Before Inca and Mapuche face off at the Maule River, let us take a moment to reflect on the immense difference in the two cultures….
The Inca worked copper, gold, silver, bronze. They made buildings out of stones so large, and fashioned so miraculously, that even today there are those who think it the work of gods or aliens. They farmed an inhospitable land by means of stone terraces so well engineered that they have survived five centuries of wear, war and earthquake. Their irrigation canals–likewise built of stone–were a hydrological marvel. Also, although the Inca had no writing, they had quipu like the one portrayed below–that system of colored, knotted string which–interpreted by those so trained–conveyed an immense amount of information.
And they had chasqui, the messengers that ran in relays, on roads that enabled a message to travel 250 miles a day (about the same as the pony express). All roads led to Cusco, and from there the sapa Inca–who owned it all–ran it all by decree. No polity so large has ever been so centrally controlled.
And the sapa Inca, as well as the nobles of his empire (called orejones–big ears–by the Spaniards because they wore immense gold plugs in their earlobes) had what anyone would call extreme wealth: fine clothes made of alpaca, marvelously woven; garments entirely covered with the coruscating feathers of jungle birds; fine ceramics, etc., etc..; and of course, silver and gold–so abundant that it covered the walls of temples–and often beautifully worked into ornament, such as this depiction of their sun god, Inti.
In contrast that could scarcely be starker, the Mapuche lived on their land as extended family groups, in clusters of ruka assembled out of wood and roofed with thatch, like the one below.They had no larger unit that could even be called a village … much less a city.
They had no engineers, and therefore no stone aqueducts, or roads. Unlike the Inca nobility, and its wealth, they actually avoided useless accumulation and ostentation, as attracting jealousy and the sorcery it inspired.
Above all the Mapuche, who were–and still are–a fiercely proud people, did not have one person telling everyone what to do (that political version of accumulation). Instead, they had a working anarchy. And the way it worked is that every extended family unit looked after its own and defended itself (or attacked, as the case might be). This meant that of necessity every male Mapuche was born a warrior and trained in martial arts from youth–each choosing the weapon he would specialize in at an early age. And all males were trained in oratory as well, that arms not be the only recourse. When larger conflict was required, a messenger carrying an arrow dipped in blood was sent to summon reinforcements. In extreme necessity, such as the invasion of the Inca, these fleet messengers would have carried bloodied arrows over forest paths into the farthest corners of what the Mapuche call mapu–their land. Owned by none, it would be defended by all when, sometime around the year 1485, the armies of Tupac Inca Yupanqui, after six years of unfailingly successful conquest, reached the River Maule in what is now central Chile (about 300 kilometers south of present day Santiago).
When Inca and Mapuche joined in definitive battle at the Maule, the spectacle would have been worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. The sapa Inca himself (Topa–or Tupac–Inca Yupanqui, depicted on the left) would have been borne on a golden, canopied litter, gorgeously dressed in alpaca, gold and feather. And he carried a symbolic, gold halberd. Surrounded by his private guard, he directed the action from the rear, his generals and orejones, in somewhat lesser splendor,commanding squadrons of troops levied from the different corners of the empire, differently dressed and armed, a veritable kaleidoscope of cultures. As intimidation was a part of conquest, before a battle the Inca army would parade before the enemy conchs blaring, drums banging…. Inca warriors are depicted to the right, and you will note that they wear helmets and quilted armor. Also (though it is difficult to make out in this rendering), their weapon of preference was a club with a star shaped head. They also employed slings and spears. Their archers were not Inca, but rather from jungle tribes.
The Mapuche would have put on a loud but less variegated show of their own, trutrukas (a long, wooden horn) blaring, drums pounding. They wore no armor–and indeed would have been stripped for battle, and barefoot–but they would have painted their bodies, and worn talismanic items such as jaguar heads and the hooves of deer. They carried shields. And their weapons were analogous to those of the Inca–bow, sling, club and spear, so that in terms of armament, neither side had a tactical advantage. Also, Inca and Mapuche tactics were similar in that both initiated with a barrage of stones from slings as well as arrows and hurled lances, followed a mass attack of squadrons of men wielding clubs and spears,
As was usual with the Inca, they sent envoys to the Mapuche, proposing submission rather than war. For two days they did this, and the Mapuche declined subjugation. On the third day the Inca attacked with pehaps 20,000 warriors, opposed by a similar number of Mapuche….
No one actually knows how the battle actually unfolded, but we can suppose that as the preliminary show took place Inca priests and Mapuche shamans would have been mutually casting spells at the opposing armies. As Chilean rivers are generally wide and shallow, fed by snow melt, we shall also suppose a place and a time of year when the Maule can be waded….
For three days, the Inca attacked and the Mapuche defended. By the end of the third day, chroniclers say, almost all the combatants on both sides who were not dead were wounded. On the fourth day the Inca did not attack. Nor did they ever attempt to cross the Maule after that….
And so it is that the Mapuche fought the invading Inca to a standstill, so creating the southern limit to their empire.