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Title: Fuegian  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Tierra del Fuego, Garcia de Nodal expedition
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Fuegians are the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. In English, the term originally referred to the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego. In Spanish, the term fueguino can refer to any person from the archipelago.

The indigenous 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 canoes 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 peoples spoke several distinct languages: both the Kawésqar language and the Yaghan language are considered language isolates, while the Selk'nams spoke a Chon language like the Tehuelches on the mainland.

When Europeans, Chileans and Argentines studied and settled on the islands in the mid-19th century, they brought with them diseases such as measles and smallpox for which the Fuegians had no immunity. The Fuegian population was devastated by the diseases, and their numbers were reduced from several thousand in the 19th century to hundreds in the 20th century.[1]

Material culture

Although the Fuegians were all hunter-gatherers,[2] their material culture was not homogeneous: the big island and the archipelago made two different adaptations possible. Some of the cultures were coast-dwelling, while others were land-oriented.[3][4] Neither was restricted to Tierra del Fuego:

  • The coast provided fish, sea birds, seals, and sometimes also whales. Yaghans got their sustenance this way. Alacalufs (living in the Strait of Magellan and some islands), and Chonos (living further to the north, on Chilean coasts and archipelagos) were similar.[3][4]
  • Selk'nams lived on the inland plain of the big island of Tierra del Fuego, hunting herds of guanaco.[3][4] The material culture had some similarities to that of the (also linguistically related) Tehuelches living outside Tierra del Fuego in the southern plains of Argentina.[3][5]

All Fuegian tribes had a nomadic lifestyle, and lacked permanent shelters. The guanaco-hunting Selk'nam made their huts out of stakes, dry sticks, and leather. They broke camp and carried their things with them, and wandered following the hunting and gathering possibilities. The coastal Yamana and Alacaluf also changed their camping places, traveling by canoes.[6]

Spiritual culture


There are some correspondences or putative borrowings between the Yámana and Selknam mythologies.[7] The hummingbird was an animal revered by the Yámanas, and the Taiyin creation myth explaining the creation of the archipelago's water system, the culture hero "Taiyin" is portrayed in the guise of a hummingbird.[8] A Yámana myth, "The egoist fox", features a hummingbird as a helper and has some similarities to the Taiyin-myth of the Selk'nam.[9] Similar remarks apply to the myth about the big albatross: it shares identical variants for both tribes.[10] Some examples of myths having shared or similar versions in both tribes:

  • the myth about a sea lion and his [human] wife;[11]
  • the myth about the origin of death.[12]

All three Fuegian tribes had myths about culture heroes.[13] Yámanas have dualistic myths about the two yoalox-brothers (IPA: [joalox]). They act as culture heroes, and sometimes stand in an antagonistic relation to each other, introducing opposite laws. Their figures can be compared to the Selk'nam Kwanyip-brothers.[14] In general, the presence of dualistic myths in two compared cultures does not necessaily imply relatedness or diffusion.[15]

Some myths also feature shaman-like figures with similarities in the Yámana and Selk'nam tribes.[16]


Both Selk'nam and Yámana had persons filling in shaman-like roles. The Selk'nams believed their xon (IPA: [xon]) to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather[17][18] and to heal.[19] The figure of xon appeared in myths, too.[20] The Yámana yekamush ([jekamuʃ])[21] corresponds to the Selk'nam xon.[16]

There are myths in both Yámána and Selk'nam tribes about a shaman using his power manifested as a whale. In both examples, the shaman was "dreaming" while achieving this.[22][23] For example, the body of the Selk'nam xon lay undisturbed while it was believed that he travelled and achieved wonderful deeds (e.g. taking revenge on a whole group of peoples).[10] The Yámana yekamush made similar achievements while dreaming: he killed a whale and lead the dead body to arbitrary places, and transformed himself into a whale as well.[23] In another Selk'nam myth, the xon could use his power also for transporting whale meat. He could exercise this capability from great distances and see everything that happened during the transport.[24]


There is a belief in both the Selk'nam and Yámana tribes that women used to rule over men in ancient times,[14] Yámana attribute the present situation to a successful revolt of men. There are man festivals associated with this belief in both tribes.[25][26]

Contacts between Yámana and Selk'nam

The principal differences in language, habitat, and adaptation techniques did not promote contacts, although eastern Yámana groups had exchange contacts with the Selk'nam.[7]


The languages spoken by the Fuegians are all extinct, with the exception of the Yaghan language and Kawesqar. The Selk'nam language was related to the Tehuelche language and belonged to the Chon family of languages.

Possible Australian/Melanesian origin

The Fuegians have been thought to be physically, culturally and linguistically distinct from other Native Americans. Some proponents of this theory suggest they may be the descendants of Australian Aborigines who colonized the area prior to the arrival of mongoloid Amerindians.[27] Further credibility is lent to this idea by research suggesting the existence of an ethnically distinct population elsewhere in South America.[28][29] Both Tehuelches and Selk'nams practiced body painting and rock art similar to that of Australian Aborigines. In contrast to most Amerindian peoples, Fuegians appeared to be taller than most Europeans (this does not include the Yaghans, who were quite short with skinny limbs and fat bodies - a physical adaptation to the coldTemplate:Or, or the Kawesqar).

Modern history

The name "Tierra del Fuego" may refer to the fact that both Selk'nam and Yamana had their fires burn in front of their huts (or in the hut). In Magellan's time Fuegians were more numerous, and the light and smoke of their fires presented an impressive sight if seen from a ship or another island.[32] Yamanas also used fire to send messages by smoke signals, for instance if a whale drifted ashore.[33] The large amount of meat required notification of many people, so that it would not decay.[34] They might also have used smoke signals on other occasions, but it is possible that Magellan saw the smokes or lights of natural phenomena.[35]

Both Selk'nams and Yámanas were decimated by diseases brought in by colonization,[36] and probably made more vulnerable to disease by the crash of their main meat supplies (whales and seals) due to the actions of European and American fleets.

See also



  • Title means: “North wind—south wind. Myths and tales of Fuegians”.
  • Translation of the original: Title means: “Stone of sun”; chapter means: “The land of burnt-out fires”.
  • It contains the translation of the original:
  • Chapter means: “Social structure and dualistic creation myths in Siberia”; title means: “The sons of Milky Way. Studies on the belief systems of Finno-Ugric peoples”.

Further reading

External links

Template:NSRW Poster

  • Excerpts from the same material on
Bibliography, linking many online documents in various languages
  • Lenguas australes / Materiales sobre lenguas y culturas indígenas de la Tierra del Fuego y del sur de la Patagonia
  • Extinct Ancient Societies Tierra del Fuegians
  • Indians page of homepage of Museo Maritiomo de Ushuaia
  • Dr Wilhelm Koppers: Unter Feuerland-Indianern. Strecker und Schröder, Stuttgart, 1924. (A whole book online. In German. Title means: “Among Fuegians”.)
  • Die letzten Feuerland-Indianer / Ein Naturvolk stirbt aus. (Short article in German, with title “The last Fuegians / An indigenous people becomes extinct”)
  • Feuerland — Geschichten vom Ende der Welt. (“Tierra del Fuego — stories from the end of the world”. Link collection with small articles. In German.)
  • erdrand galleries, 9 photos
  • abstract in English.
Shaman-like figures (Selk'nam [xon], Yámana [jekamuʃ])
  • About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra del Fuego
  • Rituals and beliefs of the Yámana, mentioning “yekamush”
  • (Spanish) abstract in English.
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