Ancestral Comechingón

small ceramic vessel with one handle and embossed design

Ceramic vessel from Argentina

Letter to Students

Hello!

We are Andrés, María Clara and David and it is a pleasure to be able to write this for you. 

We are a team of archaeologists studying together the ways of life of societies that lived long ago where we live today in Córdoba, Argentina, in South America. Andrés is the team leader. He studied archaeology at university, and has been interested in indigenous societies since he was a child. María Clara and David are younger. David was first a musician in an orchestra, but decided he preferred studying archaeology. Maria Clara previously studied anthropology and is now an archaeologist. We all like the fact that with archaeology we can learn about the past of these societies, learn from them and thus respect them more.

Here we will tell you what we know about the societies of Córdoba's past. People arrived here thousands of years ago and changed their way of life over time. In the beginning they were few, living only on what they hunted and gathering foods from nature. As time went by there were more and more people and they began to live in houses in small villages and to grow crops, although they never stopped hunting and gathering. It is very important to know what happened, to ask ourselves why these societies changed some of their customs and not others. We do not know why this happened in this way and we think it’s good to try to unravel the mystery. Since they knew the environment very well, we can also learn from them how to relate to it today without damaging it and improve our own way of life. We all agree that it is very exciting when in the field we discover the remains left by these societies, and then to be able to rescue them for study and then tell others what we know or show it in museums.

We hope you enjoy learning about these early Indigenous societies as much as we do!

Andrés, María Clara and David

Key Terms

There are no key terms for this section.

excavation site, several people sit in gridded squares within a shallow pit, sifting dirt

A team of archaeologists doing field work at an archaeological site in Córdoba, Argentina. They are in the process of excavating.

Map

Timeline

DatesEvents
9000 BCE

Indigenous people first settled this region, moving down from the north.

1st century CE Local inhabitants adopted agriculture and began making ceramics

~500 - 1600 CE

Local inhabitants created pictographs at Cerro Colorado, including an image of newly-arrived Spaniards on horseback

1753

Spanish conquistadors arrived and began the violent process of conquest, settlement, and genocide.

Introduction to Ancestral Comechingón

Indigenous societies have inhabited South America for many centuries. In the south-central part of Argentina, in the Sierras de Córdoba, several of these societies lived in the past.  It is a region of low mountains and large plains. Winter is not very cold, and the summer somewhat hot, which is when it rains. It is a dry environment known as Chaco. There used to be forests of trees similar to the mesquite of the Southwest USA, which Spanish settlers  called algarrobo (carob, in English). These trees bear edible fruits, which were an important food source for people in their daily lives. There were also deer and a typical South American animal, the guanaco, which is related to the llama.


Around 11,000 years ago, the first families arrived in the area from the north, hunting large animals that no longer exist today, mainly glyptodonts, and some others such as guanacosThey used spears with stone points.

huge armadillo-like animal that grew to the size of a small car

Artist rendering of a glyptodon. The human figures are to indicate the giant size of these ancient animals.

It was very cold (because this was just at the end of the last glacial period), but with time the weather warmed.Those big animals did not adjust to the heat and became extinct. That is why people created new weapons to hunt other animals. Many families lived in large caves, where they cooked, slept, and made artifacts, such as bone needles for sewing hides and bags, and clothing. They also made weapons and used smoothed stones to grind seeds and make flour. They also crushed red, yellow and black minerals to make paints, which they used to paint figures on rocks. They did not know how to make pottery, but they made baskets and nets from plants. We do not know if the men were the ones who hunted and the women did tasks near the caves, such as gathering fruits, working hides or making baskets. Probably both men and women cooked and raised children, as is common in other places where people have the same way of life. Many times, they buried their loved ones inside the caves.

This way of life lasted a long time, but about 2000 years ago, they started making pottery and farming. We do not know why this change occurred but it had significant consequences. With ceramics, they made vessels and pots where they cooked their cultivated foods: corn, beans and squash. To make some pots they used baskets and covered them with clay. Once the pottery was fired, the basket was burned and its mark remained, which formed a beautiful pattern. From pottery, they also made figurines that represented people, both men and women.  Growing grains and making pottery meant a very important change in their lives, as they improved their diet. In order to take care of their cultivated fields, they built villages of very large houses with wooden and straw roofs. These were called pit-houses because much of the house was below-ground. Nearby they dug other small pits in the ground where they stored crops to have food all year round. 

four ceramic vessels featuring embossed designs

Pottery from ancient Indigenous peoples in the Córdoba region. 

