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History of Chile

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"In the beginning of time, God created the wonders of the world. When he finished, however, he saw that he had many leftover pieces. He had parts of rivers and valleys, of oceans and lakes, of glaciers and deserts, of mountains and forests, and of meadows and hills. Rather than to let such beauty go to waste, God put them all together and cast them to the most remote corner of the earth. This is how Chile was born." - Chilean Legend.

Chile's history is as multi-faceted as the country is long. Just as pre-Hispanic cultures throughout Chile varied from one ecological niche to another, so too does each region have its own post-Conquest historical events and traditions, separate economy and demographics. Many events in Chile's history run counter to popular expectations. Isolated from the rest of the continent and accessible only by sea, Chile was largely shaped by European immigrants who arrived to take advantage of the country's vast natural resources: silver, gold and copper, saltpeter, guano, fishmeal, lithium, borax, wheat, fruit, coal, wood, whale oil, seal skins, and petroleum.

Archaeological History

Chile's earliest known archaeological remains date from some 10-13,000 years ago, near the end of the long series of ice ages which allowed the human population of the Americas. Findings from this era - such as Monte Verde, near Puerto Montt, one of the earliest confirmed sites of human habitation on the South American continent -- paint a vague picture of bands of nomadic hunters of mastadons, horses, and other mammals. Today, southern Patagonia is one of the world's greatest repositories of these early Americans' colorful and intricate cave paintings.

Though most of Chile has probably been inhabited since the Paleolithic, Northern Chile's extreme aridity has preserved hundred of sites from the past 10,000 years. The abundance and quality of these sites has allowed archaeologists to reconstruct, with surprising detail, the history of this unique and dynamic region, which each year draws amateur and professional archaeologists from across the globe. An excellent example of the desert's preservative properties is that of the Chinchorro culture, a group of coastal hunter-gatherers who inhabited the Azapa Valley, near Arica. Here archaeologists uncovered a sand-preserved mummy which dates from 8000 BC, making it the earliest known use of artificial mummification in the world.

During the next 6000 years, distinct niches began to develop on the coast, in the interior valley, desert oases, and the Altiplano. Findings from this era reveal a diversification in fishing techniques and implements, the first hints of llama domestication, and a lifestyle that grew steadily more sedentary. By 2000 BC, the first domesticated plants began to appear in northern Chile, and cultural and economic trade with the tribes of southern Peru and northwestern Argentina brought new agricultural techniques, new textile designs, ceramics and basketwork. The huge geoglyphs - geometric designs similar to those of Nasca, Peru - that adorn hillsides throughout the region may have served as ritual 'road signs' for llama trains carrying goods from the altiplano to the coast, and vice versa.

Beginning in the 3rd century AD, the Tiwanaku Empire of Lago Titcaca began to work great cultural transformations in Northern Chile. Metallurgy, advanced agricultural techniques, and a more hierarchical social organization were Tiwanaku's most noteworthy contributions. Near 1000 AD, Tiwanaku's power waned, and regional kingdoms sprung up across the north. Stone fortresses or pukaras were constructed near San Pedro de Atacama, on the río Loa and río Salado, and in the Andean foothills east of Arica. These briefly independent regional kingdoms fell under Inca rule during the great expansion of 1470. In San Pedro, the Incas built a regional administration center near the existing Atacameño pukara defensive fort. But these new rulers had hardly put their bags down when Diego de Almagro walked across the Altiplano and into San Pedro, and the conquest of Chile was set in motion.


Surrounded on three sides by virtually impassable barriers, Chile's rich central valley remained a well-kept secret until the middle of the fifteenth century, when the Incas drove southward in their quest to conquer the whole of the continent. An Inca army succeeded in crossing the Atacama Desert in the northern reaches of Chile, but soon encountered resistance upon reaching the central valley. Defeated by the fierce-fighting Aruacanian Indians, the Incas established a presence in the land already taken but pressed no further into Aruacanian territory.

The Spanish-Portuguese treaty of 1494 granted to Spain all territory west of Brazil. The task of conquering Chile was assigned to Pedro de Valdiva, who led his forces into Chile's fertile Mapacho Valley in 1541. The present day capital city of Santiago was established in that year, with a number of other major cities following soon after. Even the mighty Spanish forces could not overpower the warlike tribes now clustered in the south of the country, leaving those of European blood concentrated in central Chile. When Valdiva did resume his attacks and crossed south into Mapuche (a tribe of Araucanians) territory, he paid with his life. In 1553, the Mapuche bound him to a tree and beheaded him.
Under Spanish colonial rule, northern and central Chile were part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. The south remained under the control of the Aruacanians until almost the nineteenth century. Though Chile shares a legacy of Iberian colonialism with the rest of South America, historical similarities seem to end with independence in 1810. Chile first declared independence in 1810, but the resulting internal instability led to a restoration of Spanish rule in 1814. Within four years a combined Argentinian and Chilean army managed to defeat and drive out the Spanish army, restoring Chile's independence.

Although Chile's war of independence brought about a representative democratic government, the country's political history has not always been smooth. Presidential candidate Salvador Allende won the elections in 1970, but was deposed and died in a military coup in September, 1973. Sixteen years of military dictatorship under the rule of General Augusto Pinochet followed, marked by terror and bloodshed. In 1990 Pinochet failed to gain the popular vote, and handed over the presidency to the rightfully-elected Patricio Alywin Azocar. Chile's political climate has since remained stable, though there is still considerable tension between the military and the government concerning the human rights violations of the Pinochet era.


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