Photos by Lucas E.Briges in 1882-1889.
The Yaghan, also called Yagán, Yámana, Yamana, or Tequenica, are the indigenous peoples of the Southern Cone, who are regarded as the southernmost peoples in the world.Their traditional territory includes the islands south of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego extending their presence into Cape Horn.
They were known as Fuegians by the English-speaking world, but the term is nowadays avoided as it can refer to any of the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuego. Some are reputed to still speak the Yaghan language, which is considered to be a language isolate; however, most speak Spanish. The Yaghan were traditionally nomads, who traveled by canoes between islands to collect food. The men hunted sea lions while the women dove to collect shellfish.
According to Lucas Bridges, one of the few Europeans to speak Yaghan, the Yaghans’ name for themselves was Yamana (meaning person (though modern usage man only, not woman)- the plural is yamali(m)). The name Yaghan (originally and correctly spelled Yahgan), was first used by Lucas’s father Thomas Bridges as a shortened form of Yahgashagalumoala(meaning people from mountain valley channel -oala is a collective term for ‘men’, the singular being ua), the name of the inhabitants of the Murray Channel (Yahgashaga), from whom Thomas Bridges first learned the language. The name Tekenika (Spanish: Tequenica), first applied to a sound in Hoste Island, simply means I do not understand (from teki- see and -vnnaka (v schwa) have trouble doing, and evidently originated as the answer to a misunderstood question.
The Yaghan may have been driven to this inhospitable area by enemies to the north but were famed for their complete indifference to the bitter weather around Cape Horn. Although they had fire and small domed shelters, they routinely went about completely naked in the frigid cold and biting wind of Tierra del Fuego, and swam (women only) in its 48-degree-south waters. They would often sleep in the open completely unsheltered and unclothed while Europeans shivered under their blankets. A Chilean researcher claimed their average body temperature was warmer than a European’s by at least one degree.
Yaghans established many settlements within Tierra del Fuego; for example there is a significant Yaghan archaeological site at Wulaia Bay, which C. Michael Hogan terms the Bahia Wulaia Dome Middens.
But the Yahgan, who never numbered more than 3,000 individuals, were decimated by diseases brought by Westerners. They allegedly became sick immediately if the missionaries persuaded them to put on some clothes. In the 1920s some were resettled on Keppel Island in the Falkland Islands in an attempt to preserve the tribe, as described by E. Lucas Bridges in Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948), but continued to die off. The second-to-last full-blooded Yaghan, Emelinda Acuña, died in 2005. The last full-blooded Yahgan is “Abuela”Cristina Calderón. She is also the last native speaker of the Yahgan language.
The Yahgan left strong impressions on all who encountered them, including Ferdinand Magellan, Charles Darwin, Francis Drake, James Cook, and James Weddell. In “Sailing Alone Around the World” Joshua Slocum was warned they would rob and possibly kill him if he moored in a particular area, so he sprinkled tacks on the deck of his boat, the Spray.
The area around Tierra del Fuego became known to Europeans in the early sixteenth century, but it was not until the 19th century that Europeans started to be interested in the zone and its peoples. When Robert FitzRoy became captain of the HMS Beagle in the middle of her first voyage, he captured four Fuegians after a boat was stolen. As it was not possible to put them ashore conveniently, he decided to “civilise the savages,” teaching them “English..the plainer truths of Christianity..and the use of common tools” before returning them as missionaries. One died, but the others became “civilised” enough to be presented at court in the summer of 1831. On the famous second voyage of HMS Beagle, the three Fuegians were returned along with a trainee missionary, and impressed Charles Darwin with their “civilised” behaviour, in startling contrast to the “primitive” tribes he saw once the ship reached Patagonia. He described his first meeting with the native Fuegians as being “without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, in as much as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” In contrast, he said of Jemmy Button that “It seems yet wonderful to me, when I think over all his many good qualities, that he should have been of the same race, and doubtless partaken of the same character, with the miserable, degraded savages whom we first met here.” The mission was set up for the three Fuegians, but when the Beagle returned a year later only Jemmy was found, and he had returned to his tribal ways, speaking English as well as ever and assuring them that he “had not the least wish to return to England” and was “happy and contented” to live in what they thought a shockingly primitive manner with his wife.
According to the Chilean census of 2002, there were 1,685 Yahgan in Chile.