Although other accounts may eventually prove to be accurate regarding Chile’s first inhabitants and their origins, contemporary thought posits that the original inhabitants of Chile were Amerindians who had gradually worked their way south from the Bering Straits about 10,000 years ago. The people of this Stone Age culture, called the Chinchorro, established themselves in fertile valleys along Chile’s coast, and remnants of such a population are still living in the far southern tip of the country. The Chinchorro fished northern Chile’s waters from 6000 to 1600 B.C.E., and the mummies they left behind are telling surprising stories to 21st-century archaeoparasitologists. Although the Incas attempted to extend their empire south into northern Chile during the 15th century, the Chinchorros fiercely opposed their efforts and the Incas were forced to abandon the project. The Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521), seeking a southern passage to the Pacific (the Strait of Magellan), first saw Chile in 1520, when his ships navigated the channel that would become the Strait of Magellan. Diego de Almagro (1475–1538), accompanied by his band of Spanish conquistadors in 1535, who traveled south from Peru in quest of gold, were the next Europeans to reach Chile. Like the Incas before them, the local population repulsed their encroachment. It was not until 1541 that the first permanent European settlement Santiago was established by one of Francisco Pizarro’s (1475–1541) lieutenants. The Spanish failed to find the gold and silver they were seeking, but the agricultural value of Chile’s central valley attracted them, and Chile became part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which encompassed most of Spain’s South American colonies. In the course of their gradual conquest of the continent the Spaniards found hundreds of thousands of Indians from various cultures in what is now called Chile, who survived primarily through slash-and-burn agriculture and hunting. The European conquest of Chile was very gradual, and the indigenous cultures successfully beat the foreigners back time after time. In spite of these setbacks the Europeans persisted. Indigenous people as well as mestizos, inhabitants of mixed indigenous and Spanish parentage, were used as laborers on the huge estates of the Spanish rulers. In 1553, 1598, and 1655, massive Mapuche insurrections destroyed many of the fledgling colony’s major settlements and, with each uprising, the southern border of the colony was pushed farther north. The Spaniards went south as far as the Río Biobío, where the Mapuche tribes held them back. The abolition of slavery in 1683 helped to defuse some of the tensions between the colonists and the Mapuche, and some mutually beneficial trade became possible. In the north, however, the indigenous inhabitants were overcome by a different enemy—infectious diseases brought by the Spanish —to which they had no natural immunity. The 1820s witnessed the culmination of South America’s—and Chile’s—struggle for independence from Spain. Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842), Chile’s most famous patriot, became supreme director of a Chile that was only a fraction of the country’s eventual size. After winning the War of the Pacific in 1883 against Peru and Bolivia, Chile added the Atacama Desert to its territories. Commerce and industry grew and led to a civil war in the 1890s, when the working class and the nouveau riche challenged the wealthy landowners’ hegemony. The liberals and conservatives continued alternately to dominate Chile’s government until the 1960s, when the Christian Democrats came to power. They introduced social reforms of various kinds but were ousted by the radical left government of Salvador Allende (1908–73). This regime introduced radical measures, including the state takeover of many private enterprises and the wholesale redistribution of income. On September 11, 1973, General Augusto Pinochet (b. 1915) led a bloody coup; many believe this was accomplished with the backing of U.S. agencies. Allende died during the coup; the official explanation was that he committed suicide. What followed was systematic genocide on a massive scale. During the coup as many as 80,000 people were estimated to have been killed. Pinochet’s rule finally ended in 1988, when a referendum ousted him. In 1989 Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin (b. 1918) came to power. Democracy nominally returned to Chile, though Pinochet continued to wield enormous influence until he was arrested in London. He was initially pronounced too ill to stand trial; but in 2001 a Chilean court stripped him of his immunity, a move confirmed by Chile’s Supreme Court in 2004. President Eduardo Frei (b. 1941) took the drastic step of accelerating human rights tribunals and inquiries into Pinochet’s past. In this, however, he faced strong resistance from the military. Frei has made some progress in alleviating poverty. Ricardo Lagos (b. 1938), Frei’s public works minister, succeeded him in 1999 as the first socialist since Allende to become president, winning election by a narrow margin.
