There is evidence indicating that hunting groups settled in the Northern part of the island around 10,400 years ago. They probably walked to the continent along a path formed by a terminal moraine, the second path of the Strait of Magellan.
All the aboriginal cultures of Tierra del Fuego are authentic proof of hunting, gathering and fishing habits. Agriculture was never practised in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The harshness of the soil and the weather on the Pacific side were generally compensated by the abundance of sea mammals and mollusks. In the Atlantic region, there were plenty of guanacos, foxes and rodents, as well as a large variety of birds. It was an ideal place for hunters, while the Pacific area was ideal for fishing. The dependance on sea or land represent the two ways of life and traditions of the semi-nomadic people.
On October 21, 1520, Ferdinand Magellan discovered the channel that joins the two oceans. During their passage they saw big man made fires on the Southern shore of the strait. Due to these fires, the Big Island and the others to the South were called Tierra del Fuego, which means "land of fire".
According to estimation, before colonization in 1880, around 11,500 aborigines lived in Tierra del Fuego. Today there are practically no representatives of these ancient peoples. White men settled on the island atracted by gold, good grasslands for sheep and the hunting of whales and seals. These settlements, as well as contagious diseases brought by white men, proffessional killers hired by farmers, military campaigns, famine and undernourishment gradually exterminated the aborigines
-The Alakaluf were on the West coast of Patagonia, where Chile is today, and on the islands between the Gulf of Penas and Brecknock Peninsula.
-The Yamanas or Yaghanes were further South on the coast of Tierra del Fuego and the islands of Cape Horn. The main settlement was on the Beagle Channel.
THE YAMANA OR YAGHANES
Basketry was the activity of women during their spare time. They weaved green rush after a heating and softening process. There were three different types of braiding. Baskets were used to collect valves, berries and fruits.
The main occupation of the aborigines was to get food. Sea wolves were always a very important supplement for the Yamanas. When they hunted on the beach, they attacked the animal with a big club or a stone. In the water, they used a dismountable harpoon thrown from the canoe. They attacked whales when they were beached or from their canoes with all the weapons at their disposal until they bled to death.
Birds were abundant in that region and the Yamanas prefered penguins and cormorants, wild ducks and geese. They used to hunt them with slings, bows, arrows, darts, spears and traps.
When searching for food, they prefered the canoe to travel along the shores or from one island to another. Travelling was indispensible. That is the reason why they spent half the year sailing.
The canoe was built with three pieces of tree bark sewed and strenthened by a light structure of wooden rods. It was manufactured by the man of the group, but it belonged to the woman, who was in charge of it. During navigation, the man curled up at the front of the canoe with his weapons, fishing nets and harpoons. In the central deepest part were the children, who took care of the fire that burned on rough sand and dust. The woman sat on the stern. She propelled and commanded the boat while carrying the paddle with both hands.
They depended mostly on seals and sea wolves found on rocks, islands and channels. For hunting them, they used harpoons. These throwing weapons were long and very heavy.
The small harpoon had a sharp point made of whale rib bone. To assemble it, they made a notch in the wooden handle to hold the harpoon head and tie't with a 70 centimeter long leather strip. When the point penetrated the animal's skin, the leather cord prevented the victim from escaping.
The big harpoon worked like the small one. It was used for larger animals like whales or sea wolves, which have a very thick fat layer.
The javelin was similar to the harpoon. It was used for birds and fish. It was about three meters long and had a fixed end with indentations. It was a light weapon with a double end for fish and a single end for birds.
As their economy was based on hunting and gathering, the family was in constant movement and settled only for a few days in every place. Because of these habits, lodging was limited to temporary shelter for them and the indispensible fire.
the area, they put up two different types of dwellings: the conical hut
and the vaulted hut. -The conical hut was used in dry open areas. The structure
was made of ten to twelve dug in logs bent towards the center. This shape
allowed the smoke to escape quickly though the top opening. Lateral holes
were covered with mud, roots, bunches of dry algae and tree bark.
-The vaulted hut was used in damp wooded areas. It was easily heated and dried. The structure was made of a braiding of very thin logs dug into the ground and covered with furs in winter and leaves and earth in summer.
In spite of the hard cold weather, these aborigines wore scarse clothing. The essential garment consisted of a cape, a short piece of guanaco or seal fur, tied around the neck by a short rope. It was called TUWEAKI and it was waterproof.
Both men and women wore a triangular loincloth tied around the waist by a belt. It was called MASAKANA.
They always greased their bodies with fish or animal fat to protect themselves from the cold weather.
In spite of the scarse clothing, both men and women wore abundant ornaments.
In the Yamana society we can notice an extreme social dispersion, because the group was formed by a few isolated families. They did not have chiefs, but old people and sorcerers had a great influence on them.
