Posted by: Rob Viens | December 29, 2012

Exploring Yahgan Wigwams

Darwin’s next entry on the 29th suggests that the weather did not get much better over the next few days:

“To our great loss, the weather during these three days has been very bad, with much rain & violent squalls from the SW. — Yesterday the Captain went to reconnoitre the bays formed by the many islands at the back of Hermits.— I accompanied him, but the weather is so bleak & raw as to render boating rather disagreeable. — We ascended some of the hills, which as usual showed us the nakedness of the land.” (Dec 27/28/29)

As always, his choice of words creates the feeling of standing beside Darwin in the “bleak & raw” weather, amid the “naked” landscape.

Darwin also provides a detailed description of the “Fuegian” wigwams that the crew found scattered all along the coast:

“In most of the coves there were wigwams; some of them had been recently inhabited. The wigwam or Fuegian house is in shape like a cock of hay, about 4 feet high & circular; it can only be the work of an hour, being merely formed of a few branches & imperfectly thatched with grass, rushes &c. As shell fish, the chief source of subsistence, are soon exhausted in any one place, there is a constant necessity for migrating; & hence it comes that these dwellings are so very miserable. It is however evident that the same spot at intervals, is frequented for a succession of years. — the wigwam is generally built on a hillock of shells & bones, a large mass weighing many tuns. — Wild celery, Scurvy grass, & other plants invariably grow on this heap of manure, so that by the brighter green of the vegetation the site of a wigwam is pointed out even at a great distance.” (Dec 27/28/29)

The Fuegians and their Wigwams in and 1890 edition of Darwin’s “Voyage” (from Getty Images)

Fuegians in their wigwams

Many of the tribes of people from Tierra del Fuego that Darwin collectively referred to as “Fuegians” were nomadic – some, like the Yaghan (Yamana) people who lived in this region, traveled primarily by canoe. As he surmised, they set up temporary camps and gathered shellfish for a while before moving on. So it was not unusual for him to find temporary shelters all along the coast.  According to an older reference, the Yaghan people built more beehive shaped wigwams for summer use and more conical huts for the winter.  If that is true, Darwin’s description sounds like a summer shelter.

Wigwams in Tierra del Fuego, by Augustus Earle (for more on Augustus Earle see The Art of the Beagle: Part I and Part II)

Fuegian wigwams by Earle

In any case, Darwin’s detailed description is one of the earliest of its kind and provides interesting insights into the history of the people of Tierra del Fuego. (RJV)

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