Thatching in South America

The craft, up until c1930


The craft of thatching, found in the countries of South America, until the early to mid twentieth century, was used to cover a very varied set of buildings, similar to those found in Central America.(Link Here) As these nations also contained one or several groups of inhabitants, including native peoples, slaves and their descendents; along with those of a mixed heritage.


Just a quick look at the following images will show distinct groups of thatched buildings, that mirror this division; from small homes to some enormous structures; perhaps some of the biggest in the world.

To the modern eye most of the thatch shown looks 'primitive', but what these buildings are in fact, is the result of the clever use of local thatching and building materials, often in a harsh hot climate. Built by people with limited resources, to usually create stout, weatherproof, well insulated homes… What follows is often their story, as well as that of the thatched buildings they created.

As is usual with this site we'll start in the north, in Columbia and generally head south...

Thatching throughout this large continent invariably consisted of layers of thatch, tied to a timber framework; using a myriad of differing techniques.Often creating a ridge, by bending over and fixing down the final layer of thatch. The thatchers shown on the right, in adjacent Panama, are tying on half palm branches. A clever and fast method of covering an early 1900's roof.

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Colombia…… Has within its borders, part of the Amazon rainforest, grasslands and deserts; with coastlines along both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans...

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Around 1920...The above image shows ‘Ranchos’ on the shore of The Magdalena River, this country’s main waterway, which enters the Caribbean at the city of Barranquilla. The thatch looks well done and steep; with a little tin sheeting on the ridge. Not so stout are the roofs, shown below, at Buenaventura, Columbia’s main Pacific seaport. This place was booming after the opening of the Panama Canal, in 1914; when perhaps a great deal of housing was quickly erected, for the increase in population. Being coated with a thin layer of thatch, on a fairly flat roof...

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Venezuela…… A varied landscape here includes the Andes Mountains in the west and part of the Amazon rainforest in the south...







‘Indians’... The opposite print, from the 1860’s, depicts ‘An Arawak Village’, this name covers a group of indigenous peoples; including the Taino or Lokono. The Lokono still inhabit the coastal areas of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and beyond. The types of roof shown are even now found in this area; being suited to a very hot climate, with enough rain to require a steep pitch to the roofs hereabouts...



The two images below, from arond 1890 show ‘native’ homes. The left was situated at Puerto Cabello, on the coast. The location of the other is unknown; but is thatched in a very similar fashion...
The old postcard below these two, dipicts another ethnic group; this time hailing from the sub continent of India. Like the island of Trinidad, seven miles off this county’s coast, a great many immigrants arrived from British India, in the century after the end of slavery. This postcard is German, produced for a firm of coffee and tea importers, which hints at the work done by the inhabitants of the thatched homes. These seem to follow a local style and are neatly finished...



As with other countries in this area, much use was and is made of the palm. An 1840’s account of Venezuela states that the Copernicia Palm is widely employed where found... ‘a house thatched with this palm is not only impervious to the pouring showers of the tropics, but against fire also, as it is nearly incombustible ... It is, moreover, very durable and cool throughout the hottest months.’
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The Guianas…… The name given to three separate territories in the northeastern part of the continent. All three were colonies, at the time covered in this page; two are now independent...


British Guiana/Guyana

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Disputed thatch... This old postcard, from around 1905, describes the scene well enough.... However the Barima-Waini area’s ownership has long been disputed by neighbouring Venezuela. Palm appears to have been the material of choice, to cover this roof; as it is on modern buildings hereabouts today...
Transferred from Dutch control in 1814, the area was known as British Guiana, from 1831 until 1966,when the British granted independence to 'Guyana'. Like other neighbouring areas the colony relied firstly on enslaved Africans; and under British rule, indentured labourers from India. The opposite image shows a third group, the indigenous Arowak peoples, who still occupy parts of Venezuela, as well as The Guianas...


The thatch in this 1900’s image looks very similar to that seen above in Venezuela... In 1847, both square and ‘conical’ homes were noted and that ’the Arrwaks make the best houses’; using the split trunks of the ‘manicole’ palm for construction and it’s leaves for the thatch. Two years later... ’With respect to the occupation of the Indians, they are excellent wood-cutters and thatchers'...


