Monday, June 14, 2010

Peoples of the Pampas and Patagonia

In the expansive prairies that presently make up the eastern and southern provinces of Argentina, small bands of hunter-gatherers predominated. They hunted native animals such as deer, guanacos, armadillos, prairie dogs, and South American ostriches. In the woodlands of Patagonia, gathering seeds and hunting deer formed the basis of existence. The coastal peoples of Patagonia hunted seals and fished from canoes. For many centuries, life was much the same for these peoples. They too lived in small bands, celebrated their independence, and confounded the first Europeans.

Just before the Europeans arrived, the larger cultural and linguistic groups of the Querandí, Puelche, and Tehuelche inhabited large sections of the Argentine Pampas and Patagonia. These peoples moved mainly on foot and set up camps based on the seasons and hunting opportunities. They were little encumbered by material goods. Their tools were simple, usually bone and stone weapons and scrapers, products of their Stone Age existence. The peoples of the Argentine prairies, however, would become known for one unique weapon: the bolas. Made of three round stones covered by animal skin and connected by leather cords, the bolas, flung by a skilled hunter, could bring down guanacos, ostriches, and other large game. The hunter whirled the bolas around his head and flung them at the legs of his prey. He then moved in on the hobbled animal to make the kill with a spear or club.

The principal bands of the Pampas and Patagonia were quite small, made up only of a few families or clans. In this sense they were like other southern hunters. There existed no confederations of tribes or a rigid differentiation of their societies between warriors and hereditary leaders. Yet, these peoples did observe sharp gender differentiation, with women subordinated to men, who for the most part were monogamous. Women cleaned game, cooked, cared for and disciplined the children, put up the toldos, wove baskets, and made simple pottery. Men and women alike shared duties of gathering and preparing food and may have discussed basic decisions within families before the men met in council. As warriors and hunters, the men dominated the formal decision-making processes and carried out raids on neighboring groups.

The Charrúa

Another major group of southern hunters who were to have early hostile relations with the Europeans were the Charrúa. These peoples consisted of five distinct groupings, all of whom were related linguistically and who inhabited the region of present-day Uruguay, southern Brazil, and northeastern Argentina. The Charrúa, like other southern hunters, shared a disdain of agriculture and lived on game, fish, wild fruits, and roots. They made their houses of woven mats hung between pole frames. The Charrúa dressed in skins during the winter and wore a leather apron in the summer; the males tattooed and painted their bodies, particularly before battle. The Charrúa also pierced their lips, ears, and noses, in which they placed feathers and shells. They built large canoes for fishing on the rivers and in the estuary of the Río de la Plata. The canoes of the Charrúa, according to an early European mariner, measured “10 to 12 fathoms [approximately 69 feet] in length and half a fathom [a little more than 3 feet] in width; the wood was cedar, very beautifully worked; they rowed them with very long paddles decorated by crests and tassels of feathers on the handles; and 40 standing men rowed each canoe” (Steward 1946, I:193). The men of the Charrúa hunted with bows and arrows, spears, and bolas. They were also very skilled at slinging jagged stones at game.

Political and social decentralization was the rule among the Charrúa also. These hunting groups resided in small dispersed groups on the grasslands of Uruguay and on the riverbanks of the lower Paraná Basin. Eight to 10 people inhabited each family hut, and a band of nomads comprised eight to 12 families altogether. Two or more groups might band together for warfare but otherwise kept to themselves. According to the first European missionaries who attempted to convert them to Christianity, the chieftains did not have a great deal of authority in the hunting bands, where fistfights between individuals sufficed to settle disputes. In battle, the warriors were merciless to enemy warriors and incorporated captured women and children into their bands as slaves or family members.

