The Alacalufe People

A pre-Columbian people who lived in the coastal zone between the Golfo de Penas and the Straits of Magellan. They called themselves ‘kaweskar’, but their neighbours gave them the scornful nickname of alacalufes (‘mussel eaters’) because of their custom of eating shellfish. They lived principally by fishing. Their conical houses were simple structures of curved sticks which supported boughs with thick foliage, constructed for occupation during the periods when they settled in one place to fish and gather shellfish – the women were skilful divers. Once the work was done, the dwellings were abandoned, only to be re-built the following year.

The Alacalufes travelled about in boats called ‘hallef’ which were made of strips of wood sewn together. In these they transported their scarce belongings and utensils, their food – consisting of fish and shellfish – and their fire or hearth which they kept burning permanently, protected in a clay pot on board the boat.

During the 16th century, around 1535, the population is calculated to have been around 2,500 to 3,000, but between 1880 and 1930 the constant contact with other cultures converted their territory into a highway of sea lion hunters. At the same time infectious and contagious diseases, epidemics, abuse of the alcohol given them instead of a salary by the white men, the change from their traditional clothing (mainly sea lion skins) to European clothes, tuberculosis, promiscuity, loss of their habitat and radical changes in their way of life reduced the population significantly.

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