The Kawésqar culture

nomads of the sea


The ethnic groups of the extreme south of Chile are practically unknown and many times considered extinct. The information that is possessed does not address certain aspects of the culture of these peoples because it is unknown. Here are presented elements to consider the existence of the hunter-gatherer peoples, without judging by the lack of great monuments or works of art, but because they have other forms of artistic expression. With the permission of the authors of The Art of the Word (Tonko and Aguilera) we all contribute together to the dissemination of: the language, worldview, stories and traditions of the Kawésqar. And above all to make visible the permanent and living presence of this culture, in all its descendants and inhabitants of the southern territory of the continent and this country called Chile.

Alas de Angel y Cerro Trono.jpg


The south-western coast of the continent is fragmented into countless islands and islets, which form a labyrinth (ecoregion) of channels and Patagonian fjords. These channels allow the protected navigation of the open sea, between the Gulf of Penas and the Strait of Magellan, surrounded by thick cold jungle, mountains, valleys, lagoons, swamps, streams, streams and the great ice fields. This is the vast Kawésqar territory, who for thousands of years have paddled through it until today.


As maritime nomads the Kawésqar have traveled the canals to access the places where they carry out seasonal hunting. Their great knowledge of geography allows them to know the exact location where birds nest, the birth of marine mammals, mainly wolves.

Its economy has been until very recently exclusively the hunting-gathering of mollusks that are found along the coast. Like any hunter-gatherer culture, its life is developed in the search for resources and means of subsistence. Due to the configuration of the territory, the only means of movement were canoes, then small boats and now boats. They are generally occupied by individual families. Occasionally in ancient times several canoes could meet with various families in hunting seasons or on special occasions for certain ceremonies. For example, when finding a beached whale, the "whale festival" used to be celebrated. They also had initiation parties, but these were stopped a long time ago.



Archipelagic Chile

5,920 islands and islets

13.94% of the territory

105,561 km² surface

83,850 km of Coast

Shared island

Land of Fire

Total Area: 47 992 km²

61.43% Chi - 38.57% Arg


The Kawésqar are animists and we know the mythical world thanks to the oral tradition of those who still keep the living record of those tales that narrate the meeting of both worlds, the real and the mythical of the ancient Kawésqar.


The mythical world of the Kawésqar is a mirror of the real world. It reflects the habitat of the ethnic group with its channels, islands, fjords, vegetation, hills and mountains, rivers, beaches, peat bogs, etc. But there are places where the landscape and the animals are different from the real world. The world of "heaven" where the moon woman and the sun woman ascend is different. The weather is always good, the animals are bigger, which provides an abundance of food. Another place where gigantic creatures live is the north arm, a large fjord that projects into the interior of Wellinton Island, on its south coast. It is very long and has several arms, in one of them the action of the story "The son of the canelo" takes place. Giant animals, killer whales, octopuses, huairabos and other murderous monsters live there.


The origin of the Kawésqar world

According to the Kawésqar, there were three ages in the formation of the world: The first age was chaos, the winds blew against each other, the world had not been consolidated as such. A second age is that of animal-men, who when they died were transformed into the animals of the present world. The third age is that of the present world, the birds and animals that were once men are the present animals. There are no more transformations, the world remains stable.


The Kawésqar being animists, in the mythical world and the real world there are spirits. Usually spirits are negative, but sometimes the spirit of a dead relative helps someone in a situation of danger or difficulty.


The Kawésqar do not have a supreme God, as stated by the ethnologist Martín Gusinde, who did field work in the southern part of the Kawésqar territory in 1924.




Kawésqar Waes

limits to the North with

Taitao Peninsula and

limits to the South with

Brecknock Peninsula.

6,000 year presence

The nomadic life of the Kawésqar lasted until the beginning of the 70's, later they settled in: Puerto Edén, Ancón sin Salida, Seno Obstrucción, Puerto Natales, Río Verde and Punta Arenas.

Although in the first constitution of Chile it considered the southern end of the territory extended to Cape Horn, it was not until 1843 when it was decided to establish the first Chilean group in the Strait of Magellan.

The Chilean state established policies at the beginning of the 20th century, which promoted the sedentary establishment of the canoe occupants, controlling the free movement and identity of its inhabitants, which gradually and forever ended the nomadic culture of the Kawésqar.

Pueblo Kawésqar

Recognized by law 19,253 in 1993 as an indigenous community

Animism (from the Latin anima, "soul") is a concept that encompasses diverse beliefs in which both objects (useful for everyday use or those reserved for special occasions) as any element of the natural world (mountains, rivers, sky, the earth, certain places, spirits, rocks, plants, animals, trees, etc.) are endowed with movement , life , soul or consciousness of their own.


Photo: Francisco Arroyo / by Marco Triviño




Rama colorida

Jautok It includes the interior channels and the entire continental territory of its fjords and glaciers connected to the north and south ice fields. The coasts are very different from those of the sectors towards the Pacific Ocean; they are generally steep, steep with few ports in many stretches along the canals. The beaches are generally stony and short. The vegetation is characterized by being impenetrable jungle. The flora and fauna is also different in this sector, for example, it is here where there are deer, not in the western part.

Kill yourself It includes all the places near the Pacific Ocean and its outer coasts. In this part of the territory there is little impenetrable jungle, there are large peatlands and plains. There is a great diversity of birds and it is a calving area for sea lions. The beaches are of soft sand and very extensive. There are a lot of islets and islands with sandy beaches. Coasts are commonly hit with great force by large waves. Even so, the ancient Kawésqar sailed along these coasts, for seasonal hunting, rich in marine birds.

The Kawésqar divide their Wæs territory in two large regions: Jáutok and Málte, from East to West. As well as in 4 areas from north to south.

There is another Kawésqar territorial division that relates to the ancient groups according to their geographical location, although the limit of each one is not known, for which those we indicate are approximate: Saélam , inhabitants of the northern area, from the Gulf of Penalties to approximately the Adalberto channel to the south. Kčewíte , inhabitants of the area south of the Saélam, approximately from the Adalberto channel possibly to Jorge Montt Island and Nelson Strait; (3) Kelǽlkčes in the Ultima Esperanza area; Tawókser in the area of the Skyring Sea, Otway Sound and both banks of the Strait of Magellan.


These groups sailed through the entire territory without limiting borders . The division established in 1924 by the anthropologist Martin Gusinde (1974: 119) into three partialities (southern, central and northern group) on the basis of natural borders is non-existent, all moved from south to north or north to south without impediments except due to adverse weather conditions that could prevent the crossing of some section of the territory until these improve; This is demonstrated by the recorded Kawésqar travel accounts.

Although there is no designation for the cardinal point itself; both east and west are designated with respect to the type of coast / sea: interior (east) and exterior (west); on the other hand, the north and the south have their own denominations.