhabited the coast of the Atacama Desert at least as far south as the modern city of Coquimbo. The coast in that part of Chile is a narrow strip of land running between the Coastal range and the world’s driest desert on the East, and the Pacific Ocean on the West, where the Humboldt Current carries cold water from the seas around Antarctica.

    This current nourishes abundant and varied sea life, and climatically it prevents the formation of rainclouds. All the same, breezes blow moist air over the land, creating a weather pattern known in the region as the camanchaca – dense fog that carries enough water to allow a richly biodiverse terrestrial ecosystem to thrive along some parts of this desert coast.

  • Economy

    The Changos were specialized fishermen and sea hunters who sailed extensively in sea lion skin rafts, agile vessels that could withstand fishing trips on the open ocean. The rafts were made from the skins of four male sea lions, softened in fresh water, sewn together and inflated, to produce floats up to 3 meters (10 feet) in length. A small tube of bone was used to inflate them and the seams were sealed and waterproofed with oil and sea lion blubber, and sometimes covered with ochre pigment. The raft was formed of two floats bound together at their ends and tied to a central wooden deck upon which the fishermen could sit or kneel. They were propelled with double-ended wooden paddles.

    Historical sources dating back to the early colonial period describe such craft being used as far south as Chile’s central coast. Engravings and more detailed accounts of these were left by nineteenth century travelers.

    Smaller than the sea lion skin raft was the “three trunk raft”, which is mentioned by only a few sources. Indeed, most knowledge of these vessels comes from miniature models left as grave goods by fishermen of the late Arica culture. The models show three pieces of wood, the central one beam than the others, all tied together and decorated with transverse red lines. These models tend to be accompanied by a scale model of a double-bladed paddle. The craft themselves apparently were used for longer journeys and were more popular among the seafaring peoples of far Northern Chile and Southern Peru, whereas the sea lion skin raft was used more by tribes living south of Tocopilla, where wood was scarce and the region’s plentiful sea lions provided a ready alternative.

    The Changos fished for tuna, cusk eels, smooth hound, flathead mullet, kingfish, jack mackerel, catfish and octopus – seafood species still commonly consumed in Chile. They hunted pinnipeds and cetaceans, including whales, which they are said to have approached by imitating the bark of the sea lion. In general, large sea animals were hunted by harpooning and then allowing them to drag the boat while they bled to death. Once dead, they were hauled aboard the rafts.

    Men hunted whales alone, using a harpoon to spear them under the fin nearest the heart. Meanwhile, others watched from the shore, tracking the movement of the dying whale and consuming it wherever it landed.

    The Chango people practiced a complex system of division of labor. Different groups would fish for different kinds of fish or mammal. Some only hunted sea lions, mainly to supply skins for raft making. They would then either use the rafts themselves or barter them for other goods.

    The Changos also traded with groups from the valleys and oases of the Atacama Desert. The goods they traded most often included fresh and salted fish, marine mammal pelts and leather, seashells, and guano for use as a fertilizer—all highly prized items among the inlanders. In exchange, the Chango received llama and alpaca wool, as well as fruit, maize, and coca, food products that were lacking in their own diet. The Chango themselves may have practiced small-scale farming when sufficient fresh water was available.

  • Art

    Colonial writers and later travelers have left little information relating to Chango arts and handicrafts, providing only a few details of the tribe’s daily life and the materials they used. These refer mainly to their boats and their tents, which were of a design known as the ruca. The Changos seem to have dressed in simple attire made from alpaca or vicuña wool and sea lion skin, and they anointed their hair with sea lion grease. This made their heads shine in the sun, contrasting with their dark skin.

    Their tools, utensils and dwellings were simply but skillfully made and were specially suited to their nomadic, seafaring way of life. The Chango culture adopted raw materials, technologies and objects from distant cultures, adapting them to their particular needs; examples of this include pottery, metallurgy and textile making techniques.

    Archaeological studies of Chango cemeteries and dwelling places dating from the era of the Spanish conquest have shed new light on the culture’s handicrafts. Clothing items recovered include camelid (llama, alpaca and vicuña) wool caps, pelican feather headdresses, sea lion skin coverings, wool blankets and sea bird pelts. The oldest sites have also yielded leather loincloths with cords made from plant fibers and camelid wool.

    Many cotton and wool clothing items found show signs of having been patched or repaired on many occasions, or reused for other purposes. This suggests that such goods were hard to come by, and many were likely obtained through barter with inland groups.

    Along with their clothing, the Changos wore bracelets and necklaces made from seashell pieces, stones, bone, and even sea lion teeth. They also used seashells to make spoons and knives. Their ceramic vessels were for domestic use, simple in design but varied in shape. Such goods were probably also obtained through trade, rather than being manufactured by the Changos themselves.

    They used copper to make fishing hooks and ornaments such as earrings, bracelets and pins. Wood was a highly-prized commodity on the coast, and the wooden items found at Chango sites–such as boxes and boards–were probably also obtained from other tribes.

