Since the early European-natives encounters, two main groups were identified in the southernmost region of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Those groups were the Yaganes, or Ydmanas, in the region of the Beagle Channel and the Alakalufes, in the southwestern Chilean archipelagos (the Pacific Ocean end of the Strait of Magallanes). Yaganes are usually known as Yaghans, after an erroneous designation. There is still uncertainty among students of Fueguian natives of the accuracy of their names, origins, and the boundaries separating their territories; nevertheless, their lifestyle and economies seemed to have differed only slightly. Some scholars recognized only a linguistic difference between these two groups. Both Yaganes and Alakalufes are known for their nomadic characteristics, a mobility attributed to their canoe lifestyle. Their way of life could have conditioned their stature, as they were shorter than the rest of the aborigines in the area. Canoes were used to travel along the shores or from one island to another for the provision of food from both marine and littoral natural resources. This is the reason why they spent half the year sailing. Usually, the whole family traveled together with their belongings, which consisted of weapons, food, and tools. Anthropological evidence in the region indicates that the southern foragers of Tierra del Fuego carried a basic tool kit that included large projectile points, scrapers, wedges, and harpoons that were used for fishing and hunting. The most common prey were the seals, which were also the most important nutritional resource. Additionally, birds, fish, shellfish, and guanaco or huemul, only when available, were consumed. Mushrooms and berries complemented their alimentation. Yaganes did not have the technology needed to regularly capture cetaceans. They could take advantage of this resource only when a whale stranded on the beach. This situation was among the few that generated contact with their neighbors, the Onas and the Haush. Also, the sharing of the prey manifested solidarity between the aborigine groups in the immediate area.
The basic social unit was the family. Family members equally shared the responsibility of food provision. Families were related to each other, but for the most part Yamanas and Alakalufes alike lived in isolation. They had temporary campsites on the channel’s shores, particularly during hostile meteorological conditions or when youngsters were inducted in religious ceremonies similar to the Onas’s social induction rituals. Due to the severe climatic conditions in which they lived, some authors claim that Yaganes carried fire aboard the canoe to keep warm, particularly since they wore negligible clothing (a custom that led to Charles Darwin’s misjudgment of Fueguians utter primitivism). Indeed, researchers suggest that this group, instead of experiencing cultural archaism, had an excellent ecological adaptation to the environment primarily based on a selective hunting strategy of seals. This strategy not only allowed the animal population to remain stable over time but also to secure the main source of their energy intake. Some anthropologists suggest that the reduction of seals due to European sealer activity in the area might have triggered the change in natives’ food consumption to the detriment of their health and well-being.
- 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.