South America: Chapter I

(by William Henry Koebel)

The continent in pre-Spanish days


The discovery of South America stands as one of the most dramatic events in history.
From the time of its occurrence until the present so deeply has this event impressed itself on men's minds that the previous state of the Continent has been a somewhat neglected topic.

The Incas and their civilization, it is true, have attracted no small share of attention to themselves, and the subject has become more or less familiar to the average English reader through the medium of the work of Prescott, who has been followed by a number of later writers, many of whom have dealt veryexhaustively with this subject.

Yet, after all, the Incas, for all their historical importance, occupiedbut a very small portion of the territories of the Southern Continent. Beyond the western fringe ofthe Continent which was theirs by heritage, or by conquest, were other lands - mountainous inparts, level in others, where the great river basins extended themselves - which were the chosen hunting and fishing grounds of an almost innumerable number of tribes.


The degree of civilization, or, more accurately speaking, of savagery which characterized these as a whole necessarily varied to a great extent in the case of each particular tribe.
Nevertheless, from the comparatively high culture of the Incas down to the most intellectually submerged people ofthe forests and swamps, there were certain characteristics held in common by all.

This applied notonly to a marked physical likeness which stamped every dweller in the great Continent, but tocustoms, religious ceremonies, and government as well.
Concerning the origin of the South American Indians interminable disputes have now raged for generations, but that in the case of allthe various tribes the origin was the same has never, I think, been controverted.

The most common theory concerning the origin of the South Americans is that this was Mongolian.


This idea would certainly seem one of the most feasible of the many put forward. Those who have delved sufficiently deeply into the matter have found many striking analogies in customs, religious ceremonies, and even in language between the inhabitants of South America and those of Eastern Asia; and there are even those who assert that the similarity between the two peoples extends to the designs on domestic pottery.

The majority of those who have devoted themselves to this subject of the South American aborigines have been obliged to work largely in the dark. Considering the great extent of the ruins bequeathed by the Incas to the later ages, it might be thought curious that so few precise data are available.

The reason for this lies in the zeal which the conquistadores displayed in the stamping out of the various pagan religions. No sooner had the Spaniards obtained possession of the chief cities of the Incas than every symbol, image, or, indeed, any object suggestive of sunworship or anything of the kind, was smashed into fragments, and every trace of its significance so far as possible obliterated.


There is no doubt that in the course of this wholesale destruction a multitude of objects perished which would have given an historical clue to much of what now remains doubtful.
It is owing to this obliterative enthusiasm that such scanty historical knowledge exists concerning the earlier period of the Inca race, and of that highly civilized nation which preceded the later Children of theSun.


It is, moreover, largely on account of this vagueness and uncertainty that some curiously wild theories have been propounded concerning the origin of the South Americans, and more especially of the Incas.

Thus, in 1843, George Jones, a writer who had indulged in some extraordinarily enthusiastic researches, published a work the object of which was to prove that not only the Mexicans, but all the tribes of Southern America, were the descendants of some old Tyrians who, fleeing from their enemies, abandoned Phoenicia and, sailing westward, landed in Central America, some 332 years before the birth of Christ!

It must be admitted that the structure - even though it is purely of the imagination - thus built up by the fertile author is sufficiently ingenious, and the number of Biblical data, similarities, and general phenomena, which he has brought to bear on the subject are impressive, if not convincing.


Peru was admittedly the richest country of South America, so far as historical relics are concerned.
Yet even here it is difficult in the extreme to glean any accurate information concerning the actual primitive inhabitants of the country.

Astonishingly little tradition of any kind exists, and the little to be met with is rendered comparatively valueless by the vivid imagination of the Indian; thus this period cannot be considered as historical in the real sense of the word.
A number of relics, it is true, prove the existence of an early form of civilization, the most numerous being found, as would naturally be expected when the nature of the country is considered, in the valleys and the coasts.

These relics take the forms of food substances and kitchen utensils, and are known as "kitchen-middens," and beyond these rude fireplaces have been found.


In 1874 the skeleton of a tall man was discovered in a volcanic layer which is supposed to have belonged to a later period.
The dwelling in which it was found showed a distinct advance in civilization. It was constructed of rocks joined together by means of clay, and roofed with plaited straw.
One of the most notable objects found by the side of this man was a well-fashioned cotton purse, filled with wheat and other grain.

