Uttermost Part of the Earth

UntitledUttermost Part of the Earth (1948), by E. Lucas Bridges, is the definitive story of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The memoirs of the land’s ‘third white native’, it details his life amongst the indigenous Fuegians, their cultures and the effects of colonisation. Part autobiography, part ethnography, part history book and part adventure novel, Uttermost Part of the Earth is the most detailed account we have on a people now extinct.

Lucas Bridges (1874 – 1948) was the eldest son of Reverend Thomas Bridges, who established the Anglican Mission at Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. He grew up amongst the coastal Yaghan people and, as a young man, explored the island’s interior, where previously uncontacted tribes lived.

AF Tschifferly, who rode from Argentina to Washington DC on horseback, convinced Bridges (below) to write down his stories. In his 70s, Bridges applied his lifelong energy to writing this book. It describes his later life – service in WW1, adventures in Paraguay and South Africa, only in passing. Tierra del Fuego is the focus.

The book five parts:Lucas Bridges y las creencias religiosas de los selk'nam ...

  • Ushuaia, 1826-1887: European exploration, Bridge’s early life, the Yaghan.
  • Haberton, 1887 – 1899: adventures on the coast, the Manek’enk (Aush), first contact with the Selk’nam.
  • The Road to Najmishk (1900-1902): Selk’nam conflict, adventures in the interior
  • A Hut in Ona Land (1902-1907) Bridges’ sheep farm. Selk’nam culture, Fuegian animals, myths and legends.
  • The Estancia Viamonte, (1907-1910) The story concludes.

Vivid descriptions bring the prehistoric wilderness of Tierra del Fuego to life, its rugged cliffs and islands, snowy forests, mountains, moors and bogs, and the creatures who call it home. Bridges alternates between the main narrative and such descriptions, peppering them with strange and fantastic anecdotes.

While his father dedicated his life to transliterating the Yaghan language, Bridges is most interested in the mysterious tribe beyond the mountains. After making contact, he lives and hunts amongst the Selk’nam hunter-gatherers (whom he calls ‘Ona’, their Yaghan name) for over ten years. He learns their language and customs, makes friends and enemies, and is eventually the only outsider initiated to their lodge. His accounts cover everything from courtship to clothing to secret societies and the Selk’nam’s (lack of) religion. Though the author veers on paternalistic, he treats the Fuegians with genuine respect and is free from the naked racism so common in his time. He tries but does not succeed, to ‘soften the blow of civilization’ and help the Selkn’am adapt. They left no records of their own.

The cast of characters can be bewildering. Many key players have unfamiliar Fuegian names. Bridges does well, however, in describing their backgrounds and personalities, while reminding the reader of past events. Memorable individuals include the insane ‘wizard’ Minkiyolh, the hunter Ahnikin and the gaucho Serafin Aguirre.

The many stories in these pages are fascinating, heartwarming and sad. There are true tales of abduction, murder, hunting trips, shipwrecks, escaped convicts, massacres and suicidal horses woven throughout its pages in simple and matter-of-fact prose.

Overriding the stories, however, is the sobering doom Bridges alludes to from the start. Civilization will triumph. Roads and airstrips will conquer South America’s last frontier, and guns, alcohol and measles will destroy the indigenous way of life.

Bridges does not discuss the Selk’nam genocide at length. That happened in northern Tierra del Fuego in the 1890s, before Bridges made contact. Those he meets are the remainders yet untouched by colonialism. Due to libel, Bridges does not disclose the names of murderous settlers. Their children were still prominent landowners when the book was published.

Obtaining this book was difficult. It went out of print years ago and the only copies online are expensive second-hand ones or third party reprints. I opted for the latter option and paid  $30 to have it delivered from New Delhi. It is a hefty book with well over 500 pages. Unfortunately its many black and white photographs and maps were barely visible. They are one of the books’ main draws.


