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Indigenous peoples of southern Patagonia (map)

Selk'nam was the name of a South American ethnic group that lived on Tierra del Fuego until the first half of the 20th century . They are combined with the neighboring ethnic groups of the Yámana , Halakwulup and Haush to form the Tierra del Fuego indigenous people. The Selk'nam were nomadic hunters who wandered around in small groups on Isla Grande and lived almost exclusively on hunted guanacos and small animals. Following the colonization and settlement of Isla Grande by prospectors and sheep farmers, a genocide of the Selk'nam occurred from 1878 onwards . Most of the Selk'nam were killed in this way in just a few decades. The linguistic and cultural independence of the ethnic group finally came to a standstill in the first half of the 20th century.

Names for the group

The name Selk'nam comes from the members of the group themselves and is used by them in the sense of a proper name, there is no derivation from any other term. In the literature, the term Ona is used very often , which goes back to a geographical designation of the Isla Grande by the southern Yámana and means something like "north". In some cases, Selk'nam or Shelknam only mean the northern inhabitants of Isla Grande and differentiate between the Haush in the lower southeast corner.



Little is known about the past of the Selk'nam before Ferdinand Magellan's discovery of Tierra del Fuego , as the Selk'nam, like all other ethnic groups in South America, had no writing. Archaeological research has shown that people lived on Tierra del Fuego 8,000–12,000 years ago . When and from where the ancestors of today's Tierra del Fuego Indians ( Tierra del Fuego Indians ) came to Tierra del Fuego has not yet been clarified beyond doubt. Since all indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego share human-biological characteristics, some scientists assume that all ethnicities are descended from an indigenous population of Tierra del Fuego and only later developed into ethnic groups with very different economic forms, languages ​​and cultural traditions: because while the Selk'nam were hunters of land animals, they collected and the Yámana and Halakwulup hunted marine animals by canoe. However, a two-route thesis is also possible: This states that the Yámana and Halakwulup colonized Tierra del Fuego with their canoes across the Pacific coast, while the hunted Selk'nam came across a land bridge from the mainland of what is now Argentina to Tierra del Fuego lower sea level was present. The linguistic relationship between the Selk'nam and the Patagonian indigenous peoples north of the Strait of Magellan supports this thesis (both ethnic groups belong to the Chon language group ). The Yámana and Halakwulup, on the other hand, have no linguistic similarities.

After Columbus

The first Europeans came to Tierra del Fuego on the circumnavigation of Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 . However, the Portuguese fleet leader, after whom the Strait of Magellan is named, had no direct contact with Selk'nam or other Tierra del Fuego indigenous people. The crew only recognized the smoke from numerous fires and accordingly named the group of islands south of the strait Tierra del Fuego . The first contact between Europeans and Selk'nam took place on the expedition of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa , who landed on Isla Grande in 1580 and named the bay Bahía Gente Grande, Bay of the Great People. The extraordinary height of the Selk'nam was also mentioned on other trips and even sources from the 20th century speak of an outstanding height.

In the next centuries most of the contacts between seafarers and residents of Tierra del Fuego took place with the neighboring Yámana and Halakwulup, as the Isla Grande did not offer natural harbors for the sailing ships. Because attempts by the Europeans to colonize the banks of the Strait of Magellan failed, this limited cultural contact was without serious consequences for the Selk'nam until the 19th century. The reports of the Europeans about the Selk'nam hardly differ in the perception of the foreign from those of other South American ethnic groups : Some of the travelers spoke of the material and spiritual poverty of those living there, a point of view that was caused by the harsh climate, the difficult living conditions and the exposed location "at the end of the world" was promoted. Other reports raved about them and made them " noble savages ". Because of their size and their conformity with European ideals of beauty, the Selk'nam were generally described more positively than the Yámana and Halakwulup, who were not only smaller, but also emitted a very unpleasant odor for Europeans because they often used seal fat or whale oil to protect themselves against the cold rubbed in.


