Guanaco Makes Comeback (Warning: Nudity, Violence)

The Selknam used guanaco in many parts of their lives, including initiation rituals

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By David Hammond

Anne Chapman, under the direction of Levi-Strauss, captured the chants and final words of a woman named Keipja, a shaman of the Selknam of Tierra del Fuego. Keipja's ancient memories and songs are recorded in Chapman's End of a World.*

Keipja died in 1966, Chapman wrote, "and with her all direct testimony of a millenary culture disappeared; that of a Paleolithic people of hunters and gatherers."

The guanaco – an American camel, related to the Ilama – was the Selknam's primary source for both clothing and food. In fact, the word for guanaco in the language of the Selknam is identical to the word for food (predictably, the word for people in their language is, of course, Selknam).

In Patagonia near the end of winter (early September, in the Southern Hemisphere), I froze my ass off, and I was wearing Winter Silks, fleece liner, waterproof jacket, gloves, hat, etc.  The Selknam, who lived across the Straits of Magellan from my hotel in Punta Arenas, made it through the incredibly cold winters largely naked, warmed only by guanaco skins wrapped around their bodies and guanaco meat filling their bellies.

When I was invited to have lunch at La Marmita, a restaurant in Punta Arenas, the capital of the Patagonian region, I was a little disappointed to see before me what looked like an over-cooked piece of beef. It was very dry, slightly mineral-y, and not as lush and tasty as I would have liked.

About half way through the meal, our server let us know it was guanaco…and I was thrilled, not by the taste, but by the opportunity to sample what had been for dinner for thousands of years in this neighborhood.  Guanaco, once rigorously protected and thus unavailable to schmos like me, is making a comeback.

Wild game can, as I understand the situation, be served in this part of Chile, and traditionally the guanaco we were eating had been hunted. There are currently so many of these creatures, and not so many predators (Saber Tooth Tigers having disappeared a while back and Pumas being in short supply) that the Chilean government has allowed hunters – humans, the ultimate predators – to have at guanaco.

The wildness of Guanaco meat explained its dryness: creatures who live without the benefit of fattening feed and who don't lead slothful lives of leisure on the feedlot, tend to have more muscle-to-fat. Guanaco are not as moist or as flavorful as much of the beef we eat. The mineral taste was, I guess, the "gaminess" we associate with, you know, game.

Guanaco is apparently making a comeback on menus in Chile and Argentina, and it wouldn't surprise me if it's available in Peru and Bolivia. I'm trying to see if I can get some shipped to me, but so far, no luck.

The Selknam used the guanaco in many parts of their lives, including their initiation rituals, where women were painted to represent guanacos. During these rites, the primal act that is dramatized involves the realization, by Selknam men, that the creatures they believed to have been cosmic entities were, in fact, just women pretending to be cosmic entities. The men, rallied on by the Sun, dethroned these women, who were lead by the Moon, and hunted them down, much like they hunted guanaco, and beat them up. Moon fled to the heavens, and her battle-scarred visage is still visible. I have not come across a Freudian reading of this ritual, but it would seem like a dream ripe for such analysis.

Because I initially thought I was being served just beef, I didn't shoot a pic of the dish when it was placed before me, which violates one of my cardinal rules for food journalism: shoot first, ask questions later, because sometimes you just don't know what you're eating until you're done.

After lunch, the cook was kind enough to bring out some raw guanaco for me to photograph. As you can see, it's somewhat darker than beef, with a greyish tint in some places. I was told this coloration was normal.

Guanaco is, to the best of my knowledge, unavailable in the United States.


*Oak Park Library has none of Chapman's books. In fact, the only libraries in the country that have her books are libraries at Yale, Harvard, Tufts and Metropolitan Museum of Art. It's an epic book. It's $65. We should have all four of her volumes in our library.


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David Hammond from Oak Park, Illinois  

Posted: October 1st, 2013 4:00 PM

Joe, with the cattle, it's the feeding on grass (rather than all corn) that probably makes the difference. Grass-fed is a little tough for some to accept because it isn't as fatty (thus, as delicious) as the beef we're used to eating.

joe from south oak park  

Posted: October 1st, 2013 7:51 AM

I find the same to be true of free range cattle. Not quite as exotic as guanaco and without the connection to a hunter gatherer group, but it does have that high muscle content and game flavor that is quite different than the beef that is bought in the supermarket.

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