Patagonia: Natural History, Prehistory, and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth

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Some fourteen to ten thousand years ago, as ice-caps shrank and glaciers retreated, the first bands of hunter-gatherers began to colonize the continental extremity of South America—"the uttermost end of the earth." Their arrival marked the culmination of humankind's epic journey to people the globe. Now they are extinct. This book tells their story.

The book describes how these intrepid nomads confronted a hostile climate every bit as forbidding as ice-age Europe as they penetrated and settled the wilds of Fuego-Patagonia. Much later, sixteenth-century European voyagers encountered their descendants: the Aünikenk (southern Tehuelche), Selk'nam (Ona), Yámana (Yahgan), and Kawashekar (Alacaluf), living, as the Europeans saw it, in a state of savagery. The first contacts led to tales of a race of giants and, ever since, Patagonia has exerted a special hold on the European imagination. Tragically, by the mid-twentieth century, the last remnants of the indigenous way of life had disappeared for ever. The essays in this volume trace a largely unwritten history of human adaptation, survival, and eventual extinction. Accompanied by 110 striking photographs, they are published to accompany a major exhibition on Fuego-Patagonia at the Museum of Mankind, London.

The contributors are Gillian Beer, Luis Alberto Borrero, Anne Chapman, Chalmers M. Clapperton, Andrew P. Currant, Jean-Paul Duviols, Mateo Martinic B., Robert D. McCulloch, Colin McEwan, Francisco Mena L., Alfredo Prieto, Jorge Rabassa, and Michael Taussig.

Originally published in 1998.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 1998

"A gripping read and lavishly illustrated."Nature

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691058498
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 1/19/1998
  • Series: Princeton Paperbacks Ser.
  • Pages: 200
  • Product dimensions: 8.53 (w) x 10.84 (h) x 0.51 (d)

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Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth

By Colin McEwan, Luis A. Borrero, Alfredo Prieto


Copyright © 1997 The Trustees of the British Museum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05849-8


The Natural Setting

The Glacial and Post-Glacial Environmental History of Fuego-Patagonia

Robert D. McCulloch
Chalmers M. Clapperton
Jorge Rabassa
Andrew P. Currant


Patagonia, including Tierra del Fuego, is a huge territory of more than 900,000 square geography of Patagonia. kilometres, located between latitude 39° and 55° South in South America. The topography of southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego is dominated in the west and south by the rugged Andean mountain chain, and in the east by dissected plateaux giving way to low plains. The continuous marine waterway of the Estrecho de Magallanes separates Patagonia from Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, and the Canal Beagle cuts Tierra del Fuego from the outer islands (fig. 1). This framework largely reflects the tectonic structure of the region, dominated by subduction of the Pacific oceanic crustal plate beneath the South American continent and active strike-slip faulting between plate fragments in the Estrecho de Magallanes/Canal Beagle area. Granitic intrusions and metamorphic rocks underlie much of the mountainous terrain, forming spectacular peaks in specific areas like Cerro Fitzroy, Torres del Paine and the Sarmiento massif, all of which rise well above 2,000 m. Late Mesozoic and Tertiary sedimentary strata create more tabular relief in the plateaux that decline eastwards, as in the Peninsula Brunswick. Throughout the 1.6 million years of the Pleistocene the western part of this region has been periodically buried beneath massive ice-fields that grew over the highest and wettest ground along the Pacific margin. Powerful ice-streams draining eastward excavated large lake basins like Lago Buenos Aires, Lago Argentino and Lago Sarmiento in Patagonia, and Lago Fagnano in Tierra del Fuego. The large marine embayments of Seno Skyring, Seno Otway and Bahia Iniitil have a similar origin. Ice-streams draining to the west and south cut the deep fjords that have split up so much of the western area into a mosaic of islands (figs 2 and 4). In contrast to this striking glacial scenery superimposed on the structurally controlled topography, the imprint of glaciation to the east is more subtle, where vast amounts of glacial and glaciofluvial deposits form rolling terrain composed of morainic ridges and mounds, and these merge into immense plains of outwash gravels extending to the Atlantic (fig. 3).

