This ancient civilization that still exists today in the South of Chile has gone through a difficult history, continually facing opposition, but they have remained free and independent. The name Mapuche literally means people of the earth.
They have a proud history in asserting their independence. The Mapuche people lived in the fertile valleys of Southern Chile at the time of the Spanish arrival. They lived in small groups with a culture based mainly on hunting and gathering. Toiling on the land was not necessary for many, and what work there was was evenly divided among the sexes. Their division among family clans was both their saving grace and their downfall. As they remained divided and separated from other civilizations, they were unable to develop further, like the neighboring Inca culture. However, it was this very division that made it impossible for the Spanish to destroy their culture in one blow the way they had done previously in Peru. Each time the Spanish put down a Mapuche uprising another would come out from the woods and attack. The conflict between the Spaniards and the Mapuche lasted for some 300 years, and is known as the Arauco War.
They were able to resist the Spanish conquest for years adapting their techniques and using their vast numbers to combat the enemy. They were also noted for their horseback riding, a skill of course that was only learned after the arrival of the Spanish with their horses. The Spaniards were never able to maintain any hold South of the Bío Bío River.
After Chile declared its independence from Spain more and more settlers came and took over Mapuche lands. The Mapuche finally signed an agreement to co-exist with the new Chilean government and have their lands incorporated after much military pressure and diplomatic discussion.
The Mapuche generally live in the Southern end of Chile, around Temuco and there are still a few across the mountains in Argentina as well. Currently they make up approximately 4% of the Chilean population, although many Chileans have at least some Mapuche or Ayamara in them. Many continue to live within their own communities somewhat separate from the rest of Chileans. While most Chileans are proud of the history of the brave Mapuche warriors fighting off the Spanish conquistadors, tensions exist between the two cultures today. A number of Mapuche have integrated into the rest of Chilean culture, moving to larger cities to find a better economic situation.
One of the most fascinating figures in Mapuche culture is the Machi. She is often described as a good witch, but in truth her role is that of a spiritual healer within the Mapuche community. Healing ceremonies are private affairs and outsiders of the community are very rarely able to view the process. The Machi has an extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs. Her training comes from an apprenticeship with an older Machi would guides the younger woman into the rights of weather prediction, dream interpretation, warding off evil and curing illnesses.
They are known for their beautiful metal work, especially jewelry such as their head dresses and necklaces. The influence of the silver coin from the Spaniards had a major affect on their craftsmanship.
When a member of the Mapuche dies, a wooden carving known and a chemamull is placed to mark the grave site. Each carving in unique and can either be male or female. The statues are generally over 2 meters in height.
The Mapuche people speak the language Mapundungu. At the time of the Spanish arrival there was no written record of the Mapundungu language, so the Latin alphabet has been applied to the spoken language and there are some spelling discriminations. Only 20,000 people still regularly speak the language, as many Mapuche are bilingual and it is very uncommon for other Chileans to learn the language. About double that number are able to speak Mapundungu, with almost all of the speakers living in the South of Chile. There are several Mapundungu influences in Chilean Spanish and several cities and other locations have Mapuche names. The language appears to be isolated, with little in common with surrounding languages such as Quechua. There are two main dialects of Mapuche spoken today.
Below is a video I took of someone selling Mapuche musical instruments at the City Council Market in the center of Temuco. You will hear the name of each instrument before he plays them.
The football team Colo Colo, one of the most popular in the country, is named after a legendary Mapuche animal that has different forms depending on who you talk to, with body parts of a snake, rooster, and rat and cries like a newborn child.
The Peuchen is a figured feared by many Mapuche. It is able to shift its form instantly and become any animal. It has the ability to petrify its victims and suck the blood from humans and animals alike.
Like most ancient cultures, the Mapuche have their own version of the great flood. They speak of two serpents, one the keeper of land and the other of water. When the water serpent Kai Kai tried to take over the land from his enemy, the serpent Tren Tren, the other snake protected the people by bringing them to the mountains. Once the water subsided the people were able to return to the valleys and repopulate the earth.
The first two humans in Mapuche mythology are Lituche and Domo. Domo, the first female was created from a star and the flowers and grass grew so that she could walk upon softer ground.
Today they continue to have a political struggle with the Chilean government to maintain their own land. Many now live in impoverished conditions due to the loss of their land. Many Mapuche also have the internal struggle of maintaining the rituals and traditions of their ancient culture in an ever-changing world with greater influences from the outside world.
There is a museum dedicated only to Mapuche artifacts just outside of Cañete, south of Concepción near Lago Lanalhue Contulmo. The museum displays a wide collection of intricate silver jewelry, textiles, ceramics, weapons and more. There is also an example of a ruca, or traditional Mapuche home made of wood and straw and often circular in shape.
Several other Chilean museums also dedicate portions to Mapuche artifacts. You can also find modern Mapuche products in the street fairs throughout the Southern half of the country.
Unlike the floating islands of Lake Titicaca where the locals have preserved their way of life and market it as a tourist attraction, living on display and sharing their ancient customs, the Mapuche generally remain very closed. While you should have no problem finding Mapuche products and crafts while travelling here getting an up close personal look at the Mapuche way of life is a rare experience for most tourists.
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