Sunday, June 13, 2010

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.