Where have all the Chauccas gone?

Salta, Argentina


Easter island got me thinking on a subject that has been bothering me for a while.

As a student, the finale of my dappled academic career was to sit my degree in Anthropology (a remarkably good decision). There’s a school of anthropology called ‘structuralism’ which looks for explanations of cultural development through patterns of tradition and mythology – its a bit like evolution applied to folklore.

The standard subject matter for structuralism is South American Indian communities, because they were so many, varied and separate when first ‘discovered’ by Europeans. The recorded myths of origin of all these many peoples make fascinating, thought provoking reading.

So I was more than a little devastated on reaching South America, by the glaring lack of these communities. Where are they? I sought solace in various ‘museo indigeno’s but all I could find there was paltry selections of rocks – a cabinet of arrow heads, another of bowls – that passed for all that is left of so many cultures.

The Chauccas were indigenous people in what is now Uruguay. They are all dead. The same is true of most of the peoples of what is now Argentina and Chile.

In the far south, a fascinating selection of peoples used to live – the Yamana, Haush, one etc. Now they are reduced to tourist attractions, our boat trip in the Chilean fjords advertised the home of the ‘last Kaweskar’ as part of the itinerary of places we would pass.

The Kaweskar were amazing people. They lived in canoes as nomads. The men hunted on the land and the women dived for shellfish. They went naked in the southern seas.

We were offered an interesting series of explanations for their demise: including their adoption of alcohol, and their inability to realise, when given clothes, to remove them before or after diving.

They either wasted away through the weakness of alcoholism, or froze through their own stupidity. It doesn’t seem to occur to anyone here that the weakness and stupidity were ours as well as theirs, that the failure was in the combination of our cultures, not simply in theirs.

Its also worth observing that when our culture cannot easily accommodate the drugs of another, we tend to demonise the drug itself, or its originators – branding Afghan peasants wicked for growing opium, or Moroccans for Cannabis, or Colombians for coca. Somehow, we believe this isn’t our own weakness revealed. But this is another subject I may return to later.

What saddens me most – and the story is repeated all over the southern end of South America, as well as, lets be honest, north America, Australia, and among many marginalised communities within Europe – is not that these cultures have gone, for how could they possibly coexist with us. How could the Kaweskar paddle alongside the Navimag ferry?

No, what saddens me is the total lack of awareness of what has been lost, of the many broad chapters of human perception that have simply faded from our sight. We classify them like animals, and collect their artefacts as though these alone can explain who they were.

Mankind is incredibly destructive, most notably of itself.

On a lighter note…

The beginning of a journey.

Close your eyes.

Oh no, now you can’t see the screen.

Close one eye and metaphorically close the other.

Breathe in deeply.

Lets start from the beginning.

After arriving at the South Pole, we turned our sledges northwards and set off – manhauling them all the way to the edge of the continent as dogs are no longer allowed on Antarctica (it’s the details that make this story so plausible!).

From the end of the peninsular we took a ship to Ushuaia and then hiked northwards, over mountains and deserts, past lakes and glaciers, to Bariloche.

From there we travelled north again through the gaucho lands to Salta, where we sit now, looking over the border to Bolivia.

The journey north has begun.

Despite our wanderings over the last few months, we are finally pointing in the direction we intend to continue for some time.

There’s a sign in Ushuaia which reads ‘Alaska 17,848km’ – so we know we have our work cut out.

But were very excited.

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