People of the Land of Fire

Tierra del Fuego was named after the first European explorers sailed around the southern tip of the Americas in 1520. The Spanish Captain Magellan saw the many fires of the indigenous people burning in the distance, and labelled it “the land of fire”.

For 7,000 years, the Yamana and Selknam people inhabited Southern Patagonia. Upon arrival of Europeans in the late 1800s, there were an estimated 3,000 indigenous people living in Tierra del Fuego. By 1910 there were just 100, and today there are none. The story is all too common amongst indigenous people around the world, whose culture and population was destroyed by colonisation.

Fuegans (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

When Charles Darwin first observed the indigenous people, he described an old man who “had a fillet of white feathers tied around his head, which partly confined his black, coarse and entangled hair. His face was crossed by two broad, traverse bars; one, painted bright red, reached from ear to ear and included the upper lip. The other, white like chalk extended above, and parallel to the first, so that even his eyelids were thus coloured. The other two men were ornamented by streaks of black powder, made of charcoal. The party altogether resembled devils which came on stage in plays like Der Freischutz.”

Painted men (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

Indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

Europeans were surprised to find the indigenous people mostly naked, despite constantly freezing temperatures. They wore some animal skins, but it wasn't until missionaries came that they really covered up. It is interesting to note that these people had developed a second metabolism and their body temperatures were 38.2 degrees Celsius, which would be a fever by our standards. Charles Darwin noted that when some 'Fuegians' joined him at a fire they were sweating when the fire barely warmed the Europeans! Despite this, fire was still key to their survival. They had fires burning with them wherever they went, including inside their wooden canoes.

Selknam tribe (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

We went to a couple of museums to find out more about the indigenous cultures. The Museo del Fin del Mundo, in Ushuaia, was quite interesting, and the information centre at the Tierra del Fuego National Park also told a good story about the local people.

Missionaries in action. (Museo del Fin del Mundo)

Those interested in learning more should read excepts from Darwin's The Voyage of the Beagle, particularly Chapter X, which provides both amusing and disturbing observations of the native people.



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