The Yamana (Yagan) Indians
The Yamana, impossible to be integrated, "became delighted
with their houses, their independent and wandering life"
They were fuegians (from the land of fire) and low of
stature, 1.44 to 1,64m, of trunk, (It is said that Yagans
were larger in some areas of Tierra Del Fuego - BG) shoulders
and arms very developed as opposed to their almost useless
legs. (Maybe from spending so much time in the canoe? - BG)
They were not accustomed to walk on the ground, they first
favored one leg, then the other, clumsy, without being able
to stay quiet, walking inclined ahead, uncomfortable,
They used harpoon, lance and sling, with a tremendous skill.
They did not use the bow and arrow
Lucas E.Briges said: "To hunt birds and to fish, the Yagans used
harpoons of end bones, sometimes more than thirty
centimeters in length, with many barbs."
In order to get shellfish, large snails called lapas and
sometimes to look for crabs, they used wood harpoons of four
points firmly set together with twine.
But to hunt larger animals they used a great harpoon of bone
forty centimeters in length, provided with an enormous prong
and fixed to a groove, loosely, in the end of a solid cane
of about five meters in length, polished and finished well
on the end.
"To the harpoon was tied a strap firmly to a cane at a
height of a third of its length, on the side of the prong,
so that when the weapon entered the body of the seal, sea
otter and sometimes in that of a tiny whale, and the animal
lunged ahead, the cane loosened and, dragged by the strap,
turned and formed almost a straight angle with the direction
in which the victim swam, whose speed, therefore, was much
reduced and allowed the pursuer to reach the exhausted
animal in his canoe to and to stick it with other lances
which ended the fight."
"The women had their own methods to fish. They used lines
made with their own hair; near the bait they tied to the
fish pole a perfectly round stone with a small groove made
specifically to hold the line." (These are grooved stones
are still found here along the beaches. - BG)
The canoe, solidly moored to a bunch of seaweed, had a
border at the level of the water, on which the women tended
They used tails of little fish as bait, and once devoured by
the unfortunate victim, the cane was drawn up without
Unconscious of the danger and without wanting to let go its
food, the fish catch held on, and as soon as it was to some
centimeters of the surface the skillful hand of the fisher
woman took hold it and it deposited it in the basket
destined to that object
To catch fish such as the pejerrey and robalo they had
The shells more than providing food served them to make
Although none of the fueguian towns practiced making
pottery, nor making clothes, the Yagans were the best basket
makers. (One may still buy their nice baskets at the Indian
village in Puerto Williams. - BG)
The Yagans, like Alakalufs, permanently maintained a fire in
their canoe (on a little sand).
If the fire were extinguished, the risk was of a death by
To make a fire was one of the first tasks that did when they
Lucas Bridges gives the account: "The fuegians fulfilled
very strictly certain social practices and, although robbery
and lying were current money, it was considered a mortal
offense to accuse somebody as a liar, thief or assassin."
When a woman gives birth to a girl, on the following day,
even in the most rigorous winter, she takes the newly born
on her back and with her enters the water, submerging until
Like the Alakalufes women, only the Yagan women knew how to
swim, and handle the canoe.
Lucas E.Briges : Says "....they often lived in places
where, in an extension of many kilometers, there was not a
beach where it was possible to launch their canoes in the
They had, to be able to anchor them, outside rocks in the
most protected place that they could find.
This maneuver was done by the women.
After unloading the canoe and the man had gone into in the
forest in search of fuel, the woman rowed it out some
fathoms between the thick seaweed, that formed splendid
breakwaters; joined a bunch of branches of those plants,
resembling cords, and secured the canoe with them, which was
thus firmly tied to its roots.
Fulfilling that task, she swam towards the coast and it ran
in search of the fire in her hut, to dry herself and to
enter into the heat.
The women swim as dogs and advance without difficulty
between the seaweed.
I have never seen a white man that was brave enough as to
try so dangerous a feat.
They learned to swim in infancy; their mothers took them
with them in order to accustom them.