Julio Popper next to a murdered Selk'nam

From around 1850, the Isla Grande began to be permanently colonized by immigrants from Argentina, Chile and Europe. In the following decades a large part of the approx. 2000 Selk'nam living there were either murdered by the immigrants or indirectly died from starvation or illness. First came the gold prospectors, some of whom used extremely violent action against the Selk'nam, as there was hardly any police control on the island. The murder gang around Julio Popper became particularly well known . From 1878, sheep breeding expanded into the unforested pampas of the northern Isla Grande, which meant an existential threat to their livelihoods for the Selk'nam. The Selk'nam fought back and attacked the farmers or hunted their sheep (which they called white guanacos). The conflict between sheep farmers and Selk'nam escalated at the end of the 19th century: Many sheep farmers offered a premium of one pound sterling head price for each shot of a Selk'nam. The London Anthropological Museum once paid eight pounds sterling for the head of a Tierra del Fuego.

In addition to the sheep farmers and gold prospectors, there were missionaries, including the Salesians of Don Bosco from 1887 onwards . After protests against the genocide, the authorities started rounding up the Selk'nam in groups. They were often taken to a makeshift camp at the port of Punta Arenas or to Ushuaia . Many ended up on a mission on Dawson Island . In this way, despite the best of intentions, the missionaries accelerated the genocide. They intervened in the cultural self-government of the Selk'nam and established numerous Western traditions that were not always helpful for survival in Tierra del Fuego. In 1911, around 300 Selk'nam were still living on reservations, but a measles epidemic in 1925 killed the majority of these people. In 1966, 1969 and 1974 the last three known Selk'nam died: Esteban Yshton, Lola Kiepje and Ángela Loij.

Today the media keep tracking down descendants of the indigenous people, who, however, have not adopted the language or traditions of the Selk'nam into their western way of life. Since 2004, some of the descendants have lived on 35,000 hectares of land that the Argentine government allocated to them. They have joined forces to form the Comunidad Indígena Rafaela Ishton to revitalize the Selk'nam traditions and culture.

Selk'nam culture

The Selk'nam culture has been passed down primarily through the German ethnologist Father Martin Gusinde , who described the Selk'nam culture in detail in a volume of more than 1000 pages. The ethnologist was accused of a one-sided description of the religious part of his book, which was subject to the research interests of his institute, the Vienna Anthropos Institute. We also know today that Gusinde's description of the Selk'nam was unreflectively influenced by numerous contemporary ideas. Nevertheless, his book is invaluable, as he was the first and the last ethnologist to describe the Selk'nam culture in its entirety. A concise and useful summary of culture, based also, but not only, on Gusinde's monograph, can be found in Cooper (1944). Cooper (1917) provides an almost complete bibliography of all texts (mainly travel reports) on the Tierra del Fuego Indians. Anne Chapman carried out the most recent and so far most recent ethnographic research from 1964 and published it in 1982. Later publications such as B. the collection of articles by McEwan (1997), rely only on secondary sources.


Selk'nam hunting

The Selk'nam lived almost exclusively on meat that was freshly hunted every few days. It was never eaten raw, but fried in thick pieces over the fire. In the north of the island was eaten mainly by a comb rats genus of ( Ctenomys magellanicus , also called Tukotuko from Gusinde incorrectly as Cururo referred), in the south only Guanakofleisch . In addition to bows and arrows, dogs were also used in the hunt for the guanaco. The rats were caught with a trick: the earth above the rat burrow was removed at night except for a thin layer; during the day, when the animal was in the den, the ceiling would be kicked with the heel and the rat would be spilled or crushed.

Plants were almost not eaten at all, most often roots, mushrooms and berries. They also knew a flour made from Descurainea canescens grains , which was ground between two unworked stones and then mixed with water or fat.


The Selk'nam did not have permanent settlements but changed locations to adapt to the hunting conditions. Each family usually built their own tent. A tent consisted of wooden posts that were leaned against one another in a conical shape and covered with leather. At a height of 30 cm, balls of earth and clods of grass were stuffed between the beating. In the north of the Isla Grande, where there was a lack of wooden posts, often only a windbreak was built, the few posts of which were carried along. In the middle of the hut a fire was kindled with flint stones, which provided warmth during the day and night and on which the meat was roasted.

