Tierra del Fuego (“land of fire” in Spanish) is the southernmost tip of Argentina and Chile’s southern Patagonian territories. It is an archipelago that consists of a large island, called Tierra del Fuego as well, and a group of smaller islands separated from the continent by the Strait of Magellan. Half of the large island, and the islands west of it, are part of the Magallanes region of Chile. The eastern part of the archipelago belongs to Argentina. The archipelago of Tierra del Fuego is surrounded by the Andes mountains and the south Pacific Ocean to the west, the plateau of Patagonia and the waters of the south Atlantic Ocean (Mar Argentino) to the north, and the south Atlantic Ocean to the east. Usuhaia, the southernmost city on the continent and the capital of Argentina’s province of Tierra del Fuego, is located on the Beagle Channel that leads out to sea and on to Antarctica.
The Spanish conqueror Hernando de Magallanes (Ferdinand Magellan) disembarked in Tierra del Fuego in 1520; however, the region was not fully explored until the early 19th century. In between, the official cartography identified the whole Patagonia area as secluded indigenous territories. The region, then, became known as “the edge” and its natives as inhabitants of the utmost end of the earth. It is not surprising that due to this metaphoric view of Tierra del Fuego, European explorers and conquerors engaged in expeditions in search of virgin lands and new commercial opportunities. Between 1826 and 1830, the English explorer FitzRoy landed in the Beagle Channel, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The naturalist Charles Darwin accompanied FitzRoy on one of his expeditions. It was particularly during this journey that Darwin began to formulate the theories later published in The Origin of Species (1859).
At the time of the first European native contact, four aboriginal groups inhabited Tierra del Fuego. The Onas, or Shelk’nam, in the northern steppe grassland had a pedestrian-hunter economy with the guanaco as their most important resource; the Yaganes, or Ydmanas, in the region of the Beagle Channel, whose sustenance was based primarily on sea lions and the use of canoes; the Alakalufs, in the southwestern Chilean archipelagos, with a Yaganes-like economy; and the Haush, or Manekenk, on Peninsula Mitre, at the eastern tip of Tierra del Fuego. The latter group subsisted on terrestrial and sea mammals. Although there is still much academic debate about the biological origins of these ethnographic groups, the diversity in their morphological characteristics surprised not only Charles Darwin but also ethnographers and travelers alike. Indeed, some scholars suggest that it is this diversity that provides accounts of the evolution and historical settlement of people in the Americas.
Also, research suggests that this diversity is rooted in the varied geographical characteristics of the environments in which they live, and in their diets. Today there is almost no representation of these groups other than their fully assimilated and ethnically mixed descendents.
- 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.
- Martinez Sarasola, C. (1992). Nuestrospaisnos los indios. Vida, historia y destino de las comunidades indtgenas en la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Emece.