In a previous post on we mentioned hairy snakes, today I will give more details.
calchá filu, the hairy snake
Argentine military Commander Federico Barbará (1828-1893) who lived many years in the mid 1800s on Patagonia’s northern frontier, fighting against the Puelche natives (a Mapuche/Tehuelche group), recorded their vocabulary and wrote a Puelche-Spanish dictionary. In it he included the name of a lake which the Puelche called “Calchá-filu”. The Spanish meaning of these two words is “hairy snake”,
Gradually, during the XVIIth century the northernmost Tehuelche natives expanded 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 language of the Mapuche, means “Eastern people”).
The Puelche quickly came into contact with the Mapuche tribes living on the eastern foot-hills of the Andes in what is now Neuquén, and they became “Araucanized”, adopting their very convenient language (Mapudungun). The Puelche and Mapuche interacted through war, trade and cattle rustling until they were overtaken by “Western” civilization in the wars of 1879-1883 during which the Argentine government took control of eastern Patagonia (a similar process happened in Chile at the same time).
This explains why the Puelche used a Mapuche word to name a lake in their territory. Perhaps, just like the Mapuche, they also believed that “hairy snakes” were evil creatures.
Mapuche hairy snake
Mapuche oral tradition also mentions these creatures. “Kalfulemu, El Mapuche sin Sombra” was a story told by Abel Kuruuinca to Argentine folklorist Mrs. Bertha Koessler in 1962. In this tale, a native details his experience at the cave of the “salamanqueros” or witches cave, where orgies and debauchery take place.
In the tale, the native says that they lay him down and a “hairy snake coiled up on my chest and did not want to be removed” it kept an eye on him so that he did not escape.
In another story about “Renpulli, la salamanca del lago Lacar”, Kuruuinca gave more details:
“Then a snake, fat as an arm and full of scales and hairy, pounced on his chest trying to suffocate him […] the creature coiled around his neck and hissed and put its toung in his mouth…”
The hairy snake is also named “chiñi filu”, which is the “hairy snake of the seas, lakes and rivers”.
Interestingly, this word chiñi is the common Chilean name for skunk (Mephitis chilensis), also spelt "chingue".
We find the same word, (chiñi) in Quechua language. Quechua is a Native American language which is spoken in the Andean region of South America (Perú, Bolivia, Northern Argentina, Chile and Ecuador). It may have found its way into the Mapuche myths because the Inca invaded their territory in the mid 1400s.
The meaning of chiñi in Quechua is “Bat”.
So wether a bat-snake or a skunk-snake, we have a hairy reptile myth spanning the Puelche and Mapuche cultures. What can it be?
Note: there is a widespread myth in Chile about a Flying snake it is described mostly like a snake - bird, with or without feathers, but sometimes it is described as having tough bristles running along its back and no feathers. Is this Piwichén another representation of the hairy snake? or is the flying snake just a myth about strange birds?
Are hairy snakes real?
A hairy reptile is not as improbable as one may expect.
Hair is made from a protein called keratin. Researches checked reptiles and birds trying to see if they had genes that code this protein. And they found that these genes “are not restricted to mammals” because they also code proteins used to form the skin and claws. These keratin genes appeared in a common ancestor to amniotes about 300 million years ago. Amniotes are four legged vertebrates that include mammals, birds and reptiles.
However only mammals have hair follicles and are able to grow hairs. If a reptile acquired that capability, it would be a hairy reptile. But that would require complex mutations. It is quite improbable.
So, my best guess is that the Patagonian hairy snake is not a reptile but a long, slim, svelte mammal such as a Huillín (Lontra provocax), the Patagonian otter. The following image shows one swimming; notice its snake-like appearance which is enhanced by its long tail.
Endangered Patagonian otters
Huillín is an endangered species and both Argentina and Chile are taking action to prevent its extinction.
For a summary on the current status of Argentine huillín, click Here (in English).
For similar information regarding Chile, click Here, it is the blog (in Spanish) of CODEFF (Comite Nacional Pro Defensa de la Fauna y Flora), a Chilean NGO who is fighting to save the Patagonian Otter.
 Barbará, F., (2000). Manual de la lengua pampa. B. Aires: Emece. pp. 124.
 Fernández, C.,(1995). Cuentan Los Mapuches. B. Aires: Ed.Nuevo Siglo. pp. 53 and 38
 Bárcena, R., [Ed]. (1990). Culturas indígenas de la Patagonia. Turner. pp.236
 Chilean stamp (1948) - Sociedad Filatélica de Chile.
 The Evolutionary Origin of Mammals’ Hair Is Found in Reptile Claws. Discover.
 Huillín (Patagonian River Otter). SIB.
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©