Chile occupies a thin strip on the western edge of the South American continent. It extends some 2,671 miles from north to south, between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains. It shares its eastern border mostly with Argentina and its northern border with Peru and Bolivia. Chile also claims Easter Island, Juan Fernández, and half of the southern island of Tierra del Fuego. Although its width barely exceeds 124 miles, its enormous length and variations in altitude lead to extreme variations in climate. It features snowcapped mountains, river canyons, and plains. These include the famous Atacama Desert, which has been described as one of the most inhospitable regions on Earth and is so dry that no rainfall has ever been recorded there. Another region is the storm- and snow-prone region of Patagonia. And of course Chile’s coast features beaches and bays perfect for holidays by the shore. As to climate the northern region features arid but temperate weather. The heartland enjoys a Mediterranean climate. Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego in the south are wind-, rain-, and snow-prone due to the influence of the Humboldt Current, a frigid stream of water that originates in Antarctica and brings cold air and cloudy, foggy weather to the coastal regions and into the river valleys. The rainy season in the heartland lasts from May until August.
Chile’s copper exports have played a major role in its economic health, and it is a regional economic leader with high levels of foreign trade. In 1999 due to many factors—including a drop in exports (a result of the global financial crisis) and a severe drought—Chile experienced negative economic growth for the first time in more than 15 years. Unemployment remained a problem in the years that followed, but by the end of 1999 exports and economic activity had begun to recover. Chile’s agricultural products include fruit, wheat, corn, garlic, asparagus, and beans. It also produces beef, poultry, wool, and fish. Its main industries are copper, other minerals, foodstuff, iron and steel, wood and wood products, cement, and textiles. Chile is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced labor. Most victims are Chilean minors trafficked internally for sexual exploitation.
The indigenous cultures of Chile have been virtually silenced by Europeans. In the middle and early modern Inca Empire northern Chile figured prominently as a cultural center, and the indigenous Mapuche and other Araucanian cultures blossomed in the central and southern regions. Those cultures, however, were dominated by the Spanish during the colonial period, and additional European influences, largely from Britain and France, started to make their influence felt during the 19th century and have continued. Chile’s national dance is the cueca (short for zamacueca), which first appeared in the early 19th century. A traditional Chilean song, though not a dance, is the tonada, which originated in music brought with them by Spanish colonists. The tonada is distinguished from the cueca by an intermediate melodic section and a clearer melody. In the mid-1960s native musical forms became linked to political activism and reformers like Chilean socialist Salvador Allende and his Popular Unity government. During Pinochet’s rule, folk music served as a vehicle of protest, especially overseas. During the military dictatorship in the 1970s any form of public expression opposed to the junta was repressed, and protest songs were secretly played and circulated. In the late 1980s and after the return of democracy in the 1990s, new musical bands began to appear. Spanish is Chile’s official language, though a handful of native languages are still spoken. In the north there are more than 20,000 Aymara speakers; and in the south about half a million Mapuche speakers. Inhabitants of Easter Island, numbering about 2,000, speak the Polynesian language Rapa Nui. Chile’s culture has been greatly influenced by the European incursions. Many Chilean intellectuals have been educated in Paris, and European influence is reflected in their art and literature. Chilean poets Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda both won Nobel Prizes. Roman Catholics constitute nearly 90 percent of the population.
Seafood, beef, fresh fruit, and vegetables predominate in Chile’s cuisine. Lomo a lo pobre, an enormous beefsteak with chips and two fried eggs, is a specialty. The parillada is a mixed grill of intestines, udders, and blood sausages. Curanto is a hearty stew of fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, lamb, beef, and potatoes. Humitas (corn tamales) and a variety of potato- and flour-based breads are popular. Chile also produces some of South America’s finest wines.