About 12,000 years ago, migrating Native Americans settled in the fertile valleys and coastal areas of what is present day Chile. Pre-Hispanic Chile was home to over a dozen different Amerindian societies. The current prevalent theories are that the initial arrival of humans to the continent took place either along the Pacific coast southwards in a rather rapid expansion long preceding the clovis culture, or even trans-pacific migration. These theories are backed by findings in the Monteverde archaeological site, which predates the Clovis site by thousands of years. Specific early human settlement sites from the very early human habitation in Chile include the Cueva del Milodon and the Pali Aike crater’s lava tubes.
Despite such diversity, it is possible to classify the indigenous people into three major cultural groups: the northern people, who developed rich handicrafts and were influenced by pre-Incan cultures the Araucanian culture, who inhabited the area between the river Choapa and the island of Chiloe, and lived primarily off agriculture; and the Patagonian culture, composed of various nomadic tribes, who supported themselves through fishing and hunting (and who in Pacific/Pacific Coast immigration scenario would be descended partly from the most ancient settlers).
No elaborate, centralized, sedentary civilization reigned supreme.
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 tongue. 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. Of the three Araucanian groups, the one that mounted the fiercest resistance to the attempts at seizure of their territory were the Mapuche, meaning “people of the land.”
The Inca Empire briefly extended their empire into what is now northern Chile, where they collected tribute from small groups of fishermen and oasis farmers but were not able to establish a strong cultural presence in the area. As the Spaniards would after them, the Incas encountered fierce resistance and so were unable to exert control in the south. During their attempts at conquest in 1460 and again in 1491, the Incas established forts in the Central Valley of Chile, but they could not colonize the region. The Mapuche fought against the Sapa Tupa Inva Yupanqui and his army. The result of the bloody three-day confrontation known as the Battle of Maule was that the Inca conquest of the territories of Chile ended at the Maule river which subsequently became the boundary between the Incan empire and the Mapuche lands until the arrival of the Spaniards.
Scholars speculate that the total Araucanian 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.