For any collection of harpoons, maritime, or ethnographic material, the Fuegian whale bone harpoon or spear points are among the most unusual. The Yaghan people of the the Tierra del Fuego (just above Cape Horn) were the most southern living of any others in the modern world and are so unique anatomically, behaviorally and physiologically that their descent may have been independent of the main stock of Amerinidans thought to have crossed the Bering land bridge 10 to 15 thousand years ago. These people, first encountered by Magellan and other early European explorers probing the southern tip of South America, were discovered living happily in the extreme cold and icy southern climate devoid of practically any clothing. Surviving on shellfish, fish and marine mammals they lived in in subfreezing temperatures, swimming in the cold water, and huddling in the rudest of shelters at night. In his first transit though the Fuegian region in the 1820s Capt. Fitzroy, brought four of these Yaghans back to England where they were quickly acclimated to English life. On his next trip south in the 1830s, (on the HMS Beagle, also carrying Charles Darwin), he returned the surviving three Yaghans to their home area. The behavior of the returnees astonished Darwin, and he wrote wondrously about it in The Voyage of the Beagle. For their bird (cormorants, penguins) and marine mammal (seals, dolphins) hunting the Yaghan tribesmen fashioned distinctive harpoon and spear points crafted from whale skeletal bone (almost surely gleaned from drift whale carcasses). These long and graceful points have many barbs on the bird spears, with seal and small whale points usually having one or two barbs separated from the rounded haft by a long gap in which the the rawhide line was tied. The line's other end end was tied to the center of a wooden harpoon or spear shaft that may have been as long as 10 or 12 feet. The Yaghans virtually lived in the flimsiest of canoes, constructed of bark tied together with baleen strips and sinew. Wherever they traveled a fire was kept alight on a pile of stones in the canoe. Animals could be harpooned from the canoe, or seals and penguins hauled out on the shore were fair game. When the prey was struck, the point would normally be pulled from the harpoon handle, now attached to the animal by the length of several feet of the rawhide line. The hunter held the shaft crosswise (perhaps aided by others) until animal's struggles waned, and it could be subdued with knives and clubs. Some of the whalebone points (such a the one here) had one side of the haft sharpened into an edge that would allow a deeply penetrated point to toggle within the flesh, better assuring its resistance to pulling out. In his 1900 article (Report of the U. S. National Museum, 1900) Otis Mason called this type of Fuegian harpoon The most primitive type of American harpoon.
At fourteen inches long, this harpoon point is a comparatively long one, . The narrow point is 9 1/4 from tip to the top of barb. The top of the haft is 1 1/2 long and 1 wide. The haft is sharpened on the side above the barb. It is a very graceful example of this rare object, and is in excellent condition. The New Bedford Whaling Musem in its harpoon collection has only three examples of this sort of harpoon point: one is a double barb (9 1/2) and two of the single barb style (8 1/2 and 12 1/2) The example here is larger and more graceful. It is a fine collectible.