The jaguar or yaguarete (Felis onca jaguar) is the largest cat in the Western Hemisphere, and after the tiger and the lion, the third largest feline in the world.
It can weigh up to 96 kg (212 lb.) and its body measure up to 1,83 m (6 ft.), the tail will add about 75 cm (30 in.) to its length; and stand about 75 cm tall. It has a spotted coat on a tawny yellow base.
Its current habitat does not extend further south than the tropical rainforests of northern Argentina.
A surprising and baffling fact is that the Mapuche language has the word “nahuel”, which means jaguar, yet the animal itself unknown in their current homeland in Chile where it died out some 8,000 years ago, long before the arrival of the Mapuche people. How could they have known of its existence to include it in their language?
This makes us wonder if there were jaguars in Patagonia, on the Argentine side of the Andes mountain range which the Mapuche could have encountered during their incursions into Eastern Patagonia.
Located in a spectacular mountain setting Lake Nahuel Huapi (home tho Nahuelito (see more on this cryptid Here) has several forested islands, the largest, now named Victoria, originally gave the lake its name, which in Mapudungun, means “Tiger Island”.
The first written reference we have about the lake was penned by Spanish Captain Diego Flores de Leon, in his chronicle Memorial which tells of a Spanish officer named Juan Fernández who in 1620-1621 explored the eastern side of the Andes and discovered “a very big lake called Navalhuapi [sic]”.
He does not give any reference to the meaning of the name, however a few decades later, Jesuit Father Diego de Rosales after exploring the area in 1653 wrote that the “famous lagoon of Nahuelhuapi […] means: Lake of tigers”, one may believe that he is referring to the animals, but he goes on to say that it was inhabited by “rebel Indians” and that were “called tigers”. Thus these tigers perhaps were not animals but courageous Indians.
But, did actual tigers (jaguars) give the lake its name? Maybe; there were jaguars and other big cats in Patagonia, even before the arrival of the first human beings in the area.
The fossil record reveals that many large carnivore cats stalked the arid Patagonian grasslands at the end of the last Ice Age; these included not only the puma that still survives, but also the colossal Patagonian short tailed jaguar (Panthera onca mesembrina). It was alive in Patagonia around the time that the Paleo-Indians arrived to the region.
Rock art proves that Paleo-Indians co-existed with this beast, such as the impressive paintings at the Cueva de los Yaguaretés (Jaguars’ Cave) whose extremely realistic black and yellow paintings clearly mimic jaguar spots; their age is unknown, see a photograph below:
Mesembrina became extinct shortly after deglaciation and its carnivore niche in Patagonia was occupied by the puma.
Modern reports on the existence of Patagonian jaguars
Jaguars were seen in Patagonia until the XVIIIth century and were recorded in the chronicles of European explorers who sailed along the Patagonian shores. They applied the name tiger (or tyger) to the jaguar and lion to the puma.
They were first seen at the Strait of Magellan, on February 12, 1580, by Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (he who had captured the Cyclops Giant). He wrote that close to what is now the town of Punta Arenas Chile, ”we saw tracks of tigers and lions” leaving no doubt that their range reached the southern tip of Patagonia.
In the 1760s, Puerto Deseado on the estuary of Deseado River (47°45’ S, 65°54’ W) was also home to jaguars. It was there that John Byron, the captain of HMS “Dolphin” who had been shipwrecked at Wager island, found a:
large tyger [sic] lying upon the ground; having gazed at each other some time, the men, who had no fire-arms, seeing the beast treat them with as much contemptuous neglect as the lion did the knight of La Mancha, began to throw stones at him: of this insult however he did not deign to take the least notice, but continued stretched upon the ground in great tranquility till the rest of the party came up, and then he very leisurely rose and walked away […] I sent another party to fetch the guanicoes [sic] which our people had shot the night before; but they found nothing left except the bones, the tygers having eaten the flesh, and even cracked the bones of the limbs to come at the marrow.
“Tigers” were also reported by Spanish explorer Juan de la Piedra (1779) at San José Gulf, Chubut (42°43’ S, 65°01’ W).
More recently, in 1826, at the mouth of Rio Gallegos River, at Cape Fairweather (51°32' S, 68°57' W), Commander Phillip Parker King wrote that “The guaguar [sic], or South American tiger, was seen prowling and skulking among the rocks near the beach”.
But the late XIXth century explorers did not report jaguars; by then they had disappeared except for a few that remained along its northern border where in 1880, Admiral Eduardo O’Connor noted abundant “American tigers” in the upper Limay River valley.
In southern Patagonia, the Tehuelche must have had a deeply ingrained memory of ancient (mesembrina) and modern jaguars, which they may have reflected in their folklore as “water tigers”.
To the north, the Mapuche’s inclusion of this exotic beast into their culture means that they may have brought its memory from a former homeland outside of Chile or encountered them while expanding their range into what is now Argentina’s northern Patagonia. See my post on a possible Guaraní origin of the Mapuche people Here.
Alternatively they could have met them in Patagonia, during their forays into that territory from their Chilean homeland.
 Fonck, F., (1896). Menéndez, Francisco Viajes de Fray Francisco Menéndez a NahuelHuapi. Valparaiso: Imp.Gillet, 1896-1900. v.1 pp. 23+
 Ramírez Rozzi, F., (2002). La Cueva de los Yaguaretes. Ciencia Hoy. v.12. Nº 72: 12-19. 12-2002 01-2003. Also see Here for the full article.
 Sarmiento de Gamboa, P. Op. Cit. pp. 241.
 Hawkesworth, J. Op. Cit. v.i. pp. 58.
 MacDouall, J., (1833). Narrative of a Voyage to Patagonia and Terra Del Fuégo, Through the Straits of Magellan… in 1826 and 1827. London: Renshaw and Rush. pp. 63.
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©