In the 1860’s, leaves from the ‘troolie’ palm were said to be incomparably superior to any others’, being used by both native and ‘couloured people who lived near the coast’... As late as the 1950's it was stated that, ’a good thatch will last from five to seven years...’ The 1909 image below, dipicts an 'East Indian Hut'; with some thatch following a local style...
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Dutch Guiana/Suriname

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The richest sugar colony under Dutch control, lead to the creation of yet another slave society; which in turn lead to yet another, which the plantation owners never intended...


The regime, on the plantations hereabouts was so brutal, that many slaves escaped into the interior, forming their own unique culture; becoming known as ‘Marrons’. After decades of futile warfare the authorities finally recognised their independence. (A similar story was played out on the island of Jamaica). Looking at the aerial photo of a Marron village, on the Cottica River, their thatching seemingly followed that of the indigenous Arowak peoples. For many years the Marrons did not welcome strangers, hence the aerial photo...


However an American anthropologist visited and left a report, in 1929. ’ The huts are rectangular, about 7 by 10 feet, composed of four walls and a thatched roof, the roof hanging very low at the sides. The walls are made of tightly woven grasses and leaves, and they, as well as the roof, are weather-tight. The huts are made of grasses known as paralu, cumu, and tash. I was not fortunate enough to obtain specimens of these, and was unable to ascertain the botanical names.’
The dreadful conditions in the colony were detailed in 'The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam', first appearing in 1790; written by one John Gabriel Stedman, an Anglo-Dutch soldier. The rather fanciful illustration from his book depicts Stedman’s ‘Cottage’; the thatch mainly following a local style. He is shown with his young slave mistress Joanna. His book became a best seller and assisted the cause for the abolition of slavery; William Blake helping to illustrate some editions, with the two becoming friends. However slavery lingered here until 1863; with the colony gaining independence in 1960.
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French Guiana

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France had repeatedly failed, since 1604 to colonize French Guiana. An attempt in 1763, saw three quarters of the twelve thousand colonists die in the first year. Many slaves escaped and formed ‘Moroon’ societies in the rainforests, similar to those in neighboring Surinam. The area then became a penal colony in 1852; with the notorious Devil’s Island becoming world famous... The illustration above is titled ‘Arrivée de Jules Crevaux dans un village boni’. Jules being a doctor who lead several successful expeditions into the interior of the colony, in the late 1870’s and early 80’s. The thatched buildings, appear to follow a style found throughout the Guianas; similar to that noted above in 1920’s Surinam viz, ‘...a thatched roof, the roof hanging very low at the sides. The walls are made of tightly woven grasses and leaves, and they, as well as the roof, are weather-tight. The huts are madeof grasses...’ The image opposite depicts inmates on Île du Diable/Devil’s Island; standing in front of a thatched building, some decades before the prisons closed in the early 1950’s. With the colony eventually becoming part of France proper.
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Brazil…… By far the largest country, occupying almost half of the continent. Most of the following images were taken by two German photographers, working mainly in the upper reaches of the River Amazon.

