Fuegians are the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America.
The indigenous Fuegians belonged to several different tribes including the:
All of these tribes except the Selk'nam lived exclusively in coastal areas and have their own languages. The Yahgan and the Kawésqar traveled by birchbark 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 were exclusively terrestrial hunter gatherers who hunted terrestrial game such as guanacos, foxes, tuco-tucos and upland nesting birds as well as littoral fish and shellfish. The Fuegian peoples spoke several distinct languages: both the Kawésqar language and the Yahgan language are considered language isolates, while the Selk'nam and Haush spoke Chon languages like the Tehuelche on the mainland.
The name "Tierra del Fuego" may refer to the fact that both Selk'nam and Yahgan 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. Yahgan also used fire to send messages by smoke signals, for instance if a whale drifted ashore. The large amount of meat required notification of many people, so that it would not decay. They might also have used smoke signals on other occasions, but it is possible that Magellan saw the smokes or lights of natural phenomena.
Alongside the Pericúes of Baja California, the Fuegians and Patagonians show the strongest evidence of partial descent from the Paleoamerican lineage, a proposed early wave of migration to the Americas derived from an Australo-Melanesian population, as opposed to the main Amerind peopling of the Americas of Siberian (admixed Ancient North Eurasian and Paleo-East Asian) descent. Further credibility is lent to this idea by research suggesting the existence of an ethnically distinct population elsewhere in South America. According to archaeologist Ricardo E. Latcham the sea-faring nomads of Patagonia (Chono, Kawésqar, Yahgan) may be remnants from more widespread indigenous groups that were pushed south by "successive invasions" from more northern tribes.
However these previous claims were refuted by multiple genetic and anthropologic studies, such as one study published in Nature in 2018 which concluded that all Native Americans descended from a single founding population which initially split from East Asians c. 36,000 BC, with geneflow between Ancestral Native Americans and Siberians persisting until c. 25,000 BC, before becoming isolated in the Americas at c. 22,000 BC. Northern and Southern Native American subpopulations split from each other at c. 17,500 BC. There is also some evidence for a back-migration from the Americas into Siberia after c. 11,500 BC. Another study published in Nature in 2021, which analysed a large amount of ancient genomes, similarly concluded that all Native Americans descended from the movement of people from Northeast Asia into the Americas. These Ancestral Americans, once south of the continental ice sheets, spread and expanded rapidly, and branched into multiple groups, which later gave rise to the major subgroups of Native American populations. The study also dismissed the existence of an hypothetical distinct non-Native American population (suggested to have been related to Indigenous Australians and Papuans), sometimes called "Paleoamerican". The authors explained that these previous claims were based on a misinterpreted genetic echo, which was revealed to represent early East-Eurasian geneflow (close but distinct to the 40,000 BC old Tianyuan lineage) into Aboriginal Australians and Papuans.
When Chileans and Argentines of European descent studied, invaded 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. In 1876 a serious smallpox epidemic decimated the Fuegians. Between 1881 and 1883 the Yahgan population dropped from perhaps 3,000 to only 1,000 due to measles and smallpox.
As early as 1878 Europeans in Punta Arenas seeking additional sheep pastures negotiated to acquire large tracts of land on Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego from the Chilean government just prior to Argentina's and Chile's sovereignty there.
By 1876, Christian missionaries claimed to have converted the entire Yahgan people.
On May 11, 1830 four Yahgan were transported to England by the schooner Allen Gardiner, presented to the court, and resided there for a number of years before three were returned, including Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button. The fourth died of smallpox.
The United States Exploring Expedition came in contact with the Fuegians in 1839. One member of the expedition called the Fuegians the "greatest mimics I ever saw."
Main article: Selk'nam genocide
See also: Tierra del Fuego Gold Rush
The Selk'nam genocide was authorized and conducted by the estancieros that between 1884–1900 resulted in a severe indigenous population decline. Large companies paid sheep farmers or militia a bounty for each Selk'nam dead, which was confirmed on presentation of a pair of hands or ears, or later a complete skull. They were given more for the death of a woman than a man.
Both Selk'nam and Yahgan were almost obliterated by diseases brought in by colonization, 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.
The principal differences in language, habitat, and adaptation techniques did not promote contacts, although eastern Yahgan groups had exchange contacts with the Selk'nam.
