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.