Peoples of the Gran Chaco

The first major group of the southern hunters resided in the Gran Chaco, the great territorial depression between the Bolivian Andes, the Brazilian massif, the rocky hills along the upper Paraguay River, and the Córdoba mountains of Argentina. The Gran Chaco is not a region conductive to tilling. Its numerous marshes spill into and flood the surrounding grasslands during the rainy season, leaving a thin crust of salt on the land. During the rest of the year, the unrelenting sun dries up the vegetation, except for the thick tropical woodlands that bound the Gran Chaco on the east. Numerous cultural and linguistic groups contested for living space within this sparse landscape. At the time of European contact, the Chaco groups displayed much variation among

A 19th-century depiction of a group of indigenous people of Argentina’s Gran Chaco region (León Pallière, 1858)

From study of the Inca it is known that people from the Gran Chaco came to the border villages of the Andean empire to barter animal skins and ostrich and egret feathers for ornaments of gold, silver, and copper. Through trade, these same Andean products found their way east and south to the hunting groups on the Pampas. Few peoples of the Chaco cultivated crops, the Guaná being one of the exceptions, for they cultivated root crops, especially the cassava plant, and tobacco. The Guaná dried and crushed tobacco into a coarse powder, which they smoked in pipes.

Each of the seven major and numerous minor cultural and linguistic groups in the Gran Chaco maintained rituals representing beliefs about their relation to the cosmos. Certain rites of manhood and menstruation initiated youth into full participation in village affairs. Like all other indigenous groups, the people of the Chaco were polytheistic. Good and evil spirits existed everywhere, in nature, in animals, and in the heavens, so that the shamans had to chant and lead dances in order to placate the harmful spirits and bring good luck to the camp. The knowledge of herbs and the art of chanting confirmed the authority of the male, and in some cases female, shamans in curing the sick.

Each clan in the Chaco divided gender tasks: The men followed athletic and warrior pursuits, and the women, domestic and reproductive roles. Women constructed the temporary shelters, wove baskets, and made crude pottery. Monogamy prevailed among most men; only the headmen had more than one wife. The warriors honed their skills at warfare by hunting deer, peccaries, tapir, jaguars, and nutria. Boys customarily fished with bows and arrows. Besides using tobacco, all groups consumed chicha.

As was true among other nomadic peoples, the typical Chaco hunting band of 50 to 100 members made major decisions by consensus. The chieftain merely carried out the decisions of the band’s adult males. Although individuals may have attempted to live in concert with nature in so far as possible, these hunting groups never existed in peace and harmony among themselves. Seasonal variations in the availability of game and even the slightest variation in rainfall left the hunters vulnerable to feast or famine. These factors placed the small bands under constant pressure to expand their living space and to raid and conduct warfare with neighboring groups. These nomadic hunt-ers preferred to live in the vicinity of their ancestors’ burial sites, but over time they were forced to move and adjust to one another. And the paucity of resources discouraged the Spaniards, who avoided the Gran Chaco for more than 300 years, especially after some early and disastrous encounters with these hunting peoples.

The Charrúa (Delaunois, 1832)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Southern Hunters

In contrast to the Guaraní, the many groups of nomadic hunters and gatherers of the vast archipelago stretching from the Gran Chaco, through the Córdoba hills and Pampas into Patagonia, acquiesced to neither Inca nor European encroachment. The hunter-gatherers presented no fixed target to be conquered by one another, much less by the Inca armies or European adventurers.

Argentina’s southern hunters contrasted with the agricultural peoples to the north and west because they accumulated no surplus whatsoever. They wandered in dispersed and migratory groups, developed only weak political leaders, battled constantly among themselves for control of hunting areas, and survived within the narrow constraints of the harsh natural environment. Because they followed game and the seasons, the groups resided in small, temporary encampments made up of eight to 10 toldos, round tents covered with animal skins. The southern hunters also glorified warfare as the necessary attribute of survival and relished preying on their enemies in lightning raids. Their chieftains shared decision-making responsibilities with community councils, and their shamans specialized in paying homage to and influencing the numerous spirits. The shamans developed the knowledge of folk medicines and practiced the animistic rituals that made sense of the arbitrariness of nature.

