Picture of a Fuegian (possibly a Yahgan) by ship's artist Conrad Martens during a visit of HMS Beagle.

Fuegians are the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America. The name has been credited to Captain James Weddell, who supposedly created the term in 1822.[1]

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.[2] 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.[3] Yahgan also used fire to send messages by smoke signals, for instance if a whale drifted ashore.[4] The large amount of meat required notification of many people, so that it would not decay.[5] They might also have used smoke signals on other occasions, but it is possible that Magellan saw the smokes or lights of natural phenomena.[6]



See also: Peopling of the Americas and Genetic history of indigenous peoples of the Americas

Alongside the Pericúes of Baja California, the Fuegians and Patagonians show the strongest evidence of partial descent from the Paleoamerican lineage,[7] 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.[8][9] Further credibility is lent to this idea by research suggesting the existence of an ethnically distinct population elsewhere in South America.[10][11] 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.[12]

Alternative origin speculations

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.[13][14] 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.[15][16]

Julius Popper with a killed Selk'nam. In the late 19th century some estancieros and gold prospectors launched a campaign of extermination against the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego.[17][18]

European contact

Distribution of the pre-Hispanic people in the Southern Patagonia

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.[19] In 1876 a serious smallpox epidemic decimated the Fuegians.[20] Between 1881 and 1883 the Yahgan population dropped from perhaps 3,000 to only 1,000 due to measles and smallpox.[21]

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.[20]

By 1876, Christian missionaries claimed to have converted the entire Yahgan people.[20]

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.[22]

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."[23]

Selk'nam genocide

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.[20] 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.

Modern history

Both Selk'nam and Yahgan were almost obliterated by diseases brought in by colonization,[2][24] 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.[2]


The principal differences in language, habitat, and adaptation techniques did not promote contacts, although eastern Yahgan groups had exchange contacts with the Selk'nam.[25]

Material culture

Selk'nam people, c. 1915

"Archaeological investigations show the prevalence of maritime hunter-gatherer organization throughout the occupation of the region (6400 BP – 19th century)."[26] Although the Fuegians were all hunter-gatherers,[27] 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.[28][29] 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.[35]


There is a belief in both the Selk'nam and Yahgan tribes that women used to rule over men in ancient times,[36] Yahgan attribute the present situation to a successful revolt of men. There are many festivals associated with this belief in both tribes.[37][38]

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.[2]


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.[39]


There are some correspondences or putative borrowings between the Yahgan and Selk'nam mythologies.[25] 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.[40] A Yahgan myth, "The egoist fox", features a hummingbird as a helper and has some similarities to the Taiyin-myth of the Selk'nam.[41] Similar remarks apply to the myth about the big albatross: it shares identical variants for both tribes.[42] Some examples of myths having shared or similar versions in both tribes are:

At least three Fuegian tribes had myths about culture heroes.[45] 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.[36] In general, the presence of dualistic myths in two compared cultures does not necessarily imply relatedness or diffusion.[46]

Some myths also feature shaman-like figures with similarities in the Yahgan and Selk'nam tribes.[47]

The abundant and nutritious Patagonian blennie (Eleginops maclovinus) was apparently not consumed and rock art suggests it may have had some religious significance.[48]


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[49][50] and to heal.[51] The figure of xon appeared in myths, too.[52] The Yahgan yekamush ([jekamuʃ])[53] corresponds to the Selk'nam xon.[47]

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.[54][55] 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).[42] 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.[55] 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.[56]

