Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Music and Dance > Pre-hispanic music of Chile

We have little direct knowledge of the pre-Hispanic music of Chile—just a few instruments found preserved at archeological sites, where conditions allowed. Few such instruments have been discovered in the south of Chile, as the wood and leather they were made of deteriorated in the wet climate. However, by examining traditions that live on today we can find out a great deal. Music has always been an important part of ceremonial life (without music, rituals would virtually not exist), and the most interesting evidence of this comes to us from the Tiwanaku-influenced period in Northern Chile, from around 400 to 900 A.D. The development of community-based musical traditions, especially orchestras, in the North (around Arica), brought the siku(pan pipes) to the forefront, with its intricate sound based on different lengths of cane. In Pica and the Atacama, in contrast, a complex ritual was developed around the raspy, intense, atonal sound of the antara(another type of pan pipe), which accompanied the ritual of human sacrifices by decapitation, which involved masked individuals and the use of psychotropic substances. Developments in the Atacama also influenced cultures further south, in the ‘Norte Chico’ (Near North) and Central Chile, where they mutated and gave rise to more elaborate stone instruments such as the pifilca, which is still played today as an accompaniment to the “Chino dances.” Further south, in the Araucanía Zone, the music is less influenced by northern traditions. Here, over time a wide range of stone flutes were created in different shapes and sizes. These were played alongside a series of other instruments that are still in use in the Mapuche culture today. The traditions of the far south of Chile are unique, as they include no musical instruments except the voice, accompanied on rare occasions by simple noisemakers.