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The Kawésqar people

Huemul, ciervo de los canales magallánicos

The ancient Kawésqar people, or Alakalufe people, inhabited the fjords and channels of the most southern tip of the South American continent. In their canoes, they crossed the Golfo de Penas and the Brecknock peninsula, to the Straits of Magallanes and the land south of Tierra del Fuego.

They fed on sea lions, otters, seals and whales.

The Kawésqar family, while still nomadic, needed only a few simple materials to live: a canoe; a light hut with an oval base, covered with skins, bark and foliage, of fast assembly and disassembly; also some utensils, for hunting, fishing and food gathering.

Their homes were built with a detachable awning covered with sea lion leather.

Ladrillero's words convey the Spaniard's view of the Kawésqar people:

« The people of this bay have good will and are of good art. The men have beards that are not very long. Their clothes are the skins of sea lions. They settle nowhere. They wander in canoes, made of the bark of trees, from one place to another. They eat the meat of sea lions, fish and other animals raw, the same as shellfish.»

Fisical Characteristics

En los canales australes Foto de Agostini, 1945.

The nomads of the ocean, Kawésqar and Yagáns people, physically were short, long arms and strong people. Their legs, however, were shorter and weaker.

The bodies of these Fueguian canoeists had adapted to the hunting and harvesting of marine products.

Their main activities, rowing, hunting, or diving, required greater strength in the arms and torso than in the legs.

As an average, men measured 1,60 meters and women, 1,47 meters.

Their height was one of the main differences with the Patagonian hunters: the Aonikenk (Tewelches) and Selk'nam (Onas) people could be up to two meters high.


Niños Kawésqar hacia 1950

The canoes were called Kájef and were made of bark, with tools of bone and stone.

The building technique was as follows: they flattened the bark under the water, laying great stones on top of it.

To achieve the required form, they softened them with fire.

The bark was sewn in spirals, with vegetal strips that allowed the assembly of the pieces.

A compact mixture, made with roots and mud, was used as caulking for the canoe.

They had several types of harpoons and lances, some with detachable tips that were let loose after striking the animal.

Hand stones, garrottes and small boleadoras, were their main weapons for marine hunting.

Among their tools, the three-pronged harpoon for fishing may be mentioned. In order to cut meat and firewood, they used large sharp mussel shells ».


Familia en su canoa

The cold and dry climate of the Austral Patagonia, was not always so harsh. According to paleo-environmental studies, this same territory was warmer and more humid during a long period of time (between 6,000 and 1,000 BC).

Since 3,000 B.C., the climate is supposed to have begun to change, becoming less warm and humid and more cold and dry, until reaching the present conditions.

Guanacos, red foxes, cururos and a great diversity of birds, are only a part the native fauna found in the territory.

Fueguino hunters took advantage of the roots, diverse fungi and wild fruits provided by the forest and the steppe.

Men of the south

Dibujo de canoa kawésqar

The chroniclers left accounts of these nomadic marine people in their stories and testimonies:

« They have no houses nor towns, they have canoes made of the bark of cypresses and other trees. In which the women and children travel, and with thin branches and the bark of trees that they bring in their canoes, where ever they disembark they build small shelters, to protect them from water and the snow. We did not see any weapons...»

Ladrillero, 1880.

On the other hand the chronicler, Diego de Rosales, (1877), describes the Kawésqar canoes:

« They are made of bark, sewn with whale nerves, on top of one another, like a shell...»


Mujer con capa (Jéwála)

Layers of animal skin were the only clothes used by the kawésqar.

There were two types of layers: a rigid one of sealskin, made of a single piece of leather, and another looser and enveloping, made of several sewn skins.

Necklaces of seashells and molluscs or beads of polished bone, was the adornment of the women.

They also braided fine cords by hand.

The Kawésqar painted their bodies with a mixture of coloured dirt and fat of seals; black, red and

white lines were drawn.

This painting, besides being an adornment, it also protected their skin from the cold and frozen wind.

Important persons II

Mujer kawésqar en su bote Foto: Paz Errázuriz

Lautaro gave military training to his fellow Kawésqar and made them work on improving their living conditions.

After a month he returned to Santiago and remained in the capital for two more years. He married a Chilean nurse and, in 1949, he returned with his wife to his native land.

In Puerto Edén he took charge of the radio station, while she took care of the policlinic.

One day something unusual happened: Lautaro disappeared in company of a Kawésqar woman. He had escaped from civilisation in a canoe to return to the nomadic life. Other kawésqar followed, and under his direction they installed a new indigenous community in San Pedro. Once there they hunted sea lions and otter and sold the fine pelts.

During three years the Kawésqar returned to their old way life as organised nomadic hunters under the guidance of a chief.

At the beginning of 1953 Lautaro along with the other Kawésqar, drowned in Puerto Calatur, the estuary of the Baker River. It was a misfortune for these people and the survivors returned to Puerto Edén.


Vida nómade en el mar

The first inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego arrived from the north of the American continent and due to the end of the last ice age, they could travel by land, until reaching the South end of the continent, at the Strait of Magallanes.

The oldest signs of human inhabitants in Tierra del Fuego are located in the archaeological site of Marazzi, discovered in 1960, that has established two dates of human presence: one dating from 7,640 BC and a more recent one dated at 3,600 B.C.

According to the earliest findings of this important site, during a first stage, its inhabitants would have been mainland hunters, since there were boledoras and the remains of terrestrial animals whose age was determined by the Carbon 14 method.

Important Persons

Madre e hijo Foto Agostini, 1945.

To the south of the Gulf of Penas, in the Messier Channel, the Wellington, Serrano and Gueyeneco Islands are located. After crossing the canal called Angostura Inglesa, Wellington Island is reached; a small barren island that hides the small cove where Puerto Edén is located. This is a small bay surrounded by high mountains with abundant vegetation on the lower skirts. Puerto Edén has a meteorological station belonging to the Chilean Navy, a Salesian mission and a group of cabins where the modern day Kawésqar live.

In 1940, in the days of Chilean President Don Pedro Aguirre Cerda, a young Kawésqar of Puerto Edén, about ten years of age and very intelligent, was taken to Santiago to study in the Chilean Air Force Academy.

The idea was to civilise him and return him to his place of origin so that he might help with the progress of his community.

His was named Lautaro Edén Wellington. In 1947, Lautaro - godson of President Aguirre Cerda - returned to Puerto Edén on vacation as a mechanic sergeant major of aviation.