Ona Selk nam

Shelk'nam, Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina

First Contact:

gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization


Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

The Ona bands of northern Tierra del Fuego survived into the first decade of the present century in an unacculturated condition. Here we find people with good hunting territories which they jealously defended from all outsiders. The larger part of their caloric intake was from game (the guanaco being the prime source), and only minimal use was made of vegetable foods. Interestingly enough, all of the classic stigmata of "hunting peoples," which have been brought into question at this symposium, were strongly developed among the several Ona bands, which were in fact patrilineal. Patri­ lineages were clearly defined and strictly exogamous. Each held a sharply delineated territory with absolute rights over the included economic resources. The facts of the case are reasonably clear since we have a good account of the culture written by Bridges ( 1 949) who actually lived with Ona bands while the culture was still flourishing. There are also more formal and detailed ethnographies culled from the memories of Ona informants who had participated in the aboriginal situation (Gusinde, 1931-39; Lothrop, 19�8). With regard to the question of the "hunter's mentality" the Ona are particularly instructive. Ona culture stressed emotional control, and Bridges' account makes it clear that this particular ethical imperative was observed far more often than it was breached. There were a number of ingenious institutions which were effective in minimizing intraband hostilities and in channeling aggression toward outsiders or toward wives, who in strict sense were outsiders. The Ona both preached and practiced the support of the aged . When we cor.sider projecting cultural traits and modal personality structures backward to a time when most hunters presumably found themselves in favorable circumstances, we might find the example of the Ona more instructive than that of the handful of still extant hunting groups who are scarcely making a go of it as hunters.

Traditionally, the Selk'nam were nomadic people who relied on hunting for survival. They dressed sparingly despite the cold climate of Patagonia. They shared Tierra del Fuego with the Haush (or Manek'enk), another nomadic culture who lived in the south-eastern part of the island. Also in the region were the Yámana or Yahgan.


The Selk'nam had little contact with ethnic Europeans, mainly British, until settlers arrived in the late 19th century. These newcomers developed a great part of the land of Tierra del Fuego as large estancias (sheep ranches), depriving the natives of their ancestral hunting areas. Selk'nam, who considered the sheep herds to be game rather than private property (which they did not have as a concept) hunted the sheep. The ranch owners considered this to be poaching, and paid armed groups or militia to hunt down and kill the Selk'nam, in what is now called the Selk'nam Genocide. To receive their bounty, such groups had to bring back the ears of victims.

Salesian missionaries worked to protect and preserve Selk'nam culture. Father José María Beauvoir explored the region and studied the native Patagonian cultures and languages between 1881 and 1924. He compiled a vocabulary of Selk'nam of 4,000 words and 1400 phrases and sentences, which was published in 1915. He included a comparative list of 150 Ona-Tehuelche words, as he believed that there were connections to the Tehuelche people and language to the north.[7] German anthropologist Robert Lehmann-Nitsche published the first scholarly studies of the Selk’nam, although he was later criticized for having studied members of the Selk’nam people who had been abducted and were exhibited in circuses.[8]

Relations with Europeans in the Beagle Channel area in the southern area of the island of Tierra del Fuego were somewhat more cordial than with the ranchers. Thomas Bridges, who had been an Anglican missionary at Ushuaia, retired from that service. He was given a large land grant by the Argentine government, where he founded Estancia Harberton. Lucas Bridges, one of his three sons, did much to help the local cultures. Like his father, he learned the languages of the various groups and tried to provide the natives with some space in which to live their customary lives as "lords of their own land". The forces of change were against them, and the indigenous people continued to have high fatality rates as their cultures were disrupted. Lucas Bridges' book, Uttermost Part of the Earth (1948), provides sympathetic insight into the lives of the Selk'nam and Yahgan.

Importance of Animal Products

The larger part of their caloric intake was from game (the guanaco being the prime source), and only minimal use was made of vegetable foods.

