Extinct Ancient Societies Tierra del Fuegians

About the Tierra del Fuegians, history of the extinct society, how they were destroyed and the last of them.



Their Society: The large island of Tierra del Fuego with its countless offshore islands and islets was the home of a number of small Indian tribes, including the Ona, Haush, Yahgan, Chono, and Alacaluf. Lying directly south of South America, Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost inhabitated region of the world. It is an inhospitable land with year-round rainfall.

The tribes of this region formed two different cultural and linguistic groups. The Ona and Haush lived on the plains and in the forests of the main island. Land-oriented, they hunted the guanaco, a relative of the llama, and the tuco-tuco, a gopherlike rodent. Organized in loose bands, these Indians observed strict territorial boundaries and lived in branch-framed, skin-covered tents. The other major group, consisting of the Yahgan, Chono, and Alacaluf, inhabited the coastal areas and many small nearby islands. They derived their living from the waters of the Strait of Magellan. Canoe-borne nomads, the men of these tribes caught otter and seal and snared birds, including geese and swans. The women dived into the frigid ocean waters for shellfish. These Indians wore skirts and greased their bodies to protect themselves from the sea and spray and from the continuous rains. Over the centuries they had physically adapted to the cold climate.

How and When Destroyed: The Ona and Haush tribes were decimated shortly after the first permanent European settlement was established in Tierra del Fuego in 1871. Gold miners and sheep ranchers invaded the island and pursued an extermination policy, but it was ultimately measles and smallpox that destroyed the Ona and Haush.

The Yahgan, Chono, and Alacaluf fared better for a time, since the Europeans had no economic use for their barren homeland. However, during the 1860s, Anglican missionaries settled among them and introduced diseases that proved fatal to the Indians. In 1884 Argentina decided to establish a government station in Yahgan territory and dispatched 20 men to set up the post. The Yahgans welcomed the Argentineans, and seven Indians went aboard their ship. Within hours the seven were infected with measles; when they returned to the land, the disease spread throughout the population because the Yahgan had no natural immunity to it. This first measles epidemic killed over half the population. The well-intentioned missionaries also contributed to the demise of these tribes by insisting that they wear clothes. The grease that the Indians used on their bodies protected them from rain and ocean spray, but their new clothes were perpetually damp; therefore, outbreaks of pneumonia, influenza, and tuberculosis soon became commonplace.

The Last of the Tierra del Fuegians: In 1870 there were roughly 2,500 to 3,000 Ona and Haush, but by 1910 there were only 300 still alive. Fifteen years later, the Ona population had fallen to 100 and the Haush had become extinct. Today, there are two Ona--Pablo Pacheco and Rafaela Ishton--still living in Tierra del Fuego.

Among the coast-dwelling groups, the small tribe of Chono became extinct early in the 20th century. The Alacaluf population has been reduced from around 1,000 in 1870 to the 3 or 4 old people who are still alive today. Their deaths will mark the end of their people. The Yahgan numbered approximately 3,000 in 1881, but three years later only 1,000 still survived. In 1902, 130 Yahgan Indians remained, and that number dwindled to 40 by 1933. Today the Yahgan have been officially classified as "presumed extinct." The last Yahgan may have been an Indian named Domingo, who still lived a nomadic life with his wife and seven children in the mid-20th century.

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