Clothing and jewelry

The most important item of clothing of the Selk'nam was a fur coat, which consisted of guanaco fur or combed rat skins sewn together and which was worn with the fur facing outwards (in contrast to the Tehuelche north of the Strait of Magellan ). This coat also served as a blanket. In addition, leather moccasins were often worn . An adult male Selk'nam also wore a triangular piece of fur tied around his head when hiking and hunting, the widest corner of which protruded upright on the forehead. In addition to the coat, women wore a leather apron.

Clay, earth or ashes were used by the Selk'nam both for cleaning and for decoration. Grease smearing, also mixed with red earth, was used to protect against the cold. The painting of the body with white, black or red was mostly done spontaneously and on personal initiative. You could announce the current mood. In addition, the colors were used in the most important celebration of the Selk'nam, the grove , to disguise the Indians as ghosts.

Political organization and understanding of property

An astonishing peculiarity in the political organization of the Selk'nam is that they saw themselves as a precisely defined ethnic unit. This was favored or justified by the geographical limitation to the Isla Grande. Every extended family had a well-defined piece of land and everyone knew and respected its boundaries. The ethnologist John Montgomery Cooper names 39 such territories and gives 40-120 people for the extended family, Gusinde lists the 39 territories on a map that is included in the illustrated book belonging to the first volume.

Within the extended families, however, there were no political differences whatsoever, the individual families had all the freedom and were the only clearly defined group. They were in turn divided into individual clans who, in addition to the same origin, also shared the place. Within such clans or local groups there was then an elder who behaved "more warning and admonishing than threatening and cursing". Crossing borders by strangers could lead to a fight if permission was not asked. Even when dogs got into foreign territory, one complained to the neighboring group. Among the Selk'nam the notion of land ownership was very pronounced in a state as well as in a private context. The Selk'nam concept of property and, ultimately, land rights were based on the animal population, which was the most important thing for survival. There were also personal possessions, but they only concerned the bare minimum, as the Selk'nam were constantly moving about. The barter trade between the individual groups was very active and also necessary, as the different areas of the island had different materials available, such as particularly good stone for arrowheads. They also exchanged with the neighboring Yámana and Halakwulup when these Indians visited Isla Grande by canoe. According to Gusinde, theft was extremely rare.

War and weapons

Even the ethnologist Martin Gusinde, who was very benevolent to the Selk'nam, describes the Selk'nam as very vengeful and easily irritable. In addition to crossing boundaries, there were fights if the shaman of one group suspected that the shaman of another group had cast an evil spell on the group. However, Gusinde cannot confirm the robbery of women, which is described in many trips, as a motive for attacks on other groups; rather, women were probably taken along with them without this being the reason for the attack. Besides, murder was a compelling cause for revenge. The intensity of the fighting ranged from wars that took numerous lives to normal raids to ritualized, competitive arbitration of disputes in an arrow duel. The Selk'nam used bows and arrows when attacking hostile groups. Often, however, the enemy had already left his camp; the women had hidden the children and babies in meadows and brought themselves to safety, while the men waited for the attackers in a tactically favorable location. Protective walls were also built from earth, sticks or leather. Sometimes the enemy was content with the destruction of the abandoned huts.

Sexuality and marriage

The Selk'nam had a marriage-like institution and a ban on premarital sexuality, which was circumvented through sexual innuendos and secret meetings of the young people. Polygamy was occasionally common among the Selk'nam, but having more than two women earned ridicule from the other groups. In his research in the 1920s, Martin Gusinde was able to identify ideas of love and marriage among the Selk'nam that were very similar to those of the conservative morality movement in Germany and Austria around 1920. Since Gusinde always tried to portray the Indians positively, it cannot be ruled out that he transferred his ideas of a conservative ideal of love, marriage and family to the Indians. There are no reports by other authors on this intimate area of ​​social life.

Work and division of labor

The Selk'nam man was mainly responsible for the hunt. Even when the opportunity arose, he never took plants with him, since the Selk'nam believe that this is a purely female activity. Hunting also included making weapons and training dogs. A father only took care of raising the children later, when the offspring had to learn from him how to hunt or do other male activities. He also helped his wife with heavy work, e.g. B. when procuring firewood or assembling the hut. Otherwise the woman was responsible for the hut. Her main task was to look after and raise the children. The woman also prepared, cut, and fried the meat for all members of the family. The manufacture of leather and clothing also fell into their field. When moving, she had to carry a large part of the belongings in addition to a tent and possibly an infant so that the man could chase a prey on occasion. These statements by the ethnologist Martin Gusinde also coincide so closely with the ideals of a German-speaking family around 1920 that it cannot be ruled out that these statements are a projection of one's own appreciation.

