Far, far south, at the tip of Latin America, some tens of thousands of years ago, the retreat of the massive Patagonian Ice Sheet began to expose the contours of the Strait of Magellan, separating Tierra del Fuego from the South American mainland. By the arrival of the first canoe people between 6,000 and 7,000 years ago, the extent of the ice — which would once have covered the entire tip of southern Chile — had already shrunk dramatically. Over the millennia that followed, the Yamana, or Yaghan — the world’s southernmost ethnic group, which once inhabited the Beagle Channel from the Brecknock Peninsula in the northeast, to Cape Horn in the southwest — adapted and evolved to live in reciprocity with this wild and unforgiving landscape, famous for the wrath and unpredictability of its seas. Yet all this would change in 1520, when the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan first set sight on the strait that would go on to bear his name. For the Yamana, the arrival of the European colonizers set off a chain of events that ultimately proved fatal. Today only one full-blooded Yaghan survives.
An unspoiled paradise until well into the nineteenth century, in less than two hundred years, Tierra del Fuego has seen its Indigenous inhabitants wiped out by colonization, and the effects of climate change now threaten the erosion of its glaciers. Perhaps unconnected at first sight, both processes — the retreating glaciers, on the one hand, and state-sponsored ethnocide, on the other — share their roots in the advent of our modern world, upsetting the finely tuned balance that allowed the region’s spectacular landscapes to evolve in a gradual process over many thousands of years, together with their peoples and ecosystems.… [ Continue reading → ]
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