    Without a doubt, however, rock paintings are the most noteworthy art the coastal peoples produced. Well-known examples include those found at the El Médano site, located in a ravine to the north of Taltal. There, for about 10km (about 6 miles), the rocks and crags that line the creek’s course are covered in rock art paintings depicting scenes from the daily life of these fishermen of a thousand years ago, drawn in red pigment. The pictures show people hunting and harpooning from sea lion skin rafts, as well as catching fish, turtles, sea lions and whales. Other images depict dogs or foxes, and camelids.

    Other sites in the same region (such as Las Lizas beach south of Chañaral) have similar paintings, in addition to engravings of sea lions, dolphins and whales, and hunting scenes involving land animals. These works are rich in symbolic meaning, and could have been intended to safeguard the group’s survival and reproduce its social structure, as well as protect it from shortages of food.

  • Social Organization

    It has been suggested that these coastal peoples were organized into patrilocal clans, based on a nuclear or extended family, each independent and economically self-sufficient. Some writers believe that they practiced exogamy, preferring to marry wives from different groups, towns or tribes. Such practices would allow them to maintain networks of relations and foster trade with inland tribes. Slight differences in offerings left at different pre-Hispanic cemeteries suggest some level of social differentiation.

    Despite the Changos’ contact with other groups throughout their history, this simple model of social organization seems to have remained virtually unchanged for an extremely long period of time. The arrival of the Inkas, and then the Spanish, caused the most profound changes, restricting the indigenous peoples’ movement by dividing up their territories for economic reasons. The Inka, for example, exercised control over the guano producers and allocated marine resources to groups from particular territories.

  • Beliefs and Funeral Rites

    There is little historical information about the Changos’ religious beliefs. It is thought that their ceremonial and ritual activities were linked to the sea, part of a tradition that can be traced back to the Chinchorro culture and the Huentelauquén complex.

    Within this belief system, ancestor worship seems to hold a special place. In pre-Hispanic times the dead were buried with their tools and other precious objects, from bows and arrows and harpoons to miniature models of boats, implying a belief that they would continue their seagoing ways in the afterlife.

    Many types of tombs have been found, varying according to the region, town, and tribe to which the individual belonged. Cemeteries are most commonly found on beaches and have shallow sandy graves and separate male-female burial sites. The dead were buried in an extended horizontal position, and sometimes parts of the body were covered in red paint. Others were buried in dwelling places, and still others were placed on beds of rocks and then covered with smaller stones, forming a cairn.

  • Settlement Pattern

    As semi-nomadic fishermen, the Changos could spend many days on their rafts, seeking out seasonal marine resources and occupying an extensive coastal territory.

    It is thought that they used two complementary strategies for their movements: some groups of men or nuclear families may have migrated along the coast, establishing temporary camps at fishing sites and coves, while other groups of families probably lived together in semi-permanent camps or more stable villages wherever sufficient resources were available to support them—mainly places where fresh water was available by the sea, such as river estuaries. Examples of this type of settlement can be found at Paposo, Cobija and Mejillones. These coves were never left completely uninhabited. Even the most nomadic groups would often return to places they had occupied previously.

    Their dwellings were made by interring cactus trunks or whale bones in the ground and covering them with a roof made of sea lion skins or seaweed. The family slept inside, on beds of dried seaweed and more skins. Food was stored in leather bags that were hung from the dwelling’s beams. Nets would also be hung up while not in use.

  • History

    The term ‘Chango’ first appears in the middle of the seventeenth century in reference to a tribe occupying the coastal region between Copiapó and Coquimbo. Over time, use of the term widened to include sea-fishing groups as far north as Southern Peru, peoples that had formerly been known variously as camanchacas, pro-anches and uros–although these names all seem to have referred to the same ethnic group.

    Nonetheless, it seems that the term ‘Chango’ generally refers not to a specific people, but to all those who practiced this maritime way of life, which dates back at least 8000 years. The predecessors of the modern Changos were the groups that settled on the coast and lived alongside the inland desert tribes during the original, pre-Hispanic colonization of South America.

    Some coastal groups might be the successors of the Chinchorro fishermen. Later cultures may have adopted cultural elements of the farmers and herders of northern Chile, with whom they traded. Later still, these coastal groups may have come under the domination of the Inka empire.

    Due to the extensive genetic and cultural exchange over the past few centuries, there are no recognized living descendents of the Chango groups. All the same, the traditional maritime way of life is still practiced by fishermen, seaweed collectors and other coastal inhabitants living between Chañaral and Cobija, who still employ much of the technology, lifestyle and settlement patterns of these ancient peoples of the desert coast.

  • Language

    There is very little information available about the language or languages used by the Chango people. Some authors suggest that they used a blend of the Aymara and Kunza languages, while others claim that they spoke Mapudungun and also understood Kunza. This supports the theory that the Changos were not a single ethnic group but rather a number of largely unrelated tribes.

    It has also been suggested that the coastal groups shared a common language that differed from those of the mountain and desert peoples and enabled them to communicate among themselves more easily.