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Letter from Patagonia

Surviving a Windswept Land

For 13,000 years, hunter-gatherers thrived in some of the world’s harshest environments

July/August 2023

Patagonia Aysen AndesThe southern tip of South America is a region of extreme landscapes, where towering granite peaks and glacial ice caps give way to grasslands that fade into the ocean. Small huemul deer weave through stands of beech that are permanently bent sideways by the same powerful winds that lift Andean condors toward the clouds. Giant rheas, large flightless birds similar to ostriches, dart across the open steppe, past herds of grazing guanaco, a wild llama, which nervously keep their noses to the wind, on the alert for prowling pumas. This vast region is known as Patagonia, and it encompasses the bottom quarter of South America, covering more than 400,000 square miles of Chile and Argentina. It extends 1,300 miles from the thirty-seventh parallel south to the tip of Cape Horn, roughly equal to the distance between Maine and southern Florida. Known for some of the most severe landscapes, strongest winds, and most extreme weather in the world, Patagonia was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans, and archaeologists are now discovering an intriguing story about the skills, adaptations, and resilience it took for people to survive there. Archaeologist César Méndez of the Center for the Investigation of Patagonian Ecosystems notes that learning about the area’s ancient people is particularly important because it was one of the only major regions in the world that was inhabited solely by hunter-gatherer groups until the arrival of Europeans. “Archaeology here can be viewed as a natural laboratory to observe the variability of mobile lifeways across time and space,” he says.


Patagonia MapThe precise origins of the name Patagonia are uncertain, but it may have derived from a Spanish word for leg or foot, pata, which the explorer Ferdinand Magellan is said to have used to refer to the local Tehuelche people when his expedition encountered them in 1520. At the time, the Tehuelche, one of several groups who made the region home, were living as hunter-gatherers, as people had in Patagonia for millennia. Because so much of the native population in Patagonia was eventually wiped out by European colonizers—with the exception of some small surviving communities including the Kawésqar in coastal Chile, the Yaghan in Tierra del Fuego, and the Aonikenk in Argentina—archaeological research provides the only way to reveal the region’s long human story.


Scholars know that people have lived in Patagonia since at least the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. Until recently, however, they had believed that people likely abandoned large swaths of the region during a time of particularly severe weather patterns, based on a gap in the archaeological record from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. After years of survey and excavation of hunter-gatherer campsites in northern Argentine Patagonia, archaeologist Raven Garvey of the University of Michigan has found that, in fact, people never left. Her work is showing that by constantly adapting to shifts in the environment and developing a specialized suite of hunting technologies, the ancient hunter-gatherers of Patagonia were able to thrive even in times of radical environmental change.