Meet for lunch in Tierra del Fuego: a new ethnoarchaeological project

Ivan Briz, Myrian Álvarez, Débora Zurro & Jorge Caro

Figure 1
Figure 1. Location map.
Click to enlarge.

One of the most challenging aspects of the archaeology of hunter-gatherer societies has been the study of the socio-historical role of social aggregation processes. This offers a promising line of research to understand social interaction and co-operation between groups who are otherwise dispersed but who regularly establish ties of social identification. Aggregation processes can be seen as a result of social choices within a particular set of conditions that both reproduce and transform the social order.

During the 1980s several projects attempted to study the dynamics of aggregation events on the basis of single archaeological sites (Conkey 1980; Hofman 1994) but difficulties in identifying material correlates of aggregation processes led to a dramatic decrease in interest.

Our project, Social aggregation: a Yámana society's short term episode to analyse social interaction, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, is designed to identify the material markers which throw light on the nature of the social relationships and networks embedded in social aggregation events developed by hunter-gatherer and fisher societies who lived at the uttermost tip of South America. The project's ethnoarchaeological approach involves the critical use of comparative data from historically documented populations to develop applicable models and methods that relate to material culture variation (Vila & Estévez 2001), while also increasing socio-historical knowledge in our case study.

Tierra del Fuego data

In the mid-Holocene, the channels and islands from the Beagle Channel to Cape Horn were peopled by nomadic hunter-gatherers specialised in the exploitation of maritime resources; they moved along the Fuegian littoral using some kind of nautical craft (Orquera & Piana 1999). During historical times, these societies were known as Yamana and their long-standing system collapsed as a result of the arrival of the Europeans, who left a rich written record about them. Nearly all the known archaeological sites recorded in the region are shell middens which form isolated domes or annular structures on the ground (for a picture of this archaeological landscape see Hardy & Piqué 2009, Figure 3). They are interpreted as resulting from the accumulation of human residues around the perimeters of dwelling units which repeatedly occupied the same spot (Orquera & Piana 1999; Estévez & Vila 2006). The historical sources show that temporary concentrations of Yamana people occurred when cetacean or sardine beaching took place and offered enough resources to stage the celebration of young people's initiation ceremonies (Gusinde 1986).

Figure 2
Figure 2. View of Lanashuaia Bay, Tierra del Fuego.

Preliminary results from Lanashuaia on the Beagle shore suggest that the site is the result of an aggregation event with various shell middens corresponding to simultaneous occupations. The spatial organisation of these middens, which are evenly spaced and arranged in a linear fashion, their depositional pattern and the presence of minke whale bones (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) and offshore fish remains are good indicators of short term aggregation (Piana et al. 2000). Our project proposes to adopt interrelated methodological strategies which will target four specific concerns. These are: contemporaneity of occupations; artefact diversity; social practices and spatial organisation.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Whale bones in stratigraphic context at Lanashuaia Bay.
Click to enlarge.

To test contemporaneity radiocarbon dating and refitting techniques of faunal and lithic remains, as well as improved DNA analyses on whale bones to establish whether they belong to the same individual or species, will be employed.

To approach diversity, we start from the premise that, if the site formation corresponds to a concentration episode, then the samples taken from shell midden layers in each dwelling unit should exhibit a more homogeneous composition. Techniques to evaluate richness and evenness will be applied to address this topic.

To evaluate social practices, zooarchaeological, bone and lithic technology, use-wear and residue analyses will be conducted. These studies, combined with the spatial distribution of activities - mapping of archaeological remains and spatial patterning using GIS -, should enable us to distinguish between areas of production and consumption and to infer the organisational principles behind this type of aggregation.

In sum, the study of the dynamics underlying aggregation will generate a deeper understanding of the social organisation of hunter-gatherer communities and lead to the identification and assessment of social cooperation.


  • CONKEY, M. 1980. The identification of prehistoric hunter-gatherer aggregation sites: the case of Altamira. Current Anthropology 21(5): 609-30.
  • ESTÉVEZ, J. & A. VILA. 2006. Variability in the lithic and faunal record through 10 reoccupations of a XIX century Yamana hut. Journal of Archaeological Science 25(4): 408-23.
  • GUSINDE, M. 1986. Los Indios de Tierra del Fuego, Tomo 2. Los Yamana (three volumes). Buenos Aires: Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Centro Argentino de Etnología Americana.
  • HARDY, K. & R. PIQUÉ. 2009. Hunters and gatherers on the edge: foraging for the past at continental limits. Antiquity 83 Project Gallery:
  • HOFMAN, J.L. 1994. Paleoindian aggregations on the Great Plains. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 13(4): 341-70.
  • ORQUERA, L. & E. PIANA. 1999. Arqueología de la región del Canal Beagle (Tierra del Fuego, República Argentina). Buenos Aires: Sociedad Argentina de Antropología.
  • PIANA, E., J. ESTÉVEZ & A. VILA. 2000. Lanashuaia: un sitio de canoeros del siglo pasado en la costa norte del Canal Beagle, in J. Gómez (ed.) Desde el pais de los gigantes: perspectivas arqueológicas en Patagonia: 455-69. Río Gallegos: Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas, Universidad Nacional de la Patagonia Austral.
  • VILA, A. & J. ESTÉVEZ. 2001. Calibrando el método: arqueología en Tierra del Fuego, Aestigi Vetus 1: 63-72.


* Author for correspondence.

  • Ivan Briz*
    ICREA-Departament d'Arqueologia i Antropologia, Institució Milà i Fontanals-CSIC, Egipcíaques 15, 08001 Barcelona, Spain (Email:
  • Myrian Álvarez
    Centro Austral de Investigaciones Científicas-CONICET, Bernardo Houssay, 200. 9410 Ushuaia, Argentina.
  • Débora Zurro
    Departament d'Arqueologia i Antropologia, Institució Milà i Fontanals-CSIC, Egipcíaques 15, 08001 Barcelona, Spain.
  • Jorge Caro
    Instituto Internacional de Investigaciones Prehistóricas, Universidad de Cantabria, Avenida de los Castros s/n, Santander Spain.