In winter, when the seaweed was covered by a snow and ice
layer, it happened sometimes that the children made
difficult swimming for their parents by raising their heads
and shoulders to escape the frozen waters."
Lucas E.Briges : Says "
... she had married later with a
young person of about eighteen years who was there by her
side. She was more than fifty years old.
This difference of age was common in the Yagan marriages;
until it was advised differently. This was not only for the
convenience of the older men, but also for the convenience
of the young husbands, for which they thus had women of great
experience which knew to take care of their necessities,
to advise them well, to handle the canoes and to help them
in many ways, in circumstances in which the young women
Some Yagan words in Spanish and English :
Sol : Leum / lëm
Luna : Anoka / hánuxa
Noche : Lakar
Día : Maola
Hombre : Ua
Mujer : Kipa / Keepa
Uno : Kavuéli
Tres : Maten
Cuatro : Kargá
Cinco : Kup'asprá
Thomas Bridges, Lucas Bridges' father, compiled near 32,000
Yagan words. The wealth of that language is surprising, not only by its
vocabulary, but also by its grammar.
Lucas E.Briges says: "The belief that they were cannibals
was not the only mistake of Charles Darwin with respect to
When listening their conversations, I was impressed by the
constant repetition of the same phrases and reached the wrong
conclusion that the language could not include more than a
We, who we have spoken it from childhood, know that this
language, within its own limits, is infinitely richer and
more expressive than that of English or Spanish.
The ' Dictionary Yagán or Yamana-English', written by my
father, contains not less than thirty and two thousand words
and flexions, that could considerably be increased without
deviating from the correct language." I add: " The Yagans
had at least five words for the word 'snow'; for 'beach'
they had more yet; the selection of the correct word
depended on several factors, or the location of the beach
with relation to which it spoke, or to the fact of having
earth or water between one and the beach or the direction of
The same words varied with meaning according to site; thus,
a word used while being in a canoe meant something different
when it was pronounced to describe the same object with the
person being on the ground. [duan, stony beach, lahpicun,
muddy beach, asetan, sandy beach, wahan, beach on which they
are put their canoes to dry...]
To express family relations, Yagans had at least fifty
different words, each one emphasizing some particularitity."
Great wealth also is shown in the use of verbs:
ata, to raise with the hands,
mnikata, to elevate in the arms,
kumata, to elevate an object with the extremity of other,
gaiata, to elevate an object with the end of other,
mulata, to raise a thing with two fingers as a cup ...
Bove says (mentioned by A.Coiazzi):
" The Yagan language differs sensibly from that of its
neighbors, alacalufes and onas; and while the words of these
last are hard, guttural, formed of consonants, those of
former are sweet, pleasant, full of vowels.
This wealth of language gives Yagans a truly surprising
Thousand times I saw in the huts several elders take the
word and follow in its use for hours and hours, without ever
stopping, without a flexion of voice, or signal that
revealed the least effort of the orator."
(There are only two Yagan speakers left -BG)
Equal like in their language, the mythology of the Yamanas
displays an incredible wealth, diversity, fantasy and
finesse, mainly if it is compared with his level of material
or artisan culture, so rudimentary.
(Translated from Spanish)
The Yagan myth of the sea lion:
There was once a young girl who moved away of her house in
Wujyasima and she was directed alone towards the plateau,
where she started to play, running after the waves when they
receded and going back up before the breakers.
An old enamored sea lion observed her without being seen,
and when a great wave broke, she found the animal at her
Like all Yagan women , the girl was a great swimmer, and
therefore tried to escape.
But by staying between her and the beach and forcing her to
move away every time farther from the coast, the sea lion
was finally able to debilitate her and she was then forced
to lean on the neck of the animal.
Now that her life depended on him, the girl began to feel
affection for her strange escort..
They swam together during many miles until they arrived at a
great rock where there was a cavern.
The wise woman knew that she could not ever return to her
house by her own means, so she decided to accept the
inevitable thing and so she coexisted with the sea lion in
the cavern. He brought fish to her in abundance, and since
there was no fire, she ate them raw.
After a time they had a son.
