Monday, January 9, 2017

Guest Post by Allen W. McDonnell - Yaghan Antarctica

Between January 1 and January 6, 1820, the Imperial Russian Naval expedition raided several small Yaghan settlement on the coast of Tierra Del Fuego where they observed fires on shore. The raids collectively captured seven women and six men of the Yaghan tribes who were almost entirely unknown to Europeans and who had never had contact with them before. Fabian von Bellingshausen, commander of the exploration expedition, hoped that the captives would be able to learn rudimentary Russian and help map the region be acting as intermediaries with other natives. For three weeks, the expedition sailed as close to due south as they could tacking back and forth through the rapid winds that blew steadily out of the west.
Early on the 27th of January, the expedition spotted an icy land mass and the commander chose to continue south along its coast, anchoring off shore at dusk. Some time in the short period of twilight darkness that prevailed very early on the 28th, one of the Yaghan managed to free his fellow tribe members, and they all slipped overboard and swam ashore through the bone chillingly cold waters unseen.

When the escape was discovered at breakfast time, the commander considered sending the long boat to search the shore for bodies but due to the very harsh cold quickly concluded the foolish natives had died of exposure. Believing he had satisfied his Imperial objective of proving there was nothing worth having in the far south the two ships circumnavigated the Antarctic ice fields before they returned north. Once again raiding a Yaghan village in Tierra del Fuego so that he would have captives for the Czar of the Russian Empire as proof of their diligence, Fabian von Bellingshausen returned to Russia in 1821.

Though he had no idea of the eventual consequences of his actions, the Russian expedition had not resulted in the deaths of 13 Yaghan in the icy waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Yaghan peoples were far more sturdy and adapted to the cold weather of the far south than the Russians had presumed in even their wildest imaginings.

The 13 Yaghan tribe members, from four related small villages on the coast of Tierra del Fuego had survived the swim to shore and had quickly built a snow shelter where they had clustered together sharing body heat until they were all recovered from their swim through the icy current.

They had carefully kept watch on the two Russian ships, and it was with great relief that they saw them sail away tracking the ice flows as they went eastward out of sight. As soon as they were gone, the Yaghan set about doing what they had to for survival. Fortunately for the Yaghan, they quickly discovered that Weddell seals have no instinctive fear of humans allowing them to be easily killed. Seal meat and blubber are high energy food, the skins become containers, clothing when needed and insulation between warm homes covered in thick insulating layers of snow. Their oily secretions serve as an abundant and useful lamp oil, providing the fires needed to survive the long dark winter months. Because of the lack of other land predatory animals it is a relatively simple matter to butcher a seal into its various useful parts and store them in a frozen state in buried storage skins until they are needed.

Europeans dropped off in Antarctica with nothing but a few stolen knives and a bit of stolen rope would have perished very soon after escaping. The Yaghan were very skilled at survival, and once they discovered how easy the abundant Weddell seals were to hunt, they quickly set to work killing, processing, and storing the various parts of the animals for use during the long cold winter they all knew were just three months from starting. It was not yet Antarctic fall when the Yaghan arrived, but stockpiling supplies for winter was a tradition that permitted their survival in the harsh land of Tierra del Fuego for thousands of years before the Russians had unintentionally transplanted them to the Antarctic Peninsula.

Much like the Aleut peoples of northern Alaska and Canada, the Yaghan culture was designed for survival in the harsh conditions. The people knew how to work together for the common good and there was never any question of shirking when one bad decision could lead to everyone's death.

When Antarctic Spring arrived in September 1820, the 13 Yaghan had not only survived, they had prepared well enough to eat their fill all winter and by spring two of the women were in their sixth month of pregnancy leading to the first humans being born in Antarctica the last week of December 1820.

For the next 80 years, many European expeditions ply the waters near Antarctica searching for good seal hunting grounds but for the most part they find much more profit hunting on the islands further north than the mainland of the continent. The Yaghan tribes keep the tradition alive that the strangers in the large boats are dangerous, best to be avoided if possible or eliminated if necessary. By 1903, the Yaghan number in the thousands living mostly on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and along the shore of the Bellingshausen Sea of the mainland. Their diet consists of seals, penguins and the occasional migratory bird plus the occasional whale that washes up on the beach from time to time. There is almost no plant material in their diet outside of whatever is in the stomach content of their prey animals. Because their diets are rich in animal organ meats, they get all of the vitamins and minerals they need to be in excellent health. Like all hunter-gatherer peoples they revere the prey animals they hunt and use every morsel of the carcass for something be it fuel, food, storage or even personal adornment.

Though the Yaghan living in Tierra del Fuego wore little or no clothing, the harsher climate of the Antarctic winters have caused their culture to change to one where a full seal skin winter suit is common, complete with warm mittens and boots. Even so, it is not uncommon for Antarcticans to strip to just a loin covering in summer to get as much of the southern summer sun and the Vitamin D it brings when the weather nears the freezing point.

