Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Mapuche

Settlement patterns

Prior to the 16th Century, the Mapuches are thought to have lived a dispersed and nomadic existence and their way of life was characterized by gathering and by slash and burn horticulture. Spanish chroniclers used several names to identify local groups, including Levo, Lof, and Rehue, probably because of their cultural differences or their spatial or temporal separation. These local groups were composed of different “houses” separated from each other and in which the males of each lineage lived with their wives and unattached daughters. The males’ spouses had been brought from other communities under the prevailing patrilocal system.

The ruka was the traditional dwelling of the extended Mapuche family. These structures differed in size and form, being rectangular, circular or elliptical. The most common type had a strong frame of roble hardwood and was covered on top and sometimes on the sides with bunches of straw to provide insulation from the extreme cold and to protect the inhabitants from the rain. These dwellings had no windows and only a single entrance, which faced eastward toward the Puelmapu, the Land of the East, homeland of the Gods. Inside, the hearth (kutral) was placed at the center and always kept burning, coating the walls with soot.

The Mapuche used very little furniture, mainly wankus (small stools made from a single block of wood) and beds, which lined the walls of their dwellings. Domestic implements hung from the ceiling and walls, and special storage spaces were used to store food. The traditional ruka, which is no longer in use, was built by the community and inaugurated with a rukatún ceremony that included dances with kollong masks. Today, the vast majority of Mapuche communities live in western style dwellings, although their interior divisions and usage of space are reminiscent of the traditional ruka. In urban settings, however, Mapuche dwellings and use of space differ little from those of most working class Chileans.