Villa Pehuenia, as a tourist destination, is not very old. But its land treasures an ancient history which started with the very origin of the Andes mountain range. A little bit closer to present-day, during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, the pehuén or monkey puzzle (Araucaria Araucana) was already drawing its sillhouette in the prehistorical scenery.
As far as human presence is concerned, there are traces of human activity much more closer in time, some ten thousand years ago.
After the “araucanization" carried out by the northern tehuelches, in the XVII century, the first mapuche settlements were established in this area (for the summer pastures), being the dwellers of the territories dominated by the pehuenes called pehuenches.
Even if the Conquest of the Desert was officialized by the presence of the huincas (white people) in the area, trade (not always legal) between the mapuches and the creoles goes a long way back to times quite previous to the General Roca expedition. Don Alejandro Arce (owner of an estancia in Necochea, Province of Buenos Aires) would use the Paso del Arco to cross his cattle and sell it in Chile. The descendants of this man live at Villa Pehuenia and Moquehue at present.
Until 1881, the dwellers of this area responded to the orders of the Cacique Renque Curá (Calfucurá's brother). Trading cooperation between mapuches and creoles even included the shared transfer of cattle rustled in the pampas, which were easily crossed by the El Arco and Icalma areas due to the accessible passes and the low level over the sea.
With the passing of time, and due to deals made with the National State, the Puel communities were granted pieces of land on the northern shores of Lakes Aluminé and Moquehue and in the strait area between both and the Catalán communities, in Lonco Luan. These were the two mapuche communities that resided in the common land.
Co-existence gradually became established and the first huinca settlements started. For such reason, the National State was forced to create School Nbr. 90, more than 70 years ago, in the strait area between Lakes Aluminé and Moquehue.
About the middle of last century, a significant forest exploitation was made. The Colombo and Alvarez & Durán companies were pioneers in this aspect. It is important to point out that moving the timber from one place to another would require a matchless adventurous spirit, as nowadays paths did not exist and the ones existing had to be permanently upkept with a shovel and pickax. The area of the road called Withvoort, named after one of the first pioneers, was very popular. Withvoort was an American with the appearance typical of the cowboy who opened and used the road for the first time.
The movement generated by the forest industry caused the center of exploitation in the Province of Neuquén to be located in Moquehue. Even Mr. Campos, from the National Forest Institute is remembered. He designed the entire fire fighting system and built view points in all this area.
This population process permitted the settlement of entire families that are today a part of the history of Villa Pehuenia. As an example, we can mention the Carraha family in the area of the Aluminé River source, Paulino Catalán in Villa Pehuenia, and Pacián Garro in Moquehue.
Later on, the groceries emerged as a new commercial activity. Edgardo Garro's (afterwards bought by Orlando Almeira) and Cirilo De Gregorio's groceries joined the old storehouse belonging to the Colombo firm in La Angostura, and don Carraha's grocery in the source of the Aluminé River. Shortly afterwards, don Carraha's daughter, María, and her husband, Vicente Escoda, settled down on the intersection of the Litrán River and Route 23.
Gradual growth continued, which fostered the institutionalization of the village. Therefore, on January 20, 1989, under engineer Pedro Salvatori's administration, by Decree Nbr. 153, the Public Works Committee was created, being Mr. Raúl De Gregorio the first president of the entity.
This creation permitted to include the village growth in the provincial development plans and start to give shape to an activity so far reserved for those few people who knew the village, especially the inhabitants of Zapala - tourism.
The wide range of activities generated by the so-called “smokeless industry” started to print its present profile on the village: a family mountain village, where the preservation of the environment and the mapuche culture are the first priorities.
Source: Villa Pehuenia Public Works Committee.
Among the fruit giving trees, the good Lord created the monkey puzzle, or like the natives call it, the pehuen for the benefit of the people. Its seed capsules with the shape of a ball or head were not eaten by man at the beginning.
The mapuches worshipped the monkey puzzle and considered it a sacred tree. They prayed under its shade, they made flesh, blood and smoke offerings to it, spraying it with mushai, the sweet or fermented chicha, and ornamenting it with presents. They talked to it as if it was a person. They even made confessions to it.
The monkey puzzle's delicious sweet pips became useless, maybe because they did not taste well when they were raw and they did not know how to cook them. Consequently, they would be left lying on the ground as they were considered poisonous.
And it turned out that the kingdom of the mapuches underwent a period of great starvation. So hard was it that many araucanos died. The children and the elderly were the first to die.
Therefore, the old men from the tribes sent young people around to look for different kinds of food: iris bulbs and other flowers and plants, berries, herbs and wild cereal grains, sweet yellow roots and, naturally, also wild animal meat. But ... where was all that? where was it hiding?
Almost all mapuche lads came back starving without having found the food. God, as grand as he was in Heaven, would not listen to the outcry: the Chau would not listen to their prayers, he pretended to be deaf... And his peple were dying...Only one of the emissaries managed to do something.
On his way back, he was questioned by an unknown old man during the journey. This man was eager to know what he was looking for in the mostly poor, sandy, arid mountains. The young man trusted him his sorrow and that of his starving brothers from the tribe and the old man replied, strangely:
-Aren't the kernels good enough for you? They fall from the trees when they are ripe and one of their capsules is enough to nurture a whole family... But you have to boil them until they become softer or toast them in the fire. And during the winter, you have to bury them to preserve them from the frost.
After this good piece of advice, the long-beard old man suddenly disappeared.
The young man filled his garments with the largest seed capsules and took them to the oldest man in the tribe, together with the message the long-beard man had given him.
The old man and the youth summoned all the members of the tribe and passed on the message. Then, the most sensible men said:
-That can only be our Chau, our father who came down to Earth for us, to save us. We shall follow his instructions and will not scorn the gift that allows us to eat, even if it comes from the sacred tree that belongs only to Him.
At once, they boiled those longish fruit in good water and others toasted them on fire. It as a great feast.
As from that moment, they did not suffer poverty any more, as the countless trees existing around and on the Lanín Volcano offered them many gifts of this kind. Popular celebrations date from those days. They consist in an annual trip made by the natives and their families to the mountains and to the monkey puzzle areas in order to collect the precious provisions for the winter, katangos and dark golden kernels.
They keep them underground, where they are kept fresh and sweet during the whole summer. Most times, they are the only food the natives consume.
They also make the heady beverage called chahui (or chawü), made with the best nguilliu, name given to the kernels.
But shortly after the days we are referring to, the god of the araucanos did not come down to earth any more and some of our ancestors asserted that he was captured and killed by the white men when he intended to visit his beloved araucano children for the last time.
Anyway, during the prayers they said at dawn, just like many of us still do, especially the elderly and those who live in isolated places, the ancient men would always hold and they still hold a little branch or fruit from the monkey puzzle in their hand, their clean washed open hand, and they say:
-Given by you for us not to starve.
¨We owe our lives to you and we pray to you, the Great, to you our father, not to let the monkey puzzles die.
¨They must propagate, just like our decendants, whose life belongs to you, in the same way as the sacred trees belong to you¨.
This is the prayer offered by the ré che, the pure blood araucanos to their god, the owner of the world.
Afpin: the narrator has finished.
Pehuén: Patagonian pine, araucaria imbricata. Fruit: the kernels. It is considered a sacred tree and it receives offerings.
Muschay or muday: Alcoholic drink, made from various kinds of cereal or potatoes mixed with grain. Preferred corn.
Chau: Father, also Apu
From the book ¨Cuentan los Araucanos¨Bertha Koessler-Ilg , Edit. Nuevo Extremo.