Importance of Plants

Ethnographic record

Until recent dates, ethnography was the only source of knowledge about plant management among Selknam peo- ple. In this work, the main ethnographic information has been taken into account as a background for comparison and interpretation of the studied archaeobotanical assemblages.

Many ethnographers and travellers described Tierra del Fuego and its inhabitants, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. However, the information present in those works is quite scarce due to the emphasis on the exploitation of meat resources. A selection of representative books, dating from a time contemporary with the occupation of Ewan, has been analysed to obtain a picture of how plant management took place in this area: Beauvoir (1998); Gallardo (1998); Gusinde (1931) and Bridges (2000).

In many passages, it is stated that plant food importance was marginal and that meat was always preferred to vegetables (Gallardo 1998, p. 172; Gusinde 1931, p. 268; Chapman 1982, p. 25). The predominant impression in all the works is that plant food had little or no importance among those peoples. Therefore, the contribution to the economy of the female segment of the group, which was in charge of plant gathering, is considered to have been scarce (or reduced to a mere supportive role for men’s activities).

We think that these assertions have more to do with the view that the ethnographers had of female work, than with the real situation. In a society with clear gender roles, even the local myths reflect that women’s work had no social acknowledgment, with many references to the hunting and to the figure of the “good hunter”, and none to recollection or to the “good picker” role (Pedraza 2009).

Although the aforementioned works do not pay special attention to plant management, reading between the lines we find that over 40 plant species were used (see Table 1). The analysed sources, especially the Selknam Dictionary (Bridges 2000), reveal that Selknam people were aware of plant cycles, which is indicated by the existence of words for many plant growing stages: germinate (vuichkel), sprout (vueiyn), bloom (koshpen), green fruit (chanèns) or ripen (toon). Furthermore, a variety of processing and consumption methods are described (especially taking into account the technological implements of Selknam people, who had no cooking containers), ranging from raw (E. rubrum) to roasted (Apium australe or Osmorhiza chilensis); used as a condiment (Pernettya mucronata); dried (Cyttaria ssp.); or toasted and milled (Descurainea canenscens; see Table 1). This information gives a picture in which plant food appears as a common, and probably indispensable, component of Selknam’s diet.

Besides ethnographic descriptions, Martínez-Crovetto (1968) was the only author who conducted a real ethnobotan- ical study. He had the opportunity to interview the last Selknams and recorded the scarce still lasting ethnobotanical data. Although in that moment Selknam society had almost disappeared and the few descendants had not maintained the traditional ways of life, in the mentioned work, 182 species are listed, and over 50 uses are cited (see Table 1).

In both sectors of Ewan, the remains were preserved by carbonization. The majority of them presented a good state of preservation. Uncharred remains have not been taken into account since their presence was interpreted as a more recent intrusion.

In Ewan I, a total of 10,679 remains have been recovered and analysed, being the density of remains 20.3 per litre. In spite of the difficulties due to the absence of a comprehensive reference collection or previous published works, more than 95 % of the remains have been identified, corresponding to 21 taxa (see Table 2). Regarding the composition of the assemblages, E. rubrum (diddle-dee) was overwhelming in Ewan I, representing over 97 % of the identified remains (Table 2). Several specimens of the Poaceae family were also identified, representing 1.23 %. Equally significant are some seeds of the Cyperaceae family, which constitute 0.9 % of the total identified seeds.

For Ewan II, 1,440 remains have been recovered, with a density of the plant remains at 2.61 items per litre. Approximately 90 % of the remains, corresponding to 26 taxa, have been identified. In Ewan II, the most abundant taxon is Galium sp., which, along with G. aparine and Galium fuegianum, represents more than 80 % of the assemblage. In this area, the diversity is higher than in Ewan I. There are some other taxa that have some considerable significance, for instance the Poaceae family is well represented (11.7 % of the total identified remains), with species like Poa annua/Phleum pratense that have a remarkable presence (over 5 % of the identified remains). Also worth mentioning are E. rubrum or the Cyperaceae family, both representing around 2 % of the assemblage, while Polygonum sp. represents about 1 % of it.

Transition to Industrialized Food Products

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