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What is Patagonia?

Historically, whaling played a major role in the economy of Patagonia.
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  • Written By: Michael Anissimov
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  • Last Modified Date: 24 October 2014
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Patagonia is a large geographic region making up the southernmost third (approximately) of the continent of South America. The word comes from patagon, a term used by Magellan to describe the natives of the area. Its etymology is uncertain, although it may refer to big feet. In the 1520s, Magellan started a myth that lasted for centuries, that Patagonia was occupied by native giants. In reality, the "giants" were just the Tehuelches and Aonikenk tribes, with an average height of 1.80 m (~5'11"), in comparison to the visiting Spaniards, with an average height of 1.55 m (~5'1") at the time. The Patagonian giant myth was not widely debunked until the end of the 18th century.

Patagonia lies within the modern countries of Chile and Argentina. It primarily consists of vast steppe-like plains, marked by abrupt terraces differing by about 100 m (330 ft) in elevation. The majority of Patagonia is cold and wind-swept, covered by gravel. In the western portion of Patagonia, ascending into the Andes mountain range, the foliage becomes more luxuriant, and animal populations increase. The southern portion of Patagonia is quite cold, and features the largest ice fields in the Southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica.

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Patagonia's terrain was shaped by tens of thousands of years of alternating glacial cycles. When the world temperature drops and the planet enters an Ice Age, large glaciers cover Patagonia, snuffing out all life and sculpting the landscape with rough scraping action. This glacial shaping is responsible for the endless quantities of gravel covering Patagonia. It also causes the fjord-dotted landscape on the south and southwest coasts of Patagonia, similar to the terrain observed in Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Siberia, and northern Canada. Patagonia is covered with small pools and lakes formed by ancient glacial runoff.

Today, Patagonia is one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, containing a population of approximately 1,740,000 (2001 census) within a 900,000 km2 (350,000 mi2) area. The economy is based on mining, whaling, agriculture (sheep in the south, wheat and fruit in the north), oil, and some tourism. People from around the world travel here for excellent fishing, as well as beautiful views of unspoilt land. The most popular tourist destinations are the Perito Moreno glacier, the Vald├ęs Peninsula, Torres del Paine national park, the Argentine Lake District and Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego.

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