By Judith Fein
Photos by Paul Ross

Anyone who has read Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle remembers his description of remote, desolate Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia in Chile as well as the primitive natives who dwelled there in subhuman conditions.

Darwin’s account of that region remains largely true. The bottom of the world is home to such exotica as guanacos (lamas), nandu (ostrichlike birds), elephant seals, condors, black-chested buzzard eagles, calving glaciers, icebergs, nothofagus trees, calafate berries and Magellan penguins.

But his words about the people who lived there turned out to be more about the observer’s perceptions and prejudices than the people he observed.

Patagonia Cowboys

Patagonia Cowboys

When early l6th century explorers such as Magellan sailed through the narrow and treacherous Chilean channels looking for a way across South America to the spice islands of the Pacific, they entered the territories of several groups of indigenous people. The main tribes were the Selknam, the Haush, the Tehuelches and, the most southerly, the Yamana.

In the early l9th century, when Captain Robert Fitzroy steered the Beagle through the straits (today called the Beagle Channel) for the second time, Darwin was on board, and he saw naked Yamana who covered themselves with pungent sea lion grease as protection from the elements. His European sensibility was offended. He and Captain Fitzroy took four of the natives back to England, and their mission was to educate and convert them.

The most famous of the four indigenous men was 16-year-old Jemmy Button (his name derived from the fact that we was bought from the tribe’s leader for a box of buttons). As the Beagle sailed, Darwin and Jemmy Button spent a lot of time together, and Darwin was impressed by the latter’s intelligence and adaptability and the speed with which he learned English. When he arrived in England, Jemmy sported British threads, learned English customs and was introduced to the king and queen. One of the four Yamana died in England, and Captain Fitzroy brought the other three back to their tribal land. There, Jemmy Button reverted to his native lifestyle. Darwin concluded it was almost impossible to civilize the Indians, but one can only guess at the complexity of the cross-cultural experiment.

In the late l800s, Silesian priests and nuns went to Patagonia as missionaries and collected artifacts as well as stories from the natives they encountered. In the early 20th century, Father Alberto de Agostini arrived as a Christian educator, and for almost four decades, he documented, in remarkable black-and-white photographs and films, the life of the disappearing Indians. Their language, it turned out, was complex and sophisticated, their customs and ceremonies were powerful, and they had great knowledge of adaptive techniques to harsh and inhospitable conditions.

At the time of contact with the Europeans, Patagonia had an estimated 5,000 natives. Today, only a few hundred are still living, a result of European infectious diseases (for which the Indians had no immunity) and colonial cruelty and displacement. The story of the Chilean Indians is a fascinating, moving and sad account, and, on a recent cruise in Patagonia, my husband Paul and I had several opportunities to learn more about these vanished and vanishing cultures.

We booked a trip on the spanking-new Mare Australis, because it is an expedition cruise ship–and the word “expedition” means that the emphasis is on learning, hiking and exploring rather than dressing up, eating and fidgeting through glitzy shows every evening. The Mare Australis’s itinerary includes onboard lectures, a screening of de Agostini’s rare film footage, archaeologically-oriented land tours and visits to remote islands where the natives once lived.

In Punta Arenas, before boarding the ship, we saw the Silesian priests’ collection of native artifacts at the fascinating Borgatello Museum. A few children who were running through the museum stopped, mesmerized, at the tzanzas, or shrunken heads, that were displayed in glass cases. I have to admit that we were gawking too. The museum’s exhibits are a good introduction to how the Indians lived, hunted, and worshipped. Boleadoras, weapons made with three stones suspended from animal sinews, were especially effective for catching guanacos while on horseback. Fishing nets were made from guanaco nerves. Native clothing, fashioned from animal pelts, incorporated woven bark elements. Early photographs show the body painting used by the natives in now-extinct ceremonies. A replica of a Patagonian cave with petroglyph art goes back to the first known inhabitants of the area – 12,000 years ago. And the rooms of stuffed animals have their own charm. Even though the taxidermy is pretty terrible, it gives visitors an idea of the area’s magnificent wildlife, and what the natives had as choices for dinner.