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These three images were captured by Albert Frisch, commissioned to show the ‘undisturbed ’ areas of Amazonia, in the 1860’s. His photographs speak for themselves... The upper depicts two large structures near the Japurá River, a huge tributary of the Amazon. The centre image is of a more common type of home, which lay along the same river, occupied by the Amauás people. The lower photo depicts the large home of some of the local Ticuna; on the upper reaches of the Amazon; where the River is often named the Solimões. All three images show some very neat thatching; especially the upper and lower. These large, communal buildings, known as a 'Maloc'a, were traditionally used to house an extended family; with both sexes sleeping under the same thatched roof; much to the chagrin of several generations of missionaries ...
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These two photos were appeared in’Two years among the Indians- 1903/1905’ by Theodor Koch-Grünberg. He appears to have covered some of the vast area, that his countryman Albert Frisch visited, four decades earlier. The upper image depicts another Moloca; being considerably larger than the 1860’s versions above. This one lay at Cururú-cuára, in the north west of the region; belonging to the Siúsi people, of the upper Rio Negro. The opposite structure was once at Remate de Males, on a tributary of the Amazon, very close to the border with Peru. Being raised no doubt to avoid any flooding. This photo shows some tin sheeting on the ridge, a sign of modernity, along with the clothes worn in both images...
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Slavery... Above left is a rather idealised 1830’s print, of a ‘Senzala’ or slave hut; of which there were a great many, until 1888; when perhaps four million slaves were freed. Brazil holding the dubious record, of being the last bastion in the Americas... As seen, with other slave societies, whose slaves hailed from West Africa, the type of buildings they constructed and lived in, followed an African tradition. Usually being small, square or oblong; with inevitably a thatched roof; the one above looking to be of palm leaves.The right hand image, depicting a similar dwelling, must date to just after emancipation. Being in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, in the very south of Brazil...


Ecuador…… One of the smaller counties of South America, it is divided into three regions...La Costa, the coast: La Sierra, the highlands  & La Amazonía, El Oriente, the east:

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La Costa...This very practical thatched roof was once floating near Guayaquil, now the second largest city in Ecuador; located on the west bank of the Guayas River. It looks as if this raft may have brought goods down the river; the thatch providing shelter, from sun and rain, in around 1910.
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Two images from La Sierra, from around 1900... The opposite scene was captured near Riobamba. A well thatched roof is shown, along with some warmly dressed inhabitants. As this area has an altitude of some 9000 ft (2700m), some thick thatching would be very useful... The photo above, from an unnamed location, depicts a similar thatch, if somewhat thinner.
The scene below depicts some very neat thatching, also in La Sierra. Being in or near the village of Cajabamba, in Central Ecuador. Although situated in a fertile valley it lies at an altitude of some 10500 ft (3,212 m). The thatching, dating to around 1895, may well have been the work of the local Puruhá people...
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Peru…… Like its smaller neighbour, Peru also has three similar areas. The Andes mountains run parallel to the Pacific Ocean; defining these regions. La Costa (coast),. La Sierra (highlands) & La Selva (jungle), part of Amazonia; which covers well over half of this country.

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Dark times in La Selva.... Roughly translated, the large building above was depicted as ‘a rubber market house’ near Iquitos, and dates to around 1910. By then the dreadful activities of the London based ‘Peruvian Amazon Company’ had been revealed to the world. Accused of enslaving the local native population and worse; in the pursuit of rubber. Knowing that, the scene here doesn’t look that pleasant... The ‘Market House’ is well thatched with long timbers holding a likely wooden ridge in place.
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Peaceful times in La Selva... The two images, opposite and above, come from 1930’s Amazonia. Above, a home at Pucallpa, on the Ucayali, a tributary of the Amazon. Opposite is traditional Maloca, as noted above in Brazil; the door giving a clue to the type of palm leaves used to thatch this communal home.
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High Life… These two scenes were captured in the Peruvian Andes. The exact location of the above scene, showing some layered thatching is unknown; the opposite image was near Cuzco. Both date to the 1920’s. And both are thatched with the indigenous Ichu grass (Stipa ichu). This grows in the mountains, between around 9000 ft (2700m) and 14000 ft (4300m). It has been used for centuries, and even today has lots of uses in and around Cuzco. Gathered in the dry season, a roof will last around five to seven years. Giving a dry and as importantly, a warm home, in a cold Andean climate.


Lake Titicaca…… Half in Peru, half in Bolivia, this Andean lake lies at around 12,500 ft (3800m) above sea level; and is home to a people, whose culture is based on reeds.

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The reeds in question being Totora (Schoenoplectus californicus subsp. tatora). These are utilised by the Uros people, who continue to live on floating islands made up of reeds. Orginally for defence, the islands with their thatched homes, have a very long history hereabouts. As well as dwellings, bundled reeds make excellent boats or ‘balsas’. The locals also use parts of the reed as food and medicine, used to cure a wide variety of ills, including hangovers... The modern image of the islands and the extesive reedbeds; copyright & thanks; Tobias Deml (Gentle) under Creative Commons.
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Bolivia…… Landlocked, but like its northern neighbour Peru, this country also has a large area of rainforest and a mountainous Andean region.

