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Atacameño People

The Atacameño people or likanantai lived in oasis, valleys and creeks of the Loa Province in Northern Chile (II Region).

Atacama Salt Lake , Licancabur volcano and the Salado and Grande rivers belong to this dry region along with the town of San Pedro de Atacama, and the basin of the Loa River, with Calama city as its center.

In the Atacameños social life, the comunidad (community) plays a major role. Cooperation is called whenever public work is needed, as in road constructions, or for building community centers, or cleaning the irrigation canals.

Caspana, Peine, Socaire, San Pedro de Atacama and Toconao villages are ceremonial and commercial centers visited by most Atacameños people. The 1992 census indicates 85,829 residents for the Loa Province, but gives no information about their ethnic origins.

Rapé Tablets

Tabletas de Rapé

These rituals, related to the annual agricultural cycle, are characterized by the Atacameño traditional rituals, which have blended with Christian beliefs, constituting an expression of Andean-Christian syncretism.

Gerónimo de Vivar, chronicler - secretary of Pedro de Valdivia conqueror, comments:

«They speak with the demon they take for a friend...»

This description refers to the shaman practice in which he communicates with the spirit or supernatural being.

Possibly, the figures that adorn the typical snuff boards are representations of mythical Atacameno beings.

It is believed that the shamans inhaled a powder made, by means of these beatiful utensils, of the seeds of a kind of acacia or tobacco; they also ingested a small libation of liquor in order to reach a state of trance.

Atacameño Building

Plano del poblado de Tulor

Among the traditional Atacameño building patterns we find: fortifications, or Pukarás, built in order to defend themselves from Diaguitas, Incas and Spaniards attacks; irrigation canals, which facilitated their oasis agriculture, and typical Atacameño houses.

Atacameño houses were rectangular enclosures made of mud. Corn, beans, potatoes, quinoa, algarroba and chañar are kept in small circular compartments on top of the roof. The first floor was divided between a main enclosure, and a sleeping room - where domestic utensils, as pots and other vessels, were kept. The main enclosure had a high vault, where they buried their great-grandfathers, grandparents and parents, the floor was dug below ground level and was of square shape.

Geronimo de Vivar, a Spanish chronicler, wrote about houses and Atacameño customs:

«The houses in which the Indians live are made of sun-dried clay brick and bent, with their mezzanines (roof frame) made of thick beams of Algarrobo, a very sturdy timber...»

Spiritual World

Ofrendas de agua Fiesta de Limpia de Canales

The Atacameño festivals and ceremonies are imbued with a deep and intense interaction with nature. Main offerings are made to the Pachamama, the earth; the mountain spirits, tata-cerros; and to the water, tata-putarajni, as well as to the ancestors, tata-abuelos.

Traditional patterns of beliefs, knowledge and symbolism, based on mythological conceptions, ritually reenacted, last until today.

Main Atacameño festivities are:


The cleaning of irrigation canals,

The flowering of the livestock,

And the prehispanic ancestors cults, tata-abuelos.


Pucará de Quitor

The climate is warm, with extreme temperature changes between day and night. Although small, the amount of rain allows the existence of wetlands and groves in the low lands. Algarrobos and Chañarales are some of the plants found in this environment.

Wildlife includes animals, such as foxes, condors and quirquinchos (armadillos).

Since prehispanic days, the atacameño people have survived in one of the driest climates of the world, showing great adaptability.

For over ten thousand years, human populations have occupied this large area, living in small fortified villages close to the few existing rivers.

The Spanish chronicler Mariño Lobera describes the Atacameño people saying:

« Algarrobos and Chañarales are important in their daily meals. To produce a very pleasant drink, they grind the Algarrobo seeds. The lands are irrigated by many canals and they practice cultivation in terraces, as is Andean custom...»

Festivities and ceremonies

Waki, para llevar las ofrendas

The Andean-Christian syncretism manifests in different local ceremonies, especially at the patron saints' celebrations.

Each village has its saint, patron of the town. Along with this community protector, there are saints worshipped for their miracles. San Antonio, for example, is the llama herder's patron.

