In our previous entry we mention two native groups, the Tehuelche and the Selk'nam, but we have not yet given a background on the people who originally lived in Patagonia.
Before the arrival of Europeans in the early sixteenth century, Patagonia was inhabited by several groups of American natives whose ancestors, the “Paleo-Indians” had settled there some thirty thousand years ago or even earlier.
The oldest dated remains of these first inhabitants are from the end of the last Ice Age about 11,000 years before the present (BP).
Were the descendents of the ancient Patagonian Paleo-Indians. The name was given to them by the Mapuche natives (who lived in northern Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina), and meant “fierce people”.
We group them into two distinct groups, each with cultural and linguistic differences: the Northern Tehuelche (Günnuna Kenna or Gennakenk – which, in their language meant “people”) and the Southern Tehuelche. The region between the Senguer, Chubut and Chico rivers was a flexible border between these groups.
Northern Tehuelche. Gradually, during the XVIIth century these northernmost Tehuelche expanded further north out of Patagonia, across the Negro and Colorado rivers and into the Pampas where they replaced the original natives of Buenos Aires province and became known as the “Pampas” or “Puelche” (the latter, in Mapudungun -the Mapuche language- means “Eastern people”).
In the Pampas they encountered vast quantities of free roaming wild cattle and also the horse which the Spaniards had bought to America. The horse was quickly adopted, and through the Puelche it quickly spread south into the heart of Patagonia.
The original core of the Gennakenk continued living in Patagonia between the Negro and Chubut rivers until their demise in the late nineteenth century.
There was yet another smaller group, on the flanks of the Andes in the Argentine provinces of Chubut and Rio Negro. They were usually at war with the Mapuche who frequently invaded their territory. They were known as the “Chüwach a Künna” (people at the edge of the mountains) and little is known of them.
Map showing territories originally occupied by the Patagonian natives (Click to Enlarge)
Southern Tehuelche. They called themselves “Chonik”, which in their language meant “us, the men”. Originally they were “foot Indians” and it was not until the late XVIIth and early XIXth centuries that they adopted the horse. The Southern Tehuelche were divided into two separate sub-groups, very similar except for their language:
• Teushen (Boreal Southern Tehuelche); they lived in the north, between the Santa Cruz and Chubut rivers.
• Aonikenk or Aonek'enk (Austral Southern Tehuelche), which meant “people of the South”. They lived in the southern area, between the Santa Cruz River and the Strait of Magellan.
Finally, Tierra del Fuego Island, inhabited by four groups all of which have now disappeared; each of them remarkably adapted and specialized to their own habitat.
The Selk’nam (or Ona), and the Haush (or Haus) were “foot Indians” who never adopted an equestrian way of life because horses never reached their island. The Selk’nam were very closely related to the Tehuelche in culture and language; they had become separated from them when the sea level rose and flooded the Strait of Magellan, isolating them on Tierra del Fuego.
The Haush were different and may have descended from the earliest humans to reach the southernmost tip of the Americas 13,000 years ago.
The other Fuegian natives were the “Boat people”, who had a highly developed way of life adapted to living on the sea coast; they moved around in canoes. These people were the Yagan (Yámana), who lived in the Fuegian channels and islands and were the southernmost people in the whole world; and the Alakaluf (or Kawesqar) who lived in the islands of southwestern Patagonia to the north and west of the Yagans. Both had a similar lifestyle differing only in their language.
A third group of boat people were the Chono; they were not Fuegian for they lived nearly 2.000 km (1,200 mi.) further north, around the Chonos Archipelago and Chiloé island –where they were absorbed by the Huilliche (relatives of the Mapuche). Little is known about them because they died out before the XIXth century.
In another post we mention the Mapuche people.
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©