Birth and child rearing

For a month after the birth, a Selk'nam woman did not eat meat other than offal, only fish, mushrooms, fruits and roots. The man was also advised to eat very little. The children were smeared with clay to clean them. A baby's umbilical cord was saved and years later tied to a captured bird in the presence of the child, which was then released. The children were tied up in fur on a ladder-like child carrier that stood upright near the mother while she was doing her work. During transport, she carried the child on her neck or on her back, sometimes in a leather strap.

Celebrations and rituals

The long ritual grove (the ethnologist Martin Gusinde wrongly called it Kloketen after the name of the candidates) was of great importance for the Selk'nam's annual and life course . For the festival, numerous groups came together in one place for several months. The men spent much of the time in a specially built hut. On the one hand, the toilets there , i.e. young people who were to be converted into male existence, were taught with myths and had to prove perseverance and steadfastness in numerous strict trials. In addition, religious rituals were performed with chants and dances. The high point of the festival were numerous appearances by ghosts. For this purpose, the men prepared masks and disguises for certain spirits from mythology . Each ghost, played by one or more men, appeared several times during the festival and exhibited different behaviors. Sometimes the ghosts served to frighten the women and to point out wrongdoing. Other spirits were used for amusement, and sometimes there were games between men and women. The women were not allowed to enter the men's hut and should not find out that the ghosts were only being played. To this day it is unclear how much the women knew about the great and closely guarded secret of the ceremony. Gusinde was convinced that the women believed the ghosts listed were real. In her research 30 years after Gusinde, the ethnologist Anne Chapman was able to determine in the case of the last Selk'nam who was still alive at that time that some women partially recognized that the ghosts were played. Chapman thinks the whole thing is a two-way theater, with the women also staging their reaction to the ghosts and their ignorance of the actors' identities. This does not affect the firm belief in the existence of spirits, both in women and in men. He is independent of the knowledge of the staging during the grove. The photos that Martin Gusinde took of the characters of the spirits during a grove ritual are very well known to this day and are generally associated with the Indians of Tierra del Fuego.

With the Selk'nam, a girl's first menstrual period was less laborious than male initiation . The girl had to adhere to special diets for a few days and was painted on her face. She was not allowed to leave her parents' hut or play with other children. Meanwhile, the girl's relatives came to visit and taught the young woman. After five days, the girl began her normal everyday life again, but was now perceived as a woman and treated more strictly. With numerous instructions, the mother endeavored to prepare the girl for the duties to come as a wife and mother.


The Selk'nam burials were carried out with the greatest simplicity. The corpse was neither painted nor prepared, but simply wrapped in one or two fur coats and placed on several logs and tied. They carried it a good distance from the camp and buried it as inconspicuously as possible, which is why they did not pile up too much stones or earth. Grave goods were not in use, the property was burned. The mourning took place loudly with crying and screaming in the hours after death. Sometimes the complaining and crying continued regularly for months and years. The incision of the skin or the cutting of a tonsure was also practiced for mourning. Everyone, including neighboring camps, was obliged to rub themselves with red paint when they heard of death, while the relatives mostly use black charcoal. There was, however, no formal funeral service like that of the Yámana . As with these and the Halakwulup , the name of the deceased was avoided for the next two years, but the person was probably circumscribed.