According to the local beliefs, the Virgin of Guadalupe appears in a creek that crosses the Aiquina village.

Although Saint Luke is Caspana's patron saint, the town celebrates the Candelaria Virgin festival.

A male resident undertakes the responsibilities of the celebration, while women belonging to his household prepare the meal (known as boda - wedding) for the special guests.

Cultural Blossoming

Tableta de rapé

The blossoming of the San Pedro de Atacama culturetakes place during III A.D. century. At this time get up the influences of the Tiwanaku culture. To the Polished Red and Polished Black local pottery , is added the preparation of cult elements as the Rapé Tablets.

These are part of a set of pieces related to the ritual practice of inhaling hallucinogens.

They are made up of:

- A board, a rectangular wood recipient with a handle of sculpted figures, sometimes inlayed with semiprecious stones, such as turquoise.

- A bone or wood tube, often with the same carved figures as the boards, used to inhale the substance.

- Mortars and cactus thorns for the preparation of the hallucinogen, along with spatulas and little boxes.

All these tools were kept in a woolen bag.


Cerámica Uruquilla San Pedro de Atacama

The Atacameño traditional art was formed mainly of ceramics and ritual artifacts made of gold sheet, especially snuff boards.

Currently, The Atacameños people have developed stone handicrafts, carving miniatures replicas of local churches, such as: Chui-Chui, San Pedro de Atacama and Toconao, among others.

Textiles are also among the Andean traditions. Their work in this area stands out for the perfection of the ancestral weaving techniques, by the contrast of colors and the tightly woven cotton and Alpaca or Llama wool.


Vaso de oro. Ritual atacameño. Influencia de Tiwanaku

The original Atacameño language is called Kunza.

In the XIXth century, as the German traveler Philippi describes (1858), the language was spoken by:

« A population of three or four thousand souls, speaking it only in places such as: San Pedro de Atacama, Toconao, Soncor, Socaire, Peine, Antofagasta, and some other small places of the Chiuchiu canton. There was a time in which the Atacameno's language was also spoken in Chiuchiu and Calama, but now, the Spanish language is spoken it in these towns and only very old people still understand the language of their ancestors ».

Today, Kunza is practically a dead language, used only in ceremonies and ritual songs. A program for the recovery of Kunza is being carried out in some local schools.


Plato hondo. Cerámica grabada San Pedro de Atacama. Florecimiento cultural

The Atacameño people come from old hunters and gatherers (30,000 - 10,000 B.D.) who settled in the area, taking advantage of the favorable conditions offered by the basin and creeks of the Loa and Copiapó rivers. In the XVth century, the Atacameño culture had a high development before the Inca arrived.

Ancestrally they stood out in the use of the metallurgy, pottery, textiles and techniques of culture in terraces.

The chronicler Mariño Lobera writes about this aspect of the culture:

«They live in villages divided in two ayllus, or halves, that characterize their politics and social organization. Each of these ayllus has its own major, whose badge of office is a silver handled baton...»

The Atacameño people have experienced successive stages and settlements, through a great cultural blossoming in s. III d. C. conserving still today characteristics of this past, in rituals, techniques of culture and manufacture of handcrafts. In addition it maintains his particular way of construction, where its rich ancestral inheritance is perceived.

Momia atacameña. Museo Le Paige. San Pedro de Atacama

The contemporary Atacameño ethnic group would be composed beetwen of 900 and 1536 A. D.

As a result of the disintegration of Tiwanaku, the Andean people was divided in several kingdoms, that in the time of the spanish conquer were recognized like: Kollas, Lupagas, Pacajes, Pools, Carangas, Lipez and Chichas.

Inca Tupac Yupanqui (1471-93) undertook the conquest of what today is known as the Chilean territory. However, this political occupation left almost intact the local cultural traditions. However, protected by their fortifications, or pukaras, the Atacamenos survived and strengthened their culture.

Something more than 3000 descending farmers of these cultures survives today distributed in a dozen of people and places, in them sublies the rich accumulated cultural experience.