Some 50,000 years ago, the very first people crossed the temporary land bridge spanning Asia and America at the Bering Straits and began a long migration southwards. The first signs that these people had reached South America date from around 14,000 BC, if not earlier.

As sources of game in forested valleys dried up, some groups settled along the coasts, particularly drawn by the abundance of marine life provided by the cold Humboldt current in the Pacific. Some of the earliest evidence of humans in Chile has been found in the north, both on the coast and in the parched Atacama Desert. The coastal people lived on shellfish gathered by the shore and on fish and sea-lions speared from inflated seal-skin rafts.

One such group, the Las Conchas people, migrated from the inland valleys to the coast near Antofagasta around 7500 BC. They were one of the first peoples in South America to take hallucinogenic drugs. Many graves excavated in this region contain mortars, which may have been used to grind up seeds also found nearby. These seeds contained an alkaloid similar to that found in the ayahuasca plant, which is still used for its hallucinogenic effects by the Shuar in Peru - indeed, the Shuar are believed by some to be descendants of these Atacameño peoples, having migrated to the Amazon in order to hide from the Spanish. Some specialists believe that the many geoglyphs of the Atacama Desert - the most famous ones being the Nazca Lines in Peru - were maps for shamans undergoing the hallucinatory experience of flight after taking drugs such as ayahuasca.

Northern influences

In the north, the extremely dry climate is a great preservative, allowing archaeologists to build up a detailed picture of early life. The people in the Atacama lived in solidly built adobe houses, arranged in complexes around inner courtyards and corridors, such as can be seen in the village of Tulor near San Pedro de Atacama.

These northern peoples had contact with neighbouring highland communities. The important
culture of
in present-day Bolivia is thought to have had particularly close links with northern Chile, helping to stimulate the growth of settlements such as that at San Pedro de Atacama. Trade with Tiahuanaco, through llama caravans bringing highland goods and produce, boosted the wealth and cultural development of the desert people. Some very fine textiles were found in this area, showing distinct design similarities with those of Tiahuanaco. The textiles were hand-spun and coloured with vegetable and cochineal dyes. Clothing and jewellery adornments containing feathers suggested contact even with tropical regions, although these may have been obtained through their
intermediaries. Local ceramics were mostly plain and highly polished, but some items decorated with elaborate dragon-like figures had probably been traded with Tiahuanaco.

In the period AD 500-900 the association between San Pedro de Atacama and Tiahuanaco had become even stronger. In return for trading their agricultural produce and other goods, it is thought that the Tiahuanaco people sought copper, semi-precious stones and the use of grazing lands in northern Chile. As with the Araucanía in the south, some graves from this period contained bodies with more elaborate clothing, jewellery, imported ceramics and other valuables, suggesting the existence of a wealthy elite, which was also common in central Andean cultures.

Following the demise of Tiahuanaco in about AD 1100, a number of cultures arose in the adjacent area bordering southern Bolivia, northern Chile and Argentina, practising derivative agriculture, with terraces and irrigation, and producing ceramics in similar styles. In the Quebrada de Humahuaca in present-day Argentina, several small defensive towns were built with fortified walls and stone houses. Grave remains have revealed that metallurgy was well developed here; some bodies were adorned with pectorals, bracelets, masks and bells, made of copper, silver and gold. Shells from the Pacific and ceramics from present-day Bolivian cultures, such as the Huruquilla, show the existence of widespread trade links.

Inca expansion

The next major empire to touch northern Chile was that of the Incas, which, at the peak of its growth in the 16th century, stretched as far south as the Aconcagua Valley near modern-day Santiago. The advancing armies of Inca Topa Yupanqui suppressed resistance in the valleys of the central region and replaced local structures with their own military administration. They were finally stopped by hostile forest tribes at the Río Maule near present-day Talca. This was the southernmost limit of the Inca Empire, some 3840 km south of the equator and the deepest that any imperial movement had penetrated into the southern hemisphere.

