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The guanaco in the symbolic world of the Selknam society

Current Research and Field
Conference Proceedings, Rome, Italy,
13th–14th May 2010
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Ethnoarchaeology: Current Research and Field Methods. Conference Proceedings, Rome, Italy, 13th–14th
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The fueguian archipelago, situated in the southern tip of
South America (between 52º and 56º lat S), is formed by a
main island, the Isla Grande, and a series of smaller islands
that extend toward the South, to the Cape Horn. It is
surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific and the Strait
of Magellan (Fig. 1). It is 400 Km East-West and around
300 Km North-South, with a total surface of 66,000 Km2
(TUHKANEN 1992).
Fig. 1. Geographical location of Tierra del Fuego.
The Guanaco in the Symbolic World of the Selknam Society
Vanesa Parmigiani, Maria Estela Mansur, Igor Bogdanovic
The guanaco (Lama guanicoe) is the main terrestrial mammal of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego. This territory, located
at the southern tip of South America, was inhabited by aboriginal communities until the early 20th century.
This investigation is part of a research project at the central zone of Isla Grande, occupied in historical times by the Selknam
society, hunter-gatherer, on which there is a vast documentary record. One of the aspects of this research was the analysis
of ethnographic and historical sources on the Selknam society, where descriptions of myths, legends and ceremonies were
studied. The guanaco appears in many of them, sometimes playing an essential role. These data were confronted with the
study of the archaeozoological record of Ewan site, a ceremonial site dating from 1905.
The results obtained from the integration of both types of data confirm the relevance of the guanaco for selknam society,
not only in the subsistence and economic spheres, as revealed by archeozoological analysis, but also in the symbolic world,
as an integrating and vertebrating axis of this society.
KEYWORDS: Tierra del Fuego, Hunter-Gatherer, Hain, Myths, Archaeozoology.
Le guanaco (Lama guanicoe) est le principal mammifère terrestre de la Grande Île de Terre de Feu. Ce territoire, situé
dans l’extrémité australe d’Amérique du Sud, a été habité par des communautés aborigènes jusqu’au début du siècle XX.
Notre travail est encadré dans un projet de recherches développé dans la zone centrale de la Grande Île, occupée dans
les temps historiques par la société Selknam, chasseur-cueilleur, sur laquelle il existe un vaste registre documentaire. Un
des aspects abordés a été l’analyse des sources ethnographiques et historiques sur la société Selknam, où les descriptions
des mythes, des légendes et des cérémonies ont été étudiées. Le guanaco apparaît dans beaucoup de ces récits, où il joue
parfois un rôle essentiel. Ces données ont été confrontées avec l’étude des restes archéozoologiques du site Ewan, un site
cérémoniel daté de l’année 1905.
Les résultats obtenus à partir de l’intégration des deux types de données confirment l’importance du guanaco pour la
société selknam, non seulement quant aux sphères de la subsistance et l’économie, révélées par l’analyse archéozoologique,
mais aussi dans le monde symbolique, comme axe vertebreur et intégrateur de cette société.
MOTS CLES: Tierra del Fuego, chasseurs-cueilleurs, hain, mythes, archeozoologie.
This region was inhabited by hunter-gatherer societies since
the end of the last glacial event, at least 10000 years ago
(MASSONE 2002), until the European colonization,
occurred at the beginning of the 20th century (cf. ref. in
MANSUR, PIQUÉ 2009). At the time of the arrival of the
first Europeans, practically all of Isla Grande was the
territory of the Selknam society, a hunter-gatherer society
who occupied the different environments of the island,
from the flat steppe to the cordilleran forest. According to
the written sources, the axis of the selknam economy was
the exploitation of the major terrestrial mammal of Tierra
del Fuego: the guanaco (Lama guanicoe).
