Archaeology and prehistory

Earliest origins

The first peoples crossed the land bridge spanning Asia and America, and the Bering Strait between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago, and began a long migration southwards, reaching South America about 30,000 years ago and Tierra del Fuego around 12,000 years ago. Hunters and foragers, they followed in the path of huge herds of now extinct animals such as mammoths, giant ground sloths, mastodons and wild horses, adapting to fishing along
the Chilean coasts. In the northeast of Argentina, these peoples adopted a more sedentary
lifestyle, pausing in their semi-nomadic travels long enough to plant and harvest crops of maize and manioc, and domesticate animals.

Northwest Argentina

Argentina has a rich history of pre-Hispanic indigenous civilizations, with the most important
archaeological sites situated in the northwest and west areas of the most highly developed
cultures south of the central Andes. Along a migratory path which followed the Andes, this region became a meeting place for established settlers from northern Chile, the central Andes, the Chaco and the hunter-gatherers of the south. Cave paintings and petroglyphs engraved on rocks remain from 13,000 to 10,000 years ago, made by cave dwellers who lived by hunting vizcacha, guanaco, vicuña and birds, some painted with pigments derived from minerals mixed with gesso. Their lines, dots and geometrical forms belong to a symbolic system impossible to interpret today. The extraordinary quantity of handprints visible in the Cueva de las Manos in Patagonia were made as long ago as 10,000 years, and again, their purpose and origin remains a mystery.

The Incas first arrived in the Calchaquíes valleys area between 1410 and 1430, incor- porating
the area into the part of their empire known as Kollasuyo. They built two parallel roads along the length of the Andes and along the Pacific shore: busy trade routes linking their communities with the rest of the Inca empire. The Incas made Quechua the official
language, punished the chiefs of any groups whose members transgressed, and absorbed the local cult of the earth goddess
Pachamama
into their own system of worship of the sun. The Incas also brought with them their own sacrificial burial customs. The bodies of three children found at the summit of Cerro Llullaillaco on the Salta/Chile border indicate young humans were killed as offerings. These three, aged between seven and 15, were taken to the summit, dressed in special garments, adorned with feather headdresses and jewellery, and put to sleep forever using strong local liquor
chichi.
It's thought that they were offered as a sacrifice to the gods in the belief that to gain life, life has also to
be sacrificed. It's also possible that their death sealed some kind of political alliance between
the Inca and the chief of a new colony. The children's peaceful faces show no sign of distress so it's likely that they died painlessly within minutes, Salta's new MAAM museum has a fascinating display of photographs and an extraordinary array of the artefacts buried with the children. The Calchaquíes valleys were the site of bloody battles when the Spanish attempted to dominate in the 16th century and many
i
ndigenous
groups were wiped out, but fortunately, in the northwest of Argentina, there are living
descendants from many of the original inhabitants, keeping their customs and beliefs alive
.

Central and southern Argentina

The Comechingones, who inhabited what are now the provinces of Córdoba and San Luis, lived in settlements of pit-dwellings and used irrigation to produce a range of crops. In the fa
r northeast on the eastern edge of the Chaco were the Guaraní; organized into loose
confederations, they lived in rudimentary villages and practised slash-and-burn agriculture t
o grow maize, sweet potatoes, manioc and beans. They also produced textiles and ceramics.

Further south, the Pampas and Patagonia were much more sparsely populated than the northwest and most groups were nomadic long after the arrival of the Spanish. One of the most important groups were the Querandí, who eked out a living by hunting guanaco and rheas with
boleadoras
, three balls of stone tied with thong and hurled at the legs of a running animal. Patagonia was inhabited by scattered nomadic groups including the Pampa, the Chonik and the Kaingang, who managed to avoid contact with white settlers until the 19th century. In the steppes of Patagonia, the Tehuelche and Puelche lived as nomadic hunters living off guanaco, foxes and game. In the far south, in southern
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, there were four indigenous groups, the land-based Ona and Haush, who hunted foxes and guanaco, wearing their hides and constructing temporary
dwellings of branches covered loosely with skins; and the sea based Yaghanes and Alacaluf, who made canoes, paddles, bailers and mooring rope, catching fish with spears or by hand, though seals were their main source of food. These peoples survived until the late 19th century and were befriended and protected by the son of Tierra del Fuego's first settler and missionary. Lucas Bridges' account in the book
Uttermost Part of the Earth
gives
an extraordinary insight into the customs and hunting practices of the Ona and Yaghanes.
Within 50 years of the arrival of white sheep-farmers, many had been shot or coerced into religious missions where they could be controlled. President Roca's genocidal Conquest of the Wilderness (1879-1880) exterminated any indigenous tribes who resisted the
influence of the new settlers in the Pampas and Patagonia. Today no single descendent remains of these tribes, which is why you may see that every statue of Roca is permanently disfigured and has graffiti.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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