One major group that survived the Inca incursion and resisted conquest by the Europeans right up until the 19th century was the
. They were concentrated in the central valley south and east of the Cordillera de Nahuelbuta. The Mapuche were primarily farmers but also hunted and fished, both inland and along the coasts and lake shores. Their large cemeteries contained a variety of burial sites, some in canoes or stone chambers and some in simple earthen graves. Grave goods were plentiful, with elaborate ceramics, wooden and stone artefacts and jewellery made of copper and semi-precious stones.

The Far South

Despite the apparently inhospitable conditions, these regions were home to a sizeable population from very early times continuously up to the 19th century AD.
 Four distinct cultures developed here: the Haush, Ona, Yámana and Alacalufe. The oldest of these was the
, nomadic hunters of the guanaco mainly confined to the farthest southeastern tip of Tierra del Fuego, in present-day Argentina. The Haush hunted with bows and arrows, using guanaco skins for clothing and sometimes for covering their stick-framed houses. They also gathered shellfish and caught fish by the shore, using spears and harpoons.

people also hunted guanaco, ranging on foot across most of the Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego in family groups. They were strong runners and tall people, some of them 6 ft tall; in fact, all these hunters and gatherers are thought to have been the tallest of the first South American peoples. They wore guanaco skin robes, fur side out, and also guanaco fur moccasins, known as
. They made open-topped shelters out of guanaco skins, which were weatherproofed with a coating of mud and saliva, and sometimes painted red. The Ona did not use harpoons or spears and only collected shellfish from beaches
at low tide.

were nomadic coastal hunters, travelling in canoes up and down the coasts of the Beagle Channel and around the islands southwards to Cape Horn. They caught otters, fish and seals, using spears and harpoons, and used slings and snares to catch birds. The Yámana houses were simple, made of sticks and grass, and they wore little clothing, perhaps a small seal skin and skin moccasins in winter.

Like the Yámana, the
were also nomadic coastal peoples, roaming from Puerto Edén in the Chilean channels, to Yendegaia in the Beagle Channel. There was some contact with the Yámana, with whom they would sometimes exchange goods and inter-marry. The Alacalufes had similar lifestyles to the Yámana but developed various additions, such as raising a sail on their canoes and using a bow and arrow in addition to the sling when hunting birds or guanaco.

Spanish conquest and early settlement

The first Spanish expeditions to Chile were led by
Diego de Almagro
Pedro de Valdivia
, both of whom followed the Inca road from Peru to Salta and then west across the Andes. Almagro's expedition of 1535-1537, which included 100 Spaniards, African slaves, crypto-Jews and some thousands of indigenous Americans - many of whom perished - reached the heartland but, bitterly disappointed at not finding gold, returned to Peru almost immediately. Valdivia's expedition then carried out what initially appeared to be a swift and successful conquest, founding Santiago in February 1541 and a series of other settlements in the following years.

The motivation of these early expeditions - as in Mexico and Peru - was greed. The Spanish crown did nothing to finance the ventures, so all the risk was shouldered by those who participated, who therefore had a pressing need to find silver and gold to recompense themselves. Nevertheless, a fifth of all gold and silver that was found in the New World went into the royal coffers; an influx of precious metal that was urgently needed to prop up the falling value of coinage in Europe at this time.

The greedy motivations of the early arrivals made control in distant Chile difficult for the Castillian crown to exercise. Chile was effectively run by men such as
Francisco de Aguirre
, a conquistador who had accompanied Pedro de Valdivia's initial expedition. As one of the first Spaniards on the scene, Aguirre was made Governor of Tucumán - just across the Andes in modern-day Argentina - and later founded La Serena. He was, however, deeply anti-clerical and proclaimed himself “Pope and King” in Chile, saying that he would rather have a farrier than a priest. The Inquisition eventually caught up with Aguirre in the Río de la Plata in the 1570s and he died poor, bitter and disgraced in La Serena.