This South American animal integrates the Camelidae
family [along with the Vicuña (Vicugna vicugna), the
Llama (Lama glama) and the Alpaca (Vicugna pacos)] that
entered South America through the isthmus of Panama
some 3 million years ago, during the great exchange of
fauna that took place among both American continents. For
about 2 million years, the guanaco has co-evolved along
with the patagonian environment (SARASQUETA 2001).
Currently, it is defined as a social mammal, characterized
by its polygyny and high territoriality (MARINO AND
BALDI 2008) (Fig. 2).
To confront the written sources, we have an exceptional
archaeological example, Ewan, dated from the year 1905.
Ewan is the location of a ceremonial site of the Selknam
people, where they met to celebrate the initiation ritual of
the male adolescents, the Hain ceremony (CHAPMAN
2008 b). It is formed by a big ceremonial hut and the
domestic camp in which people settled (Fig. 3) (MANSUR,
et al. 2009).
The Guanaco and the Sources
There are abundant and different written sources regarding
the Selknam society, since their first contacts with
navigators and explorers in the 16th century; the best and
most complete are those written by authors such as C.
Gallardo (1910), L. Bridges (1951), and the ethnographers
M. Gusinde (1937) and A. Chapman (1986). They had the
opportunity to work intensively with the last Selknam
informers, who had lived, when they were young, in the
traditional way of life.
All the documents coincide in indicating that the most
exploited animal resource was the guanaco. Its use was not
reduced to food, but to the whole economic sphere
(clothing, technology, etc). Moreover, the guanaco
integrated the symbolic world of the Selknam, taking part
in myths, rites and songs of the everyday life, as well as of
Fig. 2. Lama guanicoe (guanaco).
Fig. 3. Geographical location of Ewan site I and II, detail of the ceremonial hut.
the Hain ceremony.
One of the first extensive quotes about utilization of
guanaco products in technology is that of C. Gallardo
(1910). He describes what products were obtained from it
and how they were employed. Among them he mentions:
- Wool, fat and skin: wool to clean the children; fat, to
prepare the ákel, red paint used for treating leathers; to
grease different parts of the body such as hair, face and
hands every morning, etc; skin to elaborate elements of
clothing (cloaks or fur blankets, skirts, genital covers,
footwear), bags and containers, the tent for dwelling,
mattresses for the children, etc.
- Bones, for many purposes, such as wedges to tear apart
wood; once burned, to make with them white paint; to
carve awls, arrow tips, harpoons and knives; to use as
dish plates, etc;
- Nerves, to make ropes, laces, nets, cords of all
thicknesses, to sew clothes, the tent, the bags, to tie the
tips or the feathers to the handle, to form the string of
the bow, for the necklaces and bracelets, etc.
Beliefs and Myths
According to the Selknam mythology, all the forms of
nature, the atmospheric phenomena, the elements in the sky
and the animals were once human beings, transformed then
in mountains, rivers, animals, etc. The guanaco has great
intensity in the selknam representations. The quantity and
the content of the myths and beliefs related to him reflect
the importance and respect attributed to him. For example
(according to GUSINDE 1982 [1937]):
- If men go hunting without their Kocel (a triangle of
guanaco fur placed on the forehead), the guanacos will
be able to see them and they would flee quickly from
- If a hunter sees a guanaco standing on his rear legs,
making weeping sounds, an emissary will arrive a few
days later from that direction, with news about the death
of somebody in his family.
- If a guanaco standing on his rear legs, tries to give short
leaps and kicks the air quickly with his front legs, there
will be war.
- If a guanaco approaches a man on his rear legs, he will
die soon.
- If a man wasted meat of a guanaco, they will get
offended and punish him: even being a very good
hunter, during months he will not carry any meat back
home upon returning from hunt.
The guanaco is also present in many of the origin and
structure-forming myths of the Selknam society. For
- In the story about the peopling or the Island; the first
people had crossed from the North to hunt guanacos.
