Who discovered the Falkland Islands – the remote archipelago east of Argentina and north of Antarctica? Perhaps “discovered” should be in quotes like they are when the subject is North America. Historians generally credit the first undisputed landing on the islands to English captain John Strong in 1690. He and subsequent visitors, including Charles Darwin, deemed the island uninhabited until the 1764 establishment of Port Louis on East Falkland by French captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville. That may change with new research which found evidence dating back 8,000 years, including a fox-like creature that may have been domesticated by humans.
“When Charles Darwin visited the Falkland Islands in 1833, he noted the unusual occurrence of a single terrestrial mammal species: Dusicyon australis, a fox-like canid known as the Falkland Islands wolf or “warrah”. In his journals, Darwin observed the warrah’s lack of fear and its inquisitive nature, hypothesizing that “within a very few years … this fox will be classed with the dodo, as an animal which has perished from the face of the earth”.”
A new study published in the journal Science Advances proposes that the seemingly tame warrah was brought to the islands by indigenous South Americans centuries before the Europeans arrived … Europeans who quickly hunted it to extinction by 1856 as Darwin predicted. Kit Hamley, National Science Foundation graduate research fellow with the UMaine Climate Change Institute and lead researcher, went to the Falklands to look for evidence to support this theory. During multiple exhibitions, she and her team collected animal bones and charcoal remnants, examined them for sign of humans and radiocarbon dated them. According to phys.org, the charcoal was a key find.
“One notable sign of pre-European human activity derived from a 8,000-year-old charcoal record collected from a column of peat on New Island, located in the southwestern edge of the territory. According to researchers, the record showed signs of a marked increase in fire activity in 150 C.E., then abrupt and significant spikes in 1410 C.E., and 1770 C.E., the latter of which corresponds with initial European settlement.”
The charcoal was solid evidence humans had visited and lived for periods of time on the Falklands. Hamley also examined a location on New Island where a stone projectile was found that was similar to those used by indigenous South Americans 1,000 years ago. There they found sea lion and penguin bones arranged in ways that indicated they were stacked by humans. Finally, they found a warrah tooth with a radiocarbon date of 3450 BCE., the oldest ever found, suggesting the species may have predated the humans who tamed them on the island.
Is this drop-the-mic proof that the Falklands were inhabited long before the Europeans arrived?
“These findings broaden our understanding of Indigenous movement and activity in the remote and harsh South Atlantic Ocean. This is really exciting because it opens up new doors for collaborating with descendant Indigenous communities to increase our understanding of past ecological changes throughout the region. People have long speculated that it was likely that Indigenous South Americans had reached the Falkland Islands, so it is really rewarding to get to play a role in helping bring that part of the past to life of the islands.”
That’s as close to a ‘yes’ as one can get from an archeologist. Finding human remains from indigenous people would make it a drop-the-mic moment. Even if that happens, it won’t bring back the Falkland Islands wolf, the first known canid to have become extinct in modern times. Or, if the records are being written by indigenous peoples, hunted to extinction by Europeans.
What would Darwin say?