They believed in a Supreme Being, WATAUINEWA, the Old, creator of everything known, as well as in numerous gods and spirits.
Rites of initiation for boys and girls were of fundamental importance. They were sacred, compulsory and only accessible to members of the tribe. It consisted of training and a severe education for the young and it was immensely enjoyed by the adults. During this celebration, the young acquired the same rights as the adults, such as getting married and forming a new family. It was very important for the survival of the social order.
Later, boys recieved
special training on the spiritual and imaginative heritage of the tribe.
It was obtained through the KINA, a secret ceremony where women were reminded
of men's superiority. They used disguise and dramatization of their myths
and beliefs. It was similar to the ceremony of the Hain performed by the
Onas or Selk'nam in Tierra del Fuego.
over the territory in three subgroups: the Northern part of R¡o Grande,
the river Hurr, an area of prairies and pasturelands.
- the Southern part of R¡o Grande, a wooded mountaineous area.
- the South East end of the island, an area of prairies, bushes and woods. There lived the Haush, who maintained contact with the Yamanas and had similar haits.
They were organized in groups of families related to each other. They lived in their own territories (HARRUWEN) and migrated through them in search for food.
They did not have a permanent chief, but they maintained hierarchies:
-Chamans (XO'ON) had the capacity to heal. They exercised power in war and took part in every ritual and ceremony.
-Wise Men (LAILUKA) had no supernatural power. They knew all mythological traditions and were prophets.
-Warriors (K'MAL) were respected for their old age and their advise, which was supported by their experience and knowledge of traditions. They were the closest to a chief and there was one K'mal in every extended family.
They liked to wear necklaces, bracelets and wrist straps made of bird bone, shell and braids made of guanaco tendons. Both men and women painted their bodies in red, black, white and yellow with simple drawings.
They were typical of nomadic people. The tent was made of sticks and covered with guanaco furs sewed to each other. It was transportable. The conical hut was made of thin logs and branches and covered with guanaco blankets. Its diameter was about three meters and it was generally used in winter.
BOW AND ARROW
The fundamental weapon was the wooden bow, made of ¤ire (Notophagus antartica), lenga (Notophagus pumilia) or mait‚n (Maitenus boaria). The arrow head was made of stone. The stick was made with the wood of calafate (Berveris darwini). It was carved and polished with a stone tool. A notch was made at one end to fasten the bow tendon and tie a piece of feather from an Upland Goose. On the other end, they introduced a sharp stone arrow and tied it up with humid tendons. With a variety of stones, they made arrows, spears, hammers, mortars, axes, drills and harpoons. These harpoons were sometimes made of bone and wood.
They made baskets with rush. Guanaco nerves, tendons and membranes were used as sewing threads and also to tie and braid fishing nets.
In the Selk'nam religion, there was a Supreme Being called TEMANKEL and a servant or minister, KENOS, creator of all the things in the world. They were followed by spirits related to the Hain and the dead.
The Hain was
the main ceremony of the Selk'nam. It was a rite of initiation for boys
and an educative experience based on the belief that in the old days there
was a predominance of women, which later passed on to men. It was aimed
to maintain and justify masculine hegemony.
A special hut was built for this ceremony to give lodging to novices, called KLOKETEN, and to summon the spirits. Fearing the presence of SHOOT (the spirit), the adolescent was instructed about the origin of the world and trained intensively on hunting and surviving.
Spirits were performed by actors dressed in disguise to hide their identity and create a permanent atmosphere. Somehow they felt possessed by the spirits they believed to be supernatural. This could be appreciated in the way they dealt with masks as objects of power, and with body paintings and ornaments.
WHEN THE GODS
LIVED ON THE EARTH
The Moon was SHO'ON TAM, daughter of the Sky. Her brother was Snow. Her husband, the Sky, was the Wind's brother. Snow married the Rain's sister.
KREEB (the Moon) and HOSLP ( the Snow) belong to the South.
KREEN (the Sun) and SHENU (the Wind) belong to the West.
CHALU (the Rain), KOX (the Sea) and her sister O'OKE (the Tempest) are from the North.
The East, the slippery part of the cordillera, is the center of the Universe and the see of the Chamanic power. There lives PEMAULK , (the Word), the most powerful god.
In the mythical era (HO'OWIN), all these strengths and some stars lived on the Earth and were powerful chamans. The people from this era were also called HO'OWIN.
During the origin of the present world and human society, most Ho'owin men and women were transformed into animals, hills, cliffs, pampas, valleys, lakes and lagoons in the Big Island of Tierra del Fuego.
All of them, as well as the Selk'nam, belonged to one of the four skies by paternal line.
One of these Ho'owin turned into a rainbow.