End of the earth comes to London

Tom Lowenstein

It may not be on the national curriculum, but the great ragged formation of Patagonia, at the extreme south of the Americas, has an uncanny fascination which teachers, among others, will find well worth exploring at the new exhibition at the Museum of Mankind. This is the last special show in Burlington Gardens before the ethnographic collections move back to the British Museum's main site in Bloomsbury, and in many ways the exhibition is unique.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the exhibition is that it is multi-disciplinary. The main focus of the somewhat awkwardly titled "Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth" is on people: the Native Americans who, until the middle of the last century, lived autonomously and had adapted to the violent extremes of both inland and marine environments.

Five main societies hunted on the pampas or, to the south and south-west, plied the waterways that surround Tierra del Fuego. The exhibition - limited to three small museum spaces - and a dense, lavishly illustrated accompanying book, demonstrate the way these people lived at the turn of this century and how their ancestors pushed through the Americas, reaching Patagonia about 10,000 years ago.

The exhibition provides a rare opportunity to see the British Museum's collection of an obscure community's artefacts: long, splendid harpoons and whalebone harpoon heads; bows, slings and bolas; travelling gear; and, not least, the glorious, sometimes painted, cloaks they fashioned from the guanaco - a long-haired relation of the camel.

Mounted behind the artefacts loom enormous black-and-white photographs: portraits of members of the A"nikenk, Selk'nam, Haush, Kaweskar and Yamana peoples. With painted faces, dressed in ceremonial skins and feathers, or lolling ironically naked in front of the camera, these are the last traditional hunter-gatherers of the region.

By the mid-19th century, sheep farmers and cattle ranchers had started to move in on the territory. The indigenous populations not devastated by disease or conflict with the settlers began merging with Europeans and abandoning their inherited traditions. A chilling snap from the turn of the century of white settlers about to embark on an "Indian hunting" party suggests another more sinister reason for the extinction of native populations.

One poignant photograph, taken in 1995, shows the last full-blooded Yamana women.

The human and ethnographic element of the show is supported by vivid geo-physical and palaeontological detail. Drawing on the latest scientific research, the exhibition provides maps, diagrams and photo essays on how this dramatic land mass came to be formed and populated by prehistoric fauna.

The jawbone of the extinct giant sloth, collected by the young Darwin, stands next to an 11,000-year-old dung ball from the same animal. And, speaking of larger than life creatures, the Patagonian giant, a human of European fable, is represented by some bizarre reproductions. It was Magellan, following his voyage of 1520, who gave these legendary giants the name Pataghoni, and, right through to the end of the last century, books of exploration contained solemn, false accounts of such savages. A telling contradiction occurs in a 1769 engraving which depicts a colossal Patagonian at trade with a diminutive European. While the giant may be nine-foot tall with a body mass "eight times greater" than ours, he is wearing a cloak in the pattern, closely observed, of those made by the A"nikenk.

This is a visually beautiful, tightly organised, rather academic show. Good for over-13s and capable label-readers who have had background preparation.

"Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth" runs until December 31, at the Museum of Mankind, 30 Burlington Gardens, London WlX 2EX. Tel: 0171 734 6255. Admission free. An accompanying catalogue, Patagonia Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography, costs Pounds 14. 99

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