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The Patagonians of South America
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Native American | No Comments
Most extravagant reports were circulated, in early times, of the gigantic size of the natives of the southern extremity of the American continent. These were not wholly fabulous, but merely exaggerations, as from recent travelers we have accurate descriptions of various tribes, among which the average height of the men greatly exceeds that of mankind in general. The Tehuelches in particular, although less warlike and dangerous than many other nations, are noted for their gigantic proportions. They are said to be more than six feet in height, upon an aver age, and some of them considerably exceed that measure. They are muscular, and athletic in proportion.
The Patagonian tribes are included under the same general classification with the Puelches of the pampas, and the numerous nations further north, spread over the vast and indeterminate region denominated Chaco, between Paraguay and Chili. Over the extensive plains, and table land between the Andes and the eastern sea-board, the wild tribes of Patagonia wander in undisturbed freedom. Their manner of life is similar to that of the Pampas Indians of Southern Buenos Ayres, as wild horses and cattle have spread over the northern parts of their country in almost equal abundance. The same fierce, untamable spirit, and the same carelessness of the comforts of life, with ability to endure the extremes of exposure and fatigue, characterize all these races of centaurs. Even in the colder regions of the extreme south, little in the way of clothing is worn, and the naked body of the savage is exposed to snows and storms, against which the covering of the European would afford incomplete protection.
“These men,” says Purchas, speaking of those near the straits of Magellan, “both giants and others, went either wholly naked, or so clothed, as they seemed not to dread the cold, which is yet there so violent, that besides the mountain-tops, always covered with snow, their very summers, in the midst thereof, freeth them not from ice.”
A great portion of Patagonia is sterile and barren, destitute of timber, and covered only with a kind of coarse grass, or with thorny shrubs. The country rises in a series of terraces from the low eastern seacoast to the range of the Andes. The northern districts are in many parts fertile and heavily timbered.
Crossing the straits of Magellan, we find one of the most miserable and desolate countries on the globe. Terra del Fuego, the land of fire, so called because of the numerous fires seen upon its coast by the early navigators, is a cold and barren island. The surface of the country is either rocky and mountainous, or of such a cold and miry soil as to obstruct travel and improvement. The forests are rendered nearly impassable by under-growth. The inhabitants are partly, as would appear, of the same race with the Patagonians, but as a body they are generally classed with the Andian Group, and considered to have some affinity to the Araucanians. “One description,” says Pritchard, “is applicable to both nations. Their heads are proportionally large, their faces round, with projecting cheek-bones, large mouths, thick lips, short flattened noses, with wide nostrils; their eyes are horizontally placed, and not inclined; otherwise their countenance would approximate greatly to that of the nomadic Tartars: they have little beard; their foreheads are narrow, and falling back; their chins broad and short.”
Among the most interesting accounts of these Indians is that given by Captain Fitzroy, in the ” Narrative of the Voyages of the Adventure and the Beagle.” Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, commander of the United States exploring expedition, has also very graphically described the appearance and peculiarities of the people and country.
Fitzroy estimates the whole population at about three thousand adults. They are divided into five different tribes or nations, viz: the Yacanas, Tekeenicas, Alikhoolip, Pecherais, and Huemuls. The name of Pecherais was be stowed by Bougainville (as descriptive of their mode of subsistence) upon those coast Indians who have been considered as belonging to the Araucanian family. The Yacanas appear to be the same with the neighboring Patagonians.
The separate tribes differ considerably in their physical development, but the generality of these islanders present a wretched and miserable aspect of deformity. Their withered and emaciated limbs are in strong contrast to the breadth of the chest and the size of the abdomen, and the squatting position always assumed by them when at rest, causes the skin of the knee-joint to become stretched and loose: when standing, it hangs in unsightly folds. Their eyes are almost universally inflamed and sore, from the effects of the smoke in their wigwams. There are few races upon the globe who bear so strongly the marks of want and destitution.
Unlike the natives of the cold climes of Northern America, the Fuegians totally neglect the precaution of fortifying themselves against the severities of winter by warm and comfortable clothing. The majority of the men go almost entirely naked. A single skin of the guanaco (a southern quadruped of the genus of the llama), or of the different species of seal, thrown over the shoulders, and, in a few instances, reduced to the semblance of a garment, by a girdle, is all that is seen in the way of clothing. Some slight fillets are worn about the head, rather from a fancy for ornament than as a covering. The females usually wear an entire guanaco skin, in the loose fold of which, above the belt, they carry their infants: a more convenient method than that adopted in some northern climes, of stow-the child in the huge boot.
The huts which they inhabit are built much after the fashion of the ordinary Indian wigwam, of poles bent together at the top, or of stiff stakes placed in the form of a cone. These rude dwellings are neither tight nor comfortable: they are generally intended merely for temporary domiciles, as the necessity for constant migration in search of the products of the sea and coast, renders any permanent settlement impracticable. The arts of agriculture are entirely unknown or disregarded. Sundry attempts have been made to introduce the cultivation of such vegetables as the soil is adapted to producing, but the ignorance and barbarity of the inhabitants prevented their appreciation of the advantages, which would result from the operation, and the experiments utterly failed.
Most of the Fuegians are supplied with roughly constructed bark canoes. In the center of these a fire is always kept burning upon a bed of sand or clay. Fire is obtained by striking sparks from the iron pyrites upon a tinder prepared from some dried fungus, or moss, which materials are always kept at hand; but the difficulty of obtaining a flame by these means is the probable reason for their care in preserving the embers in their canoes.
