At the time the Spanish arrived, a variety of Amerindian societies inhabited what is now Chile. No elaborate, centralized, sedentary civilization reigned supreme, even though the Inca Empire had penetrated the northern land of the future state. As the Spaniards would after them, the Incas encountered fierce resistance from the indigenous Araucanians, particularly the Mapuche tribe, and so did not exert control in the south. During their attempts at conquest in 1460 and 1491, the Incas established forts in the Central Valley of Chile, but they could not colonize the region. In the north, the Incas were able to collect tribute from small groups of fishermen and oasis farmers but were not able to establish a strong cultural presence.
The Araucanians, a fragmented society of hunters, gatherers, and farmers, constituted the largest native American group in Chile. A mobile people who engaged in trade and warfare with other indigenous groups, they lived in scattered family clusters and small villages. Although the Araucanians had no written language, they did use a common language. Those in what became central Chile were more settled and more likely to use irrigation. Those in the south combined slash-and-burn agriculture with hunting.
The Araucanians, especially those in the south, became famous for their staunch resistance to the seizure of their territory. Scholars speculate that their total population may have numbered 1 million at most when the Spaniards arrived in the 1530s; a century of European conquest and disease reduced that number by at least half. During the conquest, the Araucanians quickly added horses and European weaponry to their arsenal of clubs and bows and arrows. They became adept at raiding Spanish settlements and, albeit in declining numbers, managed to hold off the Spaniards and their descendants until the late nineteenth century.
The Araucanians' valor inspired the Chileans to mythologize them as the nation's first national heroes, a status that did nothing, however, to elevate the wretched living standard of their descendants. Of the three Araucanian groups, the one that mounted the most resistance to the Spanish was the Mapuche, meaning "people of the land."
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