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How to Make the Most of Land Resources Without Abusing Them: A Selk'nam People Guide

The Selk'nam people, far from being extinct, continue to preserve and share their rich cultural heritage. They view the ecosystem not as something to exploit but as an integral part of their existence. They emphasize the importance of utilizing natural resources sustainably within their territory. In this article, we offer insights into the dietary habits of the Tierra del Fuego Selk'nam people.

Food held sacred significance, as it directly impacted their survival. They approached hunting with gratitude and reverence for the animals they sacrificed. Fernanda Olivares, director of the Hach Saye Foundation, reflects on this by stating, "In ancient times, there was always fire, and something was constantly cooking on it. This tradition of permanently having food ready to eat contrasts starkly with our modern practices. Centuries ago, the island was much colder, and food served not only as sustenance but also as warmth, a way to gather around the fire."

In recent years, Fernanda's foundation has been dedicated to the development, protection, and promotion of Selk'nam culture and its ancestral territory. For many years, these people were mistakenly believed to be extinct, but thanks to the efforts of their descendants, they have once again become visible and active, with a strong desire to protect Karukinka.

"The Selk'nam people, who have lived in the same region for hundreds and thousands of years, were organized into family clans. They inhabited specific areas of the island, where they had a deep understanding of the natural cycles. Their guiding principle was not to deplete the island's wildlife," Fernanda points out. They allowed eggs to hatch into birds and fruits to grow back. "These resources needed to be safeguarded for future generations, as well as to ensure a sustainable food source for the following year, as there was nowhere else to turn for resources," she emphasizes.

"For the Selk'nam people, the ecosystem was a unified whole. They did not distinguish between plants, animals, and minerals, as we do today. They viewed themselves as an integral part of the ecosystem, not superior to it. Just as they depended on the biodiversity of the land, there were times when they became part of the food chain themselves. From this perspective, it is clear that a mutual dependency existed; no one could exceed nature's capacity for consumption. It was essential that if they found three eggs, they took one and left two," explains Hema'ny Molina, the president of the Chilean Selk'nam Corporation.


The Selk'nam people's diet included guanacos, “tuco tucos”, cormorants, ducks, seals, stranded whales, seashells, fish, edible mushrooms, calafate, myrtle, prickly heath, wild celery, chicory, root tuber, digüeñe, and eggs. Their diet was far from limited, as the island provided not only cold winds, vast peatlands, lakes, and rivers but also a diverse array of nutrients.

"While the Selk'nam benefited from what nature provided, it is true that scavenger animals were not included in their diet. Animals such as condors, eagles, and foxes, which fed on carrion, were not on their menu. The reason? There was a possibility that these animals had consumed human remains."

In a manner that the Selk'nam people could proudly celebrate their diverse diet, river fish were captured using nets, while along the seashore, they employed semi-circular stone enclosures. These enclosures, strategically positioned for when the tide receded, allowed them to trap fish among the stones. The nets were crafted from guanaco tendons, skillfully-braided to serve as fishing tools, used with harpoons. On the other hand, hunting was carried out with bows, arrows, and "boleadoras."

Regarding the cooking process, all their food was roasted. "Guanaco meat was slow-cooked on a cross spit over an open flame," Hema'ny explained. This method was not chosen for gastronomic reasons but rather out of necessity, as it was the only available cooking technique. For other foods, such as mushrooms, they placed them on stones surrounding the fire. They also utilized hot ashes to prepare certain foods, like eggs.

"During those times, no cooking tools existed to prepare recipes as we do today. There were no bowls for stews, for example; the only option was to use fire, wood, and stones to prepare meals. The tradition of roasting meat has been prevalent in our region for many centuries.

"In Tierra del Fuego, there are numerous fruits that remain unknown or unrecognized as such. Likewise, many 'grasses' have fallen out of use," commented Hema’ny. This fact undeniably represents the potential for a diverse diet, once rich in fruits and vegetables. It also serves as an invitation to connect with our natural resources in a different manner: to view the pampas from an alternative perspective and inquire about what the land would prefer to offer before we cultivate it. There is so much more that lies untapped, and we have yet to even question it.

"The colonizers arrived with a preconceived notion of farming the foods they were familiar with, without recognizing the foods that were already present here. Hence, there was a misconception that the indigenous people struggled to survive in this seemingly inhospitable land, while in reality, food was abundant. The colonizers attempted to impose a lifestyle that was not sustainable in those times," emphasized Hema’ny.

If Tierra del Fuego has everything to offer, let 's make it all visible.

Let the Selk’nam people become visible once more, as they still exist.

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