Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino

Native peoples > Yámana

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Economy

The Yaghan were one of the Southern-Chilean Canoeist Tribes, nomadic people who lived by hunting, fishing and gathering. Canoes played a key role in their economy and their way of life, and were usually made from the bark of a single tree, trimmed and modeled “like a Venetian gondola,” according to contemporary sources. This outer skin was laid over a wooden frame and further reinforced with cross slats before the whole craft was sewn together. Yaghan canoes were 3-5 meters long and one meter wide (about 10’-16’ by 3’), and could hold three to seven people.
Later contact with other ethnic groups resulted in additional canoe designs: the three-plank canoe or dalca, commonly used by the Chono people, and the dugout canoe, which could only be built using the metal tools introduced by the Spanish.
A fire was kept permanently alight in a special enclosure in the center of the Yaghan canoe, allowing the occupants to move about constantly, camping on shore for just a few days before moving on in search of more food. The women of the group were responsible for paddling, while the men navigated and cared for the children. Yaghan women were also the only members of the tribe who swam and dived for shellfish, which they did from the canoe. The men, meanwhile, fished with hook and line and hunted sea lions, seals, whales and otters – the latter with the help of hunting dogs. The eastern Yaghan also sometimes hunted the llama-like guanaco on land.
This division of labor between all family members in Yaghan society was essential to their social organization, as they lived in small, autonomous family groups and only met in larger numbers when a large quantity of food was available.
On land, the Yaghan gathered mushrooms, eggs, and seasonal plants. Other staple foods included shellfish (such as mussels, limpets and abalone) and seabirds (cormorants and sea ducks). Their diet consisted mainly of animal products and was generally high in fat–an adaptation that helped them maintain a high level of physical activity in such a cold environment.