This passage on page 336 stands out:

“Talimeoat was a most likeable Indian. I was much in his company. One still evening in autumn, just before business was to take me to Buenos Aires, I was walking with him near Lake Kami. We were just above the upper tree level, and before descending into the valley, rested on a grassy slope. The air was crisp, for already the days were getting short and, with weather so calm and clear, there were bound to be a hard frost before sunrise. A few gilt edged, feather clouds broke the monotony of the pale green sky, and the beech forest that clothed the lake’s steep banks to the water’s edge had not yet completely lost its brilliant autumn colours. The evening light gave the remote ranges a purple tint impossible to describe or to paint.

Across leagues of wooded hills up the forty-mile length of Lake Kami, Talimeoat and I gazed long and silently towards a glorious sunset. I knew that he was searching the distance for any sign of smoke from the camp-fires of friends or foes. After a while his vigilance relaxed and, lying near me, he seemed to become oblivious to my presence. Feeling the chill of evening, I was on the point of suggesting a move, when he heaved a deep sigh and said to himself, as softly as an Ona could say anything:

“Yak haruin.” (“my country”)

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Amazon Burning

amazon burning

The lungs of the world are burning. For three weeks, fires have swept the Amazon Rainforest at a sickening pace, blackening the skies above São Paulo like something from the apocalypse. Drought, climate change, arson and Brazil’s new government are all to blame.

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Covering an area the size of Australia across nine countries, it is home to 10% of the world’s animal species (many of them endangered) and produces a fifth of our oxygen. 60% is in Brazil. The Amazon’s 400 billion trees absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide and produce most of the Western Hemisphere’s rain. Through transpiration the rainforest releases moisture into the atmosphere, sustaining its own ecosystem and weather patterns. As the rainforest shrinks, less rain falls and temperatures increase. Were it to disappear completely, the Amazon Rainforest would take two million years to regrow.

Despite the good it does the world, money is made from the Amazon’s destruction. Cattle ranches and soybean plantations are more profitable than forest, and there are minerals in the soil. For decades, illegal logging, mining and fires have chipped away at the rainforest’s edge, feeding Brazil’s beef industry, increasing drought and emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Lush forests turn to dry savannah and farmland.

bolsonaroBrazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on a tough-on-crime, anti-corruption platform. An army man, he pines for the dictatorship he once served, when logging was encouraged and the indigenous population fell by half. Bolsonaro and his allies see the Amazon as a resource to be exploited. He claims Brazil owes the world nothing and foreign critics wish only to keep it poor. Since taking power in January, Bolsonaro has slashed environmental regulations and turned a blind eye to illegal logging. Over 70,000 fires now rage, 84% more than 2018.

Aside from its wildlife, the rainforest is home to at least 200 indigenous groups, many uncontacted. In contrast to Brazil’s industrial society, they live with the rainforest, and stand on the front lines against land grabbers and fires. In 2018 Bolsonaro promised to cull federal protection of indigenous land.

South America in Flames: The Amazon Rainforest Is BURNING ...Fires of this scale are unnatural. They were ignited to clear vegetation for farmland on the rainforest’s edge. Normally, the rainforest is too moist for them to spread, but drought and global warming have changed the game. Bolsonaro claimed NGOs started the fires to discredit him, a baseless lie, and only organised a national response when they reached crisis level. Tens of thousands took to South America’s streets demanding action.

French president Emmanuel Macron prioritised an international response in this weekend’s G7 meeting. Bolsonaro insists it remain an internal issue.

20% of Brazil’s rainforest was deforested in the past 50 years. Another 20% would trigger an irreversible feedback loop that would be the Amazon’s end.

Maps of disappearing forests - Business InsiderSources: Associated Press, The Atlantic, The Economist, The Intercept, World Wildlife Fund

How Syuna the Rockfish got his Flat Head (Yahghan Legend)

Bahía Lapataia is a bay located on the Beagle Channel in ...

Disclaimer: This is a legend of the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego, as recorded by Lucas Bridges in his 1948 book ‘Uttermost Part of the Earth’. The words are his, not mine.

Some miles to the east of Lanushwaia (Woodpeacker Harbour) there is a flat shingle point, and east of this still is a steep, rocky coast with sheltered coves here and there, suitable for canoes. The best of these little harbours is Wujyasima (Water in the Doorway), once a favourite site for Yahgan wigwams.

