• Environment and Geography

    The Tehuelche lived in Patagonia between the Negro River and the Strait of Magellan. Although they tended to favor certain territories, their range was actually quite fluid, which makes it difficult to precisely define Tehuelche boundaries in terms of rivers or other geographical features.

    The Patagonian climate had a highly variable temperature range, both between summer and winter and day and night. The average winter temperature was -2ºC and summer highs could reach up to 40 ºC. It was a land of volcanoes and steppe, with broad plains that were home to a rich variety of animal life.

  • Economy

    The Tehuelche’s main prey was guanaco, and the people prized not only the meat but also the skins, which they used to make clothing, blankets, dwellings and other basic necessities. They hunted these animals using bolas, surrounding their prey in a semi-circle with the help of horses and dogs. The people also gathered edible and medicinal plants, as well as seafood from the coast. Tehuelche women were responsible for domestic tasks (collecting firewood and water for cooking), and the set up and dismantling of their transportable shelters. They raised the children, cured the skins and manufactured some implements. Tehuelche women also decorated the tribe’s blankets, bags, belts and playing cards. The men took care of hunting and manufacturing tools and weapons, but they also spent quite a lot of time eating, resting and playing games.

    The incorporation of horses into the Tehuelche way of life in the 18th century caused some major changes in their economy. The people began to include horse meat and blood (preferably mares’ blood) in their diet, especially through rituals and sacrifices. The northern Tehuelche groups used the tendons, bones and skin of this animal to produce household items and to cover their dwellings, replacing the guanaco skins formerly used. The horse tack the Tehuelche manufactured became more and more elaborate over time, eventually evolving into a major artistic form. The adoption of horses also allowed the Tehuelche to extend their hunting range and thus secure a regular food supply. This extended range also led the Tehuelche further afield, where they came into contact—and sometimes into conflict—with other ethnic groups. At any rate, these interactions stimulated trade in goods such as Mapuche textiles from Nahuel Huapi. The Tehuelches’ contact with Europeans developed over time from occasional bartering to regular trade in established locations. One such place was the Dinamarquero archeological site in the Magallanes region.

  • Art

    Painting was a key element in Tehuelche art and was practiced on different media. Facial and body paints were applied daily as protection from the elements and for special ceremonies. The people made different colors of paint, all using a base of animal fat. The Tehuelche also bore tattoos, which they produced by incising the skin. The outside of their guanaco skin capes, called kais or quillangos, were richly decorated with colorful geometric motifs. It took three or four guanaco skins, preferably of young animals (chulengos), to make a single quillango. The people also made and wore leather boots, initially using guanaco skin and later young horse skin. The painting style used on these media varied, and consisted of simple, primarily geometric motifs (points, lines, circles and keys), but also incorporated naturalist figures, usually hand imprints.

    The Tehuelche also made playing cards, which they used for a game called berrica or birk, which they probably learned from sailors on passing ships or from other foreigners they encountered within the extended range the horses afforded them. The Spanish and English style cards measured around 8 x 5 cm and were made of guanaco skin decorated with their own motifs. The Tehuelche also made dice from the bones of huemul.

  • Social Organization

    Before the introduction of the horse, Tehuelche society was based on the nuclear family unit, with a dozen of these forming a band. This voluntary multi-family grouping dwelt in villages, where they performed tasks to complement hunting activities. During those pre-equestrian times, each band had a leader or chief called a Gownok or Yank, whose main task was to choose and organize the location of the camp. Although Tehuelche society was matrilocal, the males held the power within each group. However, the Tehuelche were extremely independent in general, lacking a formal command structure. The introduction of the horse revolutionized virtually all aspects of Tehuelche life. The groups grew in size and horses became a trade good as well as a sign of social standing that determined one’s place in the group.

  • Beliefs and Funeral Rites

    According to their myths, the Tehuelche descended from higher beings. Their supreme being was called Kooch, the all powerful ruler of the cosmos, creator of the sun and moon. After creating the land and water, Kooch journeyed to the East to take his rest. The Tehuelche believed in the existence of evil beings, the Gualichu, who dwelt in the underworld and were always looking for ways to do harm. Some stories suggest that the Gualichu was actually a single evil being, although this understanding may have come from the Mapuche influence in the northern reaches of Tehuelche territory.

    The people wore hidden amulets and talismans for both witchcraft and medicinal magic. The Tehuelche also performed rituals to celebrate birth, death, and marriage, and rites of passage for females were especially important. When a Tehuelche man died, his property was burned and his horses and dogs were put to death. The method of horse sacrifice differed according to the age of the animal: adult horses were killed with bolas, while young horses were strangled. Under the cadaver, facing the east, the people placed a blanket with red clay. On the tomb they erected a mound of stones called a chenque and afterwards never again pronounced the deceased person’s name. In some regions, individuals have been found buried in rocky shelters and covered in red paint.

