Day 10 The Land of the Yaghan

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Sat 2 Jul 2016 02:40
54:53.99S 70:00.82W

Caramor was still, the wind had dropped. Outside, an artists had painted the landscape in black and white, the dark trees against the white snow. Only the bright yellow of a patch of grass by the small waterfall stood out.

Franco shovelled snow off the deck while I secured everything below. “Hurry up” he shouted, “or we’ll be frozen in.” I thought he was joking but ice was forming on the surface of our pond as I retrieved the lines.

Kath retrieving the lines

Since we entered the Beagle Channel three months ago, we have been living in the land that was home to the Yaghan Native Americans. These are the Indians that lit the fires that gave Tierra del Fuego its name, the ones that Darwin described in ‘Voyage of the Beagle’. He was not impressed.

Personally, I have huge respect for people who can live naked and survive in these frigid lands. The only ‘clothing’ they wore was a loin cloth and a short skin over the top of their backs. In addition, the men wore skin sandals.

They were canoe nomads, spending only a few days in each place. Their diet was mostly shellfish that the women collected or dived for (the men didn’t know how to swim, the knowledge was passed down from mother to daughter) but they also hunted sea lion, guanaco, birds and otter (for the fur). Rarely they hunted whales in small groups but the whale often got away. They used bows and arrows, harpoons, spears, sling shots and snares.

Fire of course was, of course, of uttermost importance. The children were responsible for keeping it alight and they carried it with them in the middle of the canoe. The craft was a branch framework covered with pieces of bark stitched together. The woman paddled the canoe from the back with a single paddle.

Their houses were branch ‘benders’ or a type of ‘wigwam’ made with logs and covered with sea lion furs. They would simply abandon the structure when they moved away.

There was no chief, no hierarchy, the immediate family was the basic unit, but paternal uncles and aunts were also very important as they would look after a child if orphaned and be looked after by nieces and nephews if they didn’t have children of their own. There was no organised justice either, if a conflict arose, the family would appease or negotiate.

Property was private though food, huts and canoes were owned by the family. Presents were often given and always had to be reciprocated. (Not necessarily a bonus!)

I mentioned Darwin’s reaction to the Yaghan to Denis Chevallay, a fellow Genevan who has lived in the area for twenty-four years and has accumulated a vast knowledge on Tierra del Fuego. For a man so open minded, so modern in so many ways, I was surprised how judgemental Darwin had been. Denis responded : “Imagine meeting naked people in such a cold climate who stank of seal fat from twenty metres away and were covered in filth. Put yourself in his shoes, he was an English gentleman.”

During the mid 19th century, Anglican missionaries arrived. By the end of the century, the Yaghan had been housed and lost their nomadic way of life. They wore clothes and started dying. It isn’t clear what of. There are reports of blood poisoning and illnesses. In 1855 it was estimated that there were 3,000 Yaghan individuals, today in Puerto Williams, there remains one lady who can speak the Yaghan language. Officially, the Yaghan became extinct in 2003. 

Or maybe not. Walking through Williams you will meet beautiful people with dark hair, olive skin and slightly slanted eyes, proof to me that Yaghan genes are still roaming the shores of the Beagle Channel.

Approaching Isla Chair

As we approached Isla Chair (named by Fitzroy - the island looks more like a recliner if you ask me), we saw splashes ahead … dolphins, they swam over to ride Caramor’s bow wave all the way into Caleta Cushion ( it is below the ’cushion’ of Fitzroy’s ‘chair’).