yaghan women archive

Last of the Yaghan Tribe

Tierra Del Fuego - Chile

They often wore no clothes – staying naked, but smothered in seal oil to survive in the cold southern tip of South America.

historical yaghan tribe photos
Historic Yaghan photos from the museum in Puerto Williams.

When Darwin encountered the Yaghan tribe, he viewed them as the ‘missing link’ in human evolution (but later revised this theory).

Back then, they were thick-set folks with sturdy arms and solid upper bodies, yet had weak legs and knees.

So they walked awkwardly.


Ancient Yaghan lifestyle


However, the reason for this related to their need to squat above freezing ground or in their canoes as the Yaghan spent much of their time on water.

It was their food source.

Men speared sea lions while women rowed.

Other times, women looked for clusters of kelp that attracted fish, diving into the icy water to hunt, for only the women could swim.

Meantime, kids bailed out the slowly leaking bark-covered canoes and attended to the fires – a hearth of packed sand and rock that held embers and flames. They nurtured these 24/7, for warmth but also for easy relighting when returning to land.

Hence, the name Land of Fire.

What they ate comprised what they found: shellfish, seals, whales, and birds; also a few varieties of berries and fungi.

As hunter-gathers, the Yaghan were eco-aware, moving from temporary shelters every few days to avoid depleting food stocks.

The Yaghan lived in family units and there were no chiefs – only shamans.

Despite the bitter cold, they cloaked their bodies only with animal skins, but also layers of thick seal-oil coated their skin as ‘virtual’ thermal-wear.

In the harsh, wet, damp, freezing conditions—it was practical to be near-naked and insulated with oil.


Descendants of the Yaghan Tribe


In Puerto Williams, my fascination with Yaghan culture led me to walk the quiet gravel road out of town to Villa Ukika where many Yaghan lived, and later some folks invited in.

We chatted in basic Spanish and I photographed them, including a woman called Cristina, who they said was one of the last Yaghan*1 (others were mixed blood).

According to the 2002 census, there were 1,685 Yaghan in Chile.

The Yaghan tribe disappeared in Argentina, falling to introduced diseases during the 19th century.

The Yaghan are also called Yagán, Yahgan, Yámana, Yamana or Tequenica, and are the world’s southern-most culture.

Their territory includes the islands south of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and extends to Cape Horn.

And they have been here for over 10,000 years.

Cristina Calderón and yaghan people in puerto williams chile 2002
Cristina Calderón and Yaghan locals near Puerto Williams in Chile (2002). TOP LEFT: At the foot of the guy – left side, they had a stuffed beaver-like creature in the house. Most of the time, Cristina was busy making flax baskets as I chatted with the men.

Cristina Calderón – the last full-blood Yaghan


*1 PostScript: I found out more details about Cristina after some Internet research and I paraphrased this from Wikipedia. And via this link, I sent the letter to her (below).

Born in 1928, Cristina Calderón is the last pure-blooded Yaghan (after the death of her sister in 2005) and the only descendant that grew up with the traditions.

By 2004, Cristina and her sister-in-law were the only two speakers of the Yaghan language. Her granddaughter recently wrote a book of Yaghan folk stories that Cristina had recalled from childhood.

“Hai Kur Mamashu Shis” is in Yaghan and translated into Spanish and English as “I want to tell you a story.”

Yaghan storybook

My email (sent in mid-2022) to the Museum:

Hi

Greetings from China – where I’m currently traveling; but I’m from New Zealand and so my original English email has been translated to Spanish (via Google).

Anyway, I had the pleasure of traveling to Puerto Williams by the car ferry in 2002, and also visited the museum and Villa Ukika.

While wandering the island road – by chance, I was invited inside a house at Villa Ukika and there, I met Cristina and others.

Afterwards, I’d said that I would send them photos.

But I didn’t, as I’d lost the address while traveling around South America.

Now, 20 years later as I sort through my travel digital archives I find these images.

And a search online has revealed Cristina’s surname and an address for the museum in Puerto Williams, and hence I contact you in hope that you will please pass these images to Cristina and family.

Attached is a zip file of 8 color and black and white images.

I hope all is well with Cristina and family.

Thanks.

Regards – Michael.

message from museum
Reply to email (2022)

Thomas Bridges, who in 1863 learned the Yaghan language and their ways and who was accepted by them, is a significant source of Yaghan traditions.

He discovered the Yaghan practiced absolute equality within their society.

Women were shamans (as well as men) but in times of a dispute, it was the women’s decision that was final; since women ruled the sea, and the life in the sea was key to their survival.

It was Thomas Bridges who named the Yaghan, borrowing the name of an area they’d used as a tribal gathering place.

But the name they called themselves was “Yemana” or “living people”.

naked Yaghan tribal women of the past
Yaghan women of the past (from the Internet archive).

To understand more about Yaghan Tribe culture, visit The Museo Martin Gusinde in Puerto Williams. Open Monday to Thursday, and Saturday, from 10:00-13:00 and 15:00 to 18:00.

Travels in Chile – 2002

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