Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Mapuche


The Mapuche economy has changed significantly over time. In the 16th century, the people had a hunting–gathering mode of subsistence, complemented by the quasi-domestication of camelid herds and non-intensive subsistence farming—mainly growing crops on forested land cleared by burning. This subsistence economy involved little storage of the food produced. Women were in charge of domestic labors and crafted ceramics and textiles (düwekafe/weaver). The colonial period’s War of Arauco brought a wartime economy, in which assaults and raids provided revenue for the Mapuche. At this time the Mapuche also began to use horses, which became an integral part of what we know today as the “traditional” Mapuche economy.

The 17th and 18th centuries witnessed the process known as the ‘Araucanization of the Pampas,’ in which the Mapuche people began to raise livestock, establishing and consolidating a trading circuit along the Chilean-Argentine border. Through this exchange, the Mapuche emerged as Chile’s leading horse and cattle traders. Textile manufacture for both personal and commercial purposes also increased at this time, as did basket making, ceramics and, most significantly, silversmithing. The latter was considered men’s work (jeweler=ngutrafe or retrafe), and reached its highest expression in the 19th century. In 1881, the ‘Pacification of the Araucanía’ ended this stage of Mapuche economic success and relative autonomy. The Indigenous Settlement Commission was created at this time to curtail the indigenous population and establish indigenous land titles (títulos de merced, private land ownership among a particular group of individuals). Over the next 20 years the Mapuche sank deeper into poverty, but made use of communal land rights, returning to subsistence farming with rudimentary technology and small scale livestock herding.

The Mapuche ruka, located on a small plot of land now held privately, accommodated families, their livestock and other personal property. The only communal activities still practiced were a form of sharecropping (mediería) and the communal building projects (mingaco or ‘return the favor’), organized when many hands were needed. Some direct consequences of restricting the traditional Mapuche way of life have included the over-extraction of trees on their land, the destruction of forests from lack of reforestation and the further depletion of already poor soil. Indirect effects include the ageing and progressive masculinization of the local Mapuche population, where migration has occurred to alleviate demographic pressure. Still, migration has also been one of the central ways through which the Mapuche have integrated into Chilean society. Today, most Mapuche live in cities, although some of them (mainly elders) still practice the more traditional lifestyle of small scale producers, as they did in the country. In general, the productive strength of the present–day Mapuche people is still founded upon their work ethic, the land and on their robust internal solidarity.