He seemed as a human being, but was covered with hairs, like
The boy grew quickly, and was a good companion for his
mother, especially after he learned to speak, something that
the old sea lion never obtained.
Nevertheless, he was so good and amiable that the woman had
gotten to like him a lot.
However, she wished to see once again her land and its
people with all her heart and soul.
She managed to make him understood her desire, and on a nice
day the three started off for Wujyasima.
Sometimes the mother and the son swam next to their
protector, at other times, he pushed them through the water
with great speed and for short whiles they went mounted on
Finally, they arrived at the gravel plateau.
The sea lion crawled outside the water and it lay down to
rest under the tempering rays of the sun, whereas the
mother, with her strange son by the hand, directed him to
In the town they found some relatives, that had given her
up for dead.
They had a big surprise when the woman told her story
and her absurd little boy interested them greatly.
After the atmosphere had been tranquilized, the women of the
town proposed to go in canoe towards the East in search of
of deep water shellfish and for sea urchins, that have the
size and the form of flattened apples and whose hard shell
is covered with rigid prongs that seem like nails.
The young mother also accompanied the excursion, whereas the
men and the children were left in the camp.
The children began to play and the small visitor was united
with them with pride.
The men, nevertheless, wished to eat meat, and as they knew
that there was a seal on the beach, took their lances and
they approached the old sea lion and they killed him.
Loaded with meat, they returned to the town and they roasted
The children smelled the delicious aroma of roasted seal and
did not take long in meeting around the fire.
When the moment arrived for distributing the meat, a piece
also was given to the young visitor, who, after trying it,
was enchanted and shouted - Amma sum undupa (It is seal
While eating, he started to run by the path to re-unite with
his mother, who returned at that precise moment.
The boy ran towards his mother and offered her a piece of
meat that was left over which he said was very flavorful.
She immediately realized what had happened.
She removed a sea urchin from her basket and struck her son
in the forehead.
The boy fell in the deep water, and instantaneously
transformed into a suyna, the fish of the rocks, and went
The other women went to the huts to savor the roasted seal
meat, but the mother refused to eat and only cried for her
lost son and her old and kind companion.
She never married again with anyone of her race.
If a syuna is examined one will notice that its head is
flattened and is marked with the little holes that were left
by the prongs of the sea urchin, which is exceedingly enough
to prove the veracity of the story."
(Lucas E. Bridges)
Another Yagan Myth
"Just as many other indigenous tribes, Yagans thought that
in the past that the women had governed by their magic and
According to what they themselves told, it was just a
relatively short time ago that the men had assumed control.
It seems that an agreement had been arrived at by mutual
consent; there is no indication of a total slaughter of the
women like there was in the mythology of the Ona Indians.
Not very far from Ushuaia there is left the remains of which
once was a vast population, where, according to what is
said, an assembly of natives took place as has never been
The canoes arrived from all the Yagan's borders.
It was during that transcendental meeting when the men
decided to take control."
Translated from Spanish by Capt. Ben Garrett
Sunrise over Ushuaia
The area of Tierra Del Fuego "in blue" where the Yagans were found
included hundreds of Islands, all the way South as far as Cape Horn
and as far East as Staten Island.
Note that the so called Island of Tierra Del Fuego, largely populated in
it's interior with the great hunters the Onas, had a much smaller area of
Yagans, who were found only on the coast.
The larger population of Yagans in Tierra Del Fuego were in the islands
to the South.
Their fires were made inside their house of branches and reeds
and may have been difficult to be seen from the ocean.
In one version, Magellan saw smoke only and called it Tierra Del Humo,
the Land of Smoke, but Charles V, King of Spain said there was no
without fire and changed the name...
More on Yagans
ADVENTURES in the Antarctic Peninsula, South Georgia,
Cape Horn, Falklands & Historic Tierra Del Fuego. On these tours you may see:
Majestic mountains dipped in snow... Crystalline waterways... Whales, seals,
Soaring Andes condors... Ice-blue Glaciers that shimmer like jewels..... All the
best, Captain Ben Garrett Victorious Adventures
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