The year is 1520 and Ferdinand Magellan meets some really tall people way down south on this Island we call Tierra del Fuego in South America.
"One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general [Magellan] sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general's and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned..."
All early reports of the people of Patagonia were mostly wrong. There were no such thing as Giants, but the people Magellan met were tall people, fierce people.
I wanted to know who inhabited the area of Ushuaia, who were the indigenous people that lived in the ‘Land of Fire’. Tierra del Fuego, as Magellan named it, certainly had people for centuries before the European Explorers came to this region. Today we know that people inhabited Patagonia as early as 14,500 years ago. I also learned that most of the people living then were truly very different from each other.
The very tall Tehuelche (Patagonians) were very different from the Yámana people, for example.
The Yámana women were the swimmers. The women dove into the ice water to retrieve mussels from way below. The women pulled their men to shore, carried them, because they could not swim. The women swam with their babies tied to their heads from the boat to shore.
All their lives the Yámani lived near the shore lines of the frigid ocean so whenever they could, they would squat down to preserve their body heat.
The history here is very fascinating. It is so different from the history the early Europeans ‘imagined’ it to be. It is much more complicated in fact than what seems obvious. Based on the languages, we know today that one group of people had nothing to do with another group.
The indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, the Fuegians, belonged to several tribes including the Ona (Selk'nam), Haush (Manek'enk), Yaghan (Yámana), and Alacaluf (Kawésqar). All of these tribes except the Selk'nam lived exclusively in coastal areas. The Yaghans and the Alacaluf traveled by canoe around the islands of the archipelago, while the coast dwelling Haush did not. The Selk'nam lived in the interior of Isla Grande de Tierra Del Fuego and lived mainly by hunting guanacos.
The Fuegian people spoke several distinct languages: both the Kawésqar language and the Yaghan language were considered isolated languages, while the Selk'nams spoke a Chon language like the Tehuelches on the mainland.
You see how complicated this all gets?
This is an amazing history. None of the individual tribes was large in numbers. The Yámana for example accounted for maybe 3000 people, yet they spoke their own, very distinct from the rest, language.
When Darwin explored this part of Earth in about 1832, he kidnapped four young teenagers (under the pretense they stole a small boat) and took them back to England to present them to the Royals and to teach them about ‘civilization’.
One of the teenagers died on this trip but the rest gave some information about the lives of the Yámana. Most of the information given by those teens was false; some of it on purpose to protect the tribe from further contact with the Europeans. Stories of cannibalism of the Yámana certainly kept people away from them for a while.
Only with Thomas Bridges (ca. 1842–1898) did we start to learn something of the original inhabitants of Ushuaia. He and his son Lucas learned the language of the Yámana, spoke to them, lived with them, helped them, and clothed them and….. he killed a lot of them.
Not being used to wearing clothes, they never washed them.
The same stories can be told in different ways of all the other tribes we call the Patagonians today.
There is no true Patagonian; there never were Giants or people with big feet. And, I am sorry to say, there will never be such people. Yes, there were the Haush, Tehuelches, Ona, Selk’nam or Yámana, all very different people, very different from each other, but…..
They are almost all gone.
We only have some old photos of what has been.