Once we boarded the ship, we began to attend talks about the flora and fauna of Patagonia, and we were outfitted in waterproof canary-yellow suits for shore excursions in rubber zodiac boats. When we landed at remote Port Williams, which is the last town at the bottom of the world, we divided up into groups: some people opted for helicopter rides or treks through the town, but we chose the indigenous tour, led by a young American woman entomologist who lives in the town.

Port Williams has 2,000 inhabitants and approximately 100 of them are Yamanas. According to a our guide, only two pure-blood women are left, and the rest are impoverished mestizos.

Yamanas live in two areas of Port Williams – Villa Ukika and Mejillones. In Villa Ukika, Yamanas reside in poor but colorful wooden houses with corrugated roofs. At the entrance to the village are a wooden swing and a fairytalelike hut where women sell baskets (starting at $3) woven from local junco fiber and miniature canoes made from bark. A small sign informs visitors that they should not take pictures of the women without asking.

Inside the village, a Yamana man waved to us, and showed off his garden of brilliantly colored flowers. A jaunty 17-year-old boy walked by a grazing cow and told us he went to secondary school, which is mandatory.

One of the basket makers quietly told us that our ship is the only one that stops in Port Williams, and the Yamanas have little or no income besides selling baskets to the passengers. Of course we purchased a small basket and, when we asked, the woman had no objection to our taking her picture. As she talked to us, she looked out over the struggling village, which is a stark contrast to the magnificent and majestic snow-capped peaks which we saw across the water.

In the town of Port Williams , our guide took us to the small but intriguing Museo Martin Gusinde, named after a priest who studied the Indians in the l920s. Among the highlights are renderings of the natives by an artist on the Beagle; at that time, most drawings of Indians were done by Europeans whose imaginations were fired by the tales of sailors who returned from distant lands. Their renderings looked like Europeans in native clothes. But the artist who sailed with Darwin drew from life, and his sketches have a simple, beautiful authenticity.

The museum collection includes photos of young Yamana boys whose bodies are painted with vertical stripes, and information about the Chieshaus initiation ceremony where the youth learned about survival, society and the supreme being called Watauineiwa. A photo shows them in a circle, naked, their heads covered with foliage.

The women in our group were intrigued when they read the wall panel describing the Yamana ceremony (now extinct) called the Kina. According to Yamana legend, women once ruled the community. The men wrested control by killing all of the women except the young girls. The event was recalled during the Kina rites.

The walls of the small museum are lined with huge, haunting photographs of the Yamana as they once were – proud, resourceful, mysterious.

Before leaving Port Williams, our guide led us to an archaeological site where the Yamana once came ashore with their canoes in foul weather. They lived in temporary huts with a fire pit in the middle, ate mussels and discarded the shells outside the hut. Today, visitors can see a fire pit ringed by a grass-covered midden (refuse) heap of mussel shells six to twelve feet high. When the Indians went back to their canoes, the huts were left for others to occupy. Archeologists and anthropologists are trying to determine whether the natives lived communally or in small family units; our guide told us that they think the latter was the case.

Several days later, the Mare Australis stopped at Cape Horn (a remarkable feat, considering how many ships sank and sailors died trying to get there). Bundled up and braced against the wind, we climbed up 120 creaky wooden steps, and there we were, at the top of the bottom of the world. On one side, we saw the Atlantic, and on the other side, the Pacific. Back on board the ship, warm and cozy, we attended a detailed lecture given by crew members about the tribes that populated the area. (Crew members go through an extensive training period where they learn about nature, tribal people, and the geology of the land. They also told us that they read and study on their own, so they are prepared for the questions of eager passengers.) Most exciting for us were the parts of the lecture that included early footage from the de Agostini films.

According to the lecturer, the Teheulches lived on the Patagonian mainland and wore guanaco moccasins that left big tracks. This might be the origin of the word Patagonia, which is a corruption of pata grande, or big foot. The Tehuelches wore guanaco skins with the fur facing inward. Their tepees were also made of guanaco skin, and they were transported on their backs when they moved. In l899, their cacique met with the president of Chile to get help for his tribe. His mission was successful, but he caught an infection, spread it to his tribe, and most of them perished.