Several but not all of the innumerable hunter bands were culturally and linguistically related to one another; however, the complete lack of large-scale territorial or political organization among them meant that no one group (or outside imperial force) could conquer the others and impose common beliefs and language. Each group remained independent and mutually antagonistic to the other indigenous hunters. Despite the ethnic hostilities and language differences, the huntergatherers of southern South America did trade among themselves and exchanged practical knowledge. But in their adaptability to the harsh environment and in their political decentralization lay the secrets to their independence and autonomy. These hunting peoples pursued lives of splendid, if impoverished, individualism.

The Guaraní

To the east of the lands of the Diaguita, beyond the Gran Chaco, lay the homeland of yet another agricultural warrior people, the Guaraní. Known for facilitating European encroachment rather than resisting it, the Guaraní’s origins and survival strategies explain their later reaction to the Europeans.

Bands of Guaraní occupied the semitropical forests of present-day Paraguay, southern Brazil, and northeastern Argentina. They had probably emigrated from the Amazon Basin of Brazil around 200 b.c., displacing and marginalizing the previous indigenous groups. The Guaraní peoples of the forests and rivers developed a civilization based on hunting, fishing, and slash-and-burn horticulture. They cut the trees, burned off the underbrush, planted and harvested crops for several years, then moved on, leaving the forest regrowth to replenish the fertility of the soil. Cultivation fell to the women, who raised maize, beans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, squash, and cassava.

Living patterns in the forest differed from the Andean pattern of the Diaguita. Extended families of Guaraní lived together in large, long straw-thatched huts. As many as 50 family members might live in the house of an important leader. They slept in hammocks suspended from the poles that supported the roof. Wooden palisades surrounded a village of 20 to 30 long houses, reminders of the incessant competition for resources and territory among native groups. Clothes made of feathers and animal skins warded off the winter’s cold. In the summer months, men and women customarily went about their chores entirely naked. Spanish men later mistook the casual style of dress as a sign of libidinousness.

The Guaraní, much like other indigenous groups throughout the Americas, observed strict roles defined by gender. Besides working in the fields, women took charge of preparing the meals, rearing the children, making pottery, and weaving baskets. Guaraní women also made the beverage chicha, which they infused with their own saliva before cooking and fermentation. Men developed skills as warriors and contributed to the diet through hunting and fishing. Guaraní boys customarily carried bows and arrows from childhood and used hunting as a way to perfect their combat skills. Chieftains and the more accomplished warriors practiced polygamy, having extensive households of several wives. Most men, however, had only one wife. Women faced death if caught in adultery, though they were allowed to separate from abusive or neglectful husbands.

Like their Brazilian cousins, the Guaraní were animistic in their religious beliefs. They identified natural forces such as the sun, sky, thunder, lightning, and rain as deities. Deities took on the forms of animals, especially birds, which held sacred meanings for the forest peoples. Shamans invoked these spirits in order to bring success in love, battle, and the harvest. Offerings, ritual dances, chants, and charms were used to ward off the darker forces of the universe.

Politically, the Guaraní maintained decentralized political units within their territories. Each group inhabited a defined area of territory throughout which its clans could fish, hunt, and engage in slash-andburn cultivation. Fighting between groups was not uncommon. Raiding and stealing formed part of the struggle for survival, and individual warriors shared political authority with shamans and chieftains. They used bows and poison-tipped arrows, wooden clubs, and spears as the weapons of choice for hunting and raiding. Few material possessions seemed to separate the Guaraní leaders from the followers, for tropical agriculture yielded the same low level of surplus as intermontane tillage did among the Diaguita. The hereditary chiefs and shamans did enjoy some material advantage over commoners, a difference counted in the number of wives they had since each wife represented field labor and personal service.

The more-or-less permanent settlements of these agriculturists made the Guaraní prey to raids and depredations of the nomadic peoples of the Gran Chaco and boat peoples who thrived along the riverbanks. The precariousness of life among the Guaraní explains why they later accepted Spanish warriors, who seemed to have magical weapons, as allies against their traditional rivals.