Once upon a time a young girl left home at Wujyasima and walked alone round to the shingle point, where she began to play, running down the beach after the receding waves and back again as the breakers rolled in. Watching her unseen was a lustful old sea-lion; and when a great wave swept her off her feet, she found the creature by her side. Like all Yahgan women, the maiden was a good swimmer, and therefore sought to evade him. But by keeping between her and the shore, and forcing her father and farther out to sea, he at length exhausted her and she was glad to rest her hand on his neck.

Now that her life depended on him, the maiden began to feel quite friendly towards her strange escort. He swam with her for many miles until they reached a great rock, in which there was a cave. The girl knew that she could never swim home without help, so she decided to accept the inevitable, and took up residence with the sea-lion in the cave. He brought her abundance of fish, which, as there was no fire, she ate raw.

Royalty Free South American Sea Lion Pictures, Images and ...Time passed and a son was born to them. In shape he resembled a human child, but he was covered with hair, like a seal. The boy grew quickly and was company for his mother, especially when he learned to talk. This the old sea-lion could never do, yet, because he was always so kind and considerate, the young woman grew exceedingly fond of him.

Nevertheless she longed intensely to see her own country and people again. She managed to make her wishes known to him, and one day all three of them set out for Wujyasima. At times mother and son swam beside their protector, at others he towed them through the water at a great pace; and sometimes they rode on his back.

At last they landed on the shingle point. The sea-lion flopped up the beach and lay down to rest in the warm sunshine, while the mother, taking her queer little son by the hand, walked to Wujyasima. In the village she found a number of her relatives, who had long given her up for dead. When she told them her story, great was their surprise and deep their interest in her funny little hybrid son.

After the first excitement had died down, the women of the village suggested they should go into their canoes eastward along the rocks, to look for deep-water mussels and sea-urchins, which have the size and shape of flattish apples, with hard shells covered with stiff, spike-like bristles. The young mother accompanied them on this excursion, while the men and children remained behind in the settlement.

The children began to play games, in which the little visitor joined boisterously. The men, however, longed for meat, and knowing there was a seal lying on the beach, one said :

“Why do sit here hungry?”

So they took their spears and, creeping up to the old sea-lion, killed him. Laden with meat, they returned to the village and began to cook the meal. The children sniffed the delicious odour of roasting seal and gathered round the fire. When the time came for the meat to be distributed, the young visitor received his piece with the rest. He tasted it and cried with delight:

“Amma sum undupa!” (“ It is seal meat!”)

Then, eating as he went, he ran to meet his mother, who was just returning. The canoes came alongside a steep rock, which at that state of the tide served as a jetty, and the women stepped ashore with their baskets of sea-urchins. The little boy ran up to his mother and offered her the last morsel of his meat, saying it tasted good. In a flash she realized what had happened. She snatched a large sea-urchin from her basket and struck her child on the forehead with it. He fell into deep water, instantly changed into syuna the rockfish and swam away.

Lesser spotted catshark3The other women went up to the wigwams and feasted on roasted seal meat, but the mother refused to eat, and mourned alone for her lost son and his kindly old father. She never afterwards took a husband from among her own people.

If you examine a syuna you will find that its head is flat and that it is covered with the little pit-marks left by the bristles of the sea-urchin, which goes far to prove that the story is true.

Source: Lucas Bridges – Uttermost Part of the Earth

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Population Y

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Population Y is a proposed ‘ghost population’ who may have inhabited South America before Palaeo-Indians crossed the Bering Landbridge 15,000 years ago. Unlike Native Americans, whose ancestors came from Siberia, Population Y was more closely related to Melanesians and Australian Aborigines. Slim evidence lies in ancient bones and modern DNA.

The prevailing narrative is Native Americans share a common origin. 15,000 years ago humans from Siberia crossed a land bridge spanning the Bering Strait. As the Ice Sheets melted, their descendants dispersed across the continent and became the indigenous peoples of America – everyone from the Incas to the Algonquin. In 2012 Harvard scientists sequenced genomes from 52 indigenous groups and concluded they shared common DNA with this founder group – represented in the mDNA haplogroups A, C, D and N.

