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, January 15, 2010

Patagonian tapir. Part 2. Proof


Patagonian Tapirs, second post (see the first post). Today we will look into the "proof" of their existence.

Suit of hide armour. Copyright © Trustees of the British Museum. From [21].

Magellan’s time, 1520s

The first report on tapirs in Patagonia dates back to the time of its discovery by Magellan in 1520.

Magellan’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta ate tapir meat in Brazil and wrote “Mangiammo della carne d'un animale detto anta, il qual e come una vacca” (we ate the meat of an animal named anta, which is like a cow).[1] Note that “Anta” is the Spanish and Portuguese name for the tapir.

Thus having seen the animal Pigafetta and his companions would not have made a mistake in identifying a tapir when seeing it again in Patagonia, at San Julián;[2] it was there that Francisco Albo, boatswain of the “Trinidad”, one of the ships of Magellan’s fleet, wrote in his diary that the Indians “were covered with anta skin”.[3]

In 1526, Juan de Aréizaga, also noted that the natives covered their pudenda “with pieces of anta skin”. During his stay with the natives he ate a “danta [sic] that they had hunted”.[4] Spanish historian Francisco López de Gomara wrote in his Historia General De Las Indias that these natives had fed Aréizaga with “badly roasted anta”. He also reported that they also hunted “very big wild goats” (evidently guanaco), thus proving that anta and guanaco were not the same animal.[5]

Tapir close to the Strait of Magellan in the late 1500s

Spanish official Sarmiento de Gamboa who explorer the Strait of Magellan in 1579-1580 wrote that at Madre de Dios Islands in Southern Chile “there must be Antas and deer: we did not see them, only their tracks and big bones”.[6]

It was at these same islands that, according to British Captain FitzRoy’s (1833), the Chono canoe people:

were much frightened by sheep and pigs. They would not land on a small island where some pigs were turned loose, and when talking of them, made signs that they had very big noses which alarmed them. When a pig was killed by the crew and part of it cooked, the natives refused even to taste the meat.[7]

Pigs and sheep, were brought to America from the Old World, and were unknown here. The natives would have been surprised the first time they saw them. However it seems that the pigs really frightened them. Perhaps the “very big noses which alarmed them” evoked memories of some pig-like beast such as the tapir with its long snout. Pigs and tapirs look very alike –except for their size (tapir’s are much bigger).

In the 1591, Anthonie Knivet, an adventurer who had sailed with English Privateer Cavendish, wrote a vivid book about his voyages around the world. He mentioned that at the Strait of Magellan he saw “a kinde of Beasts bigger than horses”,[8] he also noted that they were very good, with “great eares about a spanne long and their tailes are like the tailes of a Cowe[sic]”. He added that the Brazilian Indians called this same creature “Tapetywason” (a word of Guaraní origin) implying that the beast’s habitat extended from Brazil to Patagonia (See my post on a possible link between the Patagonian Mapuche and the Guaraní people) .

Returning to Knivet and his Tapetywason, “tapety” is very similar to the Guaraní word for tapir (“tapi'I”), and the “wason” suffix must be the same sounding “guazú”, which in Guaraní means big; thus tapetywason would become “tapi'i guazú” or big tapir.

As Knivet gave the Patagonian beast the same name as the Brazilian one, there can be no doubt that bot creatures were the same; the animal that he saw at the straits was a tapir.

Also at the straits, in 1593 Sir Richard Hawkins reported something very similar to the pig-like tapir: “Hogs (…) here we saw certaine Hogs, but they were so farre from us, that we could not discerne wether they were of those of the Countrey, or brought by the Spaniards[sic]”.[9]

More reports from the 1700s

It was at the Strait of Magellan that in 1766, Captain Wallis saw “an animal that resembled an ass, but it had a cloven hoof, as we discovered afterwards by tracking it, and was as swift as a deer”.[10] It is very likely that this creature was not a tapir but a huemul [*] but we cannot ascertain it.

[*] The huemul (Hippocamelus bisulcus) is a stocky Patagonian deer that is about 1 meter (3.3 feet) tall and 1,65 m (5.4 ft.) long, and weighs between 40 and 100 kg. (88 - 220 lb.). Like all deer, males have antlers about 30 cm (1 ft.) long. Its habitat ranged from 34°S to the Strait of Magellan and in the forests from the Pacific Ocean to the edge of the steppe. But now, its limited and endangered population of less than 1.000 individuals lives in isolated pockets within the Chilean and Argentine Andean mountain forests.The species is endangered.

Joseph Banks, naturalist of Captain James Cook expedition reported the “footsteps of a large beast” in 1769, at a bog in Tierra del Fuego. Cook wrote the following: [11]

when Mr.Banks was at the top of the highest hill that he ascended in his expedition through the wood, he saw the footsteps of a large beast imprinted upon the surface of a bog, though he could not with any probability guess of what kind it might be. [1]

Perhaps they were guanaco tracks, but they could have belonged to a tapir.