The ethnologist Martin Gusinde recognized a god among the Selk'nam, a so-called Supreme Being , who was called Temáukel. Gusinde's observations, which are the only investigations into the cosmology of the Selk'nam, must, however, be viewed critically, as Gusinde was influenced by Viennese ethnology, which researched a primordial monotheism . His trip to Tierra del Fuego was supported primarily by his spiritual father, Father Wilhelm Schmidt , because he hoped that these primitive cultures would provide a solution to the question of how religion came about. Therefore, it is now widely believed that Gusinde's description of a Supreme Being is influenced by this idea. This god, a disembodied being, punished and rewarded people for good or bad actions while they were still in their lives and was thus also the author of the ethical rules of conduct. He was also responsible for death. A second deity was Kenós, who created the earth and people on behalf of Temáukel. But Temáukel was of no importance in practical rituals, although the people had a deep respect for him, as Cooper reports. There was almost no prayer at all, unlike the Yamana people. However, offerings were common. After the death caused by Temáukel, the soul separated from the lifeless body and lived on. However, according to Gusinde , there is no general, more precise information on where and how. The return is completely impossible. Religious concepts of the afterlife were of little importance to the Selk'nam. In addition to these two deities, there were evil spirits, the so-called Yosi. You are manly and lustful. You should be careful of them as they can also cause death, but you can speak of them mockingly and without respect.


As with numerous other South American Indians, the Selk'nam also had a shaman who carried out medical and religious tasks. The calling happened in dreams, a boy received the training for it privately from another shaman. The shaman healed, influenced the weather and the luck of the hunt and helped with martial skills. Healing involves removing small objects, often arrowheads, from the body. With the Selk'nam, however, the most common task was to bring bad luck to the group of an enemy shaman, writes Cooper . Gusinde, on the other hand, thinks that the shaman was primarily used for personal purposes. There were also female shamans, but only very rarely and with a very limited area of ​​responsibility.


Martin Gusinde warned against standardizing the genesis and myths of the Selk'nam, since personal experiences are always woven into the story. As already mentioned, Kenós changed the initially flat and empty earth to what it is today. An important part of many myths is the notion that the ancestors turned into animals, mountains, stars or winds after their death.


  • Lucas E. Bridges: Uttermost Part of the Earth. Indians of Tierra del Fuego. Dutton, New York 1949. (Reprint: Dover 1988)
  • Claudia Briones, José Luis Lanata (Eds.): Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives on the Native Peoples of Pampa, Patagonia, and Tierra del Fuego to the Nineteenth Century. Bergin & Garvey, London 2002.
  • Anne Chapman: Drama and Power in a Hunting Society. The Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1982.
  • Anne Chapman: El chamanismo entre los Selk'nam, tierra del fuego . In: Barbro Dahlgren de Jordán (ed.): Historia de la religious en Mesoamérica y áreas afines . UNAM, Mexico City 1987, ISBN 968-837-943-3 , pp. 11-20.
  • John M. Cooper: Analytical and Critical Bibliography of the Tribes of Tierra del Fuego and Adjacent Territory. (= Bureau of American Ethnology. Bulletin 63). Government Printing Service, Washington 1917.
  • John M. Cooper: The Ona. In: Julian H. Steward (Ed.): Handbook of South American Indians. Volume 1: The Marginal Tribes. Cooper Square Publishers, New York 1944, pp. 107-125.
  • Martin Gusinde: The sound system of the Tierra del Fuego languages. In: Anthropos. 21, 1926, pp. 1000-1024.
  • Martin Gusinde: The Tierra del Fuego Indians. Volume 1: The Selk'nam. About the life and thinking of a hunter people on the big Tierra del Fuego island. Anthropos, Mödling 1931.
  • Martin Gusinde: Primitive people in Tierra del Fuego. From researcher to tribe member. Paul Zsolnay, Berlin 1946.
  • Wilhelm Koppers: The Tierra del Fuego by Gusinde-Koppers at the beginning of 1922. In: Anthropos. 16-17, 1921-1922, pp 520-525.
  • Wilhelm Koppers: Among the Tierra del Fuego Indians. Strecker & Schroder, Stuttgart 1924.
  • Colin McEwan (Ed.): Patagonia. Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1997.
  • Marisol Palma: image, materiality, reception. Photographs by Martin Gusinde from Tierra del Fuego 1919–1924. M-Press, Munich 2008.
  • Markus Sturn, Elke Mader (ed.): Gender relations and the image of women in Martin Gusindes ethnographies. Seminar paper as part of the seminar 'Gender Studies in Latin America'. 2002. http: //www.latein

