Earthquakes, tsunamis and a naked tribe. It’s Chile – and not just the Galápagos – that inspired Darwin

Reports of the botanist’s round-the-world voyage are dominated by his findings in the Galápagos. The much longer time he spent in Chile and what he saw there have been overlooked – until today

“‘The climate is certainly wretched: the summer solstice was now passed, yet every day snow fell on the hills, and in the valleys there was rain, accompanied by sleet. From the damp and boisterous state of the atmosphere, not cheered by a gleam of sunshine, one fancied the climate even worse than it really was.”

Charles Darwin, writing in December 1832 on his arrival in Tierra del Fuego aboard the Beagle during his five-year around-the-world trip, makes clear that he was not immediately taken with this, the southernmost region on Earth. Not surprising, since this South American archipelago situated at the foot of Argentina and Chile, has been inviting lurid descriptions ever since Europeans first came upon it in 1520. Richard Walter, a chaplain on a military excursion in 1740, was similarly struck by the area around Cape Horn. “Nothing can be imagined more savage and gloomy than the whole aspect of this coast.”

When Darwin returned to the same area two years later in 1834, having diverted to the Falkland Islands and Argentina as part of Captain Robert Fitzroy’s principal task to map the coasts of southern South America, nothing much had changed. “We anchored in the fine bay of Port Famine. It was now the beginning of winter, and I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only seen indistinctly through a drizzling hazy atmosphere.” Names like Port Famine, Desolation Island and Desolation Bay speak of a hostile and barren region, and for years many explorers and expeditions met their end here.

For Darwin, invited aboard the Beagle as a companion for Fitzroy, the voyage would prove “the most important in my life and has determined my whole career”. But much of the analysis and reporting of Darwin’s voyage is consumed by his time in the Galápagos Islands, a critical period that would do much to inform On The Origin of Species, published in 1859, and the urtext of evolutionary biology. Much less attention has been devoted to the time (about a third of the total spent on the voyage) in Tierra del Fuego and other parts of Chile. But that may be about to change.

Among those in the vanguard of asserting the importance of Chile in Darwin’s thinking is Alvaro Fischer, director of the Foundation for Science and Evolution in Santiago. For Fischer, it has become something of a mission to restate the significance of Darwin’s time in Chile. “Since Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution by means of natural selection, and apparently – and I stress ‘apparently’ – there is no direct link between what he did and recorded while in Chile with the theory he later developed, that part of his trip has been greatly ignored.

“Most people believe that it was his visit to the Galápagos Islands, from 15 September through 30 October 1835, which triggered his ideas on evolution, as a result of the varieties of finches he saw on the different islands of the archipelago. But even that is not the correct story, since it was only much later, already back in England, when he related the finches with evolution in the way we now understand it.” What was on offer to Darwin in Chile was one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world. From the Chilean sub-Antarctic to Patagonia; from the virtually untouched island of Chiloé up to the arid north; and from the foothills of the Andes to peaks of the longest mountain range in the world, Chile offered an extraordinary range of habitats, climates, species and geology.

Fischer is in no doubt that the elemental Chilean landscape must have informed Darwin’s later thinking. “His stay in Chile was very important because it gave him first-hand experience of geological events – a massive earthquake and tsunami, a volcanic eruption, glaciers breaking down as they got to the sea, and seabed fossils on mountaintops – which had a strongly impact on him emotionally, probably reinforcing his hunch that together with geological variation, a similar evolutionary process should be taking place at the species level. Also, he encountered the Fuegians in Chile, directly influencing the way he would, later on, explain humans within the evolutionary context he developed.”

If relatively little is known of Darwin’s time in Chile, even less is known about his extraordinary contact with the remarkable Fuegians, a tribe of canoe people who are thought to have lived in Tierra del Fuego for more than 7,000 years. Though that hardly stood them in good stead – barely 100 years of contact with westerners quickly put an end to their incredible story. About a third of their number were wiped out when four Argentinian naval vessels arrived in Tierra del Fuego in 1882 and left behind a measles virus for which they had no immunity.

Darwin recorded his first sight of the Fuegians (they were, more correctly, members of the Yaghan tribe, one of four tribes in Tierra del Fuego) on 17 December, 1832. “In the afternoon we anchored in the Bay of Good Success. While entering we were saluted in a manner becoming the inhabitants of this savage land. A group of Fuegians were perched on a wild point overhanging the sea; and as we passed by, they sprang up and sent forth a loud and sonorous shout. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I had ever beheld.”

The Yaghan were a nomadic tribe, living mostly on canoes and moving across the bays and channels of Tierra del Fuego depending on weather, tides and, most importantly, food. Theirs was an almost exclusively sea-based diet of sea lions and shellfish. And for 7,000 years it served the southernmost inhabitants of the Earth well. Despite the savage cold and prodigious rain, the Yaghan sported no clothes and when on land only bunkered down in flimsy wigwams.

