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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Patagon, Patagonia Giants – Part 2


We have seen in our previous post that giant people were reported by Magellan when he discovered Patagonia; those who followed him also saw men of enormous height. These sightings continued in the XVIth century:

In 1614 Dutch Privateer Joris van Spilbergen saw at the Strait of Magellan, “a human being of very big stature”.[1]

The following year, Jacques Le Maire and, Willem Corneliszoon Schouten also dug up some stone cairns that they had found on the hills at Puerto Deseado (see engraving below) and found “the skeletons of men’s bodies ten or eleven feet long [3,05 – 3,35 m]”.[2]

The next to report of giants were Spanish officers, Bartolomé and Gonzalo García del Nodal in 1618; one of their crew informed that on Tierra del Fuego there was “a race of men taller, by the head, than the Europeans”.[3]

Giant bones at Puerto Deseado
Graves of giants. Detail of a map of Puerto Deseado (1615).
From: [4]. De Bry, Theodor. “America”, Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. The map’s caption “H” reads: “Graves with skeletons of very tall human beings, with bones 10 to 11 feet, their skulls, once opened, could be placed on our heads as if they were helmets.”

The image of gigantism was strengthening with each new report, however some explorers failed to sight them. For instance in 1623-24 Jacques L’Hermite, reported that the Fuegians he saw “were not larger than the inhabitants of Europe”.[5] We know that this was quite likely because the Alakaluf and Yaghan boat men were much shorter than the Selk’nam foot-Indians seen by the Nodales.

In 1641, General Dionisio de Rueda, governor of Chiloé while sailing south towards the Strait of Magellan fought at Los Pabellones with the local natives, the Caucauhue, “gigantic people” of a very belligerent nature.[6]

After this expedition, a Rio de los Gigantes (River of Giants) began appearing on maps, flowing into the Pacific Ocean south of Taitao Peninsula.

These giants would be incorporated into a very detailed map of South America prepared by the Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cruz Cano y Olmedilla in 1775. It contained a Valle de los Gigantes (Valley of Giants) close to Puerto Bueno in southern Chile (50°59’ S, 74°13’ W) and a Bahia de los Gigantes (Bay of Giants) in Tierra del Fuego.[7]

Returning to our chronology, in 1642, Dutch Admiral Henry Brewer saw at the Strait of Le Maire, Tierra del Fuego, “footsteps of men that measured eighteen inches. [45,7 cm]”.[3]

English explorer, Sir John Narbrough who wintered at San Julián in 1670, described the natives as “people of average height and well shaped (…) Mr. Wood [his second in command] was taller than any of them”.[8]

It is evident that he did not come across any giants. Neither did François Froger, a member of Jean-Baptiste de Gennes’ unsuccessful 1696 expedition to colonize the Strait of Magellan. The men that they encountered though big were not taller than six feet [1,83 m].[5]

Contradictory reports kept arriving. In 1704, Captain Harrington commander of the “James” a ship from Saint-Maló France “saw seven of these giants in Gregory Bay” on the Strait of Magellan;[9] Captain Eon de Carman, of the “Saint-Pierre”, also from Saint-Maló, reported seeing giants too.

In 1714, Frenchman Amédée Frezier in his book, Relation Du Voyage De La Mer Du Sud Aux Cótes Du Chili Et Du Pérou, said that he was told by Don Pedro Molina y Valiente, governor of Chiloé Island, that there was an Indian nation in Patagonia whose men, known as Caucahue “were more than four varres high [3,25 m - 10.7 ft.]”.[10]

At that time, French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon rang a skeptical bell, noting that the reports on giants were “fraught with exaggerations” and added that it was doubtful that such a race of giants really existed.[9]

John Bulkeley, who sailed with Admiral Anson’s fleet and was shipwrecked on the HMS “Wager” in 1741 on the southern Chilean coast, wrote an account upon returning to England reporting Indians “of a gigantick [sic] Stature”.[11] However, he was rebutted by another member of the same fleet, Thomas Pascoe, who declared that these “wild and gigantick [sic] Cannibals” were in fact “harmless, civil, inoffensive people; of a middling stature”.[12]

John Byron, grandfather to the famed poet, was midshipman on the ill fated HMS “Wager” did not see any giants at that time, perhaps because he was stranded among the smaller Alakaluf or Chono people. However Byron would return to the Patagonia twenty years later as commander of the HMS “Dolphin”, and on that occasion he did meet Indians “of a gigantic stature […] monsters in a human shape”.[5]

