Archaeological evidence suggests the existence of an Araucanian culture by 500 B . C . in the territory of present-day Chile. The aboriginal Araucanians were hunters and gatherers and practiced horticulture and incipient agriculture. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Araucanians were divided into three geographically contiguous ethnic groups: the Picunche in the north, the Mapuche in the central-south, and the Huilliche in the southern section. At this time the Incas invaded the Araucanian territory, dominating the Picunche. The Picunche were influenced more by the Central Andes cultures in their material culture and technology than were the Mapuche and the Huilliche, but the organization of their economic, social and religious life was like that of the other Araucanian groups. The Inca invasion was stopped at the Río Maule by the Mapuche and the Huilliche.
In the mid-sixteenth century the Spanish arrived and established a military outpost in central Chile. Only the Picunche were conquered by the Spanish. They were forced to work in the gold mines and to perform agricultural tasks. The Picunche eventually mixed with the Spanish rural population, and by the seventeenth century the Picunche had completely disappeared as an ethnic group. The Mapuche and the Huilliche managed to keep their independence from the Spanish and the Chileans for almost four centuries by waging guerrilla warfare. The horse was adopted by the Araucanians soon after the middle of the sixteenth century and it was used effectively in warfare and hunting.
In the eighteenth century the Mapuche and the Huilliche started to migrate to Argentina in search of horses to continue their battle against the Spanish. In their search for horses, they began their geographical and cultural expansion in the Argentinian territory, which lasted 150 years. Three Indian groups were Araucanized: the Pehuenche, the Puelche, and the Pampa. By the end of the eighteenth century, all these groups spoke the Mapuche language and had acquired Araucanian beliefs and traditions. The Mapuche and the Huilliche controlled all the area between the vicinity of Buenos Aires, Córdoba, San Luis, and the Río Negro from the cordillera to the sea. Three permanent chiefstainships were established in the Argentinian territory. In Chile, the Mapuche and the Huilliche continued their war with the Spanish for over two centuries. Two major treaties were signed between the Araucanians and the Spanish in which the Spanish Crown recognized the independence of the Araucanian territory. The conflict between the Araucanians and Whites was rekindled, however, after Chile became independent from Spain in 1818.
The Chilean government promoted European colonization of the Araucanian territory by establishing the reservation policy of 1866, which favored White colonists. The Mapuche and especially the Huilliche lost a great deal of land to German settlers. With the loss of land, the Huilliche began to lose their traditional way of life. Two major rebellions were staged by the Mapuche, both of which were defeated by the Chileans. Following the last major rebellion (1880 to 1882), the Mapuche lost their political autonomy and military power. In Argentina, the military campaigns under generals Julio Roca and Conrado Villegas in 1879-1883 completely defeated the Indian confederates and drove most of the Indian survivors beyond the Rio Negro and into Neuquén.
In Chile, the present reservation system was established in 1884, and the Araucanians were relocated to reservations; in Argentina they were arrested and confined to remote areas. At the present time, they form two relatively differentiated modern ethnic groups: the Argentinian Araucanians and the Chilean Mapuche.