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Picture of a Fuegian (possibly a Yaghan) from the voyage of FitzRoy's ship, HMS Beagle.

Fuegians are the indigenous inhabitants of Tierra del Fuegomarker, 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), Yahgan (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 Fuegomarker 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, Chileansmarker and Argentinesmarker 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. There are no full-blooded native Fuegians today; the last died in 1999.

Material culture

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:
  • The coast provided fish, sea birds, seals, and sometimes also whales. Yaghans got their sustenance this way. Alacalufs (living in the Strait of Magellanmarker and some islands), and Chonos (living further to the north, on Chilean coasts and archipelagos) were similar.
  • Selk'nams lived on the inland plain of the big island of Tierra del Fuego, hunting herds of guanaco. 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.

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.

Spiritual culture


There are some correspondences or putative borrowings between the Yámana and Selknam mythologies.The hummingbird was an animal revered by the Yámanas, and the Taiyin-myth of the Selk'nams presents the culture hero "Taiyin" in the guise of a hummingbird. In both tribes, this is an creation myth explaining the formation of the water system of the archipelago. A Yámana 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 at both tribes. Some examples of myths having shared or similar versions in both tribes:
  • the myth about a sea lion and his [human] wife;
  • the myth about the origin of death.
All three Fuegian tribes had myths about culture heros. Yámanas have dualistic myths about the two yoalox-brothers ( ). They act as culture heroes, and sometimes stand in an antagonistic relation with 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 imply relatedness or diffusion necessarily.

Also some myths featuring shaman-like figures have similarities in Yámana and Selk'nam tribes.


Both Selk'nam and Yámana had persons filling in shaman-like roles.The Selk'nams believed their xon ( ) to have supernatural capabilities, e.g. to control weather,, heal. The figure of xon appeared in myths, too. The Yámana yekamush ( ) corresponds to the Selk'nam xon.

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., e.g., 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), also the Yámana yekamush made his similar achievements in dream: killed a whale and lead 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; meanwhile he could see everything what happened during the transport.


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

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.


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 are 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. 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 Yahgans, who were quite short with skinny limbs and fat bodies- a physical adaptation to the cold, 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. Yamanas 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.

Both Selk'nams and Yámanas were decimated 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.


Anthropologists Rev. Martin Gusinde and later Anne Chapman have studied the Fuegians. They came at the last possible moment to preserve the memory of these cultures. In a retrospective way, a maybe unintended metaphoric connotation could be attributed to the words of the Fuegians, who called Fr. Gusinde the “shadow-catcher” while the anthropologist was busy making photographs on their life — since then, this life, figuratively, became a shadow.

See also


  1. Die letzten Feuerland-Indianer / Ein Naturvolk stirbt aus. (Short article in German, with title “The last Fuegians / An indigenous people becomes extinct”).
  2. Gusinde 1966:6–7
  3. Service 1973:115
  4. Extinct Ancient Societies Tierra del Fuegians
  5. Gusinde 1966:5
  6. Gusinde 1966:7
  7. Gusinde 1966:10
  8. Gusinde 1966:175–176
  9. Gusinde 1966:183
  10. Gusinde 1966:179
  11. Gusinde 1966:178
  12. Gusinde 1966: 182
  13. Gusinde 1966:71
  14. Gusinde 1966:181
  15. Zolotarjov 1980:56
  16. Gusinde 1966:186
  17. Gusinde 1966:175
  18. About the Ona Indian Culture in Tierra del Fuego
  19. Gusinde 1966:67
  20. Gusinde 1966:15
  21. Gusinde 1966:156
  22. Gusinde 1966:186
  23. Gusinde 1966:64
  24. Gusinde 1966:155
  25. Gusinde 1966:155
  26. Gusinde 1966:61
  27. Gusinde 1966:181
  28. Gusinde 1966:184
  29. Service 1973:116–117
  31. Itsz 1979:97
  32. Gusinde 1966:137–139, 186
  33. Itsz 1979:109
  34. 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).
  35. Itsz 1979:108,111
  36. Die letzten Feuerland-Indianer / Ein Naturvolk stirbt aus. (Short article in German, with title “The last Fuegians / An indigenous people becomes extinct”)


  • 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


Bibliography, linking many online documents in various languages:




Shaman-like figures (Selk'nam /xon/, Yámana /jekamuʃ/):

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