We know nothing of their religious beliefs and rituals. We do know that at the beginning of summer, they had big meetings with people from different places with whom they met to celebrate, and they made a lot of food and drinks especially for those gatherings.  


In 1573 the Spanish conquistadors arrived and, as in the rest of America, they dominated the communities. Many people died or were killed, their lands were taken away and they were required to work for the conquerors, so they lost their traditional way of life. However, some of the people survived and today some of their descendants are recognizing their indigenous roots, calling themselves as they used to: Comechingones [pronounced co as in "coconut", me as Ma in "Mary", chin as in "chin" and gón as in "gone": co-ma-chin-gone].

Key Terms

Chaco: The Chaco is a geographic region located in the center-south of South America, which extends through part of Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. It is an extensive plain that has been inhabited since the past by many indigenous communities, many of which live in these countries today.

Carob: A type of flowering tree that grows bean-like pods filled with sweet, edible seeds. The species that grows in Argentina is different from the one in the Mediterranean, but they are related. Carob seeds were an important food source for Indigenous peoples in this area.

Glyptodon: A prehistoric mammal, a relative of the armadillo and the sloth, of great size and with the body protected by large fused bone plates. It fed on vegetables and insects and lived in America from 1 million years to 10,000 years ago.

Guanaco: a South American camelid, closely related to the llama

Figurine: a small statue, usually of a human or human-like form

Pit-house: A style of house that was created by digging a giant pit, smoothing the interior walls, and constructing a roof just above ground level. The ground acted to insulate the home, moderating the internal temperature.

Glacial period: A period of time during an Ice Age when average global temperatures are lower than normal and glaciers grow to cover more of the earth's surface.

Comechingones: The name used to refer to the ancestral peoples of the Códoba region. This encompasses many different sub-groupings. It is not a word they used to refer to themselves prior to Spanish conquest.

Changing Narratives: Indigenous Artifacts

Archaeologists do not work alone. In some towns in Córdoba, citizens care about indigenous remains and are true guardians of archaeological materials, considered to be heritage. They form collections of ceramic, stone and bone elements, which are cared for in local museums. The archaeological materials that collectors rescue come from:

  1. Great construction works that unearth archaeological remains.
  2. Rescues made by collectors on expeditions through the mountains and forests
  3. Donations from neighbors who find them in their yards and gardens.

Many of these materials are exposed on the surface of the ground due to the action of rain, and if they are not recovered in time, they run the risk of being lost.


Collectors are familiar with scientific archeological research, but also make their own interpretations of archaeological heritage. They do not always coincide, but they contribute to what archaeologists think. For example, a characteristic artifact from the indigenous groups in the area are ceramic figurines of men and women, sometimes of children. They have a body, legs, and head, but no arms, and are about 4 inches tall. They have a lot of detail on their faces, and have skirts, shirts and hats, as well as ornaments such as necklaces, tattoos and hairstyles with braids and headbands. Archaeologists think that each figurine represented a different person, possibly dead, and that making them was a way of remembering them.

four ceramic figurines, eyes shown as horizontal slits, pointed noses, embossed designs for hair and clothing

Ceramic figurines. The one on the bottom right is the one found by the collector named Daniel.

Some collectors we spoke with told us that they believe the figurines were charms, formerly used in rituals, but that now they are objects that bring luck or can scare people. Daniel, a collector, says that a statue that he found is very special. Walking in the forest on a very hot day, Daniel felt that something important was going to happen, and he was moved when he found the head of a strange statuette, with something of an animal and something of a person. He knelt down, picked her up, and his heart skipped a beat because in that instant he felt that it was a magical object. Daniel brought the figurine to his house, even though he was scared. During the night, he heard noises and thought about getting rid of it. One day he asked it, "bring me luck in the lottery or I'll send you back to the forest," and that same day he won. From then on, he was no longer afraid and the figurine continued to bring him luck. However, Daniel knows that the figurine is heritage and today it is in the Museum of his city. Now everyone can see it, and the municipality has taken it as its symbol and it is part of the identity of all citizens.

Key Terms

Heritage: The set of material elements created by people in the past. They have historical value and are part of the identity of a community.

Figurine: a small statue, usually of a human or human-like form

Environmental Management

The men and women of this society knew very well the environment where they lived. They knew precisely where the best places to hunt were and what the habits of the animals were. They also knew where to find the best stones to make their weapons and good clays to make their vessels. Fundamentally, they knew the landscape, the climate, and other natural phenomena very well. They knew that in the Chaco, in the summer, sometimes it rains in one place and but doesn’t rain a short distance away. Other times hail falls in one area but not across the field. In the past, invasions of large numbers of grasshoppers that ate all crops were also very common. To avoid all these problems, and using their knowledge of the environment, they planted their corn in separate places from each other. Therefore, for example, if hail fell on one side, it probably would not fall on another; or the grasshoppers would eat only a part of their crops.