However they may not have been the first.

Related imageIn 1973 scientists discovered a 13,000 year-old skeleton in a cave at Lagoa Santa, Brazil. The ‘Luzia Woman’ was the oldest human remains found in the Western Hemisphere. Curiously the Luzia woman’s skull resembled an Australian Aborigine more than a Native American. The Laranjal and Moraes skeletons of Lagoa Santa shared this trait. The Lagoa Santa people’s closest Amerindian relatives are the Yaghan of Tierra Del Fuego and the extinct Pericue of Baja California. 

Image result for xavanteSome Amerindians carry DNA from Population Y. In 2015 scientists sequenced the genome of three Amazonian tribes – the Xavante (pictured), Karitiana and Surui, who were uncontacted until the 20th century. 1-2% of their DNA was shared with Australasians. Smaller amounts were also found in Mixe people of Mexico and Aleutian Islanders but no other groups. The findings were published in Nature. Population Y comes from Ypykuera – an Amazonian word for ‘ancestor’.

Less reliable evidence of a Proto-Australasian presence in the Americas:

  1. Similarities between the rock paintings of Lagoa Santa and Australia
  2. Similarities between Fuegian and Aboriginal Australian body painting
  3. Acute eyesight of Fuegians and Aborigines
  4. Black facial features of the Olmec colossal heads

Image result for australasian migration south americaProto-Australasians or ‘Black Asians’ were the first homo sapiens to leave Africa and the original inhabitants of Australia and Southeast Asia. Their descendants include the Aborigines of Australia, the Negritos of Southeast Asia, Melanesians, and Andaman Islanders. Population Y would suggest they reached South America too.

There are five possibilities:

  1. Early humans crossed the Atlantic from Africa
  2. Proto-Australasians sailed the Pacific from Australia to South America
  3. Proto-Australasians island-hopped the Pacific via the Antarctic (Rivet)
  4. Proto-Australasians crossed the Bering land bridge before the first Amerindians (Neves)
  5. Proto-Australasians island-hopped from Asia via the Kuril and Aleutian islands

Population Y

Theories 4 and 5 are the most credible. Although Australasians made it to Australia, there is little evidence their boats could traverse the Pacific. If Aboriginal Australians did not settle the Polynesian islands, how could they have sailed to South America?

Proto-Australasian settlement of the Americas is an exciting, if controversial, prospect but alas probably not true. As evidence, only the 2015 Nature study holds sway. In 2018 scientists sequenced Luzia woman’s DNA and found no traces of Proto-Australasian ancestry. Her distinct skull structure was the product of genetic drift. Similarly, no trace of Population Y has been found in the Yaghan or Pericue – at least not yet.  Until further evidence arises, the most likely scenario is the first bands to settle America had an Australasian component in their DNA.

Sources: Anthrosource, Harvard.edu, National Geographic, Nature, NCBI, New Daily, The Scientist, Science, Science Daily, Smithsonian Magazine

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Image result for fuegian man‘Fuegians’ are what Charles Darwin called the indigenous people of Tierra Del Fuego, the islands at the bottom tip of South America.  An isolated population at the world’s end, Fuegians descend from the first people to inhabit the Americas. They were the southernmost population on earth.

In the 1800s four cultures inhabited Tierra Del Fuego:

  • the Kawesqar (or Alacalufe), population 5,000
  • the Selk’nam (Ona), population 3,000
  • the Yaghan (Yamana), population 2,500
  • the Manek’enk (Haush), population 300

Tierra Del Fuego is Spanish for ‘Land of Fire’. Haush - WikipediaFerdinand Magellan named it after the signal fires he saw dotting its islands when he sailed through in 1520. A desolate, windswept land where rain is incessant and temperatures reach -20, Tierra del Fuego is the closest landmass to Antarctica. Harsh winters prevented agriculture and restricted its inhabitants to hunter-gatherer lifestyles.

