Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Patagonian Mummy Cueva del Gualicho

In my previous post on the mummy found by Samuel Mitchill in a cave in Kentucky in 1815, I pointed out that it was "a red-haired mummy in Kentucky. Buried in a cave wrapped in several liners, including feathers and squatting". The red hair is quite uncommon among Native Americans, but, I wonder... could it be due to the ochre with which many Amerindian corpses were painted prior to burial? in other words, a red pigment (ochre) dyed their hair?.

In any case, lets follow the data and see what we can find. Today: Patagonia, a squatting mummy with a feather and ochre.

The Mummy of Cueva del Gualicho

In South America, the Patagonian Paleo Indian natives buried their dead using ochre (a red pigment). Half a world away from Kentucky a mummy was discovered in 1877 by Argentine explorer and scientist, Francisco Pascasio Moreno. He was exploring unknown territory in Southern Patagonia, following the Santa Cruz river to its sources: at a lake which he named Lake Argentino. He trekked along the coast as the lake was really choppy due to the prevailing westerly winds and came across a hill on a promontory where, in a cave which he named "Cueva del Gualicho" (more on Gualicho and a previous post on the cave's rock art), alluding a native myth regarding evil spirits (Gualicho also Walichu).

In summer of 1877 (February in the Southern Hemisphere), Moreno came across a mummy at Cueva del Gualicho, close to what is now the town of El Calafate in southwestern Patagonia. His description of the discovery: (2)

"... in a small cave with figures painted on its walls, 8 meters wide by three deep [25 x 9 ft.] and a decreasing height that is only 20 cm in the back part [8 in.] , I find after digging where my common sense told me to, to my delight, a human body, painted red, in a similar position to those found in Peru; this one is in fairly good shape, because the body was buried wrapped in ostrich [actually, South American rhea, or ñandú] hides and then covered with grass and soil, from which I pick up two stone knives and an arrowhead of the same material. This interesting mummy has the hair cut nearly at its roots, and this together with the red paint with which the body had been covered alive, or after dead, makes me wonder if it may belong to a Fueguian of those that inhabited the Strait of Magellan in the times of Gamboa. [Sarmiento de Gamboa, Spanish explorer of the 1570's AD]".

We will see that Moreno was right on the mark with the Fuegian origin of this mummy.

So here we have a Mummy, in foetal position, wrapped in hides and painted red

Moreno would later write that it belonged to a distinct group different to the contemporary Tehuelche - Aonikenk groups of that area.

The mummy, unlike the one found by Mitchell in a Kentucky cave (see my post on that Red haired mummy), did not have a vest with feathers, instead it had one large condor feather across its chest, as can be seen in the drawing of the mummy:

Cueva del Gualicho mummy
Cueva del Gualicho Mummy. From (1)


Moreno wrote: "between that arm [the left one] and the body, crosses a lovely black condor feather which has also been painted". It is interesting to point out that they painted the feather red too.

Regarding Moreno's reference to Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, he was sent, in 1579 by the Viceroy of Peru to settle the Strait of Magellan to avert the possibility of the English occupying the region. Sarmiento’s wrote about "Giants" (the Tehuelche patagonians). He carried out his mission and founded two settlements, But lack food and harsh local conditions doomed both of Sarmiento’s fledgling settlements; their fate was sealed when provisions sent from Spain failed to arrive; nearly all of the settlers starved or froze to death. When English privateer Sir Thomas Cavendish landed at one of the villages in 1587 he found a handful of survivors, and appropriately renamed it Port Famine.

Anyway, Sarmiento de Gamboa actually mentions the locals, but it does not coincide with Moreno's comment:

Sarmiento de Gamboa mentions in his account (page xvii) (3) that the natives painted their face in "red and white"... but no reference to short cut hair. Actually they wore it long but they bundled it.

As a summary: foetal positioned mummy, with feathers, ochre painted. In southern Patagonia. And wrapped in layers of local ostrich hides.. Not red haired though, but very similar to the Kentucky mummy. mtDNA will show further similarities, but that is another post.


(1) Echeverría Baleta, Mario , (1995). La Momia del Cerro Gualicho, Cumacú, B. Aires. pp. 31. I took the snapshot from my book.
(2) Moreno, F., (2007). Exploración de la Patagonia Sur II: el lago Argentino y los Andes meridionales. 1877. B. Aires: Continente. pp. 101.
(3)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 205 and plates.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia Copyright 2009-2014 by Austin Whittall © 

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