Darwin’s incredulity at the way they lived is clear from his writing, which peaks with wonder at what he sees – not least their seemingly extraordinary ability to survive in one of the harshest climates. “These Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full-grown woman was absolutely so. It was raining heavily, and the fresh water, together with the spray, trickled down her body. In another harbour not far distant a woman, who was suckling a recently born child, came one day alongside the vessel, and remained there whilst the sleet fell and thawed on her naked bosom, and on the skin of her naked child.” There has been much speculation about how they survived the extreme temperatures, though Tierra del Fuego offers a clue, so named because early explorers noted the fires that burned constantly along the shores of the archipelago. Darwin also noted that the Yaghan adopted a squat position when stationary, to reduce exposure to wind and rain.

Professor Patience Schell, chair of Hispanic studies at the University of Aberdeen, believes that it wasn’t until later in life that Darwin’s time in Chile, and contact with the canoe tribe, came into focus. “When Darwin was an old man, he looked back on his time aboard the Beagle, and reflected that the forests of Tierra del Fuego and meeting the ‘naked savages’ of Tierra del Fuego were unforgettable experiences. The landscape of glaciers, fjords and forests in Tierra del Fuego certainly awed him, and made him feel small against the power of nature, but his encounters with the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego were also extremely important.

“He had already become acquainted with three indigenous people from the region, who were aboard the Beagle returning home. The contrast between the indigenous people on the Beagle, who had been Europeanised in their customs, and the local indigenous people, whose subsistence depended on hunting and gathering in the cold waters and woods of the region, demonstrated to him how adaptable human beings were.”

Though it was not till later that his observations from Tierra del Fuego played out in his later work, his early deliberations on the Yaghan suggest that even then he was ruminating on the survival of the fittest, as is clear when he wrote in December 1832. “Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals.

“Their country is a broken mass of wild rock, lofty hills, and useless forests. Nature, by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his country.”

For Fischer, this contact with early humans in Tierra del Fuego was of lasting import: “The experience of living among the Fuegians was a long lasting one for Darwin, which allowed him, 35 years later, to describe emotions as a human universal, thus laying the foundation for modern evolutionary psychology, developed at the end of the 19th century. Meeting the Fuegians became, eventually, scientifically relevant.”

But for Schell, too, Darwin’s time in Chile remains mysteriously under-reported. For her, the geological significance of the events he recorded were fundamental to his theories of how the Earth evolved. Schell points out that because the theory of natural selection accounts for biological diversity, and Darwin’s most important experiences in Chile were geological, his time in Chile is often overlooked. “The 1835 earthquake and finding the fossilised shells and forests in the high Andes were dramatic evidence of how the Earth had changed (and continued to change) over innumerable years, providing the timeframe for evolution. In these moments, while still in Chile, Darwin realised he was seeing vital clues to the history of the world and evidence of the Earth’s vast age, which was the debate in geology at the time. The Galápagos finches were one example of evolution in process, but he did not actually realise the importance of these birds until he was back in the UK. The Chilean experiences were a catalyst for his thinking.”

But it is not just Darwin’s time in Tierra del Fuego that is drawing renewed interest to the Chilean sub-Antarctic. Since 2006, when Unesco identified part of the Cape Horn as a biosphere reserve, the region’s scientific importance has steadily increased. And on Sunday Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, will visit Cape Horn and open a research centre dedicated to highlighting and researching the diversity of mosses and lichens that so struck Darwin in Cape Horn.

Ricardo Rozzi, a Chilean ecologist and co-founder of the Omora Ethnobotanical Park , where many of these lichen and fungi can be seen, describes them as the “miniature forests of Cape Horn”. Visitors are encouraged to sweep through the park with a hand lens to better study and understand the role played by these tiny organisms.

Rozzi was also the driving force behind the creation of the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve and makes an impressive case for saying that this area is among the unique regions on Earth. There is no equivalent land mass between these southerly latitudes anywhere else in the southern hemisphere, nor any equivalent in the north.

“Here is the limit of the forests in the world. The southernmost forested point of New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere at a latitude of close to 47 degrees south. Below that, the only forests in the southern hemisphere are in southwestern South America in the Magellanic sub-Antarctic eco-region, which reaches a latitude of almost 56 degrees south, which consequently has no geographical replica in the world.”

And yet, this region attracts relatively little scientific scrutiny or money when compared to the research on land and species in Europe or North America. An analysis of scientific research across different latitudes in both north and southern hemispheres shows a tiny percentage of work that focuses on this southernmost part of the Earth. That is one of the major reasons for the establishment of the new Cape Horn Biocultural Centre in Puerto Williams (the tiny capital of the Chilean Antarctic province). This centre, to be opened by Bachelet, will dedicate itself to investigating, conserving and managing the unique fauna for the benefit of future generations.

Bachelet’s visit and Rozzi’s determined campaign to recognise the value of the area is starting to bear fruit. A recent expedition organised by Red Alta Dirección of Santiago’s Universidad del Desarrollo attracted leading scientists from the US and the UK. At the core of that trip was highlighting the scientific importance of Cape Horn, and drawing attention to the legacy left by Darwin’s visits.

As Rozzi says: “After the second world war, In the Galápagos there has been a rich scientific narrative built on Darwin’s work in the archipelago, developed by individual scientists and the Charles Darwin Research Station there. In contrast, Cape Horn has remained comparatively understudied until the end of the 20th century. But we want to collaborate with the Galápagos Charles Darwin station and expand on Darwin’s legacy in Cape Horn by establishing the Cape Horn Biocultural Centre.” That work starts today. © Guardian News and Media 2015