The regional climate of the area is strongly affected by the westerly storm tracks coupled with precipitation induced by the high western flanks of the Andean Cordillera. This produces a strong, east-west gradient with annual precipitation of 4,000–7,000 mm falling on the western slopes of the cordillera at 50° South, whereas less than 800 mm fall on the eastern side in Argentina due to the rainshadow effect (fig. 5). Influenced by the low sea surface temperatures of the Humboldt Current offshore, these cold and humid air masses give rise to the Patagonian ice-fields and large glaciers in the Cordillera Darwin. These are the largest ice-fields in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica.

The vegetation patterns of Patagonia are closely related to the temperature and precipitation gradients (fig. 6). High winds and high rainfall (2,000–5,000 mm per annum) extending along the west coast as far north as c. 48° South support broad areas of Magellanic moorland which is composed predominantly of bog communities and dwarf shrubs. Where precipitation is between 800–4,000 mm per annum, an evergreen rainforest dominated by Nothofagus betuloides (southern beech) occurs in sheltered areas (fig. 7). This species grows close to the margins of the Patagonian ice-fields. In areas of lower precipitation the deciduous Nothofagus pumilio is often present in mixed woodland. In addition, Empetrum rubrum, Berberis ilicifolia, Gunnera magellanica and Senecio acanthifolius commonly form part of the understorey shrub and herb layer, especially where the canopy is more open.

Deciduous forest of Nothofagus pumilio and Nothofagus antarctica occurs along the eastern flanks of the Andean Cordillera up to an altitude of c. 500 m, where precipitation is between 400–800 mm per annum (fig. 9). Here the forest canopy is more open, especially on the eastern forest margins where Embothrium coccineum, Berberis buxifolia and Pernettya mucronata persist with isolated stands of Drimys winteri and Maytenus magellanica woodland. Within the forest zone, but where areas are free from trees, an Empetrum rubrum–Bolax gummifera heath is present in places, and where there is sufficient water Sphagnum bogs occur. The forest vegetation gives way eastwards, as precipitation falls below c. 400 mm per annum, to the shrub-grassland of the Patagonian steppe. This is dominated by the rough tussock grasses of Festuca gracillima and Festuca magellanica (fig. 8). The dryness of the region is exacerbated by the combination of high evaporation and persistent westerly winds.

Thus far we have described the geological history of Fuego-Patagonia, its topography, vegetation and the present-day climate. However, recent glacial and palaeoecological research suggests the environment of Fuego-Patagonia has periodically undergone significant changes over time-scales of thousands of years.

The glacial history

Long before the Americas were colonised by humans, the landscape of Fuego-Patagonia was affected by repeated glacier advances that shaped the water-filled basins and major river channels that exist today. The largest expansion of the ice-fields occurred around one million years BP. The most recent research suggests that the maximum expansion was probably between 1.138 and 0.994 MA BP. A continuous ice mass composed of confluent glaciers from the major Andean catchments advanced as far as the Atlantic Ocean south of Río Gallegos and northern Tierra del Fuego. Limits of this massive glacier were mapped in 1932 by Caldenius, who named the glacial event the Initio Glaciation. Caldenius erroneously interpreted the limits as representing an earlier phase of the last glaciation or part of the penultimate glaciation (see discussion later in this chapter). After about 760,000 BP the climate of the world appears to have settled into cycles of colder glacial intervals which endured for about 100,000 years, during which the world's great ice-sheets advanced, followed by warmer interglacial conditions which lasted for little more than 10,000–15,000 years, when the ice-sheets decayed. This means that the landscape of Fuego-Patagonia has been influenced by glacial processes for about 85–90% of the last 800,000 years.

