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The Yaghan, also called Yagán, Yahgan (the original spelling), Yámana or Yamana, are the indigenous inhabitants of the islands south of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuegomarker extending their presence into Cape Hornmarker. They were known as Fuegians by the English speaking world, but the term is nowadays avoided as it can refer to any of the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuegomarker. They spoke the Yaghan language which is considered to be a language isolate. The Yaghan were nomads who traveled by canoes between islands to collect food. The men hunted sea lions while the women dived to collect shellfish.

The Yahgan left strong impressions on all who encountered them, including Ferdinand Magellan, Charles Darwin, Francis Drake, James Cook, and James Weddell. In "Sailing Alone Around the World" Joshua Slocum was warned they would rob and possibly kill him if he moored in a particular area, so he sprinkled tacks on the deck of his boat, the Spray.

Adaptations to climate

The Yahgan did not wear clothes until their contact with Europeans. They were able to survive the harsh climate because:

1) They kept warm by huddling around small fires when they could, including in their boats to stay warm. In fact, the name of "Tierra del Fuego" (land of fire) is a name given to the island cluster by passing European explorers who witnessed these fires burning.

2) They made use of rock formations to shelter themselves from the elements.

3) They covered themselves in animal grease.

4) Over time they had evolved significantly higher metabolisms than average humans, allowing them to generate more internal body heat.

5) Their natural resting position was a deep squatting position, which reduced their surface area and so helped to conserve heat.

The early Yaghans

The Yahgan may have been driven to this inhospitable area by enemies to the north, but were famed for their complete indifference to the bitter weather around Cape Horn. Although they had fire and small domed shelters, they routinely went about completely naked in the frigid cold and biting wind of Tierra del Fuego, and swam (women only) in its 48-degree-south waters. They would often sleep in the open completely unsheltered and unclothed while Europeans shivered under their blankets. A Chilean researcher claimed their average body temperature was warmer than a European's by at least one degree.
A traditional Yahgan basket, woven by Abuela Cristina

Yaghans established many settlements within Tierra del Fuego; for example there is a significant Yaghan archaeological site at Wulaia Bay, which C. Michael Hogan terms the Bahia Wulaia Dome Middens.

But the Yahgan, who never numbered more than 3,000 individuals, could not survive contact with white man's diseases; they allegedly became sick immediately if the missionaries persuaded them to put on some clothes. In the 1920s some were resettled on Keppel Islandmarker in the Falklandsmarker in an attempt to preserve the tribe, as described by E. Lucas Bridges in Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948), but continued to die off. The second-to-last full-blooded Yaghan, Emelinda Acuña, died in 2005. The last full-blooded Yahgan is "Abuela" Cristina Calderón. She is also the last native speaker of the Yahgan language.

European contact

The area around Tierra del Fuego became known to Europeans in the early sixteenth century, but it was not until the nineteenth century that Europeans started to be interested in the zone and its peoples. When Robert FitzRoy became captain of the HMS Beagle in the middle of her first voyage, he captured four Fuegians after a boat was stolen. As it was not possible to put them ashore conveniently, he decided to 'civilise' the 'savages', teaching them "English..the plainer truths of Christianity..and the use of common tools" before returning them as missionaries. One died, but the others became 'civilised' enough to be presented at court in the summer of 1831. On the famous second voyage of HMS Beagle, the three Fuegians were returned along with a trainee missionary, and impressed Charles Darwin with their civilised behaviour, in startling contrast to the primitive tribes he saw once the ship reached Patagonia. He described his first meeting with the native Fuegians as being "without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement." In contrast, he said of Jemmy Button that "It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here." The mission was set up for the three Fuegians, but when the Beagle returned a year later only Jemmy was found, and he had returned to his tribal ways, speaking English as well as ever and assuring them that he "had not the least wish to return to England" and was "happy and contented" to live in what they thought a shockingly primitive manner with his wife.

Famous Yahgans

  • York Minster, Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button. All of these names were coined by sailors on the Beagle during the first voyage.


  1. Dallas Murphy, Rounding the Horn, Basic Books, 2004, p 132
  2. Mundo Yamana Museum exhibits, 56 Rivadavia Street, Ushuaia, Argentina
  3. ibid, p 139
  4. ibid, p145
  5. ibid, p134
  6. ibid, p 140
  7. C. Michael Hogan (2008) Bahia Wulaia Dome Middens, Megalithic Portal, ed. Andy Burnham
  9. Darwin at Terra del Fuego (1832). Athena Review, Vol. 1, No.3

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