The Mapuche

In the long transition from hunting, the Mapuche of what is today southern Chile benefited from the agricultural breakthroughs among the Diaguita. The Mapuche gradually adopted the cultivation of maize, potatoes, and peppers—each plant acclimated to conditions found in the temperate forests and valleys along the southern coasts of Chile. Game and fish supplemented their diet, enabling the Mapuche to settle into relatively permanent villages. Their deities represented the forces of nature and the harvest, and the shamans sought to appease them with offerings of food and sacrifices of domestic llamas. Masked dancers warded off evil spirits. With stone tools only, the Mapuche harvested the wood with which they constructed homes, corrals for llamas and alpacas, and the defensive palisades. These people occasionally carried out raids on neighboring villages, even though those attacked may have been of the same cultural and linguistic family.

Their forts and warlike independence served the Mapuche well when, in the 15th century, Topa Inca extended his conquests deep into present-day Chile. The outside threat sufficed to unite the competitive southern Chileans for an effective defense of their territory. Usually, the leaders had little control over their subjects and warriors, much like the decentralized political system among the Diaguita. To stop the Inca armies, however, the Mapuche elected war leaders, formed larger allied war groups, and mobilized great numbers of warriors. These same Mapuche later were to effectively and aggressively maintain their autonomy from European conquest, not submitting to outside authority until the 1880s.

The Diaguita

The peoples of northwest Argentina, particularly in the Salta and Jujuy regions, reflected the Andean culture they shared with the Inca peoples of highland Peru. Our knowledge of them comes from the evidence of early archaeological sites and the information gathered by the earliest Spanish priests and settlers.

The Diaguita were agriculturists who used the digging stick as their principal tool and cultivated corn, beans, and peppers. Potatoes did not grow well in the lower altitudes. Similarly, they herded llamas and alpacas as sources of protein and of wool for making clothing. The Diaguita lived in houses of stone masonry like other highland peoples. They arranged their modest family-sized dwellings along the streams and fields with pathways between them. They did not build great cities, as were found elsewhere among the various pre-Columbian peoples of the Andes.

The early inhabitants of northwest Argentina shared a semiarid landscape dominated by high plateaus suitable for grazing, valleys suitable for tilling, and mountain peaks that rose above the snowline. Snowmelt represented the zone’s water resource that these peoples harnessed for irrigation. The original peoples made coiled basketry, wove ponchos and skirts from llama wool, and shaped pottery in geometric designs similar to their Andean neighbors in Bolivia and Peru.

The Diaguita and other agriculturists built villages in easily defended sites and prepared irrigated fields below, as at this ruin in northern Tucumán Province. (Photo by Cyrus S. Cousins)

Some of the cultural groups shared language patterns, but most Diaguita spoke a language different from the Aymara and Quechua dominant in the Andean highlands. The Diaguita built granaries of stone and dams on rivers and streams to divert floodwater into marshlike depressions around which they planted crops, especially corn. This staple crop originated in present-day Mexico and migrated through Peru to northwest Argentina well before the birth of Christ. The ancient Argentines of the northwest also hunted turkey and other small game, fished in the streams and rivers, and collected algarroba pods and prickly pears to supplement their diets.

Characteristically, while the Diaguita remained the dominant group of the region just before the European incursion, northwest Argentina supported an abundance of cultural diversity. Peoples of many cultures, such as the Atacameño, Humahuaca, Chicha, and Lule, shared the landscape, all of them living in relative harmony with the Diaguita, enforced by the imperial Inca hegemony. Everyone chewed the coca leaf as a mild stimulant and as an important cultural mark. A mildly intoxicating beer was made from wild algarroba beans that formed a variation of the corn chicha still prevalent today in the Andes. (Chicha is an alcoholic beverage popular among Andean peasants. Traditionally, women prepare chicha by masticating the algarroba pods or corn in their mouths and fermenting the resulting mix of juice and spittle.)

The tunic, a shirt of woven llama wool, was the principal garment of men and women, though the women’s tunics were ankle length. In the winter, a woolen cape provided warmth. Everyone wore Andean-style sandals on their feet. Though agriculturists, the men still reveled in their status as warriors. They wore their hair long and adorned their heads with feathers and headbands as a mark of their warlike status. The main weapons were spears, bows and arrows, stone-headed clubs, and the distinctive weapon of the plains hunters, the bolas.

