Posted by: Rob Viens | February 4, 2013

Fuegian Face Paint

Over the next couple of days, as it survey the channel, the Beagle encountered more Yaghans and bartered with them for fish:

“Nothing happened till the evening before reentering Ponsonby Sound. — We met a large body of Fuegians, & had a regular auction to purchase fish; by the means of old buttons, & bits of red cloth we purchased an excellent supper of fish.” (Feb 4/5)

In his Zoological Notebook about this time Darwin comments on the face and body paints used by the Fuegians:

“The Fuegians paint their faces, bodies & hair with white, red & black in various figures & quantities.” (Zoological Notebook)

Body paints of the nearby Selk’am people (from The Story Behind the Faces)

Selknam body art

Along with the animal grease used to help maintain warmth, later sources indicate that the different colors of paint where a form of communication. Anthropological research suggests that red indicated peaceful relations (“we come in peace”) while white was used for conflict.  Black, it is said, was used for mourning and for death, and I was not able to find the meaning of yellow paint. Body paints were also used for spiritual rituals, and in nearby Selk’nam and Ona cultures, for manhood rituals.

Darwin, ever being the naturalist, recorded the origin of the paints:

“The red is the oxide of Iron & is prepared by being collected near the streams, dried & burnt. The White is of a more curious nature — in the state fit for use it is of very little specific gravity.— it is collected from under water, is made into balls (as J Button expressed it, ‘all the same Ostrichs egg’) & burnt: did not effervesce with acids.— & with bit of cobalt gave a permanent blue.— I suppose therefore it [is] nearly pure alumina.— It occurs in the Slate Mountain, I imagine from the decomposition of the beds of Feldspathic rock.— The black I have not obtained: the black is I believe only charcoal & oil:— [note (a)] I found some of the feldspathic greenstones decomposed into a white substance to the depth of 3/10 of inch.” (Zoological Notebook)

Natural pigments are used around the world, and are still used today by artists who make natural paints. Iron oxide (a rust mineral), for example, is commonly used for red in cave paintings, pottery, body paints, wood masks, etc. And Darwin’s reference to “effervescing” indicates he was testing to see if the white pigment was made from calcite or shells – the most common materials used for white pigments, both of which react to acid. (RJV)



  1. […] Excerpts of Charles Darwin’s notes on Fuegian people’s body art – from the voyage … […]

  2. Charles Darwin writing about bodyart – really fascinating.

    • The variety of things that he wrote about is just amazing – the man like to observe the world around him and he was good at it. Thanks for the comment – I was happy to link to your image and site. I very much enjoyed looking through your work.

  3. Love how clinical this description is – not the type of designs on the people, but the composition of the paint, including notes on the specific gravity of white!

  4. […] The Beagle Project […]

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