Unknown objects appear in the grave of a Selk’nam child in Tierra del Fuego

Unknown objects appear in the grave of a Selk’nam child in Tierra del Fuego



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The Selk’nam people of Tierra del Fuego it was a tribe that lived in the extreme south of South America. It was made up of nomadic hunter-gatherers who originally subsisted on the wild guanacos, birds, rodents, shellfish, and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses) that they hunted. At the beginning of the 20th century, infectious diseases and a genocide perpetrated by British, Argentine and Chilean settlers wiped out most of them.

Along with their neighbors, the Haush, This tribe was one of the few hunter-gatherer groups in America whose livelihood was restricted to an island. Its archaeological record is abundant, however, little is known about its mortuary practices.

An international study, led by the University of Magallanes in Punta Arenas (Chile), with the participation of the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (UPF-CSIC), has described a child burial of this tribe with unique characteristics, located in Bahía Inutil. Theradiocarbon dating places the burial at the beginning of the post-Columbian period.

“Neither in the Chilean or Argentine Tierra del Fuego had a similar trousseau been found along with human remains of land hunter-gatherers. The equipment was much simpler, but in general it was about burial of adults ", says Alfredo Prieto, researcher at the University of Magallanes, who leads the study published in the journalThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archeology.

In the work, Prieto and his team describe the archaeological materials found together with the skeleton of a very well preserved child. What is striking are the accompanying funeral items, unusual in this region.

“There are several mysterious elements whose use we do not know. We don't even know if they are copies or tools in use at the time. They could be, for example, reproductions of wooden tools that never lasted. Nor can we venture anything about it. Some of them simulate well-known tools, such asfire tongs. Others, such as balls with grooves or stone tools, we do know that they were used ”, adds the scientist.

Bones grouped in pairs

The boy's remains were accompanied by unique designs of bone artifacts. They were mostly fragments of spikes of king penguin(75% of the remains) and guanaco jaws arranged in pairs to look like spikes, something unusual and not previously observed in other graves. The king penguin is part of Selk’nam mythology.

The abundance, density and diversity of the tombs document a complex material and cultural ensemble, as well as a technical ability that had not been described until now in this group of hunter-gatherers.

"The pairs ofguanaco jawsthey are remarkable. They appeared together in pairs and one even has evidence of mooring. Due to the type of cut and the size it seems that their function was to use them as spikes, something very strange ”, says Prieto. Nothing like it is found anywhere in the world in archaeological literature.

They also found lithic raw materials, slightly etched, something relatively rare in these deposits. Many of these components had never been seen in the archaeological or ethnographic record of Tierra del Fuego.

“A strange piece that evokes a shuttle would reveal net weaving techniques, but it is the only fragment whose shape seems to induce a function. In addition, all the pieces are sets by structural pairs; between the pointed and the cracked, or between the open and the closed, made of various materials. As we lose the integrity of the original placement, we are not sure if they were part of larger 'mechanisms', ”he continues.

A particular genetics

According to archaeological records, the Selk'nam population appears to have barely exceeded 1,500 people, in a territory of almost 48,000 km2. In addition, until now scientists do not know how to determine if these individuals were direct descendants of the first groups that populated the island, or if they arrived later.

The human remains of the boy reveal that it belonged to a young man who had a predominantly terrestrial diet. Osteological analyzes showed no bone problems or pathologies, suggesting that it was an individual without any abnormalities. "We do not know the causes of death," adds the expert.

Ethnographic information indicates that non-accident infant deaths were incomprehensible to the Selk'nam, who generally blamed a shaman from an enemy group and promotedacts of revenge.

Another peculiarity of this finding is that it provides the first genetic evidence of the mitochondrial subhaplogroup D1g5 in the Selk'nam population in Tierra del Fuego. This fact could indicate that its origins are in the first wave of human colonization of South America.

"Themitochondrial haplotype D1g5It was not described until 2012 and in part it is because it has a fairly restricted distribution to southern South America. Locally, in the south of Chile and Patagonia it can be quite frequent. It has been estimated to be around 15,000 years old, that is, the result of the arrival of some of the first American colonizers and their subsequent dispersal through the southern cone ”, explains Carles Lalueza Fox, researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (UPF- CSIC) and co-author of the study.

It is the first time it has been described in Tierra del Fuego, but it is consistent with the possibility of contacts with local populations north of the Strait of Magellan. “It also fits with indications of marine remains, since the child was found on the coast of the canal and although the Selk'nam were terrestrial hunter gatherers, would indicate less isolation than supposed by ethnographic testimonies and more contacts with neighboring populations ”, argues Lalueza Fox.

His team is currently sequencing some genomes of aborigines of Tierra del Fuego to integrate them in the context of the genomic diversity of the American continent. "It is possible that we can find some evidence of natural selection and adaptation to cold in some genes related to metabolism," he concludes.

Only five other mtDNA haplogroups have so far been discovered in samples from ancient populations in this region: this Selk’nam boy, two Yamana, and two Kawesar.

Interaction with other cultures

The burial provides evidence of far-reaching interactions with other cultures both on the mainland and elsewhere on the island. Their immediate neighbors were other nomadic groups, two maritime (Yamana and Kawesar) and two terrestrial (Haush on the island andAonikenk In the continent).

The Selk’nam Were Not NavigatorsTherefore, all the articles of this type that were found in the burial would come from outside Tierra del Fuego, obtained from its close neighbors.

Direct and indirect contacts with these groups would be crucial to gain access to exotic animals and raw materials, such as Darwin's rhea (Rhea pennata), green obsidian or mollusk remainsD. magellanicum found in deposits in this region.

TheDarwin's rhea it became extinct in Tierra del Fuego at the end of the Pleistocene, and its presence among the tombs means that it was probably brought from the continental steppe.

The obsidianIt had already been discovered previously in Bahía Inutil, not far from this burial.D. magellanicum inhabits the deep sea of ​​Magellan and was probably collected by sea in boats. "The Selk'nam were not sailors," says Prieto.

This burial provides a unique window to discover previously unknown aspects of the Selk’nam society.

Bibliographic reference:

Alfredo Prieto et al. "A Novel Child Burial from Tierra del Fuego: A Preliminary Report”. The Journal of Island and Coastal Archeology.


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