In addition to trying to exert effective control over the Spaniards in their territory, one of the main concerns of Chile's Spanish governors after Valdivia was the war against the Mapuche successors to Lautaro and Caupolicán. Known by the Spanish as Araucanos, the Mapuche were fearsome opponents. In 1598, they began a general offensive that destroyed all of the Spanish settlements south of the Río Biobío, revealing the weakness of a colony whose Spanish population was under 8000. Pushed back into the northern part of the Central Valley, the Spanish were forced to build a string of forts along the Río Biobío, guarded by a frontier army of 2000 men, the only force of its type in Spanish America, financed by a special subsidy from the viceregal capital of Lima. However, Chile was not important enough to warrant a full-scale Spanish assault on the Mapuche and, for the rest of the colonial period, the Spanish presence south of the river would be limited to the island of Chiloé and to the coastal city of Valdivia.

The Chilean colony

As in the other colonies in the Americas, Chilean society under Spanish rule was not the two-sided world of Spanish settlers and Amerindian peoples that official histories would have us believe. From very early on, two other groups became increasingly important:
- or forced converts from Judaism to Christianity, who had fled Inquisitiorial persecution in Spain and Portugal - and slaves from West Africa. The
controlled large parts of the trade in South America and suffered bouts of persecution from the Inquisitional office in Lima, while the Africans did much of the manual labour in the colony. Although both groups eventually became absorbed into Chile, the legacy of their presence can perhaps be felt today in the widespread stereotyping of Africans and Jews in mainstream Chilean society.

African slaves started arriving from very early on in the colonial period, principally because the Spanish found that the indigenous people were not hardy enough to do the work required of them. By the end of the 16th century, Africans in Chile were working as cattle ranchers and as
, and as blacksmiths, tailors, carpenters and servants in every city. They were mostly sold as contraband, brought over from Buenos Aires instead of through the 'official' port of entry at Cartagena, Colombia, and originated from all parts of the West African coast, from Senegambia to Angola.

By the turn of the 17th century, much of the trade of the fledgling colony was in the hands of the
, who were prohibited from holding positions of authority. Their main port of entry was Buenos Aires, from where they travelled overland to Potosí and Lima by way of Tucumán.

In the following years, colonial Chile achieved a degree of stability and developed as a compact society; most of its population inhabited the Central Valley and most trade was through Valparaíso. By the end of the 17th century, there were few people of pure indigenous blood, most having died, inter-married or escaped south of the Río Biobío. The majority of the population was
(mixed race), though the society was dominated by a small white elite. Chile was, however, highly isolated, being cut off from the rest of the continent in winter. People dared not use the lower passes to the south for fear of the Mapuche, and the high passes near Mendoza and Santiago were blocked by snow for months at a time.

During the colonial period, the
, or landed estate, was the most important feature of rural society in the Central Valley. In the 17th century, Chilean agriculture expanded to meet demands for wheat, tallow, salted beef and cattle hides from Peru; hides were also sent to Potosí and mules to the great fair in Salta. These exports and the need to feed the frontier army led to the development of large-scale agriculture. As the
grew, small farmers and tenants were gradually forced to become
, a class of peasants tied to the land. The
is regarded as the ancestor of the
, the Chilean cowboy, a figure seen as resourceful, astute, cunning and archetypally Chilean.

grew in response to food shortages, they were very self contained, with their own supplies of food and clothing, their own vineyards, forges and workshops. Ownership of a
was one of the clearest marks of upper-class status, although many were the property of religious orders. The
remained at the centre of rural life in the Central Valley and social relations between landowners and
changed little until the Agrarian Reforms of the 1960s. Although no colonial
remain, a few dating from the 19th century can be visited, notably Villa Huilquilemu, near Talca .

Chile was governed as part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, with its capital in Lima; until the 18th century, all trade with Spain had to pass via Lima and trade with other countries was forbidden. This led to uncontrolled smuggling and, by 1715, there were 40 French vessels trading illegally along the Chilean coast. In 1740, direct trade with Spain was permitted for the first time and, in 1750, Chile was allowed to mint her own currency.