In various neighbourhoods remnants of pottery and cloth gave evidence of these later stages.
After this it is supposed that a great invasion of Peru occurred, and that the race which preceded the Incas took possession of the land.


It will be most fitting to deal first of all with the Incas, the most highly civilized race of the Continent.
The head-quarters of this nation were to be found in Peru and Bolivia.

The capital of the whole Empire was Cuzco, a town situated at some distance to the north of Lake Titicaca.
Lake Titicaca is generally held to have been the cradle of the race, and it is in this neighbourhood and on the shores of the lake that some of the most notable of the Inca ruins are to be met with.


There is no doubt that the great majority of these stupendous monuments of a former age were not the actual handiwork of the Incas.
It is now considered practically certain that these Incas, themselves enlightened and progressive, were merely using the immense structures both of material masonry and of theoretical civilization left behind by a previous race whom the Children of the Sun had conquered and subdued.

It is not improbable that this race was that of the Aymaras; in any case it is certain that the Empire of the Incas was not of old standing, and that they had not occupied the countries they held for more than a few hundred years before the advent of the Spaniards.


Manco Capac
Manco Capac, the legendary founder of the Inca empire, collecfting his people for the work of building the city of Cuzco.

The Incas possessed a very definite theory concerning the origin of their tribe. Sun-worshippers, they loved to think that they themselves were descended from a chance fragment of that terrible and blazing luminary.
Thus their religion had it that the first Inca was a child of the Sun who came down to earth in company with his sister-wife.

The spot they chose was an island on Lake Titicaca.
Here they alighted in all their brilliancy, and the Indians of the neighbourhood gathered about them and fell at their feet, receiving them as rulers with infinite gratitude.

This first Inca, whatever may have been his real origin, was undoubtedly known as Manco-Capac, and his sister-wife was known as Mama-Oclle.
Manco-Capac represented the first of a dynasty of thirteen Emperors, the last of whom suffered at the hands of Pizarro.
Until the end of their race these Incas had retained a considerable degree of the sacred character with which tradition had invested the first of their line.

The person of the Emperor was, indeed, worshipped as a demi-god.
Justified by tradition, he had the privilege of marrying his sister. It is curious to remark here the resemblance in the customs of the Incas and the Pharaos.


An alternative theory of the origin of the Inca race, although not authoritative, is worthy of note.
W.B. Stevenson, in a work published in 1825, states that a curious tradition was related to him by the Indians in various parts of Peru.

According to this the progenitor of the royal Incas was an Englishman who was found stranded on the coast by a certain cacique of the name of Cocapac!
The cacique took the stranger to his home, and the Englishman married the chieftain's daughter. From this union sprang a boy, Ingasman Cocapac, and a girl, Mama-Oclle. These were both of fair complexion and hair.


Shortly after the birth of these children their parents died, and the boy and girl were left in the care of their grandfather, Cocapac.
The nature of this latter appears to have been extraordinarily calculating and astute. He saw in the children a phenomenal opportunity for the glorification of his family.

First of all he instructed the youngsters for years in the playing of their parts; then, when adult, he took them to Cuzco and posted them on the side of a mountain of that important district.
After this he went among the tribesmen, and announced that the Sun-god had sent two of his children to govern the race as a special mark of his favour.

The Indians streamed out to the point he indicated as their resting-place, and, sure enough, they found the strangers at the spot.


To the chagrin of Cocapac, however, the tribesmen refused to accept them in the light of gods; on the contrary, they condemned the pair as a wizard and a witch, and banished them from the neighbourhood.
Cocapac, undaunted by this failure, accompanied his grandchildren, and repeated his performance on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Here complete success marked the attempt: the young people were received by the Indians with enthusiasm as the children of their god, and, once established, the belief spread all round, until it included all the centre of the Inca Empire, not excepting the once sceptical Cuzco.
To quote from Stevenson:


"Thus," said the Indians, "was the power of the Incas established, and many of them have said that, as I was an Englishman, I was of their family.
When H.B.M. ship Breton was at Callao, some of the officers accompanied me one Sunday afternoon to the Alameda at Lima. On our way we were saluted by several Indians from the mountains, calling us their countrymen and their relations, begging at the same time that we would drink some chicha with them."