The lecturer went on to talk about the other tribes. The Selknam, nomadic hunters who lived in the flat area of Tierra del Fuego, wore guanaco skins with the fur outside. When asked why they did this, they replied: “Because that’s what the guanaco did.” The women also wore fur hats and necklaces.

The Selknam were less nomadic than the Tehuelches. They held initiation ceremonies where participants wore vertical stripes painted on their bodies; according to the lecturer, similar figures have been found painted in caves in Brazil. The Selknam medicine men (one can be seen performing a healing ceremony in de Agostini’s film) prepared for ceremonies by painting their faces. They used powerful massages on ailing tribe members and screamed to the heavens to get rid of the bad spirits thought to cause illness.

Their weapons were prepared in a fire (the bow was heated), and the bowstrings were made from guanaco tendons, which were worked with the Selknam’s teeth. Their arrow points were made of glass (introduced by the Europeans), and sometimes goose feathers decorated the arrows.

The lecturer showed us rare footage and talked about the small Kaweshkar tribe. De Agostini found them impoverished, dressed in old European clothes and begging for food. Tribe members lived in huts made of branches and leaves and shaped like a loaf of bread. Today only about 50 mestizos and one person of pure blood remain.

The Yamanas built canoes from notafagus trees and hunted sea lions with detachable-point harpoons for survival. When they traveled, the women navigated, the men fished, and, in the film, we saw children tending a fire in the middle of the canoe. When fishing close to shore, the Yamana used no hooks: instead, they baited their lines and hauled in the fish by hand.

Most ships that sail to Patagonia make a stop in the Argentinian port city of Ushuaia, and we had ample time to visit the Yamana museum, El Museo Mundo Yamana. Besides large, detailed maps with proven as well as hypothesized waves of migration and trade, the museum’s miniatures depict the Yamana lifestyle, and informative panels deal with fascinating native customs and ceremonies.

Although most tourists go to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego for its barren, remote and beautiful natural environment, learning about the natives made our trip to the bottom of the world a deeper and more personal experience. Long before the Beagle ever navigated the treacherous narrow straits, long before our expedition ship sailed past pristine glaciers and icebergs, native people learned to live in those harsh climes, and they have much to teach us about culture, natural resources, ecology and, ultimately, human survival.



Recommended airline: LanChile

For general information about Patagonia:

Information on the Mare Australis expedition sailings:

Tour operator with great information and bargains:

In Ushuaia, and easily accessible by foot, there is a very unusual prison (Presidio de Ushuaia) with life-size statues of famous criminals, dissidents and anarchists ( Also recommended are Fin Del Mundo horseback rides (actually, walks) for a spectacular view of Patagonian peaks and waterways. The unfortunate collapse of the Argentinian economy is a boon for tourists. For under $5, you can taste the local specialty of barbecue lamb and partake of a scrumptious buffet of side dishes at Moustacchio restaurant (av. San Martin 298). The Mudeo Mundo Yamana is at 56 Rivadavia Street. Detailed information is available on cruise ships and at the information center, dockside, in Ushuaia.

For specific tours and activities in Ushuaia: 1) Tolkeyen Avenida los Nires 2205 – Ushuaia Phone : (54-2901) – 445955 / (54-2901) – 445954 Fax : (54-2901) – 2901 – 445956

2) Rumbo Sur San Martin 350 CP – Ushuaia Phone: (54-2901) – 422275 / 422441 / 421139 Fax : (54-2901) – 430699 / 434788

The Museo Martin Gusinde in Port Williams:

The Borgatello museum in Punta Arenas is open daily except Monday, from 10:30-12:30 and 3-6 pm.

In museum, hotel and cruise ship gift shops, you can purchase books with more information about the Patagonian Indians.

Before or after your cruise (which lasts anywhere from three to seven days), it is highly recommended to visit windy but magnificent Torres Del Paine national park. Trips can be booked through cruise lines, in Punta Arenas, or at Porto Natales, which is a few hours from Punta Arenas by bus ($5 one way). Besides glacier, mountain and waterfall viewing, there is trekking, kayaking, and chance meetings with arrieros (gauchos). Do not miss a visit to the cave where the preshistoric milodon (giant sloth) was found. It takes little imagination to visualize the ancient hunters and beasts who inhabited the vast cave, which was carved out in a post-glacial period.

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