The War of Independence

Independence came to Spanish America as a direct result of Napoleon's invasion of Spain. As Spanish guerrilla forces fought to drive the French out, these events led the colonial elites to debate where their loyalties lay: to Napoleon's brother Joseph, now officially King? Or to the overthrown king, Ferdinand VII, now in a French prison? Or to the Spanish resistance parliament in Cádiz?

In 1810, a group of leading Santiago citizens appointed a Junta to govern until Ferdinand returned to the throne. Although they protested loyalty to Ferdinand, their move was seen as a challenge to the crown by the viceregal government in Lima, which sent an army to Concepción. War broke out between the Chilean Patriots and the Royalist troops supporting Lima. The defeat of the Patriot army led by
Bernardo O'Higgins
at Rancagua in October 1814 led to a restoration of colonial rule, but O'Higgins was able to escape across the Andes to join forces with Buenos Aires' liberation hero, José de San Martín. The turning point came in 1817, with the invasion of Chile from Mendoza by San Martín's Army of the Andes, a force of 4000 men, which defeated the Royalists at Chacabuco on 12
February 1817. A Royalist counter-attack was defeated at Maipó, just south of Santiago, on 5 May 1818, putting an end to Royalist power in the Central Valley. The victory of the small Patriot navy led by
Lord Cochrane
at Valdivia in January 1820 helped clear the Pacific coast of Royalist vessels and paved the way for San Martín to launch his seaborne invasion of Peru.

Nineteenth-century expansion

In most of former Spanish America, Independence was followed by a period of political turmoil, marked by civil wars and dictatorship, which in some cases lasted until the 1860s. Many Independence heroes had tragic ends: disgusted at the chaos, San Martín retired to France; Simon Bolívar died penniless and in hiding in a boarding house in Santa Marta, Colombia; and O'Higgins was quickly overthrown. O'Higgins' demise was followed by a brief period of instability in Chile but, in 1830, conservative forces led by Diego Portales restored order and introduced the Constitution of 1833, which created a strong government under a powerful president. Portales, a Valparaíso merchant, who never became president, explained his actions thus: “If one day I took up a stick and gave tranquillity to the country it was only so that the bastards and whores of Santiago would let me get on with my work in peace.”

Chile became famous throughout Latin America as the great example of political stability: the army was reduced to 3000 men and kept out of politics; after 1831, four successive presidents served the two five-year terms permitted under the constitution. However, this stability had another side: civil liberties were frequently suspended, elections rigged, opponents exiled and power lay in the hands of a small landowning elite. Neither was the stability perfect: there were short civil wars in 1851, 1859 and 1891.

The latter half of the 19th century saw Chile's great period of expansion. In 1881, when victory over Peru in the War of the Pacific was assured , the much- enlarged army was sent to put an end to Mapuche independence and thus secure continuous Chilean control over the entire Pacific coastline south of Arica. In the few short years between 1879 and 1883, Chilean territory had expanded both northwards and southwards. However, some Chileans still argue that the victory over Peru and Bolivia came at the price of losing both the region around Mendoza and most of Patagonia to Argentina; according to some, this should, by dint of colonial land divisions under the Viceroyalty, be Chilean territory. It is certainly true that maps from the early 19th century show Chilean territory crossing the Andes and advancing halfway to the Atlantic Ocean, while early colonial documents speak of “the city of Mendoza in Chile”.

From the 1860s onwards, conflict between President and Congress became a constant feature of political life. The War of the Pacific brought the Chilean government a new source of income through the tax levied on nitrate exports coming from the new territories of the Atacama but it also increased rivalry for control of this income. When, in 1890, Congress rejected the budget, President Balmaceda announced he would use the 1890 budget for 1891. Congressional leaders denounced this as illegal and fled to Iquique, where they recruited an army, which defeated Balmaceda's forces and seized the capital. Balmaceda took refuge in the Argentine embassy, where he committed suicide. His defeat was important: between 1891 and 1924 Chilean presidents were weak figures and real power lay with Congress, ruled by the elite.

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