There have been signs of human habitation in the area which date back thousands of years. These can be correctly dated through archaeological findings which were excavated from the area and date back to at least the 13th millennium BC. The earliest human activity is the region dates back to 12,500 BC although the glacial period would have made permanent settlements very difficult for that time period.
Many findings have revealed a migration of various cultures and have been constantly inhabited although not on permanent basis and excavated sites like Cueva del Mildon and Tres Arroyos on Tierra del Fuego support the date of 10,000 BC. Animal remains and hearths as well as stone scrapers were discovered which date back to 9400 – 9200 BC. There are many wall paintings, especially ones that feature the negative images of hands which date back 8000 BC.
The natives that occupied the region included the Tehuelches, whose population was greatly reduced to near extinction after contact with the Europeans. The Chonos group occupied the Patagonian archipelagos north of Taitao peninsula while the Tehuelches could be found all over Patagonia in various segments like the Gununa’kena in the north, Mecharnuekenk inSouth Central Patagonia, Aonikenk in the far South and the Selk’nam and Haush living in the north and south east on Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.
The sixteenth century saw the emergence of Mapuche speaking agricultural tribes that dominated other peoples in the region in a short span of time through confrontation as well as technological abilities. The same model of dominance was used by the Europeans as they replaced the Mapuche speaking tribes with the new European class.
In the years 1502 onwards, many European explorers and Spanish conquistadors attempted to navigate around the Cape Horn and reach Patagonia. Some of these explorers include Gonçalo Coelho and Amerigo Vespucci. Man of the landmarks and striking features along the Gulf would be named during this time like Cape Virgenes, Puero San Julián and more.
The first early explorers to the ‘New World’ encountered giant natives and gave the natives the name Patagons or meaning giants. Rumors circulated for the next 250 years that the indigenous people were nearly double the size of the Europeans but all this was refuted later and the false claims were laid to rest after more explorations and documentations. During the 1500’s until 1587 Spain expanded its domain over Patagonia, slowly but gradually increasing the area of the Spanish empire until the route around Cape Horn was discovered and they lost interest in further conquests.
The latter half of the 18th century saw scientific explorations taking place and two hydrographic surveys of the coasts were given high importance. From the early 19th century onwards, the native Mapuche tribes began migrating to Patagonia to live a nomadic lifestyle and usually stole from the Argentinean frontier settlers. To counter the cattle raids, a large trench was built complete with watch towers and strongholds, but proved ineffective over the long haul.
The newly formed nations of Chile and Argentina claimed dominance over Patagonia and Argentina began to fear that the native people would side with Chile and if they attacked, they could all the way to Buenos Aires. This led to the ‘Conquest of the Desert’ which was a military campaign led by Argentinean forces to establish dominance over Patagonia. This proved to displace and kill off thousands of natives with barely a loss to the Argentinean side.
The creation of the settlement of Punta Arenas in Southern Patagonia by the Chilean government cemented their claim to the Strait of Magellan. Sheep were introduced to southern Patagonia in the 1860s from the Falkland Islands and soon sheepherding became the most important economic sector in the region. The lands were converted for agriculture which helped Argentina become the breadbasket of the world.