During each glacier advance rock debris was carried by ice and meltwater to the glacier snout and this material was 'bulldozed' into arcuate ridges, termed moraines. These accumulated as conspicuous moraine belts and define the former limits of each glacier advance. Maps of the moraines indicate that glaciers advanced less distance eastward during successive glaciations, probably because of a combination of tectonic uplift and subsequent glacial erosion of the basins in the west. Glacier advances during the Pleistocene formed the moraines surrounding most of the large water-filled basins of Patagonia. Morainic deposits of the middle Pleistocene formed the peninsula at Punta Dungeness and the Primera Angostura in the Estrecho de Magallanes as well as parts of the islands at the eastern end of the Canal Beagle.

The last glacial cycle

Analyses of cores sampled from ocean sediments and from polar ice suggest that the last glacial interval commenced about 115,000 BP as the global climate began to cool. The first major cooling occurred between c. 75,000–60,000 BP and it is believed that large glaciers from the ice-cap centred over Cordillera Darwin and adjacent mountains advanced more than 170 km along the Estrecho de Magallanes and deposited the sequence of sediments underlying the Segunda Angostura. Streamlined hills of glacial sediments (known as drumlins) in the vicinity of Laguna Cabeza del Mar may also have been formed at this time. The curving moraine belt can be traced almost continuously northward from the Estrecho de Magallanes to the bays around Puerto Natales. The outermost ridges of moraine belts in Tierra del Fuego, as around Bahía Inútil, Lago Fagnano and at Punta Moat, east of Puerto Harberton in the Canal Beagle, were probably deposited during this large glacier advance early in the last Maximum ice limits in glacial cycle.

The last global glaciation maximum began about 28,000 years ago and culminated at c. 21,000–19,000 BP (fig. 10). The best-dated sequence of glacier fluctuations for this interval is at the southern end of the Chilean Lakes Region, in the area of Isla de Chiloé and Lago Llanquihue. Because peat bogs and trees grew in this region during the warmer intervals between glacier advances, the deposits of successive advances sometimes lie directly on top of organic material. This has been radiocarbon-dated to give close limiting ages for the glacier oscillations. The fluctuations of the Magellan glacier during the last glaciation maximum produced stacked sequences of deposits exposed in sea cliffs along the Segunda Angostura. As the presence of a continuous ice-field over the Cordillera Darwin would have blocked drainage to the Pacific Ocean, it is likely that large rivers carried meltwater to the Atlantic Ocean. These cut huge channels now occupied by much smaller modern rivers flowing across eastern Patagonia. The great volume of meltwater probably also cut channels through the Primera and Segunda Angosturas (fig. 11).

The last major Patagonian glacier advance occurred at c. 14,500 BP. In the Chilean Lakes Region the glaciers terminated only a few kilometres behind their earlier Last Glacial Maximum positions, while in the Estrecho de Magallanes the glacier advanced close to Punta Arenas. In the Canal Beagle a large outlet glacier draining eastward from the Darwin ice-fields may have terminated west of Puerto Harberton, perhaps at Gable Island, during this time.

During the last glaciation maximum global sea level was more than 120 m lower than present-day sea level. Therefore, Atlantic water would have been unable to penetrate over the shallow threshold of c. 40 m depth between the Primera and Segunda Angosturas and we presume this sector was dry land at the time, apart from a major river of meltwater draining to the Atlantic (fig. 11). Pacific water could only enter the central and western section of the Estrecho de Magallanes through the western channels when they became free of glaciers. The gradual rise in global sea level from about 17,000 BP indicates that a slow but steady melting of the great northern hemisphere ice-sheets was under way, but it was not until c. 9,000 BP that it was high enough to penetrate the Segunda Angostura.

The late-glacial interval

After c. 14,000 BP in the Chilean Lakes Region and on Isla de Chiloé the large ice lobes withdrew rapidly, their retreat accelerated by calving of icebergs into progressively deepening lakes and ocean waters. The ice had shrunk well into the mountains by 12,000 BP. Similar recession affected the large glaciers in the Seno Skyring and Seno Otway, allowing drainage to flow westward to the Pacific rather than eastward to the Atlantic. This meant a drastic reduction in the size and discharge of streams flowing in the Atlantic-draining meltwater channels, cut when the glaciers had lain at their morainic limits.