  • Settlement Pattern

    The Tehuelche were a nomadic hunter-gatherer society whose groups traveled around from season to season across a wide range, following the same routes for centuries, making them into actual roads. Along these routes the people had their traditional hunting grounds and established rest stops (aiken), giving them names such as Pali Aike, Juniaike, and so on. Their traditional tent-like dwellings were simple and easy to dismantle and transport. They were made of wooden frames covered with layers of waterproofed hides, originally of guanaco skin and later horse skin. One of these tents could house from 8 to 10 people, large enough for a nuclear family and a few close relatives. The sleeping spaces were located in the back, though the single women slept in the center of the dwelling, near the fire, accompanied by the children and dogs. The Tehuelche usually wintered in one camp and moved around more in summer, mainly for reasons of food supply, water or health. The introduction of horses intensified the Tehuelche’s nomadic way of life, expanding their geographic range.

  • History

    Tehuelche was the name given by the Mapuche to the people inhabiting the Pampa on the northern coast of the Strait of Magellan. European sailors called them “Patagones” (“bigfoot”), giving the territory its name and endowing the land with the aura of a mythical land inhabited by giants.

    Although the Tehuelche had a common way of life and language, different dialects and local particularities were apparent among the different subgroups. These included the “Aonikenk” people who inhabited the Magallanes region, groups living inland in the Aysen region, and others that had settled near the Argentinean border on the mainland adjacent to Chiloe Island, and who had only indirect contact with the other Telhuelche groups.

    he origins of the Tehuelche can be traced back 4500 years in archeological sites that display very similar technology, diet and housing patterns. Two distinct stages of Tehuelche cultural development can be distinguished. The first is the pedestrian stage, documented in the writings of early European travelers. During that stage the Tehuelche numbered around 4,000–5000, divided into nomadic groups of up to 100 members each. These groups lived by hunting guanaco and the ostrich-like ñandú and collecting food along the coast. They used bows and arrows as well as bolas for hunting.

    During the second stage, the Tehuelche’s adoption of the horse revolutionized their way of life. The wild horses they captured were the descendants of animals that had escaped from or been abandoned by colonists in the 16th Century. Finding the environment favorable, the horses had reproduced and spread throughout Patagonia. Using horses allowed the Tehuelche groups to increase their range significantly, and therefore their size. Groups swelled to 400–800 riders each, bringing them into contact with neighboring groups more frequently and under more varied circumstances. Despite the harsh climate, the increased contact tended to homogenize the native way of life across Patagonia, with the Mapuche exerting a strong influence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    In 1876 the first sheep were brought to Patagonia, and their favorable adaptation launched the colonization of the area. In 1878, the Argentine government began to grant concessions regularly to colonists, and by 1884-1885 ranches were being established in the interior, in the southern part of Tehuelche territory. As large tracts of land were fenced off for sheep ranching, the natives began to lose their traditional access to natural resources.

    Between 1876 and 1893, the indigenous people saw most of their territory occupied by colonists, as the traditional hunting grounds also happened to be the best pastureland. This forced the Tehuelche groups to break into smaller units and adapt to this new configuration. By early 1890 there were some half-dozen autonomous groups, each with around 300-400 members. These groups amalgamated over time into larger units, and by 1893 there were just three Tehuelche communities. Two of these were forced to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life as the guanaco population was reduced by the steady expansion of sheep ranching. Despite this infringement, however, the Tehuelche communities did manage to establish peaceful trade relations with the colonists, choosing to breed and trade horses, raise sheep and cattle, or take paid employment in nearby ranches. This accelerated their assimilation into western society’s mode of production and, despite some concern shown by local authorities, the Tehuelche were decimated by their exposure to new diseases and alcohol and by their exclusion from their traditional lands, for which they could not obtain legal title as they were not deemed to be citizens with rights.

    The last surviving Tehuelches lived on the reserves of Camusu Aike and Lago Cardiel, in what is today Argentina. A number of nearby communities still claim Tehuelche heritage there today.

  • Language

    Aonikaish, the language of the Tehuelche people, is now extinct. Like the language of the Selk’nam, this language was part of the Tshon language family. It was agglutinative and substantive, with each word designating an object of nature or an abstract idea of a higher order. Examples include chetjen (newborn guanaco); shotel (guanaco eye); and Otil nau (good spirit). Each Tehuelche subgroup had its own dialect.