Among the Diaguita, there apparently existed none of the caste structure and social differentiation common among the imperial Inca, and they possessed little in the way of sumptuous goods such as gold and silver ornaments. Diaguita families formed into clans descended from a common ancestor. Important clan leaders may have had two wives (a principal indication of wealth among them), but most men were monogamous in marriage. In the absence of a well-organized priesthood, the shamans took charge of religious ceremonies and passed along the folk medicines from one generation to the next. They remained a relatively decentralized agricultural people, in which the chiefs of small units generally wielded modest political powers, although several chiefs did unite into informal political and military alliances. A Spaniard testified, “It is notorious that no village which has a cacique is the subject of another cacique or pueblo” (Steward 1946, II: 683).

Most chiefs inherited their leadership status from their fathers and uncles and confirmed that leadership with valor in battle, thereby proving his political authority. Otherwise, a council of elders shared decision-making power within the group. The Diaguita’s political decentralization meant that any large valley might be inhabited by several different groups, each in tense and hostile contact with the others. The Inca imperial alliance may have mitigated the competition among the various clans of the Diaguita, although the stone fortresses that still dominate the narrow passages between the valleys of northwest Argentina give vivid testimony to the heritage of political competition among these agricultural peoples.

The Argentine northwest came very late into the Inca Empire. The emperor Topa Inca (1471–93) gained the submission of the indigenous groups of the region, but Inca influence never penetrated across the Córdoba mountains to the Pampas or through the Gran Chaco into modern-day Paraguay. Some chieftains of the Diaguita came to understand the Quechua language of the Inca, but the imperial powers rested lightly among these comparatively poor agriculturists. On the opposite side of the Andes, the Argentine Diaguita’s counterparts inhabited most of present-day Chile down to what is now the city of Santiago. They too submitted to the Inca. But farther south, another agricultural group of different ethnic and linguist stock, the Araucanians, resisted the ancient Peruvians. These peoples—the Huilliche, Picunche, and especially the Mapuche—would also become important later in Argentina, rallying all remaining indigenous groups on the Pampas in resisting the Spaniards.

The Agriculturists of Northern Argentina

Scholars believe that the Americas remained uninhabited by humans until a drop in the level of the Pacific Ocean uncovered a land bridge from Asia where the Aleutian Islands of Alaska are presently located. Commencing approximately 50,000 years ago, several Asian peoples of different origins and ethnic backgrounds migrated in successive waves across the Bering land bridge. Subsequently, the sea levels rose and covered the land, leading the migrants to develop culture and technologies wholly separate from those of the so-called Old World of Asia, Europe, and Africa. By 13,000 b.c. these migratory huntergatherers had moved through the Darién jungles of Panama and established encampments on the Peruvian coast and in Chile. Separate peoples crossed the Andes, slowly occupying the Amazon Basin, from which they moved north and settled the Caribbean Islands. Farther south, the migrants fanned out thinly over the Pampas and Patagonia of present-day Argentina. In the time of the pharaohs of ancient Egypt, approximately 1,000 b.c., the Mesoamericans of lowland Mexico were developing agriculture around the cultivation of maize or corn. The fisher peoples of coastal Peru adopted the cultivation of maize, while the highland Andeans of Peru subsequently perfected the cultivation of several varieties of potato. These hearty Andean peoples also nurtured the only domestic livestock known in the Americas, the llamas and alpacas. Some of these Andean developments reached the peoples of Chile and northwest Argentina. Indigenous influences from the area of modern-day Brazil, in the meantime, had spread into the area of modern-day Paraguay. There the Guaraní cultivated cassava (also known as yuca or manioc) as their basic food product. The rest of the indigenous peoples of the lower Paraná River basin, the Pampas, and Patagonia remained hunters of game and gatherers of fruits and berries.

