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, January 5, 2010

"Onagers" (wild ass) in Southern Patagonia


After my post on pre-Hispanic horses and their resemblance to donkeys, which continued a previous post on the possible survival of supposedly extinct megafaunal horses, I decided to check if any other explorer or chronicler between 1520 and 1900 had seen “strange horse-like animals” in southern Patagonia.

I was lucky. I found a reference. It was published in a book on Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the World,[2] which includes "A letter from Maximilianus Transylvanus...", written in 1522. Transylvanus (which is said to have been born in Transylvania, home to Dracula (others say he was Flemish), interviewed the surviving members of Magellan’s expedition and hastily wrote this letter which was published in 1523 as "De Moluccis Insulis" and became the first written account printed about Patagonia.

In the part in which he describes the Patagonians, he says that the Spanish captured three of them, but that “two escaped of them upon the march, on the pretext of pursuing an onager, which they saw feeding at a distance upon a mountain”[2] (emphasis in bold mine).

I also found a Spanish language version by Francisco López de Gómara (dated 1552), which tells the same story but slightly differently: “y con achaque de ir a matar una fiera que pacia cerca del camino, huyeron los dos”[3] (emphasis in bold mine). The English translation of this is “and with the pretext of going to kill a fierce animal that was grazing close to the path, two esaped”.

The Official Spanish Language Dictionary of the “Real Academia Española” defines the word “Fiera” as follows:
fiera. (Del lat. fera).
1. f. carnívoro ( mamífero unguiculado). Carnivore (mammal with claws –unguiculated means that)
2. f. Bruto indómito, cruel y carnicero. Tameless brute, cruel and butcher.
3. f. Persona cruel o de carácter malo y violento. Cruel person or of a bad and violent character

Colloquial Spanish uses the word when refering to a wild fierce animal.

The question is why would de Gómara have a fierce wild animal grazing! Herbivores are not “wild” or “fierce”. His source is surely Transylvanus which he must have translated back into Spanish from the original (Latin?) version just like the English version is also a translation.

Which is the correct one?

Onagers, wild Asian Ass

Onagers (Equus hemionus) or Wild Asian Ass, are equids that resemble donkeys. They weigh about 300 kg (660 lb.) and are about 2 m (6.6 ft) long. They can be found from the Middle East to India, Tibet and Southern Central Asia.

They blend horse and donkey features though their legs are quite short in comparison to those of horses.

Could the Spanish have mistaken guanacos for onagers? Guanaco (Lama guanicoe) are of more or less the same brown color and also have a shaggy coat. Yet they are smaller: 1 - 1,2 m (3 to 4 ft.) tall and about 90 kg (200 lb.) weight). Below is a photograph of an onager and a guanaco.

Turkmenian Kulan (Equus hemionus kulan) at Korkeasaari Zoo. From [1]

guanaco parque Talampaya

Guanaco at Talampaya National Park. Copyright © 2007 by Austin Whittall

Guanaco is more slender, long-necked and long-legged; it definitively does not look like a donkey. It is reasonable to assume that Magellan's crew saw a "donkey-like" beast that they clearly identified as an onager.

As onagers do not live in America (being Asian beasts), could they be the remains of the now extinct hippidion or native American horse?

English explorer George Musters (1870) mentioned that at San Julián (where the incident described by Transylvanus took place), "there are numbers of wild ponies, about the size and make of a shelty, which the children play with”.[4]

Shetland ponies or shelties, are short sturdy horses, they have thick, heavy chocolate colored coats. The resemblance with a onager is remarkable, (photograph here). Did Musters see native "Patagonian horses"?


[1] Kallerna. Turkmenian Kulan (Equus hemionus kulan) at Korkeasaari Zoo
[2] The first voyage round the wold, by Magellan: Translated, with notes and an Introduction by Lord Stanley of Alderley. (2001). Adamant Media Corp. pp. 191. Which is a reproducton of Hakluyt Society’s 1874 edition.
[3] Rivadeneryra, M., (1858). Historiadores Primitivos de Indias. Madrid. pp. 214. Citing Francisco López de Gómara (1552) Historia General de las Indias.
[4] Musters, C., Op.Cit. pp. 130+

Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters


  1. Definitive proof would be bones... particularly in the middens of human habitation. What people milked, rode, or drove.. they also ate. Shetlands are small because they evolved on an island with scarce vegetation (they even eat baby birds if they can get them.. but they leave the little feet) In Patagonia, grazing is probably better, so the megafaunal horses would not be small. Horses started out small, the size of dogs, with four toes, but they ended up pretty good sized, much more like the size of the onager than the Shetland. Hmmm...

  2. This post is very simple to read and appreciate without leaving any details out. Great work! himalayan dog chew


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