They also knew where the best places in the environment were to set up their villages: they did it a little distance from the rivers because in the summer there are suddenly very dangerous floodwaters. As it is a landscape with mountains, they chose places to build their houses halfway between the plains and the highlands. That way they could go to the plains to take care of their crops and look for fruits in the forest or go hunting in the mountains and return home the same day.

Key Terms

Phenomena: a fact, an occurrence, a situation

Hail: Frozen rain that falls as little balls of ice rather than as snowflakes. Hail can be 1/5 of an inch to 6 inches in diameter, with the smaller size being much more common. Hail generally happens in cool or even warm weather, not during very cold winter storms.

Pit-Houses

The construction of the houses was very particular. They are known as "pit-houses". Instead of building walls, they dug a large rectangular pit in the ground and roofed it with branches and straw. From the outside, this looked like a roof sitting just above the ground.  On the inside, it was sort of like a basement room with an opening around the top of the wall, just below the ceiling. These houses were cool in the summer and warm in the winter, and they were protected from the wind. As only the roof was visible, the houses were almost hidden in the landscape. From a distance, their location was indicated by their cornfields or by the smoke from the fireplaces. We don’t know how many people lived in each house. When the Spaniards arrived, they were amazed at their size and said that eight horses and their riders could fit inside a single house! It is possible then that there were many people living there. The same family lived in each house for a long time. Always one house was close to another and they formed villages. There were villages with few houses and other very large ones of up to 40 houses.

house interior, wood and grass roof, stone and woods tools, exterior landscape visible from within

re-creation of pit-house (casa-pozo)

at Córdoba's Museum of Anthropology

exterior landscape with two rooflines rising from ground-level, entrance at one end of each roof

re-creation of pit-house (casa-pozo)

at Parque Temático Yucat

from outside looking down into pit-house, straight earthen walls, flat earthen floor, wooden pillars holding up roof

pit-house interior

at Parque Temático Yucat

house interior, earthen floors with steps leading out and up to ground level

pit-house entrance

at Parque Temático Yucat

roof extending up from ground-level, snow on both roof and ground, interior visible between ground and roofline

pit-house in winter

at Parque Temático Yucat

view from outside, roof-peak rises from ground level, entrance visible, surrounded by green plants

pit-house in summer

at Parque Temático Yucat

Everyday life happened around and inside the pit-houses. From the ceramic and stone objects found in archaeological excavations, we know that inside they ground corn and prepared food. Stone instruments, arrowheads and bone knives were also found. Under the floors they buried some of their dead, perhaps the most beloved. Outside the houses were the places where they made stone, leather and bone objects. Right there, they also made baskets with plants and the vessels and pots.

Key Terms

Pit-house: A style of house that was created by digging a giant pit, smoothing the interior walls, and constructing a roof just above ground level. The ground acted to insulate the home, moderating the internal temperature.

Food in Ancestral Comechingón Communities

For the groups in the Córdoba mountains, some plants and animals in the environment remained consistently important sources of food. Even though time passed and they adopted agriculture, guanacos and carob fruits were among their favorite foods. They also hunted some deer and collected eggs from suri, an ostrich-like bird that is characteristic of South America. Once they shifted to living villages, they also added cultivated plants, such as corn, squash, and beans to their meals.

Some of the seeds and fruits they collected in the forest are very sweet and were used for different things.  Carob fruits, one of the most important fruits they gathered, were first left to dry for several days and then crushed to make flour using a mortar and pestle. With the carob flour and water, they made a sweet cake that was left to dry in the sun, without the need to cook it. They also ground the fresh fruits of different trees and made small balls with their hands that they ate as candies. They also prepared a syrup with the fresh fruits by boiling them in water. With the crushed fruits in the summer they made drinks: they added water to them and made a soft (non-alcoholic) drink, and if they left the crushed fruit in the water for several days they obtained beer, which they drank at social gatherings.

three varieties of stone mortar and pestle

Stone mortars and pestles, used to grind grains and also different-colored minerals.

The beginning of summer, the time when the carob fruits were ripe, was very important for all the people. Men, women and children from all over the village gathered to work together to collect the fruits. At that time the great gatherings with people from other villages were held and they celebrated by drinking carob beer and soft drink. Today, the descendants of these groups are taking up these customs and once a year a popular festival is held for this reason.

