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A road trip to the edge of the Earth

by Staff

The paved road ran out on the outskirts, near the hamlet of Villa Ukika, which is home to around 50 Indigenous Yagán residents. Their ancestors lived in nomadic, canoe-based societies in southern Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years before being devastated by violence, disease and displacement during the colonisation of the region in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Long neglected by the Chilean authorities, the Yagán community played a key role in a high-profile campaign against a controversial plan to open a large salmon farm near Puerto Williams in 2019. Two years later, a local woman, former city councillor Lidia González Calderón, was elected to represent the Yagán people in a national citizens’ assembly tasked with drafting a new Chilean constitution, throwing another spotlight on the community.

Beyond Villa Ukika, the Y-905, now merely a gravel road, hugged the shore of the Beagle Channel, which takes its name from the ship that carried naturalist Charles Darwin on his groundbreaking 1831-36 voyage around South America. Following an undulating route over low hills topped with wind-sculpted trees draped with a wispy lichen known as Old Man’s Beard, we rounded a series of deserted bays, coves, headlands and beaches. There were no other vehicles and few signs of life beyond the odd farm or fisherman’s cottage and a pair of turkey vultures gliding overhead.

Along the way, Van de Maele stopped periodically to show me ancient sites I would otherwise have missed. There were scores of middens – large mounds of mollusc shells discarded by Indigenous Yagán families thousands of years earlier – and bowl-shaped depressions that once provided shelter from the region’s harsh weather. Now overgrown with grass, they looked, to the untrained eye, like natural features of the landscape. We also found the remains of ancient fishing traps: rows of stones ingeniously stretched across narrow inlets that allowed fish to enter at high tide but prevented them from escaping when the tide fell.

“This area is one of the top places in the world for archaeological density,” said Van de Maele. “Around 750 [ancient] Yagán sites have been found on just a third of Isla Navarino. There are probably 2,000 sites on the island as a whole. The earliest is around 7,500 years old.” Despite this richness, there are only limited archaeological projects in Tierra del Fuego at present, thanks to the remote location, transport challenges and unpredictable climate. “The logistics just eat up the budget,” said Van de Maele.

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