Tehuelches (or Aonikenks, as they refer to themselves), indigenous inhabitants, also called Patagones, of the Patagonian steppes north of the Strait of Magellan. Anthropologists divide the group into those people who occupied the area from the strait north to the Santa Cruz River—the Tehuelche meridionals—and those who occupied the semiarid region east of the cordillera from the Santa Cruz River north to the Río Negro—the Tehuelche septentrionals. The word tehuelche means "people of the south" (tehuel, meaning "south," and che, "people") in Mapudungun (Mapuche) and came into common usage in the mid-colonial era as intercultural contacts between Mapuches, Creoles, and pampas Indian groups intensified in the aboriginal homelands of the Aonikenks.
The hunt for Guanaco organized the movements of the Tehuelches, who followed the dispersed herds on foot through the arid Patagonian steppes in a seasonal cycle. Tehuelche subsistence on guanaco was supplemented by the rhea (nandu) and roots and seeds gathered seasonally. Known for their endurance in the desertlike environment of the Patagonian region south of the Río Negro, the Tehuelche meridionals maintained a footbound transhumant subsistence cycle well into the eighteenth century.
When neighboring groups to the north and west (Mapuches, Pehuenches, Pampas) acquired the horse in the sixteenth century, they expanded their barter and hunting excursions into the frontiers of the aboriginal territory of the Tehuelches. The northern Tehuelches, however, continued to maintain their traditional subsistence patterns on foot until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when they too adopted the horse, which facilitated a greater range for hunting and intensified interethnic trading. This innovation led finally to a strong commercial exchange with Chilean colonists in Punta Arenas in the nineteenth century, by which time the Tehuelches had replaced the stone and bone tools used for millennia with tools of metal, glass, and other foreign elements.
It was not until the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the Tehuelches lost their cultural autonomy, but the end came quickly when Argentine, Chilean, and European colonists effectively curtailed their movements through a combination of military operations, matanzas (slaughters), massive deportations, and the intensified exposure to contagious diseases.
See alsoIndigenous Peoples .
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Kristine L. Jones