It is unnecessary to point out the dubiousness of this theory!
For all the obvious difficulties in the way of credibility, the main story has a certain convincing ring, if for no other reason than the utterly prosaic attempt at an explanation of the alleged miraculous and mystical episode of the native mythology.

In the course of time the Inca Empire had sent its wave of influence and dominion to roll widely to the north and to the south. In the north its government extended beyond Quito; in the south its progress had been arrested by the warrior Indians of Southern Chile, the Araucanians on the banks of the River Maule.

On the whole, the rule of the Incas over the conquered races was beneficent, and these latter, sensible of the advantages offered them, were quite willing to weld themselves into the common Empire.

Almost the sole respect in which they showed themselves merciless was in the manner in which their religious sacrifices were carried out.
The Sun frequently proved himself greedy of human blood, and he was never stinted by his priests; human life, indeed, in the more populous centres was held rather more cheaply than is usual among people who had attained to the civilization of the Incas.


In the Civil Government every symptom of this kind was absent.
Indeed, the methods of the Inca Government, on the whole, were of the benevolent order; at the same time laws applying to the conduct of the populace were in many respects stringent, and were wont to be carried out to the letter.

A number of socialistic doctrines were embodied in these strange constitutions of the past.
The work of the people was mapped out for them, and, although it may be said with justice that no poverty existed, this very admirable state of affairs was frequently brought about by the enforcing of labour on the would-be idle.


The lands of the Inca Kingdom from frontier to frontier were divided into three classes of territory.
The first was the property of the Sun - that is to say, the proceeds of its harvests were applied to the temples, priests, and all the other requirements of religion.

The land appertaining to the second category was the property of the Royal Family; and the third belonged to the people.
It is interesting to note in connection with this system of land distribution that in the later centuries the Jesuits in Paraguay adopted a very similar procedure, and divided their lands into three sections which corresponded exactly with those of the Incas.

Thus, according to these regulations, every inhabitant of the Inca Empire was a landowner.
This, however, merely in a limited sense, for, although the land was his to work, he was not permitted to obtain any advantage from its possession other than that which he obtained by his own labour, and, as has been explained, the refraining from work was a heavily punishable offence.

When the spirit in which these laws were framed is taken into consideration, it is not surprising that no man was allowed to sell his land, a procedure which would, of course, have rendered the general working of the community inoperative. The land, in fact, represented a loan from the State which lasted the lifetime of the agriculturist.


Map of aboriginal tribes of South America.
Map of aboriginal tribes of South America.

Perhaps the civilization of the Incas and of their predecessors is most of all evident in the industrial monuments which they have left behind them.

In irrigation they had little or nothing to learn from the most advanced European experts of the time.
Many of their aqueducts, indeed, showed an astonishing degree both of ingenuity and of labour.
The nature of the country across which it was necessary to construct these was, of course, sufficiently mountainous to test the powers of the most capable engineer.

The Inca roads, in many respects, rivalled their aqueducts. From the point of view of the modern highway, it is true that they may be considered as somewhat slender and unimportant affairs.
Certainly in the absence of any wheeled traffic no surface of the kind as was necessary in Europe and Asia was to be met with here.

Provided that the road stretched in an uninterrupted length along the peaks, valleys, and chasms of the rugged mountain country, no question of close and intricate pavement was concerned, since for the troops of pack-llamas anything of the kind was quite superfluous.
Thus, as imposing structures, these highways impress the modern traveller but little.
Nevertheless, they served their purpose efficiently, and extended themselves in triumph over one of the most difficult road-making countries in the world.


This road network of the Incas spread itself little by little from the central portion of the Empire to the far north and south; for during the comparatively short imperial status of the race their rule had extended itself steadily.

They were in many respects a people possessed of the true colonizing instincts.
Their able and liberal Government was of a kind which could not fail to be appreciated by the tribes which they had conquered.
Indeed, the various sections of these subjugated Indians appear to have become an integral part of the Inca Empire in a remarkably short time.

In their conquest the rulers appear to have strained every point to effect this end.
Thus they were not averse from time to time to receive into their temples new and strange gods which their freshly made subjects had been in the habit of worshipping. These were received among the deities of older standing, and were wont to be acknowledged, and so, after a short while, were considered as foreign no longer.


A nation of which far less has been heard, but which in many respects resembled the Incas, was that of the Chibchas.
The Chibchas inhabited the country which had for its centre the valley of the Magdalena River.

