Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 March 2008
At the time of the European invasion into South America, the southern cone presents at first sight a confusing array of different and shifting ethnic and social groups. To the north were the great Andean civilizations: complex, centralized state structures, astonishing technological achievements, unique forms of economic organization, stable ethnic boundaries and well-defined rights to land, and long-distance communications stretching back for centuries. The cultures of the southern cone inevitably offer a pale contrast. The influence of the states to the north was, of course, felt in many areas. By 1532 the Inca empire extended as far south as what is today Santiago de Chile, but both archaeological and documentary records give evidence of movement, exchange and communication beyond the limits of a single political system. This chapter will suggest the ecological complementarity of different peoples, each in a particular environment, or establishing settlements in different niches; many of them nomadic, some transhumant, at times co-existing peacefully with their neighbours, at times competing for particular resources and in some cases so specialized economically that their livelihood depended on a complex and farreaching circulation of subsistence goods.
The very complexity of the Inca state was in part responsible for its rapid subjection to the king of Spain. In contrast, the less settled, less centralized societies in the southern and south-eastern periphery of the continent were not so readily subjugated. In some cases, for example the famous Araucanians, effective European domination came only after centuries of military pressure. Unfortunately for the historian such resistance has made our knowledge of these peoples extremely fragmentary.