They came with a herd of them, but they were big and
different from those in the island. Therefore, whenever
a hunter found a guanaco that was tall, with a big body,
he did not hunt it, since it was one of the guanacos they
had brought in from the continent.
- In the story of how they began to hunt. It is the myth of
Sakanusoyin, son of a guanaca and a man who hunted
guanacos by running and provided meat to people. In
times of shortage, when they suffered hunger, he was
forced to hunt his own mother, the only female guanaco
left. Shortly after he died; since then the Selknam had
to learn how to hunt with bow and arrows.
Without any doubt, the most important one is the myth that
consecrates the prohibition of incest. Like in most myths, it
is ambiguous regarding the nature of the characters, which
are presented as human/superhuman, but already with some
traces of the animal in which they will turn into
(CHAPMAN 2008). The myth tells the story of a man-
guanaco, a widow who falls in love with his two daughters,
who live with him. He especially wants to sleep with his
older daughter. As he does not know how to achieve this,
after thinking it over, he decides to trick: he will fake his
own death… Before doing this, he talks to his daughters,
advising them that when he dies, they should marry a good
man that he knows; they will recognize him at once because
he looks identical to his father, but he will not be him. Then
the father-guanaco fakes his own death, and his grieving
daughters decide to leave towards the lands of their kin. On
the road, they find the man exactly like their father, who
starts seducing them. One of the daughters distrusts what
Fig. 4. Lola Kiepja, Rio Grande 1965, photograph by Anne
Chapman (2008 a: 172).
she sees and runs away. The father-guanaco seduces the
other; in that moment, they are both transformed into
guanacos. Besides stating about the prohibition of incest,
the myth explains the social structure of guanaco herds,
with “harems” where the males copulate with several
females, including their own “daughters”.
For this myth, there is an exceptional song in the voice of
a woman, Lola Kiepja (Fig. 4). She was the last Selknam
informant who was “Born in a tent made of guanaco skin,
throughout her childhood and youth she dressed in guanaco
fur, camped with her family on the beaches, in the forests
and along the shores of lagoons, and participated in the
traditional ceremonies” (CHAPMAN 2008 a: 21). The song
was recorded by A. Chapman in the winter of 1966, a few
months before Lola´s death. She left, through her voice, the
gift of the song k’méyu, property of Amilkin1, a shaman
from the western sky that she once knew:
Yohwn ténsh kai´?ainn wlejohe yohwn k?mná // Yohwn
k?akshi ?ainn márren, márren nit ?ainn ?ainn // k?mná
yohwn winá ja ten nas (here)// naim yohwn ténsh t´?ainn or
k?mná winá// ´?ainn temá shonníjish kil ja hash áshni
márren k´tam //soshits chimen mik hárnik ja haash ók´en
k´wínta // ´ai winen káxen or kórié káxen wirik k´oosh
chítish // chinen ?ainn tam ni haash ashni wit nia tam ni
hash // k´auk she? mai mak´she? min k´chinen k´tam //
k´she?min ni marren t´kari son winma // té sei jixen
páaika// Soshits chinen mik harnik k´swién mam harník// 2.
Ewan, a Ceremonial Site
The archeozoological studies developed in the Isla Grande
de Tierra del Fuego have permitted to generate an important
corpus of archaeological, experimental and actualistic
information that helps in understanding the economy of the
selknam and preselknam societies, as well as the
importance of the guanaco, the selection of anatomical
parts, the cutting techniques and the hunting strategies, etc.
Nevertheless, in this work we refer exclusively to an
archaeological example, since it represents an exceptional
case: that of the archaeological site Ewan.
Ewan is a clearing in the forest where different structures
were discovered. On one side there is a big log hut, while
on the other there is a series of structures belonging to
smaller huts; one of them was entirely excavated. This
settlement pattern corresponds to that of the Hain
ceremony, attribution that was confirmed by means of
different lines of investigation (spatial, carpology,
anthracology, dendrochronology, lithic analysis,
archeozoological analysis, etc.): Ewan I is the ceremonial
hut, where the men gathered, while Ewan II-Structure 1 is
one of the domestic huts.