As the different world powers engage in the 'race to build empires' in the 1800's, Antarctica remains largely ignored while more favorable places are exploited. Then as expeditions attempting to over winter on land in 1902, 1905, and 1912 disappeared mysteriously to the last man during the long dark winter months there, is not much interest in continuing to try. World War I and the Great Depression followed by World War II keep the major powers too busy to spend much effort on Antarctica. There were a series of claims and counter claims by different European and South American countries during the 1920's and 1930's. At one point in 1939, President Roosevelt of the United States intended to send a pair of expeditions to live and work in Antarctica to establish that the USA also had deep interests in the continent but domestic affairs interrupted planning and he never got back around to it before the outbreak of war with Japan in 1941.

Then in late 1945 American navy ships heading to South Africa from New Zealand diverted south to map the Antarctic coast. As part of the expedition naval photography aircraft are sent to film the coast from moderately high altitude to record seals on the beaches during their pup raising time of the year. Much to the shock of the photo lab and their commanding officers some of the pictures clearly show people hunting and butchering seals at different places on the edge of the herd.

At first many accusations of people trying to pull a joke on the officers are made but later sets of photos show even more evidence. Clearly there are people living on Antarctica with a culture based around seal hunting at least in large part. Ill equipped to land anyone to investigate the commanding admiral orders close up photos be taken of the people; however, the low altitude flights inevitably lead to the seals rushing in all different directions making it impossible for the crews to get pictures of any humans up close. All sorts of speculation goes around about Yeti or other types of Snow Men living wild in Antarctica and in 1946 the subject becomes a priority for the newly formed United Nations. Under UN auspices an expedition is sent in September 1946 to try and make contact with the Antarctican natives.

In terms of making friendly contact, the expedition is a total failure. Whenever the 'civilized' group enters any area the natives fade back out of sight and avoid them. In terms of establishing what the Antarcticans are, the expedition is much more successful when they stumble across a native cemetery where they find a dozen bodies perfectly preserved in the ice. The anthropologist and archeologist members of the expedition insist on taking four of the dead with them back to the ship for study, an infant, one pre-adolescent girl, a mature male and an elderly female.

From the scientific point of view, the grave robbing is a total success proving beyond a doubt that the Antarcticans are human. Physical characteristics also show a high likelihood that they are related to the Amerinds who settled the islands of Tierra del Fuego. Anthropologically and archeologically, the way the bodies were treated after death shows a reverence typical of cultures that believe in some form of afterlife for humans.

From the Antarctican point of view, the invasion of their hunting grounds during the peak gathering season when it is necessary to put up a certain quantity of meat to get the tribes through the cold dark winter was a source of anger, and the grave robbing simply made that distaste of the outsiders much stronger.

Additional attempts at contact in 1948 and 1952 were also failures, and the United Nations led by the United States anti-colonial sentiment resolved in 1953 that the various claims to Antarctica by Argentina, Australia, France, Chile, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom are all null and void. Antarctica belongs to the Antarcticans and unless they are willing to negotiate some concessions voluntarily they and their territory are under UN protection.

Finally in 1971, Chile comes up with the idea that, if the Antarcticans are related to the Tierra del Fuego indigenous peoples, then perhaps the survivors of those communities might have more success opening communication. Unfortunately for the last two hundred years, many waves of European disease and outright fighting have swept over the region and the surviving native population is down to just a few hundred remaining individuals. Finally one young man, Carlos Hernandez, is recruited. Having just completed his Bachelors of Science degree, he is fully westernized. To help him make contact, he is outfitted much like the Antarctican hunters caught on film by different high altitude aircraft over the years and practices hunting and self defense with the kinds of weapons the Antarcticans carry. He is also given a two-onth intensive course in Anthropology to help him  understand what are believed to be best practices in making contact.

In September 1971, a naval submarine anchors half a mile off the shore. From that point, Carlos paddles to the beach in a one-man kayak made of a whale bone frame and seal skins towing two more that hold his extra supplies. The submarine submerges to periscope depth with just the snorkel air tube, periscope and radio antenna above the surface.

Carlos beaches his kayaks at the south end of the rocky beach and carries them one-by-one up away from the herd of seals where they will be safe from any stampede. Once everything is secure, he sets up camp very openly, then using the skills he has learned he hunts and kills a young Weddell seal and hauls it back to his camp where he butchers it and processes it semi-skillfully into its useful parts. Soon he has a small fire of seal oil burning and is toasting meat over it on a bone skewer. The only piece of advanced technology in Carlos' camp is the atomic battery powered transistor radio he wears on a cord around his neck. Though not a very powerful transmitter, it is more than strong enough to be received by the antenna on the submarine.

