Posted by: Rob Viens | January 1, 2014

Ringing in the New Year in Tehuelche Territory

January 1st 1834 was not a particularly special day for Darwin.  Much like last year he spent the day climbing the local hills in search of good views and interesting geology.  Today, he uncovered a grave:

“Walked to a distant hill; we found at the top an Indian grave. The Indians always bury their dead on the highest hill, or on some headland projecting into the sea. — I imagine it is for this reason they come here; that they do pay occasional visits is evident, from the remains of several small fires & horses bones near them.” (Jan 1, 1834)

This is an interesting observation but also a generalization.  I’m sure that some indigenous people in Argentina buried their dead (or maybe just prominent people) on hilltops, but not all.  The Mapuche, for example, who were one of the people who lived in southwestern Argentina, buried their dead with elaborate carved headstone called “Chemamull” (which translated from the Mapuche language as “people wood”). I doubt Darwin would have missed that in his observations.

Chemamulls in the Chilean Pre-Columbian Art Museum (from Wikipedia Commons)


Another group of people who lived in south Central Argentina where the Tehuelche. It was the Tehuelche people who were called Patagons (big feet) by the Spanish explorers.  As it turns out, the large footprints that the Spanish found actually came from the leather boots worn by the Tehuelche people (though there is some evidence to suggest that they were also relatively tall compared to the explorers).  And thus the name Patagonia came to be, and the region developed a reputation in Europe as a “land of giants”.

Tehuelche camp in 1838 (from “Voyage au pole sud et dans l’Oceanie …..” by the French ships Astrolabe and Zelee under the command of Dumont D’Urville, 1842. Via Wikipedia Commons)

Tehuelche camp

The Tehuelche people were primarily nomadic, and depended heavily on the local guanaco and rhea populations for food, clothing and other resources. When a Tehuelche man was buried, the site was marked by a pile for stones called a “chenque”.  As it turns out, this site had such a mound (see Darwin’s January 2nd description below). More importantly, Darwin also notes the presence of fires and horse bones.  This almost certainly makes this a Tehuelche grace site, since it was traditional to burn a man’s possessions at the site, and sacrifice his horse and leave the bones near the grave. So it was not visitors that left these relics as Darwin thought – they were actually part of the burial. It is pretty cool that (as is often the case) Darwin’s descriptions are detailed enough for someone in the 21st century to deduce the story behind his discoveries – even when he may have had no idea what it was he was looking at!

Sadly Darwin, in the tradition of the day, tried to dig up and study the site the next day. Ever the scientist, he described his findings in some detail, but he also called it like it was – a ransacking:

“A party of officers accompanied me to ransack the Indian grave in hopes of finding some antiquarian remains. — The grave consisted of a heap of large stones placed with some care, it was on the summit of the hill, & at the foot of a ledge of rock about 6 feet high. — In front of this & about 3 yards from it they had placed two immense fragments, each weighing at least two tuns, & resting on each other. — These in all probability were originally in nearly the same position & only just moved by the Indians to answer their purpose. — At the bottom of the grave on the hard rock, there was a layer of earth about a foot deep; this must have been brought from the plain below; the vegetable fibres, from the lodgement of water, were converted into a sort of Peat.—Above this a pavement of flat stones, & then a large heap of rude stones, piled up so as to fill up the interval between the ledge & the two large stones. — To complete the grave, the Indians had contrived to detach from the ledge an immense block (probably there was a crack) & throw it over the pile so as to rest on the two other great fragments. We undermined the grave on both sides under the last block; but there were no bones. I can only account for it, by giving great antiquity to the grave & supposing water & changes in climate had utterly decomposed every fragment. — We found on the neighbouring heights 3 other & much smaller heaps of stones.— they had all been displaced; perhaps by sealers or other Voyagers.— It is said, that where an Indian dies, he is buried; but that subsequently his bones are taken up & carried to such situations as have been mentioned. — I think this custom can easily be accounted for by recollecting, that before the importation of horses, these Indians must have led nearly the same life as the Fuegians, & therefore in the neighbourhead of the sea. — The common prejudice of lying where your ancestors have lain, would make the now roaming Indians bring the less perishable part of their dead to the ancient burial grounds.” (Jan 2)

Here is to fewer “grave robberies” and many more adventures in 1834/2014! Happy New Year! (RJV)



  1. Happy New Year and calm seas to bring us many new adventures! Tamara

  2. […] these are more accurately the Tehuelche people, whom Magellan referred to as the Patagons (see Ringing in the New Year in Tehuelche Territory). I’ll let Darwin describe his initial […]

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