The archeozoological record of Ewan
The archeozoological analysis offered important results for
the interpretation of both sites (CAMAROS and
PARMIGIANI 2007; CAMAROS et al. 2009). In general,
bone remains were deteriorated by thermal alteration and
consequently very fragmented. Consequently, the analysis
was based on the study of these fragments, most of them
smaller to 2 cm. We concentrated in counting them,
determining degrees of thermal alteration and, whenever
possible, attributing them to an anatomical and taxonomical
categories. From this analysis 30,933 fragments were
counted, from which 821 could be determined anatomically
and taxonomically.
In the domestic hut (Ewan II-Structure 1) the bone remains
correspond mainly to guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and sheep
(Ovis aries), although there are also remains attributable to
fish, rodents, foxes and birds (Graphic 1). They show
different degrees of thermal alteration, from unaltered to
calcinated bone fragments. They are distributed all over the
site, so much inside the fireplace and in its immediate
periphery as outside of it.
On the contrary, within the ceremonial hut (Ewan I), all the
bone remains were burnt, very fragmented and
concentrated in the fireplace area. Most of the fragments
that could be identified belong to guanaco. There is a scarce
representation of rodents, fish and birds, and there are no
sheep remains preserved in the site.
Discussion and Conclusions
The archaeological record can be used as a key element to
validate the information of documentary record
(MANSUR, PIQUÈ, VILA MITJA 2007). In this case, for
the Selknam society, the importance of the guanaco in
subsistence sphere is known from the archaeological record
of the numerous studied sites (FRANCHOMME 1983).
The results of Ewan I and Ewan II sites allow corroborate
its importance in the symbolic world.
The comparison of the archeozoological record of both
sites allows to put into evidence at least two essential
aspects. The first one arises from the distributions of
materials inside the huts, and shows that in the ceremonial
hut there was a careful disposal of the residues, which were
all burnt into the fireplace. On the contrary, in the domestic
hut, “not incinerated” trash remains were allowed to stay
inside the hut. This management of the residues in the
ceremonial hut is coherent with the eagerness to conceal
the activities that took place inside the Hain. The second
Graphic. Fauna of Ewan I and II sites.
aspect arises from the taxonomic diversity. In the domestic
hut, different types of fauna are represented, showing a
more varied consumption including even sheep (Ovis
aries), an allochthonous fauna introduced in Tierra del
Fuego by the white settlers not long before. On the contrary,
in the ceremonial hut, no traces of bone remains of this
taxon were found.
These archaeological results can be confronted with the
ethnographic information regarding the Hain ceremony. As
we said at the beginning, the Hain is an initiation ritual for
adolescent males; they entered as children and, after
passing innumerable tests, they graduated like adult
hunters. Most of the tests, as well as food taboos to be
respected during the execution of the Hain, had to do with
the guanaco. Consequently, this representation of the
guanaco as main food in the ceremonial hut is completely
coherent with the archaeological record expected for the
Hain ceremony.
We believe that this confrontation between the
ethnographic and the archaeological information allows
corroborating, from the archaeological data, the importance
of the guanaco in the symbolic world of the Selknam
Research at the Ewan sites was part of a joint Project
between Barcelona Autonomous University and CADIC
(Argentina). This research corresponds to PICT n° 1236
Agencia Nacional de Promoción Cietífica y Tecnológica.
We thank Mr Gaston Delgado for the English translation
of this paper.
1Every selknam woman owned one or various traditional songs
k’méyu. These songs wereinherited according to the sky to which
they belonged. Amilken, the shaman who gave Lola this song,
belonged to the West sky, the same sky to which guanacos belong.