Basilio Villarino who sailed from Carmen de Patagones up the Negro and Limay rivers in 1782 exploring the region for the Spanish crown also reported tapirs there. He noted in his diary on April 26, 1783 that “the Guilliche Indians give the name halegilque to the anta and call its skin ysnam”.[12]

More reports on tapirs in Patagonia

Edward “Ned” Chace, an American who lived in Patagonia between 1898 and 1929 wrote about giant pigs in southern Patagonia (beyond 48°S):
A friend of his had followed a track like that of a wooden shoe with two cleats across the sole, until he caught sight of what he took for a hairy pig as big as a bull. Just a glimpse he had. Once or twice, long afterwards, on a still night in a forest, beside a glacier, Chace himself heard a trumpeting, something like a steamboat whistle. That was long before there was a whistle on any Cordilleran lake.[13]

This is a pig-like bull-sized beast; the fact that it is hairy (tapir are like rhinos and elephants, hairless) is not incompatible with at tapir as we will establish in our next post.

There are other reports indicating that the Patagonian natives domesticated some large animal. In fact the first to ponder this was father Falkner “I do not know wether there have been ever any attempts to tame this animal [tapir][…] might be of great service, on account of its strength, if it could be brought to labour”.[1]

A Briton, Arthur Button, who had settled in the Puerto Natales area in 1905, wrote in his memoirs about hearing tales of “Indians working harvesting corn with animals as large as mylodons and almost buried in the corn”.[14] Since mylodons are extinct, could these large beasts have been tapir? (See my post on the Mylodon at Puerto Natales).

Furthermore, English Admiral Byron visited Patagonia, and in 1771 wrote about the gigantic Patagons stressing that “so much were their horses disproportioned, that all the people that were with me in the boats, […] swore that they were all mounted upon deer”;[15] since deer are not known in the Patagonian steppe, and considering the stag-tapir similarity mentioned by Falkner and Knivet, could Byron have seen the natives riding tame tapir? Although highly improbable, it is much more likely that the natives used tapir than an extinct mylodon to work their fields. [*]

[*] Note that the nomadic Patagonian natives (the Tehuelche) were nomads and lacking a permanent home were not farmers. Button in his diary is referring to the mythical “Caesars” and their lost city. This “City of Caesars” was an “El Dorado” which is a tale that deserves a book of its own, yet it can be summarized as follows: The legend of the City of Caesars began in the mid XVIth century. It revolved around an incredibly rich city set in Patagonia (i.e. its roads were paved with gold) and was inhabited by people of European origin who led secluded lives there. Several expeditions were sent to find it, and it was not until the late XVIIIth century that it lost credibility.

Getting back to our mounted “giants”, Patagonian deer (Huemul), even if they could have been seen on the steppe, which is unlikely, would be much smaller than a horse so if the gigantic Patagons mounted any animal other than a horse, it would have been a tapir –or they may have ridden on surviving ancient Hippidion horses which were sturdier than modern horses, had shorter and wider legs and resembled donkeys. Interestingly, a Spanish Government report written in 1601 about the natives at the Strait of Magellan, it stated that “the Indians ride on horses. But not horses, they appear to be donkeys”.[16] See my post on the possible survival of pre-Hispanic horses in Patagonia.

“Cisnam” or “Schenam” were they tapirs?

Another yet unknown creature was reported in the 1860s by Jorge Claraz on the Rio Negro. He wrote that the natives spoke about a creature called “Schenam”, which was similar to a donkey due to the size of its ears; others said it was more like a pig (donkey-pig creatures seem to crop up all across Patagonia).

The traders at Carmen de Patagones told him that the Tehuelche natives made their body armour from the hide of this animal, which they called “Cisnal” or “Cisnam”. Note the similarity of this name to Villarino’s “Ysnam” both sound the same in Spanish- which was the hide of an anta (tapir) and also its use as “body armour” by the Indians.

The image at the beginning of today's post shows an authentic body armour from the British Museum. Though this one is made from seven layers of horse hide sewn together and not anta hide. Perhaps by the time this armour was made in the early 1820s, the tapir had been hunted to extinction.

Aonikenk (Southern Austral Tehuelches) Chief Kongre (or Congo) in 1838 as drawn by Ernest Goupil during Jules Dumont D'Urville's expedition at Port Peckett in Southern Chile in his body armor, which is described as being made from "ox hide". Below is Goupil's drawing:[22]

Chief Congo in a hide armour. From [22].