Ancient Argentina and the European Encounter

If Argentines today take pride in their individuality and independence, they would do well to credit the indigenous inhabitants of the land, as well as the first Spanish settlers. Only a minority of the native peoples of the region ever submitted to the outside authority of the far-reaching Inca Empire based in present-day Peru, and for those few the submission cost little in terms of loss of autonomy and transfer of wealth. Indeed, the pre-Columbian peoples of the region now called the Southern Cone—the lands that form a cone shape descending to the tip of South America, consisting of the modern-day countries of Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay—had little wealth compared to the well-known civilizations of the Inca of Peru and the Aztec of Mexico. This relative poverty guaranteed their independence for many millennia.

The area that became modern-day Argentina covers a large and diverse section of the Southern Cone, stretching nearly half the length of the South American continent, from the tropic of Capricorn all the way to the southern tip. To the north and northeast are the modern nations of Paraguay, Brazil, and Uruguay; to the west and northwest, Chile and Bolivia. A line of high Andean mountains runs down the western side of Argentina and has historically presented a formidable barrier to travel and commerce. The land descends east from the mountains through a region of foothills and eventually to a large flat area of fertile plains known as the Pampas. To the north of these plains is a semiarid region called the Gran Chaco, bordered on the east and northeast by a great river basin comprising several large rivers and the estuary of the Río de la Plata. A long Atlantic coastline leads down the eastern edge of Argentina to the Patagonian region.

The original inhabitants of the region that became modern Argentina were either agriculturists who had to supplement their diets with hunting and gathering or nomadic peoples who subsisted entirely on hunting and gathering. They may have numbered almost 1 million people in 1492, when Columbus arrived in the Caribbean.

They lived dispersed over an area that now supports 41 million Argentines. Today one might wonder why these indigenous peoples were so impoverished when they inhabited a land of such rich and now-proven agricultural potential. The answer lies in their lack of technological sophistication. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the native inhabitants used only Stone Age technology. Their chiseled rock tools and their chief agricultural implement, the wooden digging stick, could not cut the deep roots of the Pampas grasses or clear the land to cultivate crops. Instead, they carried on agriculture only in the softer valley soils of the Andean highlands, today Argentina’s northwestern provinces. The prairies remained rich only in animals and birds for the hunt. The ancients did not have tempered metals, draft animals, or the wheel. For that matter, they did not suffer from the diseases that ravaged Europe, Asia, and Africa and so had no immunity to them.

These early inhabitants did not form a cultural or ethnic whole. There existed many separate language groupings and dozens of ethnic and cultural differences, giving rise to intensive political decentralization. In each region of the Southern Cone, one cultural and ethnic group might have predominated, but it always had to share—unwillingly for the most part—the fringes of its territory with smaller groups of different cultures and ethnic identities. They observed basic political and religious loyalties at the village or clan level. These peoples recognized only their local leaders and disputed with arms territory and resources even with other groups of the same culture and language. Every male hunter or cultivator also became a warrior. Every female subordinated herself to the rigid requirements of group survival and maintenance of the warrior male. Some groups enlarged their territories while others retreated to the poorer lands to form a complex and fluid map of ethnic and linguistic diversity across southern South America.

What the indigenous inhabitants of the Southern Cone had accomplished in terms of establishing their lives of group autonomy on the land would determine how the first Spaniards established their hold of the region. Unlike Mexico and Peru, each of which fell within a few decades of Spanish arrival, it took the better part of the 300-year colonial period for Europeans to become established in the Southern Cone; after all, there was no empire to conquer in Argentina and certainly no wealth had existed to sustain a large population of Europeans. Therefore, the Spaniards had to settle the region through a long series of small conquests over the indigenous inhabitants, all the while developing a European-style commercial and agricultural base. They had to painstakingly defeat nearly each and every decentralized group in piecemeal fashion. The defeat of no one clan group resulted in the submission of their indigenous neighbors. Even then, several important native groups continued their successful resistance for nearly 400 years following the arrival of the first European. A summary survey of the pre-Columbian peoples of the Southern Cone will suggest the reasons that individualism and independence have become so entrenched in Argentine society.