Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago off the southern tip of the South American continent, and is made up of several small islands that are exposed to the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the cold currents from Antarcica to the south.
This is a windswept land where winters are freezing cold and summers are cool, where a day can change from sunny and pleasant to bitterly cold with gale-force winds within hours.
Yet, this fascinating land has been occupied by humans for more than 12,000 years now. Nomadic hunter gatherers crossed a land bridge from the main continent to get here all those years ago, before the sea level rose and separated the islands from the mainland.
Their descendants, the Mannekenk and Selknam (or Ona) people still lived here in 1869 when the first white settler founded an Anglican Mission in Tierra del Fuego. Since then, the indigenous people who had lived here for so long, have quickly died out, due to exposure to different ways, diseases and so on.
All that remains is a small, modest museum in the city of Ushuaia, which tells their history in simple, but carefully prepared displays that at best look like school projects of gifted children.
In contrast, the more recent history of this area is displayed in larger museums (with steeper entrance fees).
We skipped visiting the more recent museums, but spend a large part of an afternoon inside the Yamana museum. No one else visited while we were there. We were told to take as many pictures of the displays as we wanted, so I took a lot of them. It's a good way to encourage sharing of the fascinating history of these cultures.
The Yamana: Canoe people of the Beagle Channel
The Yamana or Yaghan people were still living their traditional lives in Tierra del Fuego 150 years ago, so this isn't ancient history.
They were sea-going people who spent long periods aboard their canoes, living off the sea. While out on the ocean, the men hunted seals from the prow, while the women collected shellfish from the oceans.
The fact that utterly fascinates me is that only the women could swim. And since the Yamana didn't wear any clothes, these amazing women took to the icy waters with only seal grease protecting them from the cold! It was so cold even in the summer while we visited, that it is mind boggling to me that these women were so tough.
The Yamana always carried fire with them, even on to the canoes. They set the fire in a space in the middle of their canoes. This was so that they could instantly start a larger fire once they arrived on land, since it was always so cold.
The arrival of European settlers in 1884 mostly wiped out the Yamana due to a measles epidemic. Also, the Yamana way of life was very finely tuned to the environment they lived in, and had been honed over hundreds of years. When well-meaning missionaries tried to clothe them, the Yamana contracted pneumonia from the damp clothes that they wore, since their sea-faring ways didn't match the clothes they were given.
The last of the Yamana, Abuela Rosa, died in 1982. Some descendants of the Yamana still live in Tierra del Fuego, but there is only one surviving speaker of the Yamana language alive today.
The Selknam or Ona were powerful, fearless people who also lived in Tierra del Fuego at the same time as the Yamana. The community hunted guanacos, eating the meat and fashioning clothes out of the guanaco skin. They were expert hunters who used bows and arrows with great skill.
When European settlers arrived here in the 1880s and set up sheep farms, they fenced off large areas of Selknam land, and prohibited entry to the native people. This led to conflict, especially when the Selknam started hunting the sheep, since any animal was fair game to them.
This unfortunately led to a systematic genocide of the Selknam people. Headhunters were paid money for bringing in heads of the Selknam they had killed, with bonuses paid for pregnant women. The heads were even shipped off to collectors and museums in Europe. Poisoned meat was also given to the Selknam in the attempt to get rid of them.
In 1881 around when Tierra del Fuego was first colonized, about 3500 Selknam people lived on the big island of Tierra del Fuego. By the late 1920s, the hundred or so of the Selknam that remained, had to succumb to acculturization.
The last two pure-blooded Selknam: Lola Kiepje and Esteban Yshton passed away in the late 1960s.
For the whole time that we were in Tierra del Fuego in the city of Ushuaia, I felt a little disconnected from the modern city around me. It was cold and rainy on most days, and as we walked up to high glaciers and hiked in the forests, I felt the presence of these ancient people around me. I kept trying to see this land through their eyes. What a great loss it is to us that their culture is no more!
PS: The photos above are the ones I took from displays at the museum. I don't know who the original photographers were.