Captain FitzRoy (1839) wrote about the Tehuelche that he had seen in Patagonia during his voyage on HMS Beagle (1825-1836) wearing this armour (he uses the word anta when referring to the skins that the armour is made from (I highlighted the phrase):

On their heads they then wear conical caps, made of hide; and surmounted by a tuft of ostrich feathers. Another kind of armour, worn by those who can get it, is a broad-brimmed hat, or helmet, made of a doubled bull's hide: and a tunic, or frock, with a high collar, and short sleeves, made of several hides sewed together; sometimes of anta skins, but always of the thickest and most solid they can procure. It is very heavy, strong enough to resist arrows or lances, and to deaden the blow of a stone ball (bola perdida); but it will not turn the bullet fired from a musket. Some say that it will do so, but that which I saw had been pierced through, in the thickest part, by the musket-ball which killed the wearer.[23]

Getting back to Villarino and Claraz, note that Villarino had said the animal was a “halegilque” and not a “Schenam. This different name may be due to Claraz and Villarino using different native languages (Rio Negro was the border between two Tehuelche groups, the Puelche to the north and the Gennakenk to the South. They spoke different dialects. Or it may mean that there were two different animals, one was a tapir the other something else.”

Claraz managed to get a hide and though it apparently belonged to a young animal it was big, 1,5 m (5 ft.) long from ears to tail and its ears measured 17,6 cm (6.9 in.).[12]

Years later, Claraz would believe that the “Schenam” was a “rehe” – (he spoke German, and this is the German word for deer).[17]

He came to this conclusion after a friend of his showed Tehuelche chief Sinchel engravings in a biology book and Sinchel soon identified a great deer with antlers as a male “yoam or Schonem” – Tehuelche words for huemul.[18] Note that Schonem sounds similar to Schenam but yoam is quite different.

Claraz was therefore confident that the Schonem creature was a huemul; but as mentioned above, huemul don’t venture far from the Andean forests, so they would not have been found several hundreds of miles from the Andes in the Rio Negro Valley close to Sinchel’s camp. This has led some biologists to suggest that the animal was a Pampas deer (Ozotoceros bezoarticus), which, considering the Tehuelche word for this animal “yoam shezce” may mean that Sinchel had correctly identified the Yoam as a deer. But that does not mean that the Cisnal was also a deer.

This idea is supported by Argentine Admiral O’Connor’s report during the 1880s mentioning “guanaco, deer, cisnal” as abundant in the Upper Limay River valley. This makes clear that this creature is neither a deer nor a guanaco.[19]

Furthermore, the Tehuelche did not interact frequently with the huemul because they did not venture into the animal’s habitat, the forests (the natives feared the forests I will post on this interesting subject later -what were they afraid of?). We have proof of this: Chief Kánkel who lived a few kilometers from the Andean Forests by the Apeleg, Senguel and Mayo Rivers in what is now the Argentine province of Chubut, had never eaten huemul meat until Welsh explorer ap Iwan shot one during an expedition. [20] This indicates that they very rarely saw a huemul.

In our next and last post (Part 3) we will see how could a tapir, whose habitat is the tropical jungles, live in the cold Andean forests in Patagonia.


[1] Pigafetta, A. Op. Cit. pp. 7.
[2] Fernández de Navarrete, M. Op.Cit. pp. 39.
[3] Ibid. pp. 214.
[4] Becco, H. Op. Cit. pp. 7.
[5] Rivadeneryra, M. Op. Cit. pp.213-214.
[6] Sarmiento de Gamboa, P., Op.Cit. pp 95.
[7] FitzRoy, R., (1839). Op. Cit. v. ii. pp. 195 - 6.
[8] Purchas, S. Op. Cit. pp. 1233.
[9] Purchas, S. Op. Cit. pp. 1384
[10] Hawkesworth, J. Op. Cit. v. i. pp. 388.
[11] Cook, J., (1842). The voyages of Captain James Cook. London: William Smith. v.1. pp. 27-8.
[12] Claraz, G., (1864). Travaux Inédits. Sur l’Eqqus Bisculius, de Molina... Revue et magasin de zoologie pure et appliqué. 2e sér.:t.16. pp. 242 - 249. Citing: Diario del Piloto de B. Villarino, del Reconocimiento que hizo del Rio Negro, and de la Cruz. Op. Cit. pp. 110.
[13] 18 Le Moyne Barrett, R., and Barrett, K. Op.Cit. pp. 29-30.
[14] Button, A., (1948). Op. Cit.
[15] FitzRoy, R., Op. Cit. Appendix v. ii. pp. 109-110. Citing: Extract from Pennant's Literary Life, pp. 47 – 69.
[16] Gandía, E., (1929). Historia Crítica de los Mitos de la Conquista Americana. B.Aires: J. Roldán. pp.265.
[17] Claraz, G., (2008). Op. Cit. pp. 196.
[18] Ibid. pp. 186-7.
[19] Fonck, F. Op. Cit. pp. 70.
[20] Roberts, T. and Gavirati, M. Op. Cit. pp. 91-93.
[21] Suit of hide armour. British Museum.
[22] Martinic, M., (1995). Los Aonikenk Historia y Cultura. Punta Arenas: Vanic, Punta Arenas.pp. 201
[23] Fitz Roy, R. Op. Cit. pp.147. Online.

Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

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