At the time of the first European contact, among the aboriginal groups that inhabited the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego were the Selk’nam, or Onas. Onas was the name their neighbors, the Yaganes or Yamanas, gave to this group. The Selk’nam lived in the northern steppe grassland of the grand island of Tierra del Fuego. However, they did not have a permanent settlement; they migrated throughout their territory according to seasonal climate changes and in search of a better campsite, food, firewood, and water. Like the Tehuelches of Patagonia’s plateau— to whom, according to some archeological records, Onas are related—they had a pedestrian-hunter economy that made the guanaco their most important resource, not only for alimentation but also for apparel and dwelling.
Guanaco hunting required strategies such as high prey dismembering, high-value anatomical part selection, and long distance transportation. Archeological remains provide accounts of these strategies reflected in the tools found: projectile points, harpoons, wedges, scrapers, axes, drills, and wooden bows. Some of theses tools were made of bone and guanaco tendons or nerves. Guanaco nerves, tendons, and membranes were used as sewing threads and also to tie and braid fishing nets and baskets. Selk’nams also consumed sea lions and other marine mammals beached on the coasts. Their diet was complemented with mushrooms, wild celery, and different kinds of berries, birds, fish, and mussels. An increased consumption of fish and shellfish after European colonization may reflect sea lion diminution caused by sealer activity in the region.
Onas were organized in groups or bands of individuals related to each other. Bands were the basic unit of geographical residence, subsistence, and travel. They did not have a permanent chief except during war periods. However, they did respect the authority of elders and shamans. Each Ona group lived in its own territory or hunting zone and migrated through it in search of food. They had a clear social division of labor: women were in charge of food, water, and wood collection and men of hunting. The violation of hunting delimitations was a sufficient reason for war between groups. Their nomadic life was momentarily interrupted when a sea mammal became stranded. In this case, different groups gathered together at the beach until the animal was consumed. Another situation that made groups stay in the same place longer than usual was when young men were inducted in religious ceremonies called hain. The purpose of this induction was twofold. First, it was aimed at maintaining and justifying masculine hegemony. Second, it served as a youth intensive training on hunting, surviving, and instruction on Selk’nam’s beliefs about the world. Ethnographers and colonizers alike were impressed by the complexity of the Onas belief system.
By the late 19th century, Onas existence was precarious. Not only had they been engaged in a process of acculturation that altered most aspects of their livelihood, but they had been segregated by European ranchers to the innermost section of the island or in Salesian missions and reservations. The last full-blooded Selk’nams died at the end of the 20th century.
- Briones, C., & Lanata, J. L. (Eds.). (2002). Archeological and anthropological perspectives on the native peoples of Pampa, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego to the nineteenth century. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
- Champman, A. (1986). Los Selk’Nam, la vida de los onas. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores.
- Martinez Sarasola, C. (1992). Nuestros paisnos los indios. Vida, historia y destino de las comunidades indtgenas en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Emecé Editores.