Chile History

Updated January 10, 2023 | Infoplease Staff


During Chile's pre-history, early peoples settled in different parts of what is now Chile at different times.

Chile’s coastal areas and fertile valleys were settled by indigenous people around 10,000 years ago, while stone tool evidence indicates human activity in the Monte Verde Valley in the central-southern part of the country as much as 18,500 years ago.

Estimates on the arrival of the first people to Easter Island range from 300 CE to 1200 CE.

The Mapuche

The Mapuche are a multi-ethnic group of people united by religion, social customs, and the Mapudungun language. They arrived in Chile around 600 to 500 BCE.

mDNA analysis suggests that the Mapuche are descendants of people who migrated to Chile from the Amazon Basin. Another theory is that the Mapuche are descended from Aymara peoples who migrated south due to conflict.

The collapse of the Tiwanaku Empire in 1000 BC led to an influx of Tiwanaku people into the area. Archaeological evidence also suggests an exchange between the Mapuche and Polynesian peoples of the Western Pacific.

The Inca

The Inca Empire arose in the 1300s CE in the Andean Highlands, and would eventually expand to include Peru, Ecuador, western and south-central Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, the southernmost tip of Colombia, and the northern part of Chile.

The empire was highly organized, with accomplished metalworking and a vast system of roads. It has been called one of the greatest imperial states in human history.

The Incas would rule in northern Chile from the 1470s to the 1530s.

The Inca and the Mapuche

For a long time, the Mapuche ruled Chile in the south, while the Inca empire ruled in the north.

The Battle of the Maule, which historians place between 1471 and 1593 CE, was a spectacularly deadly battle, with some 35,000 deaths. The battle was a draw, but defined the line between the two territories.

From the exchange, the Mapuche gained knowledge of state organization, as well as gold and silver working. The Mapudungun language would also take on loan words from Imperial Quechua, the language of the Inca.

Spanish Colonization

The Spanish colonization of Chile took place from 1541 to 1604. The invasion was met with significant, continuous, and successful resistance from the Mapuche and other indigenous groups.

The first Spaniards to enter the territory were part of the Magellan expedition (1519). Twenty years later, Francisco Pizarro appointed Pedro de Valdivia as lieutenant governor and dispatched him to conquer Chile.

De Valdivia founded the city of Santiago in the central part of Chile, in 1539. It wasn’t an easy task; it took nine years. The city was subsequently destroyed by the Mapuche in 1541. De Valdivia would cross the Itata River in search of more land, only to be repelled again by the Mapuche.

The Juan Bautista Pastene expedition in 1544 set out to explore southern Chile. Their arrival at the Bio-Bio River would set off the Arauco War with the Mapuche people. This war would last for more than three hundred years, punctuated by fierce and successful uprisings by the Mapuche.

By 1598, indigenous people established a frontier between Mapuche territory and Spanish Chile. The Mapuche would remain largely independent until after Chile won independence from Spain in 1818.


In 1808, French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte deposed the Spanish king Ferdinand VII and installed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. In Chile, supporters of Ferdinand formed a junta and began to push for independence from Spain.

On September 18, 1810, Chile declared itself an autonomous republic. This resulted in the Reconquista— the Spanish attempt to regain control. Ultimately, Spain was unsuccessful and recognized Chile as independent on February 12, 1818.

Argentinian Bernardo O’Higgins and José de San Martin would rule Chile as dictators until 1823, though O’Higgins would lay the foundations for a two-party system and centralized government.

19th Century

Chile’s nineteenth century was a time of great expansion, conflict, and change.

With the economy booming following the discovery of silver, Chile set out to expand its territories. The Tantauco Treaty added the Chiloé Archipelago in 1826. Between 1836 and 1839, Chile would battle with Peru for maritime supremacy.

The Magallanes region joined the country in 1843, and the country intensified its penetration into Araucania.

From 1879 to 1883, Peru and Bolivia fought the War of the Pacific, which allowed Chile to expand its northern territories by nearly thirty percent, acquiring valuable nitrate deposits. By 1870, Chile was amongst the highest-income countries in South America.

A boundary treaty in 1881 between Argentina and Chile established Chile’s sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan.

The 1891 Chilean Civil War redistributed power between the President and Congress, allowing Chile to establish a parliamentary-style government.

20th Century

Over time, economic and governmental structures turned to favor banking interests and the oligarchy. The developing middle class became strong enough to advocate for its interests, and in 1920, the people elected reformer Arturo Alessandri.

A military junta drove Alessandri into exile in 1924, but he returned in 1925 to draft the country’s first constitution. His subsequent terms included many social and economic reforms, including universal male suffrage.

At the same time, his rule was marked by political violence and two massacres— one of striking workers, and another of coup plotters.

Constitutional rule was restored in 1932. For the next twenty years, Chile would be ruled by democratically elected coalition governments.

The 1964 election of president Eduardo Frei Montalva kicked off a period of social and economic reform, including education, housing, and agrarian reform.

Salvador Allende

In 1970, Salvador Allende became the first president freely elected on a Marxist platform. Allende formed alliances with Cuba and the People’s Republic of China and introduced socialist economic and social reforms.

Nationalization of US-owned companies brought him into conflict with the US. In September of 1973, a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew and killed Allende.

Augusto Pinochet

The leader of the 1973 coup was Army Chief of Staff Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet assumed the office of President.

Pinochet’s anti-Marxist rule would be marked by brutal repression of dissent and human rights, which would include suspending Parliament, disappearances, torture, execution, and expulsion of thousands of Chilean citizens. During his rule, an estimated 28,000 people were tortured, and 3,200 people disappeared.

Pinochet stepped down in 1990, in favor of Patricio Aylwin, and in 1993, center-left candidate Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle was elected President.

Pinochet would retain his post as Army Commander in Chief. In October 1998, he was arrested in Britain with regard to an extradition request by Spain regarding the disappearance of Spanish citizens ruing his rule.

Britain eventually denied the request, and Pinochet returned to Chile in 2000. He died in December 2006 before facing trial for his abuses during his 17-year rule.