Question: What land of towering peaks actually takes its name from the “big feet” of giants, who were once said to dance on its shores?
When Italian writer-explorer Antonio Pigafetta chronicled his time circumnavigating the globe with Magellan in 1522, he included a curious story about the giants who lived on the shores of Argentina. His depiction of the native people as being ten feet tall and constantly leaping caught the imagination of sailors to follow. For two centuries, this story was considered gospel; even though no one else met the giants, a later crew reported finding their enormous tracks left in the snow, the size of which suggested they were twice the size of average humans. This actually led to the naming of the region: Patagonia comes from patagones, or, “big feet.”
But 18th-century French explorer Louis de Bougainville crisscrossed the region and reported that he found no giants at all—only other humans, the indigenous Tehuelche people, who had lived there for 4,500 years. None of the people Bougainville met were over 5’9,” which would not count as towering but for the short stature of those making the claim. The tallest sailor on the original trip was only 5’5” and the crew (like most of their European peers at the time) averaged closer to five feet in height. And what of those tracks in the snow? They were the natural result of the oversized guanaco moccasins worn by the Tehuelche.
If the sailors had wanted to see the real giants of Patagonia, they were 97 million years too late. A species of titanosaur named Argentinosaurus Huinculensis once roamed the land. At 130 feet long and 24 feet wide at the shoulder, and weighing over 100 tons, these creatures were imposing, but with a top speed of 5mph and a diet of ferns, they were not exactly terrors. While dinosaurs have long since faded into history, the Tehuelche people remain in Argentina, not giants or legends, just real Patagonians.
11 True Things about the Tehuelche
- The Tehuelche people are actually a trio of distinct groups, the Gününa’küna, Mecharnúek’enk and Aónik’enk people, who share a similar language base but with their own dialects.
- Their primary occupation was hunting: fish and shellfish in the winter, and guanacos and ñandús from spring to fall, using bows, arrows, and bolas (round stone balls) to kill game.
- Nomadic, they lived in temporary tent-like shelters for ten residents, each dwelling constructed of waterproof guanaco hides draped over wooden frames.
- In the 18th century, Tehuelche began capitalizing on wild horses (descendants of conquistador’s steeds) in multiple ways: riding them to extend their range, eating horse meat, using hides in the shelters, and making tools from their bones.
- When a Tehuelche man died, his horses and dogs were killed and burned with all his possessions, a complete erasure of his wealth.
- The Tehuelche loved color: they decorated the inside of their guanaco-skin capes (kais) with colorful patterns and painted their bodies in bright hues for important ceremonies.
- A favorite pastime was a card game, berrica, in which players held squares of decorated guanaco skin and threw deer bone dice.
- The deities of the Tehuelche were Kooch, the ruler of the universe, and Elal, who made humans, and together their battled Gualichu, lord of the underworld.
- The Tehuelche language was largely replaced by the Mapudungan language of the Mapuche people in the 16th century. Tehuelche actually is Mapudungan word for “brave people.”
- In the 19th-century “Conquest of the Desert,” which asserted Argentinian rule over Patagonia, a thousand Tehuelche were killed and thousands more forced to flee.
- Today, 6,000 Tehuelche remain across Argentina, and a campaign to bring Tehuelche back into common use has taken off, with the slogan, “Kkomshkn e wine awkkoi ‘a’ien” (I am not ashamed to speak our language).
Explore a land of giant history when you join our Wilderness: Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego & the Chilean Fjords Small Ship Adventure.