“But one day, unexpectedly, we saw a man of gigantic stature who was on the beach, quite naked; who while singing and dancing threw sand on his head”
Patagonia was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Hernando de Magallanes – Magellan, who seeking a route to the Asian Spice Islands sailed along its coast and wintered in 1520 at a barren inlet that he named San Julián – Saint Julian- (49°20’ S, 67°43’ W).
It was there, at San Julián, that the Europeans first met the native Tehuelche and Magellan’s chronicler, Francesco Antonio Pigafetta (1491-1535) immortalized them as the gigantic “Patagons” in his 1525 book, Relazione Del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo (Report on the First Voyage around the World).
However Maximilianus Transylvanus wrote the first Patagonian best seller. In 1522 he was the first to interview the surviving members of Magellan’s expedition (the first to navigate around the world) and hastily published De Moluccis Insulis, which became the first written account printed about Patagonia and its hideous “Indians […] of very brave bodies, like giants”.
Transylvanus’ and Pigafetta’s books instantly fixed Patagonia in the minds of Europeans as the “regio gigantum”, region of giants, and contemporary maps soon began including illustrations of gigantic men towering over dwarfish European explorers.
According to Pigafetta the first man that they saw at the beach at San Julián, was of “gigantic stature”; “so tall that we reached only to his waist”.
Following Magellan’s orders, they captured a couple of Patagons, needing nine men to topple one of them to the ground; these unfortunate captives would later die at sea.
Land of Giants. Detail of a 1562 map showing the “Gigantic Regio” (Region of Giants) and the “Tierra de Patagones” (Land of Patagons) .
From: . Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymus Cock. “Americae…”, Library of Congress.
Pigafetta laconically explained the origin of their strange name in one brief phrase: “Il capitano generale nominò questi popoli Patagoni” - The captain general [Magellan] named these people Patagoni.
No further explanation was given.
In 1551, a contemporary of Pigafetta, Spanish historian Francisco López de Gomara wrote that they were called Patagons because they had “misshapen feet”. This version was to be perpetuated by all later historians. Patagon had been taken to mean big feet (“pata” is the Spanish word for leg, foot).
In this way, Patagonia became the first home to Bigfoot.
It now seems that the word comes from a chivalric novel, Primaleón, popular back in the early 1500s. It described a monstrous character named Patagón. Magellan is believed to have read the book and when faced with the Patagonian natives, found their large fur clad bodies, boots, guanaco skin toldos [tents], bows and arrows as virtually identical to those of Primaleón’s Patagón.
The book goes on to clarify the origin of the name: “these Patagons, that we so named because of their savageness”.
The giants are seen again and again
Whatever the origin of the name, it stuck, as did the gigantic proportions of the locals. Five years after Magellan another Spaniard, García Jofre de Loayza, reached Patagonia; a priest that was part of his expedition, Juan de Aréizaga, recorded in his Relación (Narrative) that the native “men are thirteen spans tall” that is, 2,74 m (9 ft.).
The giants were again mentioned when the Patagonian coast was visited in 1577 by English Admiral and Privateer Sir Francis Drake. Upon returning to England his Chaplain, Francis Fletcher, wrote about seeing “men in height and greatnes are so extraordinary that they hold no comparison with anny of the sones of men this day in the world” [sic].
Fletcher also quantified their height: “7 foote and halfe [2,29 m] describing the full height […] of the highest of them”.
Sir Francis’ cousin, John Drake, who sailed with him on this trip, was later captured by the Spaniards and while being interrogated by the Inquisition at Lima Perú in 1587, recalled a skirmish with the “giants” that resulted in the death of one native and two sailors.
Drake’s voyage troubled the Spaniards and in 1579 the Viceroy of Perú sent Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa to settle the Strait of Magellan to avert the possibility of the English occupying the region. Sarmiento’s written account tells us that the natives “were Big People […] Giants”; he also reported their great strength as it took ten of his men to capture a native (weak Europeans or strong Indians?).
