The lands at the end of the earth were home to several distinct societies before the arrival of the Europeans.
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In 1580, Sarmiento de Gamboa became the first European to encounter the Selk’nam, one of the largest groups. He was impressed by these “Big People”, with their powerful frames, guanaco robes and conical headgear. It wasn’t long before their war-like, defiant nature became evident, though, and a bloody skirmish with a Dutch expedition in 1599 proved them to be superb fighters. Before the arrival of the Europeans, Selk’nam society revolved around the hunting of guanaco, which they relied on not just for meat – the skin was made into moccasins and capes, the bones were used for fashioning arrowheads and the sinews for bowstrings. Hunting was done on foot, and the Selk’nam used stealth and teamwork to encircle guanaco, bringing them down with bow and arrow, a weapon with which they were expert.
The other sizeable group was the Yámana (Yaghan), a sea-going people living in the channels of the Fuegian archipelago. Their society was based on tribal groups of extended families, each of which lived for long periods aboard their equivalent of a houseboat: a canoe fashioned of lenga bark. Out on the ocean, work was divided between the sexes: the men hunted seals from the prow while the women – the only ones who could swim – took to the icy waters, collecting shellfish with only a layer of seal grease to protect them from the cold. When not at sea, the Yámana stayed in dwellings made of guindo evergreen beech branches, building conical huts in winter (to shed snow), and more aerodynamic dome-shaped ones in the summer (when strong winds blow). Favoured campsites were used over millennia, and, at these sites, middens of discarded shells would accumulate in the shape of a ring, since doors were constantly being shifted to face away from the wind.
The impact of the European settlers
The arrival of European settlers marked the beginning of the end for both the Selk’nam and the Yámana. To protect colonists’ sheep farms in the late nineteenth century, hundreds of miles of wire fencing were erected, which the Selk’nam, unsurprisingly, resented, seeing it as an incursion into their ancestral lands; however, they soon acquired a taste for hunting the slow animals, which they referred to as “white guanaco”. For the settlers, this was an unpardonable crime, representing a drain on their investment. The Selk’nam were painted as “barbarous savages” who constituted an obstacle to settlement and progress, and isolated incidents of attack and retaliation soon escalated into bloody conflict. Reliable sources point to bounty hunters being paid on receipt of grisly invoices, such as a pair of severed ears. The assault on Selk’nam culture, too, was abrupt and devastating, led by the “civilizing” techniques of the Salesian missions, who “rehoused” them in their buildings. By the late 1920s there were probably no indigenous Selk’nam living as their forefathers had done and when pure-blooded Lola Kiepje and Esteban Yshton passed away in 1966 and 1969, respectively, Selk’nam culture died with them.
The measles epidemic
Meanwhile, the arrival of settlers in 1884 triggered a measles epidemic that killed approximately half the estimated one thousand remaining Yámana. Damp, dirty clothing – European castoffs given by well-meaning missionaries – increased the risk of disease. Missionaries promoted a shift to sedentary agriculture, but the consequent change of diet, from one high in animal fats to one more reliant on vegetables, reduced the Yámana’s resistance to the cold, further increasing the likelihood of disease. Outbreaks of scrofula, pneumonia and tuberculosis meant that by 1911 fewer than one hundred Yámana remained. Abuela Rosa, the last of the Yámana to live in the manner of her ancestors, died in 1982. Nevertheless, a few Yámana descendants still live near Puerto Williams on Isla Navarino.