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French Archaeology in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego

Dominique Legoupil

Since its creation of the Société des Américanistes in 1876, France has demonstrated a continuous interest in the study of human populations in Latin America. This interest can be observed through the research conducted by the Institut Français d'études Andines (IFEA), founded in 1948 with headquarters in Lima, Bogotá, La Paz, and Quito, and Centre Français d'études Mexicaines et Centraméricaines (CEMCA), founded in 1961 with headquarters in México and Guatemala. These organizations have worked with numerous scientific institutions, both local and French [i.e., Centre National de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), ORSTOM, Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Musée de l'Homme, Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle, Universités de Paris I, III, VII, X, and Université de Toulouse]. These institutions and the locations of their headquarters reflect the traditional French interest in great civilizations, during the development of scientific archaeology in the 19th century.

However, toward the end of the 19th century, some French researchers became interested in some of the lesser known cultures that didn't share the worldwide reknown of the Maya, Aztecs, or Inca. Those pioneers were instrumental in developing research under the sponsorship of the Département des Sciences Sociales, Humaines et de l'Archéologie del Ministère des Affaires Etrangères Français, known as the Misiones Arqueológicas. Currently there are 17 Misiones Arqueológicas distributed in Central and South America: Bolivia (1), Brazil (3), Chile (2), Colombia (1), Ecuador (2), Honduras (1), Mexico (5), and coastal Peru (2).

J. Emperaire and his wife, A. Laming-Emperaire, are two of the more prominent pioneering archaeologists in South America. Emperaire arrived in Chile shortly after World War II, with the objective of undertaking ethnological studies among the last of the canooers of the Patagonian archipelagos (J. Emperaire, 1955, Les Nomades de la Mer). Emperaire initiated research to identify the early occupants of the extreme south of South America and Brazil. This work was interrupted by a landslide that killed Emperaire in 1958 during his excavations at Ponsomby. His work, however, was continued by his wife. During the 1960s A. Laming-Emperaire developed a school of French South American archaeology in Paris, the EHESS, from which the majority of French prehistorians interested in working in South America, as well as prominent South American archaeologists, have emerged. Working with S. Dreyfus-Gamelon, Laming-Emperaire created the Anthropology Department at the Universidad de Concepción in Chile, in 1966.

The work done by Emperaire in Patagonia was largely a study of the marine areas including the archipelagos and the interior seas of southern Patagonia. While the American researcher J. Bird had suggested that the occupation of this region did not predate 2000-3000 years, Emperaire's use of the then-new radiocarbon dating, the Englefield site (Seno Otway) was dated to 8000-9000 B.P.+/-1500 years (A. Laming y J. Emperaire,1961, Journal de la Société des Américanistes). During that same time, Emperaire discovered Ponsomby on the island of Riesco, where the oldest human occupation was dated to 7000 B.P. Simultaneously, with his wife, Emperaire undertook a series of surveys on continental Patagonia, where the earliest dates for the archipelagos were between 11,000 and 12,000 B.P. Together they worked at Cueva Fell, Cueva Leona, and Cueva del Mylodon. At the latter they were unable to demonstrate a relationship between the Antropic occupations of the Final Pleistocene and the paleontological data.

Following her husband's death at Ponsomby, Laming-Emperaire abandoned the research on the archipelagos to investigate the Magellan Strait. Between 1964 and 1967 she conducted studies at Punta Catalina on the northern coast of Tierra del Fuego, Bahía Munición on the northern coast of the Strait, as well as Marazzi. The latter site was dated to 9590+/-200 B.P., demonstrating a very early occupation for Tierra del Fuego (A. Laming-Emperaire, 1971, Objets et Monde). Her work in Chile was suspended for a decade during the 1970s, when she went to work in Brazil and Uruguay.

After the Emperaires' initial research in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, numerous Argentine and Chilean researchers also pursued investigations there. However, after Emperaire's death, the archipelago region was excluded until O. Ortiz-Troncoso, a student of Laming-Emperaire, began investigations at sites on the Magellan Straits, such as Punta Santa Ana and Bahía Buena, where the clear affiliations with Englefield could be observed. Simultaneously, L. Orquera and his Argentine crew began investigation on the Beagle Canal.

After 1980, with the creation of the Misión Arqueológica Francesa, directed by D. Legoupil, the French program in this southern extreme area took a new focus. The primary objective of this Misión, as defined by the work initiated by Emperaire, was the understanding of maritime adaptations in the austral archipelagos of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, including ethnoarchaeological research of the post-Magellan Indians. Punta Baja on the Mar de Otway, dated to the 17th century, was the center of investigations between 1980 and 1983. This site represents a model hunting camp for young marine lions, identified as such by the ethnohistorical information, as well as archaeological investigations.

Between 1985 and 1988, a second program was focused on an earlier period of marine mammal hunters represented by sites on the Bahía Colorada. Complementary excavations of two temporally different sites demonstrated the cultural continuity of the indigenous populations of the archipelagos. The similarities between these sites also demonstrated that ethnological hypotheses can be tested archaeologically at sites of any period, and validated the usefulness of "ethnoarchaeological" interpretations.

Since the early 1990s, the Misión has extended its range to other regions of the archipelagos, searching for different possible types of maritime adaptations, such as the efemeral encampment of bird hunters on the Cabo de Hornos archipelago, or the various specialized camps on the southern portion of the Isla Nacarino. In this way, a settlement system model has been constructed for the archipelagos, based on the distribution of a multitude of ephemeral camp sites associated to repeatedly occupied base camps.

Currently, through the re-examination of Ponsomby, the Misión Francesa is confronting the question of the origins of occupation in maritime Patagonia. Through the stratigraphic secuence of three occupational episodes at this site, we can see a progression between 8000 and 4000 B.P. from a terrestrial economy to a mixed terrestrial-marine economy. As these investigations continue, we will be able to test the hypothesis that the original terrestrial economy of the archipelagos in time adapted to maritime hunting.

Dominique Legoupil is a researcher at the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique of France and a member of the Equipe d'Ethnologie Préhistorique, founded by A. Leroi-Gourhan.

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