The gaucho stands as one of the best-known cultural symbols of Argentina. This rough, tough, free-riding horseman of the pampa, a proud cousin of the North American cowboy is maintained in Argentine culture as the perfect embodiment of argentinidad, the very essence of the national character. He has been elevated to the level of myth, celebrated in both song and prose, and well endowed with the virtues of strength, brav-ery and honor.

Pampean orphans: Gaucho life had its beginning on The Pampa, the vast grasslands of the east-central Southern cone some time in the 18th century. As to the origin of the name gaucho, there are again many theories which trace the word to everything from Arabic and Basque, to French and Portuguese. The most likely answer, however, is that the word has joint roots in the native Indian dialects of Que-chua and Mapuche, a derivation of their word for orphan (Huacho). It is not hard to imagine how a word meaning orphan evolved into a term for these solitary figures, as they were neither loved nor ruled by anyone. The first gauchos were mostly mestizos, of mixed Spanish and native American stock.

Hides and tallow: Cattlee and horses that had escaped from early Spanish settlements in the 16th century had, over the centuries, proliferated into enormous free-roaming herds, and it was this wild, unclaimed abundance that was the basis for the development of the gaucho subculture. The horses were caught and tamed, and then used to capture the cattle.

Beef at that time did not have any great commercial value; there was more meat than the tiny population of Argentina could consume, and methods to export it had not yet been developed. This surplus led to waste on a grand scale; any excess meat was simply thrown away.

Gauchos working

Gaucho and his horse

The primary value of the cattle was in the hides and tallow they provided, which were non-perishable exportable items. The first gaucho made their living by selling these in exchange for tobacco, rum and mate; gauchos were said to be so addicted to this tea that they would rather have gone without their beef. Their existence was fairly humble, with few needs. Most did not possess much beyond a horse, a saddle, a poncho and a knife.

The work was not terribly rigorous, and early travelers' accounts of the gauchos portray them as savage and uncouth vagabonds. They were left with plenty of extra time on their hands, and much of this was spent drinking and gambling.

This unwise combination of activities often led to a third favorite pastime: the knife fight. The violent lifestyle of the gaucho was looked upon with horror and disdain by the city folk, but the animosity was mutual. The gauchos had nothing but scorn for what they saw as the fettered and refined ways of the people living in the towns.

Skilled horsemanship: The primary reputation of the gaucho, however, was that- of a horseman, and this was well deserved. It was said that when a gaucho was without his horse he was without legs. Almost all his daily chores, from bathing to hunting were conducted from atop hi steed.

Gauchos drinking mate

Gaucho at work