Though lacking in vegetation, Tierra del Fuego teems with wildlife including cormorants, penguins, sea lions, foxes, whales, seals, otters, and the guanaco, a cousin of the llama.

Image result for guanaco tierra del fuego

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The Selk’nam and Manek’enk lived on Isla Grande, the largest island – the Selk’nam in the inland plains and the Manek’enk on the western peninsular. The Manek’enk arrived first, followed by the Selkn’am, who pushed them to the island’s coldest corner. They spoke related languages and followed the guanaco herds, eating their meat, making clothes from their skin and bowstrings from their sinews.

Both peoples were notably tall – men averaged 6 feet, more than other Amerindians or contemporary Europeans. They celebrated an initiation ceremony called a ‘hain’, similar to the potlatches of the Pacific Northwest.

Related imageThe Yaghan and Kawesqar were ‘sea nomads’ who travelled by canoe to and fro the smaller islands in search of seafood and stranded whales. Unlike the Selkn’am and the Manek’enk, the Yaghan were accomplished swimmers. Yaghan women dived underwater to forage for oysters and mussels while the men hunted birds and marine mammals with harpoons.

Image result for yaghan peopleThe Yaghan, despite living in freezing temperatures, wore minimal clothing, swam naked, and often slept in the open. For warmth, they used fires and lathered their bodies in animal fat. It is possible the Yaghan evolved warmer body temperatures in response to the cold.

Despite their similarities in lifestyles, the Yaghan and the Kawesqar both spoke language isolates and had little contact with each other, the Manek’enk or the Selk’nam.

Fuegians had no social structure or concept of property. Only shamans – healers and intermediaries with the spirit realm – held a place of privilege.

Related imageFuegian ancestry is distinct from other Amerindians. Scant clues link them to ‘Population Y’, a mysterious group related to Melanesians and Australian Aborigines who may have lived in South America before Siberian hunters crossed the Bering land bridge 13,000 years ago. Selk’nam cave and body painting bore a striking resemblance to that of Australian Aborigines, as did the Fuegians’ eyesight, which Darwin observed far surpassed that of his crew.

Early European explorers left the natives alone. Passers-by like Magellan and James Cook were more interested in finding sea routes to Asia than colonising the cold islands. When the Beagle visited in 1829, Charles Darwin described his interaction with the Yaghan as ‘without a doubt the most curious and interesting spectacle I have ever beheld.’

Related imageFrom 1840, the new nations of Chile and Argentina expanded into the region and encouraged European migration to stake their claims.  When they discovered gold in 1880, the trickle became a flood. The Chilean and Argentine governments offered free land to sheep farmers and prospectors on Isla Grande.

The Selk’nam met a cruel fate. As white colonists pushed them aside and thinned the guanaco herds, the Selk’nam hunted sheep instead – the strange ‘white guanaco’ who now roamed their hunting grounds. In retaliation, the colonial companies issued bounties – one pound sterling for every dead Selk’nam, half for a child. They accepted either a pair of ears, hands or a head as proof. For 15 years, headhunters massacred the Selk’nam and the Manek’enk with impunity.

Image result for julian popper selk'nam genocideJulius Popper was the genocide’s chief perpetrator. Romanian by birth, this latter-day conquistador designed the layout of Havanna, Cuba, and built a fortune in Fuegian gold. Popper’s private army hunted the Selk’nam like animals, poisoned their food and shot them on sight.

The colonists killed 97% of the Selk’nam population. Survivors were resettled on nearby islands or shipped off to human zoos in Europe. In the 1920s a measles outbreak killed the remaining population. Though some 2,000 claim Selkn’am heritage today; along with the Manek’enk, their language and way of life is extinct.

The Yaghan and the Kawesqar hardly fared better. Sealing and whaling reduced their food sources and foreign disease took its toll. Today 2,622 Kawesqar (15 pureblooded) and one Yaghan remain.

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Sources:  Academia.edu, Ancient Pages, Beagle Project, Borgen Project, Chimua Adventures, Don Macnaughton’s Bibliographies, Unesco

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