They often wore no clothes – staying naked, but smothered in seal oil to survive in the cold southern tip of South America.
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 – 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.”
My email (sent in mid-2022) to the Museum:
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).