Near the lake... The old image opposite shows a scene captured at Tiwanaku, just south of Lake Titicaca; a place more famous as one of the largest archaeological sites in South America; than for any thatched buildings... A city here was at its height around 1000 years ago. The home shown is sometimes referred to as a survivor from this time, but is more likely an example of the locals making use of some handy, if ornate building materials! Unlike the nearby lake dwellers, the thatch here appears to be of grass. Very likely the indigenous Ichu grass, used in other Andean areas.






















More Andean thatch... Below left is a scene of a part tiled, part thatched roof at Potosí, one of the highest cities in the world, standing at nearly 13,500 ft (c4000m). For centuries, it has been the home to Cerro Rico de Potosí , the world's largest silver deposit. Unsurprisingly the building depicted below was involved in the extraction of silver; by the locals.

The larger, better thatched buildings, on the lower right, are noted as being the home of ‘arrieros’ or muleteers; one of their charges is in the foreground. This was at a location named Illavaya; which seems to have either changed its name or disappeared, in the century or so since this photo was taken.
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Rainforest home...This old image is entitled ‘Barraca los Angels’, being situated somewhere along the 680 mile (1100km.) course of the Río Beni, which flows through the rainforests, in the very north east of Bolivia. Hopefully this large, well thatched building was the welcoming home to some orphan children? In around 1900.


Paraguay…… Another landlocked country, but with no mountains; having two areas, divided by the Paraguay River... The eastern Región Oriental has grassy plains, the western Región Occidental is more marshy.

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Utopian thatch... These two images depict members of the ‘New Australian Movement’ in the 1890’s. Their ‘Colonia Nueva Australia’ was established in a welcoming Paraguay, being run on socialist principles; which did not include mixing with the locals. However they seem to have adopted thatching styles, common to this whole region; whether local thatchers were employed is not recorded... The experiment failed after a short while, with descendants of the settlers still living hereabouts.
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At work... The two ladies grinding maize, in the above old postcard, stand in front of the thatched ‘Rancho Campestre’, a very similar type of thatching to that seen in ‘New Australia’; except for the tiled ridges... An almost identical building, if a little smaller, is seen opposite, being the ‘Choza de Indios’. The ‘Indios’ taking up a rather forced pose perhaps. They are likely from Gran Chaco, a large, hot and semi arid area, covering parts of Southern Paraguay and Northern Argentina...Both images dating to the same period as the Australian settlements.


Uruguay…… One of this continent's smaller lands, covered by the grassy Pampas, home to the iconic Gaucho.

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Gauchos on the Pampas... The above drawing is from ‘Picturesque Illustrations of Buenos Ayres and Monte Video’, illustrated by the British naval officer, Emeric Essex Vidal. Dating to around 1820, it is thought to be the earlist image of gauchos at work. In the background are two thatched buildings, the roofs being utilised to dry cowhides... The photos below show indentical dwellings, nearly a century later.
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Party Time... These three old postcards, above and below, appear to celebrate the culture of the Gaucho, all dating to around 1905. They also depict similar, hipped, thatched structures; the type of thatching being somewhat different to that found in surrounding areas. This work may have elements of the indigenous cultures, that died with their populations; through attrition and disease, early in Uruguay’s history... The top left image has a gaucho being offered a mate or cimarrón drink, in front of what was likely thought of as a very traditional building, covered with a thick thatch. (A similar scene is found below, in Argentina.) The other two photos represent ‘the good old days’; in front of similar dwellings.
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‘Ranchos’, near Montevideo... The lower image also dates to the early 1900’s, but depicts quite different thatching, in the very south of the country. The work being much more layered; similar to that once found in far off Mexico City and over the Río de la Plata, in neighbouring Argentina. Perhaps showing more colonial Spanish influence, than the other Uruguayan work...
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Argentina…… The continent’s second largest country, with many differing landscapes. Like adjacent Chile, it also extends down to sub arctic Tierra del Fuego.

