"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, fish meal, lithium, borax, wheat, fruit, coal, wood, whale oil, seal skins, and petroleum.
Early Nomads & Ancient Civilizations
Chile’s storied past begins with the early nomads who arrived at this coastal region of South America some 13,000 years ago. Thanks to the arid climate in much of the country, many of the archaeological sites from thousands of years ago are well preserved, allowing anthropologists to divine keen insight into what early civilizations were like and how they developed.
While the northern regions of Chile had a mix of pre-Inca cultures, the central and southern regions were comprised by the growing Mapuche tribe, which still constitutes a majority of the current indigenous ethnicity in the country. In fact, the Mapuche were even able to resist the powerful Inca invaders and preserve their culture and lifestyle.
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 mastodons, 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 have 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.
Ferdinand Magellan first landed on the shores of Chile in 1520, and Spanish conquest followed soon after. Early Spanish conquistadors came from Peru in the north, hoping to exploit the area for precious gold and silver. Finding little of value, they returned to Peru. However, in 1540, Francisco Pizarro authorized his lieutenant Pedro de Valdivia to take control of the country, and in the following year, Valdivia established the capital city of Santiago.Despite a hard-fought resistance, the Mapuche were unable to keep out the advanced and overpowering Spanish forces, and the country became a part of the Viceroyalty of Peru under Spanish control.
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.
Chile remained a colony of Spain for close to 300 years until Napoleon Bonaparte’s conquest of Spain weakened the country’s imperial grip on their South American colonies. 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.
Spain unsuccessfully tried to re-assert its dominance several times during a period known as “Reconquest,” but forces led by Jose de San Martin and Bernardo O’Higgins did not allow this to happen, and in 1818 a provisional constitution was established. By 1840, Spain had formally recognized Chile’s independence.
As an independent nation, Chile has struggled to establish a stable government, and power has shifted many times. The highly stratified society of the 19th century gave wealthy land-owners the primary voice in government, however, a democratic presidency was established somewhat successfully by the end of the century.
During this time, the borders of Chile changed significantly. In 1881, the Strait of Magellan was formally recognized as part of Chile, but much of oriental Patagonia was ceded to Argentina in the treaty. It was also during this period (1879-1883) that Chile battled against Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, which earned the country significant land gains on its northern frontier. This was especially useful because of their naturally rich nitrate deposits, which ushered in a decades-long national wealth.
The Turbulent 20th Century
Coming into the 1900s, Chile had firmly established a presidential system and was enjoying a period of affluence. Reform, liberalism, and radical progressivism marked the beginning of the 20th century, as several presidents experimented with new political ideologies and the growing middle and working classes rallied to have their voices heard.
In 1964, democratically elected Eduardo Frei Montalva began an era of social revolutions, instituting state-sponsored programs for housing, education, and other areas. His term lasted just six years, though, as critics on both sides felt that his policies were either too little or too much.
By 1970, Marxist socialist Salvador Allende had won the presidency. In a 1973 move to guarantee that the military would be on his side, he named General Augusto Pinochet the commander-in-chief of the army. This plan backfired when Pinochet staged a successful military coup and assumed power when Allende was killed.
Pinochet’s 16-year reign, from 1973 to 1990, is considered one of Chile’s most troubled times, during which brazen human rights violations occurred, and any opposition to the government was promptly silenced, often by making the dissenters simply disappear. As his dictatorship went on, it did loosen its grip enough to allow limited freedoms of speech and assembly and the formation of trade unions. Of course, the fear his regime instilled in the people was enough to sequester much of the criticisms even after free speech was allowed. His economic policies were pretty hands-off, which did help the country to gain some valuable foreign investors.
In 1980, the presidency was nominally reinstated and Pinochet was the president for the following decade. He did not win a second term, and in 1990 Patricio Aylwin replaced him as president. Since then, the country has had a stable democracy, with the power changing every few terms between various political parties that all corner on reform and positive change.
An 8.8-magnitude earthquake in 2010 rocked the country to its core, killing over 500 people and plunging it into dire economic straits as it tried to recover. The tourism business did not suffer terribly and revenue from top destinations like Torres del Paine, Patagonia, and Santiago did play a significant role in the country’s recovery, but the widespread devastation of the powerful quake has had a lasting effect on Chile.
Michelle Bachelet of the Chilean Socialist Party was re-elected president for the term 2014-2018. She also served as the country’s first female president from 2006-2010.