The extent to which glaciers retreated during the interval 14,000–12,000 BP is not well known. However, a large eruption of Volcan Recliis at c. 12,000 BP spread large deposits of volcanic tephra onto the upper catchments of the Grey and Tyndal glaciers flowing from the south-eastern edge of the South Patagonia ice-field. As quantities of tephra were delivered by the glaciers and meltwaters to deltas being built into proglacial lakes in the Lago Nordenskjold area south of the Paine massif, it is known that these glaciers still lay more than 20 km beyond their modern positions at this time.

The same tephra from Volcan RecMs has been identified around the central and eastern sections of Estrecho de Magallanes and is interbedded between peat layers buried beneath glaciolacustrine sediments. The peat layers suggest that prior to c. 12,000 BP the Magellan glacier lobe had receded from the western channels of Estrecho de Magallanes, permitting drainage to the Pacific of a large pro-glacial lake that had previously been ponded within the central section of the Strait and in Bahía Inútil. During this time much of the area between the Primera and Segunda Angosturas may have been dry and apart from the deeper and enclosed hollows no major meltwater river would have flowed through the Segunda and Primera Angosturas. This, then, may have presented the first 'window of opportunity' for humans to pass on foot from the continental mainland onto Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego via the connecting landbridge (fig. 13). The land-bridge was subsequently breached again sometime after the Reclus eruption of c. 12,000 BP, when a pro-glacial lake and its outlet river formed as the Magellan glacier readvanced into the Estrecho de Magallanes. The ice may have terminated close to Puerto Hambre. Mean annual temperatures are believed to have been about 3°C cooler in the mountains of Central America and throughout the Andes during this interval.

Abandoned lake shorelines at 20–30 m altitude along the western side of the Estrecho de Magallanes and sequences of glaciolacustrine sediments indicate that the glacier advance dammed a large pro-glacial lake within the Strait and Bahía Inútil (see figs 12 and 13). The pro-glacial lake shoreline terminates at a moraine on the northern peninsula of Isla Dawson. This marks the limit of the Magellan glacier and thus the ice-dam at this time. The moraine is believed to post-date the eruption of Volcan Reclús, and so the advance culminated after c. 12,000 BP. The extensive pro-glacial lake would have drained through a large meltwater river reoccupying the channel cut through the Angosturas to the Atlantic Ocean, the surface of which still lay many tens of metres below modern sea level. Sedimentary evidence of this lake includes glaciolacustrine clays and silts that were laid down on top of the peat and tephra layers. As a number of interbedded peat and glaciolacustrine layers are present, it seems that the pro-glacial lake periodically drained and refilled, and there is tentative evidence that this occurred at least seven times. Therefore, it is likely that after 12,000 BP there were intervals of tens of years when a land-bridge between mainland Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego came into existence and was free from a large meltwater river. This period represents a second potential 'window of opportunity' during which it may have been possible for humans to disperse southwards by land to Tierra del Fuego (see fig. 13 and chapter 2).


Excerpted from Patagonia by Colin McEwan, Luis A. Borrero, Alfredo Prieto. Copyright © 1997 The Trustees of the British Museum. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Foreword 6
Introduction 7
The Contributors 9
Acknowledgements 10
Key Dates and Events 11
1 The Natural Setting: The Glacial and Post-Glacial Environmental History of Fuego-Patagonia 12
2 The Peopling of Patagonia: The First Human Occupation 32
3 Middle to Late Holocene Adaptations in Patagonia 46
4 The Origins of Ethnographic Subsistence Patterns in Fuego-Patagonia 60
5 The Great Ceremonies of the Selk'nam and the Yamana: A Comparative Analysis 82
6 The Meeting of Two Cultures: Indians and Colonists in the Magellan Region 110
7 The Patagonian 'Giants' 127
8 Travelling the Other Way: Travel Narratives and Truth Claims 140
9 Tierra del Fuego - Land of Fire, Land of Mimicry 153
10 Patagonian Painted Cloaks: An Ancient Puzzle 173
Bibliography 186
Index 197
Picture Acknowledgements 200
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