The Tehuelches were a group of Indians of South American origin who previously inhabited the Patagonian plains from the Strait of Magellan to the Río Negro . They were divided into two different branches, one north and one south . Each division had its own dialect and northerners were classified as nomads on horses , while southerners as people walk . They became famous in European literature for their great stature and physical strength.


Who were the Tehuelches?

The Tehuelches or Patagones were a group of Amerindian peoples that were located in Patagonia and on the pampas of South America that at one time lived as hunters . At present, the Tehuelches are totally extinct.


Characteristics of the Tehuelches

Among the main characteristics that we can mention of the Tehuelches we have the following:

  • They had a general way of life and a common language , although several dialects are known .
  • They were a hunter- gatherer , nomadic and transhumant people .
  • They were nomads who walked long distances on foot.
  • They believed in various gods and spirits
  • They gave special importance to the horse .
  • They were dedicated to hunting and gathering .

History of the Tehuelches

Its origins date back to 4500 years ago. Several archaeological sites show similar patterns of diet and housing. There are two phases in its history , a first phase called ” pedestrian “, which was documented by European travelers . In this phase they were divided into nomadic groups that were dedicated to hunting guanaco and ñandú, and the collection of coastal products. They used the bow and arrow and the boleadoras . In the second phase they used the horse , which in turn revolutionized their way of life and caused a significant increase in the distances traveled.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Tehuelches were influenced by the Mapuches . In 1876, sheep cattle were introduced to Patagonia for the first time , which started the colonization of this territory. In 1878, the Argentine government proceeded to the regular delivery of concessions to settlers and then began the invasion in the interior fields of the Tehuelche territory. Large areas were given over to livestock , causing the loss of access to the traditional natural resources of this ethnic group.

The Tehuelches dedicated themselves to raising and trading horses, raising sheep or working in neighboring ranches, increasing their entry into the western production system. New diseases and alcohol were also introduced , in addition to being disqualified from obtaining legal ownership of their historic territories for being considered incapable of such right . The last Tehuelches were settled in the Camusu Aike and Lake Cardiel reserves , in what is now Argentina, and in that country there are several indigenous communities that claim this heritage.


The Tehuelches were located in Patagonia , between the Negro River and the Strait of Magellan . Although different arbitrariness have been found, they had very friendly relationships, which is why it is a bit difficult to define exact limits .

Way of life of the Tehuelches

They were pedestrian nomads who specialized in hunting and gathering . They usually moved in stages in Patagonia to hunt and feed. They made long walks on foot until they included the horse in their lives. Men and women were very robust, with large faces and very full lips. His nose was wide and short and his skin was coppery with black hair. They lived in tribes made up of several families and the father had authority in the home.

Political and social organization

Its basic structure was the nuclear family and a dozen of them formed a band . This association occurred in tolderías and was carried out to complement hunting activities . There was also a kind of gang leader called Gownok or Yank , who was in charge of organizing and deciding where the camp would be. Although they would have a matrifocal model , the man was the one who exercised the power of the group.

They were very independent , without formal command hierarchies. In the equestrian period , the adoption of the horse meant a revolution for the group. The groups became more important and this animal became a good of exchange and prestige that even caused hierarchies within the group.


They hunted guanaco , whose meat was important, and whose skin was the raw material for clothes, coats, room and other necessities. They used the boleadora surrounding the prey in a semicircle, using horses and dogs . They collected edible and medicinal vegetables and shellfish on the coast. With the incorporation of the horse in the 18th century, great changes arose in the town’s economy. The adaptation of the horse made them extend the territorial range through hunts and thus ensure food.

Regarding the relationship they had with the white man, their interaction became increasingly close, going from a simple incipient barter to a broad and controlled trade in specific territories, such as in the Dinamarquero archaeological site in Magallanes.

Customs of the Tehuelches

The woman was in charge of domestic activities such as fetching firewood and water to cooking food, displacement and the installation and removal of the awnings in which they lived. They were also in charge of caring for , raising and educating children, preparing the hides and manufacturing certain objects. In his hands was the decoration of the cloaks, bags, belts and playing cards.

The men were dedicated to hunting and the manufacture of weapons for hunting, although much of the time was spent resting and eating. The elaboration of the equestrian props progressively became more complex and generated an important artisan activity .

living place

Their traditional home was an awning of simple construction that could be moved from one place to another with ease, made of wood and covered with layers of leather to waterproof them, first of guanacos and later of horses. In them they could live from eight to ten individuals, the nuclear family plus close relatives . The bedrooms were located at the back. The single women in the center, close to the fire, around them, the young people, children and dogs.


The men wore leather loincloths tied at the back over which they put a tight cape with a silver brooch which was made of fur. The exterior was adorned with red geometric designs and they wore yeguarizo boots made from the leather of the hindquarters.

The women wore a skirt of leather and wearing tight under the armpits, reaching to the knees. When they went out, they put on their cape and wore hoops over their ears.


The painting was the key to the tehuelche art. On the body, they wear face and body paints for their ceremonies and to protect themselves from the weather . The paintings were made on the basis of animal fat . They were also tattooed through incisions in the skin.

In all his art a common style is observed that included simple motifs , mainly geometric , but always incorporating naturalistic figures , the most common being the imprint of hands. They also used the card game, which they called berrica or birk and they handled the Spanish deck like the English one, but especially the one decorated with their own motifs that were made of guanaco leather, with a size of about 8 x 5 centimeters.


The Tehuelches mainly dedicated themselves to making vessels , spears , arrows , vases and clothing with the skin of guanaco and ñandú.


The Tehuelche language, or also known as the Aonikenk language , is a language that belonged to the Chon group , and was spoken by the people called southern Tehuelche or Aonik’enk, located in Patagonia . In their language, it was called Aonek’o ájen. The name Tehuelche is an exonym from the Mapuche and means warlike people.


They did not have an organized religious system, but they had a corpus of beliefs based on their own myths and rites , which were counted and updated by the shamans who also practiced medicine with the help of the spirits that they invoked. They believed in various telluric spirits, and in a supreme deity who had created the world but did not intervene in it.

They believed that Kóoch had ordered chaos by creating the elements. In this culture the existence of an evil spirit, called Gualicho , was accepted .

Feeding of the Tehuelches

They added to their diet the meat and blood of animals, preferably that of mares, in a ritual way and as an object of sacrifice.

Musical instruments

Some of the musical instruments used by the Tehuelches were the following:

  • Ple : it was a hype on earth used to communicate over long distances. Then it was designed with a clay pot covered with stretched leather and two percussion sticks, to be able to transport it.
  • Koolo : type of violin made of guanaco rib, and taut horse bristles.
  • Rambo : similar to the flute made with the femur of the guanaco.
  • Chelper : a piece of guanaco leather and hooves and they used it as a bracelet, making it sound rhythmically.
  • Rattle : it is a leather bag with stones inside.

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