They are considered extinct as a tribe. The exploration of gold and the introduction of farming in the region of Tierra del Fuego has led to a drastic decline in the numbers of their population, a process that is described as genocide. Joubert Yanten Gomez, a Chilean mestizo of Santiago and linguistic prodigy who is of part Selk'nam ancestry, has taught himself the language and is considered the only speaker; he uses the name Keyuk.
While the Selk'nam are closely associated with living in the northeastern area of Tierra del Fuego, they are believed to have originated as a people on the mainland. Thousands of years ago, they migrated by canoe across the Strait of Magellan. Their territory in the early Holocene probably ranged as far as the Cerro Benítez area of the Cerro Toro mountain range in Chile.
Traditionally, the Selk'nam were nomadic people who relied on hunting for survival. They dressed sparingly despite the cold climate of Patagonia. They shared Tierra del Fuego with the Haush (or Manek'enk), another nomadic culture who lived in the south-eastern part of the island. Also in the region were the Yámana or Yahgan.