Individual evidence

  1. Martin Gusinde: The Tierra del Fuego Indians. Volume 1: The Selk'nam. About the life and thinking of a hunter people on the big Tierra del Fuego island. Anthropos, Mödling 1931, pp. 121-122.
  2. John M. Cooper: The Ona. In: Julian H. Steward (Ed.): Handbook of South American Indians. Volume 1: The Marginal Tribes. Cooper Square Publishers, New York 1944, p. 108.
  3. Christina Hofmann-Randall: The Tierra del Fuego Indians. Anthropological description of the first discoverers. In: Würzburg medical history reports. 11, 1993, pp. 261-272.
  4. Cooper 1994, p. 108.
  5. Rolando González José, Clara García-Moro, Silvia Dahinten, Miquel Hernández: Origin of Fueguian-Patagonians: An approach to population history and structure using R matrix and matrix permutation methods. In: American Journal of Human Biology. 14, No. 3, 2002, pp. 308-320.
  6. Jean-Paul Duviols: The Patagonian 'Giants'. In: Colin McEwan (Ed.): Patagonia. Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1997, pp. 127-139.
  7. Gusinde 1931, p. 1127.
  8. Gusinde 1931, p. 158.
  9. Gusinde 1931, p. 160.
  10. Gusinde 1931, pp. 161-165.
  11. Gusinde 1931, pp. 179-188.
  12. Diario Tiempo Fueguino - Comunidad indígena local reconocida a nivel nacional ( Memento of October 12, 2007 in the web archive )
  13. Klaus Bednarz: At the end of the world - journey through Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. Documentation by WDR, 2004.
  14. ^ Fritz Bornemann: P. Martin Gusinde SVD (1886-1969). A biographical sketch. In: Anthropos. 65, 1970, pp. 749-750.
  15. Konrad Theodor Preuß: Gusinde Martin. The Selk'nam. [...] [review]. In: Anthropos. 27, 1932, pp. 661-662.
  16. Anton Quack: Mank'ácen - the shadow catcher. Martin Gusinde as ethnographer and photographer of the last Tierra del Fuego Indians. In: Anthropos. 85, No. 1-3, 1990, pp. 154-155, further reviewers are listed here.
  17. Gusinde 1931, pp. 270-279.
  18. Gusinde 1931, pp. 290-292, 296; Cooper 1944, p. 110.
  19. Gusinde 1931, pp. 193-208.
  20. Gusinde 1931, 208-219.
  21. Gusinde 1931, pp. 209, 220, 224-227.
  22. Cooper 1944; "The home of the Selk'nam with the borders of the clan areas", Gusinde 1931.
  23. Gusinde 1931, pp. 419-423.
  24. Gusinde 1931, pp. 424-432, 437.
  25. Gusinde 1931, p. 439.
  26. Gusinde 1931, pp. 440-445.
  27. Gusinde 1931, p. 445.
  28. ^ Cooper 1944, p. 118.
  29. Gusinde 1931, pp. 445-447.
  30. Gusinde 1931, pp. 308-362.
  31. Gusinde 1931, pp. 348-353.
  32. Gusinde 1931, pp. 370–378.
  33. Chapman 1982, p. 157.
  34. Gusinde 1931, p. 901.
  35. Chapman 1982, pp. 74-77, 153.
  36. Anton Quack: Mank'ácen - the shadow catcher. Martin Gusinde as ethnographer and photographer of the last Tierra del Fuego Indians. In: Anthropos. 85, No. 1-3, 1990, pp. 149-161.
  37. Thomas Theye (ed.): The robbed shadow. Photography as an ethnographic document. Bucher, Munich 1989.
  38. Marisol Palma: Image, materiality and reception. Photographs by Martin Gusinde from Tierra del Fuego. Meidenbauer, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-89975-649-4 .
  39. Gusinde 1931, pp. 410-413.
  40. Gusinde 1931, pp. 542-567.
  41. Cooper 1944, p. 123; Gusinde 1931, pp. 496-512.
  42. Gusinde 1931, pp. 537-541.
  43. Gusinde 1931, pp. 697-705.
  44. Cooper 1944, p. 124.
  45. Gusinde 1931, p. 721.
  46. Gusinde 1931, p. 733; Gusinde 1937, pp. 1386-1387.
  47. Gusinde 1931, p. 569.

See also

Patagonians , Haush , Yámana , Kawesqar

Web links

Commons : Ona people  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files