"Archaeological investigations show the prevalence of maritime hunter-gatherer organization throughout the occupation of the region (6400 BP – 19th century)." Although the Fuegians were all hunter-gatherers, 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. Neither was restricted to Tierra del Fuego:
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 Yahgan and Kawésqar also changed their camping places, traveling by birchbark canoes.
There is a belief in both the Selk'nam and Yahgan tribes that women used to rule over men in ancient times, Yahgan attribute the present situation to a successful revolt of men. There are many festivals associated with this belief in both tribes.
The patrilineal Selk'nam and the composite band society Yahgan reacted very differently to the Europeans and it has been suggested that this was due to these facets of their cultural structure.
The languages spoken by the Fuegians are all extinct, with the exception of Kawésqar. The Selk'nam language was related to the Tehuelche language and belonged to the Chon family of languages. The Ona language had more than 30,000 words.
There are some correspondences or putative borrowings between the Yahgan and Selk'nam mythologies. The hummingbird was an animal revered by the Yahgan, and in 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. A Yahgan myth, "The egoist fox", features a hummingbird as a helper and has some similarities to the Taiyin-myth of the Selk'nam. Similar remarks apply to the myth about the big albatross: it shares identical variants for both tribes. Some examples of myths having shared or similar versions in both tribes are:
At least three Fuegian tribes had myths about culture heroes. Yahgan 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. In general, the presence of dualistic myths in two compared cultures does not necessarily imply relatedness or diffusion.
Some myths also feature shaman-like figures with similarities in the Yahgan and Selk'nam tribes.
The abundant and nutritious Patagonian blennie (Eleginops maclovinus) was apparently not consumed and rock art suggests it may have had some religious significance.
Both Selk'nam and Yahgan had persons filling in shaman-like roles. The Selk'nam believed their xon (IPA: [xon]) to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather and to heal. The figure of xon appeared in myths, too. The Yahgan yekamush ([jekamuʃ]) corresponds to the Selk'nam xon.
There are myths in both Yahgan and Selk'nam tribes about a shaman using his power manifested as a whale. In both examples, the shaman was "dreaming" while achieving this. 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). The Yahgan yekamush made similar achievements while dreaming: he killed a whale and led the dead body to arbitrary places, and transformed himself into a whale as well. 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.
Using demographic modelling, we infer that the Ancient Beringian population and ancestors of other Native Americans descended from a single founding population that initially split from East Asians around 36 ± 1.5 ka, with gene flow persisting until around 25 ± 1.1 ka.
Quote 1: Genetic studies of the Pleistocene peopling of the Americas have focused on the timing and number of migrations from Siberia into North America. They show that ancestral Native Americans (NAs) diverged from Siberians and East Asians ~23,000 years (~23 ka) ago and that a split within that ancestral lineage between later NAs and Ancient Beringians (ABs) occurred ~21 ka ago. Subsequently, NAs diverged into northern NA (NNA) and southern NA (SNA) branches ~15.5 ka ago, a split inferred to have taken place south of eastern Beringia (present-day Alaska and western Yukon Territory). Quote 2: Our finding of no excess allele sharing with non-Native American populations in the ancient samples is also striking as many of these individuals—including those at Lapa do Santo—have a "Paleoamerican" cranial morphology that has been suggested to be evidence of the spread of a substructured population of at least two different Native American source populations from Asia to the Americas (von Cramon-Taubadel et al., 2017). Our finding that early Holocene individuals with such a morphology are consistent with deriving all their ancestry from the same homogeneous ancestral population as other Native Americans extends the finding of Raghavan et al., 2015 who came to a similar conclusion after analyzing Native Americans inferred to have Paleoamerican morphology who lived within the last millennium.
It is now evident that the initial dispersal involved the movement from northeast Asia. The first peoples, once south of the continental ice sheets, spread widely, expanded rapidly and branched into multiple populations. Their descendants—over the next fifteen millennia—experienced varying degrees of isolation, admixture, continuity and replacement, and their genomes help to illuminate the relationships among major subgroups of Native American populations. Notably, all ancient individuals in the Americas, save for later-arriving Arctic peoples, are more closely related to contemporary Indigenous American individuals than to any other population elsewhere, which challenges the claim—which is based on anatomical evidence—that there was an early, non-Native American population in the Americas. Here we review the patterns revealed by ancient genomics that help to shed light on the past peoples who created the archaeological landscape, and together lead to deeper insights into the population and cultural history of the Americas.
The team discovered that the Spirit Cave remains came from a Native American while dismissing a longstanding theory that a group called Paleoamericans existed in North America before Native Americans.