The country of this tribe, as a matter of fact, is now part of the Republic of Colombia; thus the Chibchas were situated well to the north of the Inca Empire.
The religion of these people closely resembled that of the more southern Children of the Sun.
Like these others, they worshipped the masculine Sun and the female Moon, and a certain number of deities in addition.


The Chibchas have left some ruins of temples behind them, although these are not of the same magnitude as the Inca edifices.
They were an agricultural people, and, in addition, were skilled in weaving and in the manufacture of pottery; they were, moreover, supposed to have been clever workers in gold.

The costume of the race showed very similar tastes to those of their more southern brethren.
The men of rank wore white or dyed cotton tunics, and the women mantles fastened by means of golden clasps.
The warlike splendour of the men was characteristically picturesque, their chief decorations being breast-plates of gold and magnificent plumes for the head. They, too, employed as weapons darts, bows and arrows, clubs, lances, and slings.


The fate of the Chibchas was, of course, the same as that of the Incas.
Their bodies decked with their brilliant feathers and pomp sank into the mire of despond, never again to attain to their former state.

This very brief study of the Incas and Chibchas concludes the civilized elements of the Aboriginal South American.
To the east of the Andes were a number of tribes, all of which were, to a greater or lesser degree, still in a state of sheer savagery.

Near the eastern frontier of the Inca Empire resided such peoples as the Chiriguanos, Chunchos, Abipones, Chiquitos, Mojos, Guarayos, Tacanas; while to the north were similar tribes, such as the Ipurines, Jamamaries, Huitotos, Omaguas.
These appear to have absorbed some crude and vague forms of the Inca religion, and were addicted to the worship of the Sun, but more frequently of the Moon.


On the east of the Continent, ranging from the territory which is now known as Misiones in Argentina, and Southern Paraguay to the north-east of the Continent, were various branches of the great Guaraní family, a nation that some consider should be more correctly known as Tupis, and whose northernmost section are known as Caribs.

It is impossible to attempt to give an account of the very great number of the tribes which went to make up this powerful and great nation.
Many of these remain to the present day, and sixteen are still accounted for in the comparatively insignificant district of the Guianas alone.

It is, indeed, only feasible to deal with the main characteristics of these various peoples - mostly forest-dwellers.
Naturally enough, the tribesmen were hunters and fishers. The majority were given to paint their bodies and to pierce their ears, noses, and lower lips, in order to insert reeds, feathers, and similar savage ornaments. In the more tropical forest regions the blowpipe constituted one of the most formidable weapons.

Bows and arrows were in general use, the points of these latter being of bone or hardened wood.
The barbs of the spears were similarly contrived, many of these weapons being beautifully decorated in the more northern territories. The greater part of these tribes still remain in the forest districts of the Continent.


Diego de Almagro, The fellow-conquistador and rival of Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and pioneer explorer of Chile.
Diego de Almagro. The fellow-conquistador and rival of Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, and pioneer explorer of Chile.

In Chile and in the River Plate Provinces an entirely different type of Indian prevailed; great warriors these, for the most part, who roamed the plains of the River Plate Provinces, or, like the Araucanians, lived a turbulent and fierce existence among the forests and mountains of the far south to the west of the Andes Chain.

It was these Southern Indians who disputed the soil with the Spaniards with the courage and ferocity that frequently spilled the Castillian blood in torrents on the mountains or plains.
To the end, indeed, they remained unconquered, and death was almost invariably preferred to submission to the hated white invaders of their land.


Even here prevailed the socialism which so strongly characterized the races of the centre and north of the Continent.
Despotism was unknown, and even the chieftain, in the proper sense of the word, had no existence.
In times of war an elder was chosen, it is true, but with the laying down of the weapons he became again one of the people, and was lost in their ranks.

Such crude organization as existed was left to the hands of a Council of Elders. There is no doubt that witch-doctors attained to a certain degree of power, but even this was utterly insignificant as compared with that which was wont to be enjoyed by the savage priests of Central Africa.


Taken as a whole, the Indians of Southern America represented some of the most simple children who ever lived in the lap of Nature.

Unsophisticated, credulous, and strangely wanting in reasoning powers and organized self-defence, they fell ready victims to the onslaughts of the Spaniards, who burst with such dramatic unexpectedness on their north-eastern shores.


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