Saturday, October 28, 2017

Early People of Patagonia

View from inside the Milodon Cave, which we visited on the way to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.
The discovery here of a well-preserved milodon (giant sloth) in 1895 received a great deal of attention in England and locally.
Inside the cave, we posed with a statue
of a milodon. The early humans aren't
much acknowledged in the cave.
Patagonia has been home to humans for around 11,000 years. An early location where evidence of their presence is found is the Milodon Cave Natural Monument, where we stopped during the land portion of our recent National Geographic tour. The Milodon, or Giant Sloth, whose bones are found throughout Patagonia, was hunted by early people, who probably contributed to the extinction of this one-ton beast. (The Milodon discovery plays a large role in Bruce Chatwin's book In Patagonia, among other things.)

The early Patagonians and Fuegians (natives of Tierra del Fuego, the southern islands that are also part of Patagonia) were descendants of the early humans who walked across the frozen Bering Straight and over many generations spread throughout the Americas. We didn't learn much about these humans between prehistory and the arrival of the first European voyagers, starting with Magellan, and a few others including Captain Cook. I'm not sure that much is known about them.

As Europeans began to arrive in greater numbers and colonize the area during the 19th century, they found several important tribal groups living in Tierra del Fuego. One voyage to that area that's still much remembered is that of the Beagle in 1830. Charles Darwin was onboard as a companion to the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy. Darwin's journal of their experience in Tierra del Fuego contains quite a lot of observation of the local people.

Model of the ship Beagle of Darwin's visit. (Ushuaia Museum)
A major goal of Captain FitzRoy was to return three Fuegians to their homeland, along with a missionary to their fellow tribesman. These three had been taken a few years earlier (you might say they had been kidnapped) to be educated in English ways. Darwin's account of this part of the voyage describes how these individuals, once back to their tribe, reverted to the local ways and did not achieve the result of "civilizing" the rest of their people. The missionary stayed only a short time, as his goal appeared unachievable.

Two tribal groups in Tierra del Fuego were the Selk'nam and the Yàmana, whom I learned about in the Maritime Museum in Ushuaia, Argentina, and other sources. Some of the territory where they lived is now considered uninhabitable, and makes up the vast and fascinating natural spaces that we enjoyed seeing. I suppose this illustrates how tough these local tribes were, at least until they encountered Europeans!

1890's photos of Fuegians. (Ushuaia Museum)
The museum provided an interesting note about what they ate, a subject that always interests me:
"According to present studies, the Yàmana diet was based on sea lions. This was their main source of energy: both for proteins and calories. They also ate mushrooms, wild fruit such as Calafate, fish, whale meat -- when one ran aground on the beach -- and shellfish." (Museum documentation)
Native Fuegians. The early travelers were especially amazed because the Fuegians,
despite the very cold climate and harsh winds, didn't wear clothing except the occasional
guanaco skin. Fuegians made canoes and sometimes hunted marine mammals. (Ushuaia Museum)
Beached whales, like this one that we photographed, are still frequent.
Later, as more and more Europeans arrived, the fate of these tribes was extinction. The Yàmana population in 1884 was estimated at 1000 (half their original number); by 1925 only 45 of these people remained. The causes of their extinction included introduced diseases, especially smallpox, measles, pneumonia, and TB; reduction in available food supplies, and the takeover of their lands.

Even more upsetting is the fate of the Selk'nam, who were the victims of an intentional genocide. English sheep farmers, who had taken over the area, received a bounty for the slaughter of Selk'nam tribes people. Horrible to say, the bounty was paid when the killers turned in hands, ears, or skulls of their victims.
Tierra del Fuego: a hard place to live.

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