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Aonikenk Peoble


Abuela Aonikenk de más de cien años. Foto Agostini, 1945.

The Aonikenk were organized in tribes, formed by several related families.

The cacique lead the hunting expeditions and mediated the internal conflicts.

The cacique was not a political leader; he was more an organizer of certain practical activities within the tribe.

In case of war with other groups, such as the Mapuches or the Puelches, the Caciques rejoined in assemblies, and decided about the course of action.

Other than their height and in spite of the adverse climate, the Aonikenk had a very long life expectancy.

The explorer Ramon Lista, who lived with these natives over a century ago, describes elders of eighty, ninety or even more than one-hundred years old living among them.

Initiation Rituals II

Toldo de pieles

A needle and horsehair were the instruments used for piercing.

At the end of the ritual a mare was sacrificed, while men danced the Ostrich Dance.

When a girl reached the age of menarche begun the female initiation.

Upon reaching adulthood, the young woman was prepared for marriage; this was the time of the ceremony of the Pretty House.

In a special hut she was prepared for living with her mate, staying there from three to seven days .

Initiation Rituals

Muchacha Aoniken Foto Agostini, 1945

Each transition in the life cycle of the Aonikenk people was celebrated with a passage rite.

During gestation, to avoid sexual contact, the pregnant woman was separated from her husband: it was believed that semen enlarged the fetus, making labor more difficult. She then ate dry meat, avoiding liquids as much as possible. Her mother and grandmother assisted the woman in the birthing process.

The newborn was painted white, and then was named based on its physical features, place of birth, or a dead family member.

At the age of four, children attended the Earring Ceremony; girls had both ears perforated and the boys had only one. A needle and horsehair were the instruments used for piercing.

Aonikenk People

Indio patagón en la Bahía San Gregorio. (Dibujo de Fitz Roy - 1826)The Aonikenk or Tewelche people, now extinct in Chile, belonged to a group of nomads of the Patagonia. They are recognized as one of the tallest ethnic groups in the world, two meters height in average. They lived as hunters and food gatherers in the pampa, between the Strait of Magallanes and the Santa Cruz River. Their enthusiastic versions about the enormous footprints that they found gave origin to legends about the giants of the Patagonia, what explains the name given to this vast territory and to their inhabitants. During the XVIII th century, the Aonikenk people developed riding skills over the newly arrived horses, expanding their travels through the Austral steppes. Due to their physical resemblance the Aonikenks are thought to be related to the Selk´nam people. Moreover, their languages have the Tshon as their common root .

Corporal Paintings

The Aonikenk painted their bodies for esthetic reasons, but the paint also protected them from the cold. They covered themselves with red and black paint.

The paint was mixed with guanaco bone marrow or grease, which turned into a sort of gelatin when cooked. To this substance they added natural colours.

Red was obtained by adding ochre to the boiled substance and white was obtained through a special type of clay.

Women painted their faces with calafate berries. This dark fruit from a local shrub stains an intense blue.

They used rustic looms, probably a Mapuche influence, for weaving ornamental bands for horses and, probably, for clothing.

They worked silver in a rustic manner, making buttons, buckles, and decorations, basically using cuts, perforations and modeling.

Important persons II

Mulato Último gran jefe Aonikenk


He was the last great chief of the Aonikenk in Patagonia.

Since 1892 and until his death, in 1905, he ruled over the native community in the Rio Zurdo Valley (1911).

George Muster

He was the first white man to live with the Patagonian Aonikenk.

The indigenous' testimonies compiled in his work became highly valued sources.

He wrote: At Home with the Patagonians, a Year Wandering Over Untrodden Ground from the Straight of Magellan to the Rio Negro, London (1874), and Life Among the Patagones, Buenos Aires, Universidad Nacional de la Plata.

Important persons

El explorador Ramón Lista con un grupo de

Ramón Lista

He was the explorer who lived with the Aonikenk people, learning their language and their customs.

Due to lack of scientific studies about this Patagonian ethnic group before their acculturation and extinction, his writings are an important source for the study of this culture.

Lista wrote: The Tewelche Indians; Buenos Aires (1896); My Explorations and Discoveries in Patagonia. 1877- 1880. Marymar Editions, Buenos Aires (1975).

Tradicional Health

Cacique anciano del lago Cardiel Foto de Agostini, 1945.

The Aonikenk treat sickness with two forms of medicine: natural and magical.

The knowledge of natural medicine was not exclusive of the shamans; it was based of resources available in the surroundings. Constipation, for example, was cured with the gauycurú, a plant used as a purgative. They also used Pampa Tea (Satureja darwini), as an anti inflammatory, for stomach pains and infections. They also has a herb that grows in the estuary of the Gallegos River for rheumatic pains.

As the Selk´nam people, they probably used the Romerillo for improving their vision and, to calm stomach pains, they used the bark of zarzaparilla (Ribes magellanica). When natural medicine failed, the shamans intervened with magic medicine. For healing, they used amulets, stones and noisy rattles to drive away the malignant spirits .

The pretty house II

Mujeres aonikenk de distintas generaciones

Virginity was valued, for which reason young women were taught not to have sexual relations before marriage.

The ceremony included the sacrifice of mares and the male Ostrich Dance.

Marriage was celebrated with the sacrifice of horses and dances, as in other ceremonies.

However, for these occasions, dogs were not fed with meat because it was considered a bad omen. Other common ritual practices included shedding blood to propiciate the spirits incarnated in nature. Another ceremony consisting in prayers to the new moon, and in dancing with their ancestral spirits in an emotional event that lasted long into the cold Patagonian night.

The introduction of alcohol drinking, introduced by the white man, contributed to intoxication and to the destruction of the native people .

The Pretty house

Toldo aonikenk (reconstitución) Museo de Leleque. Patagonia Argentina

The Pretty House was similar to the shelter of the Aonikenk, but instead of being covered with a guanaco skin it was decorated with new ponchos, cushions, ostrich feathers, rattles and bells with blue, red and yellow beads.

Inside they restricted the bride's food, limiting her fat consumption.

Generally the maternal grandmother or grandfather accompanied her, educating and advising her in her new adult role.

The bride learned the moral codes of her community and the daily activities, such as washing, cooking, weaving and caring for children.