Posted by: Rob Viens | January 7, 2013

Introducing the People of Tierra del Fuego

Darwin’s diary remains silent today – most likely because he was seasick for the last few days while the Beagle was tossed around like a toy in Drake’s Passage. So today, let me take some time to say a few words about the people who lived in Tierra del Fuego in the early 1800’s.

In writing today’s entry two emotions come to mind. First, I am always  amazed how human beings have adapted to so many places in the world.  The fact that people lived in the harsh environment of the islands at the tip of South America stifles the imagination. Secondly, and on the other end of the spectrum, I am saddened by the fact that these people are all but extinct today. They survived happily in one of the most extreme human habitats on Earth, but were no match for the toughest predator of all – other humans. Alas, this is all too common a story that seems to follow European explorers from the sixteenth century on. Because of this loss, Darwin’s descriptions of the people of Tierra del Fuego still holds value today as a description of a culture that is all but gone.

So just who lived here in 1833 and what do we know about the people from the (almost mythical) “land of fire”?

Europeans collectively called these people Fuegians (after their home), however, there were several cultures that could be found in Tierra del Fuego. These included the Ona (Selk’nam), Yaghan (Yámana), Alacaluf (Kawésqar) and Haush (Manek’enk) peoples. Each of these tribes had their own language, though it appeared that some communication occurred between them.  All of the tribes were nomadic hunter-gatherers.

The Ona and Hauch peoples were primarily a land-based people who lived on the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (the largest island in Tierra del Fuego).  Although they overlapped, the Ona were found mostly found on the northern and central parts of the Island , while the Haush primarily on the southeastern coast of the island. Both tribes were primarily hunters and lived off the only real large game on the island – the guanaco (a type of camel – see The Guanaco Family Tree).

Ona children in 1898 (from Wikipedia Commons)

Ona children

The Yaghan were nomadic, coastal, hunter-gatherers who traveled via canoe among the islands of the archipelago.  Due to their home on these southern islands, they are often referred to as the “southernmost people in the world”. Unlike their neighbors to the northeast, the Yaghan primarily hunted marine mammals and fish, and gathered shellfish and other coastal foods. Since there would be a limited amount of food in any one area, they were always moving to a new bay or inlet in order to follow their food source.

Yaghan people in 1920 (from Wikipedia Commons):

Yaghan people

The thing that amazed Europeans the most about the Yahgans (and to some degree all the Fuegians) was their adaptations to the cold. Although it rained all the time, and temperatures were often in the 30’s and 40’s, the Yaghan people seemed completely comfortable with virtually no clothes, and often slept in the open and swam in the ocean. I swam in the ocean once in the Gulf of Alaska – I gotta say, it was the coldest water I have ever encountered. And I’ve swam in front of glaciers. It was the Yaghan women who foraged in the ocean – reportedly the men never learned to swim.

Aside from just being more adapted to cold, the Yaghans had several other ways of staying warm.  For example, they reportedly coated themselves in animal grease or paint, and tended to squat on the ground reducing their overall surface area.  In addition, they built shelters (such as the wigwams Darwin observed) and built fires (even in their canoes). It was these fires, along with signal fires used for communication that most likely gave Tierra del Fuego its name.

The Alacaluf people consisted of nomadic coastal tribes that had a lifestyle similar to the Yaghans.  They appear to have lived further north, including north of the Straits of Magellan, and (at least for the time being) where not encountered by Darwin.

It is difficult to tell which of these cultures Darwin encountered and described un some detail last month in Good Success Bay (see First Contact with the “Fuegians”). The bay is right at the boundary between the Ona and the Haush, but it is a bay, and within the eastern limit of the coastal Yaghan people. The wigwams Darwin encountered to the west of Cape Horn were almost certainly Yaghan dwellings.

Distribution of Fuegian people from Charles Wellington Furlong’s 1920 papers in the Proceedings of the Nineteenth International Congress of Americanists. The upper diagram shows the regions inhabited by the Ona (grey) and Haush (black), and the second diagram outlines the coast in bold where the Yaghan and Alacaluf lived.

Distribution of Fuegians

The decline of the people of Tierra del Fuego began in the 19th century, and sadly in less than 100 years they were all but gone.  The usual culprits can be blamed – (1) disease brought unintentionally by the Europeans, to which the Fuegians had low immunity, (2) a decline in the coastal food source, as whalers and sealers decimated marine mammal populations, and (3) active extermination of local people, primarily by sheep ranchers who viewed them as a threat to their livestock or way of life. According to some sources (not including the Alacaluf ) only one full-blooded Fuegian is living today (from the Yaghan tribe), and only a few thousand people (at most) report to have native heritage in Tierra del Fuego. (RJV)

PS – An interesting historical account can be found in this article in Outing Magazine from 1911 written by Charles Wellington Furlong called Cruizing with the Yaghans.



  1. Dear Rob Viens,

    I am going through your very interesting and well made site and I want to thank you for it.
    In his Diary, Darwin does not give much information about the Staten Island. I read that Anne Chapman made a quick recognition of this island in 1983 and find a prehistorical settlement. I hear that in 1989 an other archeological and more extensive exploration of the island was made. Would it be possible for you to give me some information about this 1989 exploration?
    Sincerly wishing you the best.

    Alain Parisot

  2. I really enjoyed this article. TDF is an area of the globe that has not received its fair share of publicity. I would love to see a video documentary on it.

  3. […] was also one of the largest settlements of the original inhabitants of the region, the Yamana.  There is a small museum which features exhibits on the history of the Beagle Channel (including […]

  4. […] Beagle Project […]

  5. […] Yámana were a semi-nomadic people. They lived primarily in small family groups and relocated as necessary […]

  6. […] Yámana were a semi-nomadic people. They lived primarily in small family groups and relocated as necessary […]

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