English Captain Sir Thomas Cavendish sailed along the Patagonian coast and through the Strait of Magellan in 1587 and saw what he believed to be the foot prints “of a gigantic race, as the measure of one of their foot marks was eighteen inches [45,7 cm] long”.
In the 1591, Anthonie Knivet, an adventurer who had sailed with Cavendish, wrote a vivid book about his voyages around the world that mentions a Patagonian youth about “thirteen spans tall” – 2,74 m (9 ft.); he also recorded thaat at Port Desire (47°45’ S, 65°55’ W) he saw:
Giants fifteeene or sixteene spans of height. I affirme, that at Port Desire I saw the footing of them, by the shoare side, that was aboute foure foote of one of our mens in length; and I saw two of them that were buried newly, the one of them was fourteene spannes long [sic]
These were giants measuring between 2,94 and 3,36 m tall (9.6 to 11 ft.).
Nova Totius Americae sive novi orbis tabula… by Alexis Hubert Jaillot (1669). Paris
Notice the size of the natives and the Europeans.
Dutch Captain Sebald de Veert while sailing through the Strait of Magellan in 1599, reported seeing “savages whom he thought to be ten or eleven feet high [3,05 – 3,35 m]”; they were so strong that they “tore up trees by the roots, that were a span in diameter, with great facility”.
That same year at Port Desire, Dutch Admiral Oliver van Noort met “savages of a gigantic stature” who told him that not all Patagonian natives were gigantic, but only one nation out of the five that lived there, the Tiremenen.
These Tiremenen were “gigantic people […] who were continually making war upon the other nations”.
This tiny piece of information is very interesting, it offers a plausible explanation to the fact that some explorers had not seen giants while others had: they had met individuals belonging to different tribes. It also portrays these giants as aggressive war-loving people.
Tomorrow we will continue with the second part (out of three) of this intriguing story.
 Pigafetta, A., (1899). Primer Viaje Alrededor del Mundo. Madrid. 1899. pp. 11+
 Fernández de Navarrete, M., [Ed.]. (1837). Colección de los viages y descubrimientos… Madrid: Imprenta Nacional. v.4. pp. 257.
 Diego Gutiérrez and Hieronymus Cock., (1562). Americae sive quartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio. [Engraving]. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.
 Rivadeneryra, M., (1858). Historiadores Primitivos de Indias. Madrid. pp. 214.
 de Orduna, L., (2004). Libro Segundo de Palmerín, que trata de los grandes fechos de Primaleon…. 1524. Kassel: Reichenberger. pp. 626.
 Becco, H., (2003). Crónicas de los Patagones. B. Aires: Fundación Biblioteca Ayacucho. pp. 7.
 Drake, F. and Fletcher, F., (1854). The World Encompassed by Sir Francis Drake…Collated with an Unpublished Manuscript of Francis Fletcher… London: Hakluyt Society. pp. 51.
 FitzRoy, R., (1839). Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836…. London: Henry Colburn. v.ii. pp. 61.
 Drake, J., (1587). Declaración de Juan Drake ante la Inquisición de Lima, 1587. Archivo General de Indias, Patronato, 266, R.54, ff.2v-5. Online. PARES.
 Sarmiento de Gamboa, P., (1768). Viaje al Estrecho de Magallanes por el Capitán Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa en los años de 1579 y 1580…. Madrid: Imprenta Real de la Gazeta. pp. LVI.
 Kerr, R., (1824) General History and Collection of Voyages… Edinburgh. v. x, chap. III, Sec. 1.
 Purchas S., [Comp] (1625). Haklvytvs posthumus… London: H. Fetherston. v. 4. pp. 1232.
 FitzRoy, R., (1839). Appendix v.ii. pp. 102.
 Hawkesworth, J., (1773). Account of the Voyages... the Southern Hemisphere. London: Cadell. v.i.: 12+
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©