But as with nearby Uruguay, it’s mainly images of The Pampas and the Gaucho, that contain thatched buildings... The ones opposite being very similar to the last Uruguayan photo; like that it perhaps shows some colonial Spanish influence. The same material being also used in the walls of the dwellings, with turf making up a ridge. The image below depicts a less layered type of thatching with some outside fixings. Both old pictures capture a gaucho being given a drink of mate or cimarrón, the caffine rich drink much consumed hereabouts. As with all the other Argentinian images, these date to the first decade of the last century.
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At home... Four Gauchos pose for the camera, in front of their dwelling; thinly thatched with a coarse material; with walls of rammed earth. No doubt many of the structures seen in this section were built by the Gauchos, who seem to have been an resourceful and independent bunch...
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Gran Chaco… This large area was noted in the section on Paraguay and extends well into north eastern Argentina. The old postcard above describes ‘Gauchos & Indios’, in the’ Chaco’. Which group of indigenous people are in this scene is unclear… The thatching looks well done, with a little outside fixing. The native group in the right hand image, are noted as being ‘Mataca’, living in the ‘Chaco Salteño’ region of the Grand Chaco. The thatched dwelling is somewhat similar to that of the Mapuche people, ( Who appear below in Chile) they also occupy parts of this huge area.
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Chile…… Bounded by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, Chile extends for around 2600 miles (4,300 km), between deserts in the north and like neighbouring Argentina, to Tierra del Fuego in the south.

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Images of any thatched buildings from this country, seem to consist of those taken of the Mapuche people, the indigenous inhabitants from central Chile and to a lesser extent, parts of western Argentina. Their name, for the often large dwellings shown, is a 'Ruca'. These were generally constructed as a community project, with the owner providing the thatch or ‘Kuna’, often ‘Ratonera’ grass, for both roof and walls; along with the pre shaped timbers. Being traditionally built in four days. The Mapuche formed an independent state for centuries, only being forcibly annexed into Chile in the 1880’s. They still have a strong thatching tradition and an active desire for greater autonomy... The upper and opposite photos date from around 1900, the lower a little later. It clearly shows the smoke holes, in either end of the roof.
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Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego…… Half in Chile, half in Argentina. The largest island in South America, almost as far south as this Continent goes.

Tierra del Fuego= The Land of Fires, was named thus, not for any volcanic activity but after the many fires lit by the natives; for warmth; spotted by early seafarers... One of whom was Charles Darwin... “In most of the coves there were wigwams; some of them had been recently inhabited. The wigwam or Fuegian house is in shape like a cock of hay, about 4 feet high & circular; it can only be the work of an hour, being merely formed of a few branches & imperfectly thatched with grass, rushes &c. As shell fish, the chief source of subsistence, are soon exhausted in any one place, there is a constant necessity for migrating; & hence it comes that these dwellings are so very miserable. ’’ Written in the last days of December 1832. The scene opposite was illustrated in his book ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’.
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Long way from home... The group shown above were part of an exhibition, to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas; held in his home city of Genoa in 1892. Both ‘Fuegians’ and members of the Mapuche people were involved (The latter featuring in the above section on Chile.); along with a priest, Father Edward Paredes; who probably organised the trip... The thatched building has perhaps ‘Fuegian’ influence, being similar to that shown below, but perhaps both groups collaborated in its construction; their thatching traditions being somewhat similar.
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Dark time, in the Land of Fires... The term ‘Fuegians’ was rather meaningless, as it included several indigenous peoples. One of whom, the Selk'nam, opposite, were some of the last groups encountered by migrant Europeans, for which they paid a heavy price. They occupied lands ripe for sheep farming and gold prospecting; being at one time hunted like vermin, for a bounty; in the ‘The Selk'nam Genocide’. They in effect disappeared, along with the unique culture, adapted to suit the harshest of climates; used by all the indigenous peoples, found here...