See also


  1. ^ "The Terra Del Fuegians at the Garden of Acclimation". Science. 2: 514–516. 29 Oct 1881. Retrieved 5 March 2024.
  2. ^ a b c d e Stuart, David E. (2014). Cordell, Linda S.; Beckerman, Stephen (eds.). The Versatility of Kinship: Essays Presented to Harry W. Basehart. pp. 269–284. ISBN 978-1-4832-6720-3. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  3. ^ Itsz 1979:97
  4. ^ Gusinde 1966:137–139, 186
  5. ^ Itsz 1979:109
  6. ^ The Patagonian Canoe. Extracts from the following book. E. Lucas Bridges: Uttermost Part of the Earth. Indians of Tierra del Fuego. 1949, reprinted by Dover Publications, Inc (New York, 1988).
  7. ^ González-José, R. et al., "Craniometric evidence for Palaeoamerican survival in Baja California", Nature vol. 425 (2003), 62–65. "A current issue on the settlement of the Americas refers to the lack of morphological affinities between early Holocene human remains (Palaeoamericans) and modern Amerindian groups, as well as the degree of contribution of the former to the gene pool of the latter. A different origin for Palaeoamericans and Amerindians is invoked to explain such a phenomenon. Under this hypothesis, the origin of Palaeoamericans must be traced back to a common ancestor for Palaeoamericans and Australians, which departed from somewhere in southern Asia and arrived in the Australian continent and the Americas around 40,000 and 12,000 years before present, respectively. Most modern Amerindians are believed to be part of a second, morphologically differentiated migration. [...] The principal coordinate plot obtained using the matrix of minimum genetic distances (Fig. 1a) showed that BCS [Baja California series] was closely linked with Palaeoamericans, whereas the populations from Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego showed an intermediate position between classical Amerindians and/or East Asians and Palaeoamericans".
  8. ^ Gamble, Clive (September 1992). "Archaeology, history and the uttermost ends of the earth – Tasmania, Tierra del Fuego and the Cape". Antiquity. 66 (252): 712–720. doi:10.1017/s0003598x00039429. S2CID 163651146. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  9. ^ "First Americans were Australian". BBC News. 1999-08-26. Retrieved 2010-05-03.
  10. ^ Neves, WA; Prous A; González-José R; Kipnis R; Powell J. "Early Holocene human skeletal remains from Santana do Riacho, Brazil: implications for the settlement of the New World". J Hum Evol (2003 Jul 45(1):19–42).
  11. ^ "Fuegian and Patagonian Genetics – and the settling of the Americas" Archived 2013-05-05 at the Wayback Machine, by George Weber.
  12. ^ Trivero Rivera, Alberto (2005). Los primeros pobladores de Chiloé: Génesis del horizonte mapuche (in Spanish). Ñuque Mapuförlaget. p. 41. ISBN 91-89629-28-0.
  13. ^ Moreno-Mayar, J. Víctor; Potter, Ben A.; Vinner, Lasse; Steinrücken, Matthias; Rasmussen, Simon; Terhorst, Jonathan; Kamm, John A.; Albrechtsen, Anders; Malaspinas, Anna-Sapfo; Sikora, Martin; Reuther, Joshua D. (January 2018). "Terminal Pleistocene Alaskan genome reveals first founding population of Native Americans". Nature. 553 (7687): 203–207. doi:10.1038/nature25173. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 29323294. S2CID 4454580. 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.
  14. ^ Posth, Cosimo; Nakatsuka, Nathan; Lazaridis, Iosif; Skoglund, Pontus; Mallick, Swapan; Lamnidis, Thiseas C.; Rohland, Nadin; Nägele, Kathrin; Adamski, Nicole; Bertolini, Emilie; Broomandkhoshbacht, Nasreen (2018-11-15). "Reconstructing the Deep Population History of Central and South America". Cell. 175 (5): 1185–1197.e22. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2018.10.027. ISSN 0092-8674. PMC 6327247. PMID 30415837. 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.
  15. ^ Willerslev, Eske; Meltzer, David J. (June 2021). "Peopling of the Americas as inferred from ancient genomics". Nature. 594 (7863): 356–364. doi:10.1038/s41586-021-03499-y. ISSN 1476-4687. PMID 34135521. S2CID 235460793. 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.
  16. ^ Sarkar, Anjali A.; PhD (2021-06-18). "Ancient Human Genomes Reveal Peopling of the Americas". GEN - Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. Retrieved 2021-09-15. 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.
  17. ^ Odone, C. and M.Palma, 'La muerte exhibida fotografias de Julius Popper en Tierra del Fuego', in Mason and Odone, eds, 12 miradas. Culturas de Patagonia: 12 Miradas: Ensayos sobre los pueblos patagonicos' (in Spanish), cited in Mason, Peter. 2001. The lives of images. P.153
  18. ^ Ray, Leslie. 2007. "Language of the land: the Mapuche in Argentina and Chile ". p.80
  19. ^ Die letzten Feuerland-Indianer / Ein Naturvolk stirbt aus. (Short article in German, with title “The last Fuegians / An indigenous people becomes extinct”). Archived from the original.
  20. ^ a b c d Chapman, Anne (2010). European Encounters with the Yamana People of Cape Horn, Before and After Darwin. Cambridge. p. 471. ISBN 9780521513791. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  21. ^ Cook, Noble David (2004). Demographic Collapse: Indian Peru, 1520–1620. Cambridge. ISBN 9780521523141. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  22. ^ Snow, William Parker (2013). A Two Years' Cruise Off Tierra Del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, Patagonia, and in the River Plate: A Narrative of Life in the Southern Seas. ISBN 9781108062053. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  23. ^ Stanton, William (1975). The Great United States Exploring Expedition. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 104–107. ISBN 978-0520025578.
  24. ^ Itsz 1979:108,111
  25. ^ a b Gusinde 1966:10
  26. ^ a b Tivoli, Angélica M.; Zangrando, A. Francisco (2011). "Subsistence variations and landscape use among maritime hunter-gatherers. A zooarchaeological analysis from the Beagle Channel (Tierra del Fuego, Argentina)". Journal of Archaeological Science. 38 (5): 1148–1156. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2010.12.018. hdl:11336/12688.
  27. ^ Gusinde 1966:6–7
  28. ^ a b c d Service 1973:115
  29. ^ a b c "Extinct Ancient Societies Tierra del Fuegians". Archived from the original on 2011-06-06. Retrieved 2007-04-17.
  30. ^ Colonese (2012). "Oxygen isotopic composition of limpet shells from the Beagle Channel: implications for seasonal studies in shell middens of Tierra del Fuego". Journal of Archaeological Science. 39 (6): 1738–1748. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2012.01.012.
  31. ^ Briz, Ivan; Álvarez, Myrian; Zurro, Débora; Caro, Jorge. "Meet for lunch in Tierra del Fuego: a new ethnoarchaeological project". Antiquity. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  32. ^ Chapman, Anne (1982). Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: The Selk'nam of Tierra Del Fuego. CUP Archive. ISBN 9780521238847. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  33. ^ Davis, Leslie B.; Reeves, Brian O.K. (2014). Hunters of the Recent Past. ISBN 9781317598350. Retrieved 24 January 2016.
  34. ^ Gusinde 1966:5
  35. ^ Gusinde 1966:7
  36. ^ a b Gusinde 1966:181
  37. ^ Gusinde 1966:184
  38. ^ Service 1973:116–117
  39. ^ "Cook Tried to Steal Parson's Life Work" (PDF). New York Times. 21 May 1910. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  40. ^ Gusinde 1966:175–176
  41. ^ Gusinde 1966:183
  42. ^ a b Gusinde 1966:179
  43. ^ Gusinde 1966:178
  44. ^ Gusinde 1966: 182
  45. ^ Gusinde 1966:71
  46. ^ Zolotarjov 1980:56
  47. ^ a b Gusinde 1966:186
  48. ^ Fiore, Danae; Francisco, Atilio; Zangrando, J. (2006). "Painted fish, eaten fish: Artistic and archaeofaunal representations in Tierra del Fuego, Southern South America". Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 25 (3): 371–389. doi:10.1016/j.jaa.2006.01.001.
  49. ^ Gusinde 1966:175
  50. ^ "About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra del Fuego". Archived from the original on 2015-06-14. Retrieved 2007-05-06.
  51. ^ Gusinde 1966:67
  52. ^ Gusinde 1966:15
  53. ^ Gusinde 1966:156
  54. ^ Gusinde 1966:64
  55. ^ a b Gusinde 1966:155
  56. ^ Gusinde 1966:61


