Giants Roamed South America
The Age of Exploration and Discovery was marked by many strange beliefs about the supposed wonders and marvels hidden in the newly discovered and unexplored (by Europeans) lands. One of the stranger beliefs was that parts of South America were populated by giants. It began with the expedition of explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who set out to circumnavigate the globe in 1519.
En route, the expedition dropped anchor off Patagonia – a sparsely populated region in what is now Argentina. There, the crews reportedly came across a naked giant singing and dancing on the shore. Magellan directed a crewman to sing and dance in turn to demonstrate friendliness, and persuade the giant to come aboard ship. It worked, and a scribe who kept a diary that was later turned into a book account of the voyage wrote: “When he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist“.
Magellan’s men made contact with the rest of his tribe and befriended them. The expedition stopped for a few weeks to rest and replenish their supplies, taking on fresh water and what fresh meat they could by joining the tribe in hunts. When they were finally ready to leave, Magellan wanted to take some Patagonians with him to display back in Spain. So he lured some aboard his ship with the offer of trinkets, got them drunk until they passed out, and chained them. When the Patagonians came to, Magellan’s ships were already underway, with Patagonia receding in the distance. Sadly, the kidnapped Patagonians did not survive the voyage. Nor, for that matter, did Magellan. However, the expedition members who completed the voyage returned to Spain with fantastic tales of a land inhabited by giants.
It was a tall tale that grew taller over the years. Later sailors described seeing Patagonians who stood 10 feet tall. Others came in contact with ones whose height was measured at 12 feet. Yet others encountered Patagonians who truly towered above normal people, measuring 15 feet in height. Reports of the South American giants would grip European imaginations for over 250 years.
The tall tales were first challenged by Sir Francis Drake, the British seaman and pirate, who encountered Patagonians during his own circumnavigation of the globe. As described by his nephew: “Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.“
Nonetheless, the belief in Patagonian giants persisted, and as late as 1766, rumors circulated that a British Royal Navy ship had encountered a tribe of 9-foot tall natives. When the ship’s account of the voyage was finally published, however, it turned out that the natives had been recorded as standing 6 feet 6 inches tall. That was tall, especially so for that era. But certainly not giants. In reality, the Patagonians in question, the Tehuelche tribe, were taller than average, but that average was in the 6-foot range.
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