When the “Dolphin” got back to England in 1766, the stories of the crew began a giant craze in Europe. One of the officers, Charles Clerke wrote a letter to the Royal Society detailing his encounter with gigantic Patagonians at the Strait of Magellan where he saw:

them examined and measured by Mr. Byron. He represents them in general as stout and well-proportioned, and assures us that none of the men were lower than eight feet [2,44 m], and that some even exceeded nine [2,74 m], and that the women were from seven feet and a half to eight feet [2,29 to 2,44 m ].[13]

He said that Captain Byron who was a tall man nearly six feet tall [1.83 m], had to stand on tip-toe and stretch his arm in order to reach the top of a native’s head.[3]

Byron himself wrote that one of his officers, Mr. Cumming was astonished “upon perceiving himself, though six feet two inches high [1,88 m], become at once a pigmy among giants; for these people may indeed more properly be called giants than tall men”.[14]

Although many questioned and discredited Byron’s reports, he was quite certain of what he had seen and in 1771 he wrote a letter providing an explanation to why he had not met the giants while marooned on Wager Island in 1741. In it, he reasserted the Patagons’ height as being between seven and eight feet [2,13 to 2,44 m]:

The people I saw upon the coast of Patagonia were not the same that were seen the second voyage. I had often heard from the Spaniards that there were two or three different nations of very tall people, the largest of which inhabit those immense plains at the back of the Andes.[3]

So he too, like van Noort (remember the Tiremenen?) believed in different nations of natives, some tall and some not, the former living in the steppe at the foot of the cordillera.

Below is an image of Byron and a Patagon woman and child (I do not have the source).

Byron and Patagon woman with child
Woman and Boy of Patagonia receiving beads from Admiral Byron.
London. Published by Alan Hogg at the Kings Arms No. 6 Paternoster Row. Caption: Woman and Boy of Patagonia in South America receiving Beads from Commodore (now Admiral) Byron, whose Valuable Discoveries in his Celebrated Voyage Round the World (as well as All the Other Modern Discoveries in the Southern and Northern Hemispheres) will be inserted in this Work.

Tomorrow we will post the final part (Part 3).

Previous post (Part 1) Here.


[1] Van Spilbergen, J., (1906). The East and West Indian mirror: being an account of Joris van Speilbergen's voyage round the world (1614-1617)…. London: Hakluyt Society. pp. 39 and 41.
[2] Le Maire, J., (1619). Relación diaria del viage de Iacobo Demayre y Guillermo Cornelio Schouten… Madrid: Bernardino de Guzman. pp. 9.
[3] FitzRoy, R., (1839). Appendix v.ii. pp. 102.
[4] De Bry, T., (1602). America. Part IX. Plate XX. Frankfurt. [Engraving]. Library of Congress, the Kraus Collection of Sir Francis Drake.
[5] Hawkesworth, J., (1773). Account of the Voyages... the Southern Hemisphere. London: Cadell. v.i.: 12+
[6] de Rosales, D., (1877). Historia general de el Reyno de chile. Valparaiso: El Mercurio. v. 1. pp 105.
[7] de la Cruz Cano y Olmedilla, J., (1799). Mapa Geografico de America Meridional. London: Faden. National Maritime Museum, London. Online.
[8] Pico Estrada, P., [Ed] (2007). Un relato de diversos viajes y descubrimientos recientes. B. Aires: Eudeba. pp. 110. With Narbrough’s Voyage Journal.
[9] Buffon, G., (1807). Of the Varieties in the Human Species. London: v. 4. pp 330.
[10] Frezier, A., (1717). A Voyage to the South-Sea. London: Jonah Bowyer. pp. 84.
[11] Bulkeley, J. and Cummins, J., (1743). A Voyage to the South-Seas… loss of H.M.S. the Wager. London. pp. 70.
[12] Pascoe, T., (1745). A True and Impartial Journal of a Voyage to the South-Seas. London: S. Birt. pp. 125 +
[13] Clerke, C., (1768). An Account of the Very Tall Men, Seen Near the Streights of Magellan, in the Year 1764… Royal Soc. of London, Philosophical Trans., LVII (1768), pt.1, 75–79.
[14] Hawkesworth, J., (1773). Op. Cit. pp.68.

Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters

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