  • Gusinde, Martin (1966). Nordwind—Südwind. Mythen und Märchen der Feuerlandindianer (in German). Kassel: E. Röth. Title means: “North wind—south wind. Myths and tales of Fuegians”.
  • Itsz, Rudolf (1979). Napköve. Néprajzi elbeszélések (in Hungarian). Budapest: Móra Könyvkiadó. Translation of the original: Итс, Р.Ф. (1974). Камень солнца (in Russian). Ленинград: Издательство «Детская Литература». Title means: “Stone of sun”; chapter means: “The land of burnt-out fires”.
  • Service, Elman R. (1973). "Vadászok". In E.R. Service & M.D. Sahlins & E.R. Wolf (ed.). Vadászok, törzsek, parasztok (in Hungarian). Budapest: Kossuth Könyvkiadó. It contains the translation of the original: Service, Elman (1966). The Hunter. Prentice-Hall.
  • Zolotarjov, A.M. (1980). "Társadalomszervezet és dualisztikus teremtésmítoszok Szibériában". In Hoppál, Mihály (ed.). A Tejút fiai. Tanulmányok a finnugor népek hitvilágáról (in Hungarian). Budapest: Európa Könyvkiadó. pp. 29–58. ISBN 978-963-07-2187-5. 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

Bibliography, linking many online documents in various languages
Shaman-like figures (Selk'nam [xon], Yámana [jekamuʃ])