As we have mentioned, they raise no vegetable food, and the natural products of the country are exceedingly scanty. All that the inhabitants can procure to vary their animal diet of fish, seals, shell-fish, &c., consists of “a few berries, as the cranberry, and the berry of the arbutus; also a fungus like the oak-apple, which grows on the birch-tree. With the exception of these spontaneous productions, and dead whales thrown occasionally upon the coast, the rest of their food must be obtained by their own perseverance, activity, and sagacity.”
A race of dogs is domesticated among the Fuegians, by the assistance of which the labor and difficulty of hunting the guanaco, otter, &c., is materially alleviated. The weapons used in war or for the chase are bows and arrows, short bone-headed lances, clubs, and slings. The Fuegians are adepts in the use of the last-mentioned implement, and hurl stones with great force and accuracy.
They have no means of preserving a store of provision in times of plenty, and are consequently liable to suffer greatly from famine when storms or other causes cut them off from the usual resources of the sea. They will some times bury a quantity of whale s blubber in the sand, and devour it in an offensive condition, when pressed by hunger. In Captain Fitzroy s narrative there is an account of a party of the natives who were in a famishing state, on which some of the tribe departed, observing that they would return in four “sleeps” with a supply of food. On the fifth day they arrived in a state of great exhaustion, each man carrying two or three pieces of whale-blubber, in a half-putrid state, and which appeared as if it had been buried in the sand. A hole was made in each piece, through which the man carrying it inserted his head and neck.” Report says that, as a last resource, when other food can not be obtained, the Fuegians kill and feed upon the older and more unserviceable members of their own community.
The benevolent Fitzroy, deeply interested in the welfare of these unfortunate islanders, made an attempt, in 1830, to effect some improvement in their condition. He took four of them with him to England, one of whom died of the small-pox shortly after landing. The others were maintained and instructed, at the captain s own expense, until October of the following year, when he took them on board the Beagle to return to their homes, and use their influence in introducing the arts and comforts of civilization. One Matthews accompanied them from England, with the purpose of assisting their efforts among their countrymen.
Arriving at Terra del Fuego, wigwams were built, and a garden was laid out and planted with various European esculents. Curiosity and astonishment were the first feelings excited by these operations; but after the departure of the captain, the rude natives, unable to comprehend the motives for the experiment, and incapable of appreciating the advantages in store for them, destroyed the little plantation. Jemmy Button, the one most particularly described of those carried to England, when seen, a few years after wards, by Captain Fitzroy, had nearly relapsed into his original state of squalid barbarity. Matthews left the island upon the first failure of the attempt at agriculture.
Could there be found men of sufficient self-devotion to be willing to take up their abode in such a dreary country, there seems to be reason to believe that the Fuegians might be reclaimed. They do not lack sagacity or intelligence, and their memories are remarkably retentive. It is said “they could repeat with perfect correctness each word in any sentence addressed to them, and they remembered such words for some time.”
The Fuegians described by Commander Wilkes, as seen at Orange Harbor, were of the Pecherais tribe. His descriptions correspond with those of former voyagers, but their interest is greatly heightened by the illustrations, which accompany his valuable narrative. “They are,” he says, “an ill-shapen and ugly race. They have little or no idea of the relative value of articles, even of those that one would suppose were of the utmost use to them, such as iron and glassware. A glass bottle broken into pieces is valued as much as a knife. Red flannel torn into stripes, pleases them more than in the piece; they wound it round their heads, as a kind of turban, and it was amusing to see their satisfaction at this small acquisition.”
The Indians of this party wore no other clothing than a small piece of sealskin appended to the shoulder and reaching to the waist. This was shifted from side to side according to the direction of the wind, serving rather as a shelter than a covering. Their bark canoes were of exceedingly slight construction, “sewed with shreds of whale-bone, sealskin, and twigs.” Their navigation was mostly confined to the limits of the kelp or seaweed, where the water was calm, and they could assist the operation of their small and inefficient paddles by laying hold of the marine plants.
Those natives who were taken on board the vessels, exhibited little or no astonishment at what they saw around them. This did not proceed from surliness or apathy, for they were vivacious and cheerful, and apparently happy and contented. A most uncontrollable propensity to mimicry prevented the establishment of any kind of communication, as, instead of replying to signs and gestures, they would invariably imitate them with ludicrous exactness. ” Their imitations of sounds were truly astonishing. One of them ascended and descended the octave perfectly, following the sounds of the violin correctly. It was then found he could sound the common chords, and follow through the semitone scale, with scarcely an error. Although they have been heard to shout quite loud, yet they cannot endure a noise. When the drumbeat, or a gun was fired, they invariably stopped their ears. They always speak to each other in a whisper. Their cautious manner and movements prove them to be a timid race. The men are exceedingly jealous of their women, and will not allow any one, if they can help it, to enter their huts, particularly boys.”
When, after some hesitation, admittance was gained to the huts on shore: “The men creeping in first, squatted themselves directly in front of the women, all holding out the small piece of seal-skin, to allow the heat to reach their bodies. The women were squatted three deep behind the men, the oldest in front, nestling the infants.” Most writers speak of the condition of the Fuegian women, particularly of this race of Pecherais, as being subjected to the most severe and toilsome drudgery. “In a word,” says one, “the Pecherais women are, perhaps, of all the savage women of America, those whose lot is the hardest.” Those, however, seen at Orange Harbor had small and well-shaped hands and feet, “and, from appearance, they are not accustomed to do any hard work.”
Some vague superstitious belief in dreams, omens, &c., with the idea of an evil spirit in the embodiment of “a great black man, supposed to be always wandering about the woods and mountains, who is certain of knowing every word and every action, who cannot be escaped, and who influences the weather according to men s conduct,” is all that is observable of religious conceptions on the part of the natives. “They have, connected with each tribe or casual group, a man whom their fancy invests with the power of sorcerer and physician; occupying precisely the same position with that of the “powwows” of North America.
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