Were the Selk'nam the Sumos of South America? Bones of an extinct people of Tierra del Fuego, "the Land of Fire," suggest they may indeed have been the mighty wrestlers that Charles Darwin and others said they were.
Magellan came across the coastline of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina in 1520, seeing 100 plumes of smoke. He actually named it Tierra del Fumo, "the Land of Smoke," but upon his return, the story goes that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V changed the name to Tierra del Fuego, noting that there was no smoke without fire.
In the rugged, mountainous, forested north of Tierra del Fuego dwelled the Selk'nam, a now-extinct people who hunted with bow and arrows, living nearly exclusively off a small species of llama known as the guanaco. The Selk'nam were the most feared and demonized of those living in Tierra del Fuego by both indigenous peoples and European settlers, and were often described as powerful giants, researchers said.
The diaries and logs of Charles Darwin, as well as those of Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the HMS Beagle, suggest the Selk'nam were indeed imposing — tall, broad and massively muscular. Fitzroy also recounted wrestling bouts with the Selk'nam, who easily bested his crew. A son of a Christian missionary, Lucas Bridges, wrote that Selk'nam wrestling involved holding the arms of one's opponent and attempting to throw him to the ground while never breaking the hold, fighting until one or the other could no longer continue.
Now scientists find trauma in Selk'nam bones of the kind one would expect of mighty wrestling. The researchers analyzed skeletal remains at the Museum at the End of the World in Ushuaia, Argentina. Healed fractures were seen in forearm bones of the kind expected with Selk'nam wrestling.
These findings, detailed in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, helps reveal how good at fighting the Selk'nam might have been.