Selk'nams (also referred to as Onas) are indigenous inhabitants of the northern and eastern regions of Tierra del Fuego. The first recorded sightings of the Selk'nams indicate that they occupied the northern steppes and southern forests of the island of Tierra del Fuego, surviving on the fruits of the hunt for Guanaco, rodents, and other small mammals, as well as wild fruits, mushrooms, and mollusks gathered along the coasts. The archeological record leads anthropologists to suggest that Selk'nam occupation of Tierra del Fuego predates the separation of the island from the continent more than 11,000 years ago.
Terrestrial hunters and gatherers arrived in the Patagonian region by land during the Paleoindian phase (c. 9000 bce), when the climactic conditions of the last Pleistocene glaciation permitted. They hunted the now extinct American horse and mylodon, as well as guanaco, puma, fox, rodents, and nandu (rhea). Between 8,500 and 6,000 years ago, during the temperate Altithermal epoch, they began to employ more specialized tools, including spears and boleadoras, as well as the bow and arrow.
About 5,000 to 4,500 years ago, when the Altithermal period ended and the Neoglacial period began, less favorable climatic conditions precipitated cultural changes. The wider demographic distribution and more numerous groups of hunters in the region encouraged more intensive exploitation of specific ecological zones to hunt and gather the different species available. Around 1000 ce the separation, both geographically as well as culturally, of the Selk'nams from the Tehuelches was complete.
The Selk'nams subsisted on hunting (by foot) and gathering (exclusive of maritime navigation), although they did take advantage of sources of coastal shellfish and the bounty provided by beached whales and other large sea creatures. The Selk'nams in the northern regions of the island specialized in the hunt of guanaco and rodents; those in the southeast hunted marine animals off the rocky coast; and those in the south hunted guanaco. Organized in small family groups with defined territorial limits, the northern Selk'nams found shelter around fires in lean-tos constructed from posts and skins, while their relatives in the colder southern regions lived in conical huts reinforced with earth as protection from the bitingly cold winds. Each local group claimed specific hunting territories and respected the rights of others.
Early European expeditioners commented on the notable lack of protective clothing, apart from occasional skin mantles (constructed to leave the right shoulder free) with the fur on the outside. While some anthropologists note a similarity between Selk'nam ceremonial and familial structures and those of the maritime Fuegian peoples (Alakalufs or Yamanas), their exclusively terrestrial orientation as well as linguistic similarity support a stronger relationship to the Tehuelches or Pata-gones of continental Patagonia.
When colonization of Tierra del Fuego began in the late nineteenth century, the Selk'nams numbered around 4,000; as of 1990 fewer than 50—some say only 2—of their descendants remained as a result of massive deportations, sport hunting, massacres, diseases, and other little-studied factors.
See alsoIndigenous Peoples .
Osvaldo Silva G., Culturas y pueblos de Chile prehispano (1980).
Anne Chapman, Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: The Selk'nam of Tierra del Fuego (1982) and Los Sel-k'nam: La vida de los Ona (1986).
Museo Chileno De Arte Precolombino, Hombres del sur: Aonikenk, Selknam, Yamana, Kaweshkar (1987).
Borrero, Luis Alberto. Los selk'nam (onas): Evolución cultural en la Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. Buenos Aires: Búsqueda-Yuchán, 1991.
Inda, Enrique S. El exterminio de los Onas. Buenos Aires: Cefomar Editora, 2005.
Kristine L. Jones