2The guanaco said (to his daughters, when) your father dies (sing)
the lament// Bury the guanaco, (your) father, the old male
guanaco, the old male guanaco, (your) father, father// I am
speaking (singing) the woman’s lament of the guanaco// (Thus)
the women (the guanaco´s daughters) sang the women´s lament
after their father´s (death)// Their father followed the footprints
of this daughters, sexually excited, urinating (while he was
running), the old guanaco// One (daughter) ran away, the father
mated (whit the other)// Vocalization. His daughter took care of
the old male guanaco// (The old guanaco) son found the footprints
(of his daughters)// (The daughters) went away after burying (him)
in the White clay (and left), as he himself (asked that) his face
(remain) uncovered// The father ran (after his) daughters
(following their) footprints, urinating, (following in) his daughters
footprints// (When) they mated (the other daughter) ran away//
(When) the old male guanaco (became her) lover, (they were) not
(no longer) family (and she not) a woman. (having made love to
his daughter they were no longer human family: they became
guanacos)// She was his love-woman// One (daughter) ran away,
(He) made love (to the other) daughter, away (in the fields)//.
(Chapman 2008 a: 241;242;244).
(2009) El paraje de Ewan, un lugar de reunión Selknam en
el centro de la isla. In: M. Salemme et al. (eds.)
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BRIDGES, L. (1978) [1951] El último confín de la Tierra.
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CAMARÓS, E., PARMIGIANI, V. (2007) Análisis del
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del Fuego). In: XVI Congreso Nacional de Arqueología
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especial, Pacarina, I, pp. 619-623.
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CHAPMAN, A. (1986) Los Selk’nam. La vida de los Onas.
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Selknam of tierra del Fuego. Ushuaia: Zagier & Urruty.
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GUSINDE, M. (1982) [1937]Los indios de Tierra del
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Sociedades Cazadoras-Recolectoras. Una aproximación
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46 (1-2), pp. 144-157.
MANSUR, M. E., PIQUE’, R., VILA MITJA, A. (2007)
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... One of the main conclusions of these studies has been that the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) was the most important prey for the ancient human populations of the Patagonian inland before and after megafaunal extinctions, mainly based on its preponderance in the archaeological record (Mengoni Goñalons, 1999;Miotti & Salemme, 1999;Borrero, 2009;Rindel, 2017). Likewise, diverse ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies have also stated the great economic and symbolic importance the guanaco had for hunter-gatherer populations of the region in historical times (Chapman, 1986;Prates, 2009;Parmigiani et al., 2013). ...
... Thus, guanacos must be definitely considered the prehistoric cattle for southern South America peoples, as they were exploited for all kind of products, both foodstuff (meat, fat, marrow) and other materials (leather, tendons, bones, internal organs, hair, bezoars, etc.). The symbolic world of the indigenous peoples of Patagonia was also rich in references to this animal (Aschero, 1993(Aschero, , 2010Carden, 2008;Parmigiani et al., 2013;Ré, 2014). ...
This article analyses the access to animal resources during the Holocene using the evidence from a key site – Las Vueltas 1, LV1–, localized in the Northern steppe of Tierra del Fuego (Argentina). The contexts analysed from this site yielded at least 85 individuals of Lama guanicoe (guanaco) based on MNI counts: 41 on surface level, 37 in the 3 rd occupation, 6 in the 2 nd , and just 1 in the 1 st. LV1 occupies a low aeolian dune between two lagoons bordered by Tertiary sandstone outcrops; it was interpreted as an appropriate space to capture, kill and process guanacos from the beginning of the Late Holocene. The most useful way to use this natural trap was to work in a communal strategy, implying the participation of several hunters. Furthermore, the site could have also been used for the capture of a single animal, or a reduced number of animals, as happened in the 2 nd occupation. As far as the context of the 3 rd occupation is concerned, it is proposed that this communal strategy may have been used at a larger scale, turning the site into a communal hunting area that we interpret as a ''mass kill'' site. This hypothesis was supported by evidence such as the large amount of guanaco bone remains, the limited and specific range of the fauna assembled at the place, the catastrophic death pattern, the sex and age of hunted animals, a topography appropriate to ambush animals and the large number of fractured lithic points (when compared with other Fuegian sites). Certain conditions such as the topographic relief, hunting season, animal behaviour, social or political issues would have led hunter-gatherers to practice this kind of communal and mass hunting.
