Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (UC): About 4 thousand would be the Kawésqar population prior to contact with the Europeans

The results obtained confirm that this and other hunter-gatherer peoples had a low population density, whose definitive decline was not reached until the arrival of the colonization of Chileans and Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century.

On February 16, 2022, the last active speaker of the Yagán language and Tesoro Humano Vivo 2009 , Cristina Calderón Harban , died at the age of 93 in Villa Ukika, on Navarino Island, the southernmost town on the planet, and the place of residence of the majority of the one hundred descendants that still remain of this original people, who populated a large part of the channels and coasts of Tierra del Fuego and the Cape Horn archipelago.

Calderón’s death is yet another blow to the fragile legacy left by the different groups of hunter-gatherers that once inhabited the Patagonian archipelago and the interior lands of Chile and Argentina, and who today are on the verge of extinction. Already in 2020, another of these groups, the Kawésqar, lost two of their last living strongholds in the space of six months: Carlos Renchi and Ester Edén.

Today it is estimated that the Kawésqar people have only four fully competent speakers of their homonymous language, despite the fact that, according to the last 2017 census carried out in Chile, 3,500 people declared they were descendants of this ethnic group (0.16% of the population). Almost all of them currently reside in Puerto Edén, a town south of the Gulf of Penas, in the Magallanes region, which is the main settlement of a culture once characterized by its nomadism.

The history of the Kawésqar, as well as that of the Yaganes, Aónikenk, Chonos, Haush and Selk’nam, is a history of oblivion and extermination. The intermittent arrival of Chilean and European settlers in the region at the beginning of the 19th century -and more ostensibly in the middle of that century- meant an accelerated demographic collapse for these peoples, caused by the combined effect of an increase in deaths from infectious diseases (syphilis , tuberculosis and measles), the violence of the colonization process, and the loss of their way of life due to the westernization efforts of the Chileans.

“The main challenge in this type of study is the lack of data. In this sense, the important thing is to know how existing data can be used in the best way to have robust estimates”- Sergio Estay, ecologist CAPES UC and Universidad Austral de Chile

This history of destruction of both human beings and their traditions has succeeded in almost completely erasing the valuable historical and archaeological records that a hunter-gatherer people, such as the Kawésqar, leaves behind, further hindering the efforts of the scientific world to reconstruct the way of life of these ancient inhabitants of southern Chile.

Something as basic as, for example, knowing the number of inhabitants reached by the Kawésqar nation at the beginning of 1800, that is, before the first contacts with the colonizers, is currently a subject of controversy between archaeologists, anthropologists and historians. . The figures fluctuate between 1,100 and 6,000 individuals, a discrepancy explained in part by the absence of censuses or systematic sampling that makes it difficult to reconstruct solid patterns. In fact, almost all available quantitative information comes either from expert estimates or from accidental encounters between the Kawésqar and “Western” explorers, settlers and missionaries, data that is highly susceptible to bias and uncertainty.

Despite this, a group of researchers from the Center for Applied Ecology and Sustainability (CAPES-UC ), the Atacama Desert Center of the Catholic University, and the UPWELL Millennium Nucleus in coastal upwelling, took on the challenge of calculating, with greater precision, , the size of the Kawésqar population for the period before its decline, this time using a new statistical approach, capable of robustly estimating historical population sizes even on disparate evidence.

“The main challenge in this type of study is the lack of data” tells us Sergio Estay, an ecologist from the Universidad Austral de Chile and CAPES , and lead author of the study. “In that sense, the important thing is to know how the existing data can be used in the best way to have robust estimates.”

“The archaeological evidence associated with these traditions is not scarce, but it is not abundant either” adds Eugenia Gayó, CAPES researcher, UPWELL and co-author of the study. “This accounts for the strategies that hunter-gatherer groups from the extreme south of the continent used in the past.” As for the type of evidence left behind by these groups, the paleoecologist details: “they are materials, such as shell knives, associated with the canoe camps they set up, and where remains of the marine and terrestrial resources they consumed can also be found.”

