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

Friday, October 9, 2009

Patagonia origin of the name and broad description of the place


«In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes (…) they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time»
Charles Darwin[1]

Patagonia, the place.

Darwin was right; Patagonia is boundless and impressive. It comprises the southernmost tip of South America and stretches 2.100 kilometers (km) about 1,300 miles (mi.) from north to south, between Argentina’s province of Neuquén at 36° latitude south (S) and Cape Horn in Chile at (55°S) on the windswept tip of the Tierra del Fuego Archipelago barely 800 km (500 mi.) from the Antarctic continent.

Its shape is roughly triangular being widest in the north (760 km - 475 mi.) and growing narrower towards the south (230 km - 140 mi.) at the Strait of Magellan.

It has a surface area of over one million square kilometers (km2) or roughly 403,000 square miles (sq. mi.)

Patagonia’s western coast, bathed by the South Pacific Ocean, has an intricate network of islands, inlets and deep fjords carved by the extensive glaciations of the Ice Ages.

The Andean Cordillera is Patagonia’s back-bone; it is the southern portion of the mountains that run along the western side of the Americas from Alaska to Cape Horn and Isla de los Estados. The Patagonian Andes have several summits above 3.500 meters (m) or 11,500 feet (ft.), snow capped mountains with abrupt peaks and steep slopes that drain into deep valleys shaped by the glaciers which traverse the cordillera from east to west. Many of the valleys are filled by deep lakes fed by the abundant rain and snow that falls on the mountains.

The Andean Region is covered by a temperate “Andean-Patagonian” forest that thrives on the heavy rainfall and cold yet temperate climate.

It has a large number of species that are “endemic” (that are unique to Patagonia) such as the “Southern Beeches” (Nothofagus) species like the ñire, lenga and coihue. They are part of a genus that was contemporary to the dinosaurs and is now restricted to the Southern Hemisphere and related species can also be found in New Zealand, Tasmania, Australia and Papua New Guinea. They are a relict of the continent of Gondwana that they once formed part of.

Contrasting with this lush Andean district is the arid Extra-Andean district that covers 92 percent of the surface area of Patagonia. Yearly rainfall is barely 100 mm (4 in.) on the Atlantic coast.

This vast steppe has a rugged relief made up of isolated low hill ranges and flat topped basaltic plateaus, the “meseta”. Its topsoil is coarse and sandy, strewn with glacio-fluvial gravel and rounded boulders.

A few rivers that have their sources in the mountain lakes cut across the Patagonia from west to east; their tidal estuaries are the location of the few towns and ports that dot the coast.

Temperature is extreme and the prevailing strong westerly winds, persistently beat the meseta.

The origin of the name “Patagonia”

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 set foot on this wonderful land and met the native Tehuelche.

Magellan’s chronicler, Francesco Antonio Pigafetta (1491-1535) immortalized them as the gigantic “Patagons” and their territory as “Patagonia”, the “Land of the Patagons”.

We have posted on these Patagonian Giants (it is a three part post due to its lenght): Here is Part 1.

In his 1525 book, Relazione Del Primo Viaggio Intorno Al Mondo (Report on the First Voyage around the World), 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.[2]

In 1551, a contemporary of Pigafetta, Spanish historian Francisco López de Gomara wrote that they were called Patagons because they had “misshapen feet”.[3]
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).

So, according to this version, Patagonia would be the first land of the 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, bows and arrows as virtually identical to those of Primaleón’s Patagón, who was described in the novel as a savage wild man-beast, covered with furs that had a dog-face and hunted animals with bow and arrow.[4]

New and original explanation to the origin of the name Patagón.

In my research, I have found a text that offers another version to the origin of the name. As I have not come across any other references to this particular text, I believe that it has been overlooked in the past, so let me share my discovery with you:

This text dates back to 1577, when the Patagonian coast was visited 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].[5]

Besides noting their gigantic size, he also quantified their height and their name: “the name Pentagones, Fiue cubits, viz., 7 foote and halfe [2,29 m] describing the full height […] of the highest of them”.[6]

This name Pentagones gives an intriguing alternative explanation to the origin of their name (“penta” is Greek for five), and we add that Magellan being Portuguese would have said “côvado” for cubit –in Spanish it is “codo”) resulting in penta-covado or penta-codo which Pigafetta may have interpreted as the similar sounding Patagón.

Patagonia, or at least northern Patagonia, was known for several centuries as "Chica", a mysterious name whose origin we explain in another post Here.


[1] Darwin, C., (1987). The Voyage of the Beagle. Ware: Woodsworth Editions, pp. 467.
[2] Pigafetta, A., (1899). Primer Viaje Alrededor del Mundo. Madrid. 1899. pp. 11+
[3] Rivadeneryra, M., (1858). Historiadores Primitivos de Indias. Madrid. pp. 214.
[4] de Orduna, L., (2004). Libro Segundo de Palmerín, que trata de los grandes fechos de Primaleon... 1524. Kassel: Reichenberger. pp. 626.
[5] 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.
[6] 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.

Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters


  1. Que interesante, lástima que está todo en inglés, tendrías que escribir en español también si sos argentino :P

  2. asi se difunden las bellezas argentinas en el mundo, en idioma inglés, que por ahora es el idioma universal... quizás en el futuro lo sea el chino mandarín.
    un abrazo

  3. How could it be that the name derives from "Pentagones" when Drake's expedition postdates Magellan's/Pigafetti's chronicle? It seems more likely that this was Drake's attempt to rationalize the name patagones being unaware of the novel.

    1. I agree, I stand by the Primaleón version.


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