... One of the main large game species in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, the guanaco was used during prehistoric times for food as well as for clothing and other various craft activities (Gallardo, 1910;Gusinde, 1982;Borrero, 1985Borrero, , 1990aAlunni and Zangrando, 2012;Salemme et al., 2014;Vázquez, 2015). This ungulate played also an important role within the symbolic world of the hunter-gatherer communities that inhabited the archipelago (Gusinde, 1982;Chapman, 1986Chapman, , 2008Parmigiani et al., 2013). ...
Cementum increment analysis has been applied with success in mammals since several decades for both current wildlife studies and studies of fauna from archaeological sites. This method provides estimations about the age and the season at death of ungulates recovered at archaeological sites and can be used to explore important issues such as hunting or herding strategies, settlement patterns and mobility.Over the past 30 years cementum studies have expanded the range of mammalian species for which the method can be applied in archaeology. However, very few data are today available about the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) which was the dominant large ungulate in South America in prehistoric and historical times. The purpose of our project is to develop and improve the cementum increment analysis for this species using modern reference data sets before its application to archaeological assemblages. The present paper presents the preliminary results obtained from the study of canines and incisors of modern specimens and will discuss the potentiality and limitations of the technique.
Full-text available
We conducted focal observations of territorial guanacos, a highly polygynous and social mammal, to compare time budgets between sexes and test the hypothesis that the differences in reproductive interests are associated with differential group size effects on male and female time allocation patterns. In addition, we used group instantaneous sampling to test the hypothesis that grouping improves detection capacity through increased collective vigilance. We fit GLM to assess how group size and group composition (i.e., presence or absence of calves) affected individual time allocation of males and females, and collective vigilance. As expected from differences in reproductive interests, males in family groups devoted more time to scan the surroundings and less to feeding activities compared to females. Both sexes benefited from grouping by reducing the time invested in vigilance and increased foraging effort, according to predation risk theory, but the factors affecting time allocation differed between males and females. Group size effects were significant when females were at less than five body-lengths from their nearest neighbour, suggesting that grouping benefits arise when females are close to each other. Female time budgets were also affected by season, topography and vegetation structure. In contrast to our expectation, males reduced the time invested in vigilance as the number of females in the group increased, supporting the predation risk theory rather the intrasexual competition hypothesis. The presence of calves was associated with an increase in male individual vigilance; and vegetation type also affected the intensity of the group size effect over male time allocation. In closed habitats, collective vigilance increased with the number of adults but decreased with the number of calves present. Although male and female guanacos differed in their time allocation patterns, our results support the hypothesis that both sexes perceive significant antipredator benefits of group living.
Tierra del Fuego is one of the southernmost insular territories of the planet. Hunter-gatherer populations inhabited it from the end of the last glaciation up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Different archaeological sites give testimony of strategies adopted by hunter-gatherers in the occupation of the insular territory. Nevertheless, most of the investigations concentrate on the northern and central steppes and on the southern coasts. The goal of our research is to study the characteristics of human occupation in the central forests. Fieldwork has led to the discovery of archaeological sites in different environments, in a variety of locations, and displaying wide functional variability. Besides campsites we have also discovered and studied a ceremonial site. The results summarized here confirm that the subantarctic forest constituted an abundant environment; a privileged landscape rich in different kinds of resources, and intensely exploited by the native populations.
Espacio ritual, espacio doméstico: diferencias en el uso del recurso faunístico en la sociedad selknam
  • E Camarós
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