Growing Up Sexually



South America


IES: Argnt.



YAHGAN / ONA (Tierra del Fuego,Argentina)


IndexAmericasSouth AmericaArgentinaYahgan / Ona

Also featured: Pilagá, Mataco, Araucanians, Teheulche





Among the Yahgan, little girls are betrothed to adult men; sometimes parents agree to unions between little boys and girls[1]. Girls of ten to twelve are found to be no longer virgin[2].


Among the Ona, “[t]he sexes were kept separate and watched vigilantly from very early years” (Cooper)[3]. Gusinde’s trilogy on the Yahgan gives some insight. Children of the Selk’nam (1931:p372)[4] separate in childhood (cf. Gusinde, 1946:p253-4)[5]. Some homosexuality among boys is prevalent: “Wissen Buben sich selbst überlassen, dann kommt es manchmal zu Frivolitäten, welche sie als solche einschätzen, doch nie vor Erwachsenen zu wiederholen wagen. Sie drücken und ziehen sich gegenseitig am Membrum, pissen sich gegenseitig an, legen sich nackt aufeinander und steifen dabei das Membrum. Manche Weiße verkehrten mit indianischen Burschen in der nämlichen Form”.


Also (1931:p558-9):


“They never show the slightest prudish narrow-mindedness when boys are by themselves; rather, it has their fullest approval that they thoroughly have their fling. Naturally, the rascals throw off their little cloaks during lively play, even those as old as 14. Then they vivaciously frolic about, throttle and wrestle with one another, throw themselves on the ground and lie on top of one another in the drollest positions, strike one another on the buttocks or lightly brush the hand over the sexual parts, and sometimes adopt a pose that would not be permitted adults: All this is regarded as harmless naïveté, for such romping about usually takes place outside the camp. Once I saw from a distance how several small boys made a circle and at the same time, amidst whispering and giggling, started to take care of a minor need with somewhat free deportment, quickly broke up the circle, ran after one another yelling, and mutually urinated on one another. Two old men who were standing beside me- we were not observed by the boys - smiled at this performance; they said to me apologetically: “After all, the boys are there by themselves!” ”.


Girls are less active. Sex instruction is not formalized. “Children are never witnesses to intimate familiarities between married people” and “[…] children are never given a so-called “explanation of the facts of life”, any more than they are given hints about the sexual life of spouses. Each child’s own developing nature may teach him what needs to be known about this. The young Feuerländer /Fuegians are alert and have a keen gift of observation; hence the twofold sexuality among human beings cannot remain hidden from them as long as they can directly observe it in the animal” (p579).

Thus, “In educational instructions and especially in sexual enlightenment, the Indian never anticipates the child’s physical and mental degree of development or maturity reached naturally; in everything he waits for the appropriate age and the eligibility of the developing young human being”[6].


A comparable pattern is seen for the Yamana (1937:p741)[7], and for the Halakwulup (1974:p392)[8].


At the Kloketen initiation rite (Chapman, 1982)[9], genitalia of the initiands are sqeezed (p105-6). Sometime afterwards the kloketen (initiand) will be made to confess whether he has had sexual relations (though he would not be required to name the woman or women involved). The young men would have been warned that premature sexual relations would stunt their growth.










Janssen, D. F., Growing Up Sexually. VolumeI. World Reference Atlas. 0.2 ed. 2004. Berlin: Magnus Hirschfeld Archive for Sexology

Last revised: Sept 2004


[1] Hyades & Deniker (1891) Mission Scientifique du Cap Horn, 1882-1883. Paris. Vol. 7, p171; Parsons (1906:p69), op.cit.

[2] Hyades & Deniker (1891 :p188) ; Parsons (1906:p122), op.cit.

[3] Op.cit. Cf. Cooper, J. M. (1946) The Ona, in Steward, J. H. (Ed.) Handbook of South American Indians. Vol. 1. The Marginal Tribes. Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 143, Vol. 1. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office, p107-25

[4] Gusinde, M. (1931) Die Feuerland-Indianer, Band I: Die Selk'nam. Mödling bei Wien: Verlag der Internationalen ZeitschriftAnthropos

[5]Gusinde, M. (1946) Uhrmenschen im Feuerland. Berlin [etc.]: Zsolany

[6] They deal with overly forward behaviour as follows: “There is certainly not missing in Tierra del Fuego a bold rascal who is strongly attracted to girls; at the same time one or another is to be had for his purposes. First there begins between the two a still inconspicuous approach, then they see each other often, know how to meet each other repeatedly in the camp, and exchange the meaningful glances of a beginning infatuation, until they finally try to come together secretly. If they succeed, they enjoy touching each other. It does not come to grosser improprieties, however, because the girls always remain shy and timid. If, however, an adult should observe such behavior between ten- or fourteen-year-olds, he is not satisfied with separating the two and sending them to the huts, but tells the parents and other adults about it. Blows may even rain on the boy for such a mistake, depending on whether the father has already frequently admonished or punished him; for the girl there are serious words that aim at sensitive shame. From now on the vigilance of the camp has been called up over those little affecters of secrecy, and a repetition of their attempts is forestalled. The adults show a special strictness about eliminating such disorders; never do so many blows fall as when a boy is again found secretly with a girl. I often asked: why so much seriousness and excitement over such an occurrence? Each time they behaved as though they could not believe the sincerity of my stupid question. Briefly and to the point, I was given in answer: “It is not good if a boy and girl come together secretly. Our forefathers were much stricter than we are today. The bad example of the whites has made us negligent. It would be better if we went back to the earlier strictness. The way we let children approach one another nowadays is not good for them! ...” ”.

[7] Gusinde, M. (1937) Die Feuerland-Indianer, Band II: Die Yamana. Mödling bei Wien: Verlag der Internationalen ZeitschriftAnthropos”. “Scherzend schlagen Sie sich aufs Gesäß und steifen flüchtig mit der Hand über die Geschlechtsteile, oder sie besprtizen diese Teile mit Wasser und Zeigen mit den Fingern darauf".

[8] Gusinde, M. (1974) Die Feuerland-Indianer, Band III/I: Die Halakwulup. Mödling bei Wien: Verlag St. Gabriel

[9] Chapman, A. (1982) Drama and Power in a Hunting Society: The Selk’nam of Tierra del Fuego. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press