For the first two days, the wary natives stay completely out of sight, but by doing his best to appear to be as much like them as possible, Carlos finally succeeds where all the proud expeditions of the past were dismal failures. On the third day a young Antarctican hunter warily but openly appears at the edge of Carlos camp and waits to be noticed. Carlos carefully approaches the native and greets him with gestures of peace used by his ancestors since before European contact. He then offers the native his own spear, at which point the fellow breaks into a relieved smile and trades spears with him, an ancient peace ritual.

Carlos knows the ancestral Yaghan language spoken by his grandparents but the native accent is quite a bit different because it was not shaped by two hundred years of European influence. Relieved to be understood none the less Carlos invites the native to join his camp and they spend an enjoyable afternoon talking about themselves to one another. Carlos is being constantly tape recorded by the crew of the Submarine Southern Cross who consider this to be some of the easiest though also most boring duty they have ever done, sitting quietly in one spot recording. While alone Carlos has been making Spanish language reports, pretty much just a running commentary of his activities and observations, but now that he has made contact the conversation is in a language none of the sailors can understand at all.

The Antarctican origin story is very much the same as the one Carlos learned from his own grandparents for the Yaghan people of Tierra del Fuego and this coupled with the fact that the language is understandable in both directions easily leads to the conclusion that the Antarcticans are closely related to the Tierra del Fuego tribes.

Carlos spends two months living and working with the Antarcticans to hunt and process seals to get the tribe through the cold winter months. At the end of his time with the tribe he gifts them with the meat he has gathered and processed to help them through the winter and promises to return in a later season. Carefully packing up his three Kayaks he paddles out to the location of the Southern Cross which surfaces just far enough to expose the hatch and bring Carlos and his kayaks aboard.

Over the Antarctic winter season Carlos is given more anthropology and diplomatic training and quite a nice paycheck for all that he managed to accomplish. The issue then becomes, now that contact has been established what exactly can the government of Chile gain from the expense of maintaining or expanding the contact? Antarctica has all the same mineral resources of any continent, coal, oil, natural gas, copper, silver, gold... The problem is most of it is buried deep in the ice making the mining of it more trouble than it is worth when there are other easier to access sources outside of Antarctica itself. Nevertheless Carlos is taught some mineralogy and agrees to spend a winter over with the native Antarcticans in hopes that he might discover something worth exploiting.

In his second expedition, Carlos sets up camp once again, this time near an outcrop he had observed the previous year of a hard black material that might be coal. He also brings along a number of modern tools and artifacts, some for his work and some to use as gifts for the natives. One of the items he carries with him the second year is a collapsible asbestos cloth furnace. It packs into a small heavy disc but by pulling it up like a top hat and setting the exterior braces to keep it expanded it makes a workable coal stove. The gamble of hauling the heavy thing along with him pays off when the rock does turn out to be coal, which allows Carlos to have a merry little coal fire going in his shelter safely providing heat from broken coal he gathers along the edge of the seam. It also gives him the ability to heat any other mineral samples he gathers intensely to separate metals from the ores.

To keep up his acceptability in the tribe he must spend much of his time during peak season hunting and processing seals to provide necessities for the cold winter months, but as a vigorous young man he is able to perform both his 'share' of the hunting tasks and gather rock specimens once a week or so when he has gotten ahead of his mental quota. Fortunately, the Weddell seals that make up the bulk of the hunting efforts are very easy to hunt, though not totally without risk.

The gifts of long steel spear tips, which make hunting easier also goes a long way towards making his occasional hours off collecting rock samples acceptable to the Yaghan Antarcticans to the point that one day when he returns from a hunt dragging a carcass he discovers one young woman, Eveny in his camp. Eveny helps process the seal with minimal wasted cuts so that the job is done in much less than half the time it was taking Carlos to process the seals himself even after two seasons of practice. Later that night Eveny climbs into his sleeping pallet with him and makes it clear she is here as more than just a butcher aide. Being a young man and having been lonely for the last two months Carlos doesn't resist her advances in any meaningful way and the arrangement becomes permanent for most purposes.

Carlos only finds coal and a very small deposit of native copper, nothing that would be considered of commercial value. It does provide enough metal for him to present Eveny two copper charms to go along with the carved bone charms on her bracelet and necklace, but the government of Chile concludes there will be nothing of commercial value coming from the Antarcticans except perhaps a few furs traded for manufactured goods. The only other thing the continent is good for is anthropological studies of the natives, like Carlos Hernandez is doing, and ecosystem studies of the birds and sea mammals that gather to breed or live like the petrels and penguins or the seals and walrus. In 1974, the University of Chile makes Carlos their official Doctoral candidate researcher in Antarctica and he makes a decent income by turning his field notes into books for the general public about life amongst the Yaghan of Antarctica and how important it is for the UN to protect their way of life from outside interference. His stories about life with Eveny and their children in the cold and dark winters and blindingly bright summers of Antarctica inspire a generation of cultural conservationists who spend decades trying to preserve isolated peoples from the deluge of modern interference.

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