With cultivated plants they made different foods, such as stews where they mixed corn, squash and beans, sometimes with meat. One of them was made at the time when the corn was tender and freshly harvested. The corn kernels were separated from the husk and mixed with pieces of squash, and cooked in water for many hours. Finally a thick soup was formed, which is called humita. A beer is prepared with corn, which is very common throughout South America and is known as chicha. They also prepared a sweet non-alcoholic drink. Another kind of stew was made with corn, squash, beans, and small pieces of meat, which were also cooked for many hours. This dish is known as locro

Archaeological studies suggest that women were the ones who prepared the flours. We know this based on studies of skeletal remains. Women’s bodies show modifications due to heavy activity in the arms and wrists. It is not known whether men and women cooked at the same time. However, the Spanish said that the drinks were made together by men and women.


Many of these native foods are still made today on special days. Above all, locro and humita are cooked on holidays in Argentina, especially Independence Day and Labor Day, when families and friends get together to celebrate.

Key Terms

Guanaco:a South American camelid, closely related to the llama

Suri: A bird of about 35 to 40 inches in length, but can reach up to 60 inches in height, weighing about 55 pounds. They have large wings but do not fly and are great runners. They are also known as rheas, and are very similar to ostriches, but smaller.

Mortar and pestle: A two-piece tool used to grind or pound various substances, especially for cooking. The mortar is the bowl part and the pestle is the blunt object used to grind the food.

11 different types of carob, long lumpy beans and next to each variety a small pile of seeds

Carob: Different varieties of Prosopis (the genus that includes South American carob). The caption from Felker et al (the original authors) says:

Prosopis pods of various species and origins. (A): screwbean from California, USA, P. pubescens; (B): mesquite from California, USA, P. glandulosa var. torreyana; (C): itin from Argentina, P. kuntzei; (D): mesquite from Baja California, Mexico, P. articulata; (E): algarrobo from Catamarca, Argentina, P. flexuosa; (F): algarrobo negro from Argentina, P. nigra; (G): algarrobo blanco from Santiago del Estero, Argentina, P. alba; (H): mesquite from New Mexico, USA, P. glandulosa var. glandulosa; (I): tamarugo from the Atacama Desert, Chile, P. tamarugo; (J): mesquite from south Texas, USA, P. glandulosa var. glandulosa; (K): mesquite from Senegal, Africa, P. juliflora 

Citation: Ellsworth, SW & Crandall, Philip & Lingbeck, Jody & O’Bryan, CA. (2018). Perspective on the control of invasive mesquite trees and possible alternative uses. iForest - Biogeosciences and Forestry. 11. 577-585. 10.3832/ifor2456-011. 

Rock Art

In the mountains of Córdoba there are many caves where the indigenous people painted the rocks with different drawings. They painted figures of animals, such as guanacos, lizards, jaguars, owls, foxes, native ostriches, and condors. They also drew lines, points, and circles. The drawings are white, black, red and some yellow. The paints were made with minerals that were ground to powder and then mixed with animal fat.


Many times they depicted the guanacos running in herds, with their young. Of the native ostriches they only drew their footprints. Sometimes they painted people, some with feather ornaments on their heads and backs, and armed with bows and arrows in their hands, as if they were ready to shoot. Other times they drew people covered with feather and fur costumes, with masks on their heads. Archaeologists believe that these were men or women with special powers and abilities to heal other people, who are known today as shamans or medicine men and women.

red stone with dozens of images of animals and people depicted in contrasting white paint

Indigenous cave paintings featuring animals and people in special or fancy clothing. This image is located at Cerro Colorado, Córdoba.

A unique and very interesting painting is the one that shows an encounter between Spaniards and indigenous groups. Some of the Indigenous people have very long spears and others are in groups holding hands as if confronting the Spaniards. The Spanish invaders were painted in great detail; you can distinguish their clothes, weapons and horses

These caves with paintings were special places. They are not easily visible to the naked eye and are usually hidden in the forest and far from houses. Possibly, they were meeting places where they performed rituals according to their beliefs.

painting of two figures on horseback, inscribed on the inside of a cave

Cave painting from Cerro Colorado, in Córdoba, in which an Indigenous artist depicted Spaniards on horseback.

Key Terms

Guanaco: a South American camelid, closely related to the llama

Archaeologist Video

Archaeologist Video: Ancestral Comechingón (Part 1)

Archaeologist Video: Ancestral Comechingón (Part 2)

Archaeologist Video: Ancestral Comechingón (Part 3)

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