The Mapuche People

The Mapuche of Chile: people, history, food, and art. The Mapuche people are the original inhabitants of a vast territory in what is now Chile and Argentina.
Despite making up almost 10% of Chile’s population, the Mapuche people and their truly remarkable history regrettably remain relatively unknown to the common man of the western world. As the sole group of South American indigenous inhabitants to successfully fend off the invading threats of both the mighty Inca Empire and the powerful Spanish conquistadors, their extraordinary achievements should be known universally.

Independence victories aside, the Mapuche are also a people who, even in the face of an ever-growing globalized world, take great pride in having preserved the traditions of their ancient culture. Boasting a language isolate, delicious age-old cuisine, and beautifully-intricate artwork, the Chilean Mapuche natives have a natural flair for creativity which is sure to inspire those tourists privileged enough to visit these close-knit communities and to see such skills in action.

Although a scattering of Mapuche settlements can be found in rural parts of southwestern Argentina, these indigenous communities primarily live in Chile’s Araucanía region. In fact, it was precisely, and surprisingly, this scattering of small settlements and the separation of family clans which led to the Mapuche’s unprecedented triumph over the Spaniards in the 16th Century. Unable to eradicate the unique culture of the Mapuche people in a single, forceful attack, as with Peru’s native inhabitants, the conquistadors were left frustrated and humiliated.

Unorganized and chaotic though the fighting techniques of the Mapuche may have seemed as they lurked in the forest before unexpectedly charging towards the baffled Spanish opposition, the effectiveness of these military methods were undeniable. A 300-year-long war later (the Arauco War) against multiple Spanish armies, both the Mapuche’s independence and cultural pride were left fully intact.

From military prowess to culinary expertise, the Mapuche people are equally gifted when it comes to serving up nutritious, versatile, and flavorsome cuisine. Despite the passing of several centuries, the Chilean natives continue to draw from the enduring recipes of their ancestors and some even use the traditional curanto oven, a three-foot-wide hole in the ground which is used to heat leaf-wrapped meats and vegetables over a fire of red-hot stones.

As for the food itself, the Mapuche are most renowned for introducing the now internationally-popular smoky Merkén spice. From sandwiches to soups to fish, this spice gives typical Mapuche dishes a mild chili kick. Other savory specialties include milcaos (small potato cakes), kollof (seaweed), and charquicán (a wholesome meat, pumpkin, corn and potato stew). The Mapuche sweet delicacies are equally appetizing, and both albaricoque (preserved, sour green plums) and syrup-soaked piñónes (giant pine nuts) remain firm favorites among the indigenous communities. Also renowned for producing outstanding artwork and exquisite jewelry, the Mapuche specifically focus their creative talents on wood carving, pottery, basketry, headdresses, and necklaces.

Functional, decorative, or sacred, Mapuche art pieces vary greatly from utensils to effigy dishes to breast ornaments. However, if it is eye-catching jewelry which interests you, a trip to Pucón’s Museo Mapuche or Temuco’s Museo Regional de la Araucanía certainly will not disappoint. Filled with large disc-shaped earrings, thickset medallion-like necklaces, and elaborate coin-covered headdresses, visitors to the museums are surrounded by an indigenous treasure trove. If feeling inspired, tourists can even prove their own artistic skills by taking part in a week-long Mapuche jewelry course held in the southern Chilean city of Valdivia.

In spite of the inevitable political pressures which come with preserving any indigenous culture, what is certain is that Chile’s Mapuche inhabitants will endeavor to safeguard these fascinating and time-honored traditions long into the future.