The evidence left by these groups are shell knives, associated with the canoe camps they set up, where remains of the marine and terrestrial resources they consumed can also be found. Chilean Memory Image.
But direct evidence is not the only source of information when it comes to unraveling the past of this town. “In our case,” Estay reveals, “using the data from expert opinions and indirect evidence (such as accounts of encounters between settlers and the indigenous population), we generated a statistical model that could take care of the limitations in the data and its consequences. possible biases. It’s not perfect, but it provides interesting results.”

In total, the researchers compiled 49 different expert estimates of the historical population of the Kawésqar people, which were then collated with more than 140 historical records of encounters between members of this nation and Chilean and European settlers. Using encounter density and encounter area density as predictors, Estay et al. thus produced three models based on various scenarios.

Their results, published in The Holocene journal , show that the historical population of the Kawésqar ranged from approximately 3,700 to 3,900 people in the early 19th century. An intermediate figure between the most conservative estimates and the most bulky. “The results obtained” explains Estay, “confirm that these towns had a low population density, surely due to the difficult environment where they lived, which did not allow much larger population sizes.”

Indeed, during its heyday, the Kawésqar people mainly inhabited the inland seas and fjords of the rugged coastal relief of Patagonia, characterized by ice detachments and gales. There, they established circuits of mobility and connectivity between the evergreen subantarctic forests and the southern coast, subsisting predominantly on the coastal fauna represented by sea lions, cetaceans, birds, crustaceans and molluscs and one or another land resource such as huemules or berries.

However, as indicated in the study, between the 15th and 19th centuries, “the advance of glaciers from the Patagonian Ice Field probably led to a greater contribution of fresh water and glacial sediments during the Little Ice Age” slowing down more than a millennium of increases in food availability. However, the researchers also point out that, “far beyond the impact of changes in regional environmental conditions, the availability of marine mammals has been drastically reduced due to overexploitation by foreign sealers and whalers since the 18th century.” , which led the Kawésqar to reduce their population density to avoid resource depletion.

In the opinion of the researchers, the approach developed in this work has the potential to be applied in characterizing the population sizes of other hunter-gatherer traditions, for which data on encounters and occupied areas are available. “Descriptions of historical encounters, in combination with archaeological, environmental, and ethnographic evidence on the mobility of these groups, could be useful in obtaining or improving existing historical population estimates.”

“The archaeological evidence associated with these traditions is not scarce, but it is not abundant either. This accounts for the strategies that hunter-gatherer groups from the extreme south of the continent used in the past”-Eugenia Gayó, CAPES UC and UPWELL researcher

However, when extending these models to other similar cases, Estay suggests caution. “It is not a good idea to take any method and use it without taking into account the availability and quality of the existing information. Our work should be seen more as a way to face the analysis of this type of data (including the design of the analysis strategy), and take some of its strengths, but it is not a recipe that can be strictly applied in other circumstances. ”.

Even so, the work sheds light on a fundamental aspect of the study, and the rescue, of these peoples and their ways of life. “We believe that our framework not only contributes to a better understanding of the trajectory of hunter-gatherers in southern South America , but also to test hypotheses about different dynamics between hunter-gatherers, at different spatio-temporal scales and ecogeographical contexts,” the authors conclude.

In this regard, Eugenia Gayó adds: “it is always useful to have this type of data to understand how population dynamics are established. In the particular case of the Kawésqar, having information certainly makes it possible to quantitatively assess the factors or events that led to the significant reduction in their population. For example, evaluating the role of diseases introduced by settlers versus state and private policies in appropriating territories at the cost of violence and exclusion. It is important to note that the Kawésqar have not become extinct, so estimates of historical population sizes may represent important elements to repair racial injustice, and move towards a plurinational State”.

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