Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost point of the South American continent and the world (other than Antarctica) has a powerful mystique. Travelers are drawn here to glimpse this isolated and hard to reach end-of-the-world location to hike, ski, fly-fish and start Antarctic cruises. For over-landers driving the Americas like us it is a right-of-passage, you must reach the “end.” A ferry ride took us across the Strait of Magellan and onto the island. While driving through the barren and extremely windy northern plains we wondered why we were bothering as the land was so nondescript. Proceeding south the landscape broke into moss-draped forests, peat bogs and ragged snowy mountains but our view was obscured by clouds and snowy sleet! We came this far and for what-a picture of the Ushuaia sign and prices three times those of fabulous ports of call farther north? With a deeper and closer look we found the beauty and the purpose for our far off destination beyond the landscapes and the weather toying with us. The archipelago is ancient and strange with a complex and conflicted identity defined by history. The stories abound of shipwrecks, ruthless fortune hunters, disenchanted missionaries, and the extinction of an indigenous culture.
The Yaghan (or Yamana) were a nomadic tribe who for 10,000 years faced the severe weather conditions of the area almost completely naked. They stayed warm by squatting which conserved body heat, huddling in masses, smearing their bodies with oil from fish and seal and building small fires everywhere including on a sand layer in the bottom of their canoes. Their bodies actually evolved to maintain a higher metabolism and temperature than other peoples. When Magellan first rounded the tip in 1520 he named it Tierra del Fuego (land of fire) because of all the fires he observed on the land. The women collected shellfish swimming in the bitter cold water and the men hunted mainly seal. Men celebrated a rite of passage that reenacted a great upheaval when the men stole the women’s secrets to gain power over them. They painted their bodies with black carbon and white and red clays. They were short people of small stature very different from the fierce and warlike Selk’nam (or Ona) of the north portion of the island who early Europeans observed as extremely tall and robust. In contrast the Ona lived inland, hunted guanaco and wore clothing and shoes made from the hides.
It almost goes without saying that within the European framework of thinking they would want to “civilize the savages”. In 1870 the Yaghan and their way of life became the pet project of the British-based South American Missionary Society. Charles Darwin referred to the Yaghan as ‘the lowest form of humanity on earth.’ The Yaghan had survived thousands of years without contact from outsiders so were vulnerable to foreign illnesses. Settlers, sealers, sheep herders and gold prospectors seeking fortunes infringed on their way of life. Unfamiliar with the concept of land ownership the tribe would hunt sheep from estancias whose owners in turn offered a bounty for the Yamana with proof of the kill presented by severed ears, hands or heads. Four Yamana were kidnapped by the naval captain Robert Fitz Roy (captain of the HMS Beagle) and shipped back to England to be educated and paraded around for show and tell as examples of gentrified savages. Among them was a teenage boy who was later called ‘Jemmy Button.’ Under intense public criticism Fitz Roy agreed to return the Yamana to their homeland. The tribe died out and we were told that only one elderly native speaking full-blooded Yaghan exists today. So there you have it-a foot note denoting the indigenous extinction of a culture and a language.