Wondrous Tribes: Patagonian Giants

A European watches a Patagonian giant swallowing an arrow to cure his stomach ache (1602)

Giants are not, properly speaking, one of the wondrous tribes of the Greek and Roman classical writers. Virtually every culture on the planet has some kind of myth about incredibly large humanoids, from eight or ten feet tall up to the size of mountains—and beyond. In Norse mythology, the entire world was created from the dismembered body of the giant Ymir.

Nor are giants alien to North and South America, continents filled with slant-eyed giants, stone-skinned giants, and every possible variation of huge, man-eating ogre. There is one particular tribe of giants, however, that I should discuss in this series on the intersection of Old World myth and legend and the exploration of the New World. These are the giants of Patagonia at the extreme southern tip of South America.

Though the bones of “giants” (actually large prehistoric animals) have been discovered throughout North and South America, Magellan’s voyage to circumnavigate the globe brings us an account of a first-hand meeting between Europeans and a tribe of giants. The story is related by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Magellan on his voyage. Pigafetta relates the following story that took place as they rounded the tip of South America in 1520:

One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.

It was once assumed that the name “Patagonian” is derived from Spanish pata, meaning “leg,” “paw,” or “foot.” (We saw that same root in Patasola in my post about monopods.) If the final syllable is taken as an augmentative, then Patagonia might then be translated something like “Land of the Bigfeet.” Nowadays, however, most people think Magellan took the name from Primaleon, a popular novel of the time. In that work, there is a race of wild people called by that name. Word of Magellan’s discovery spread, and later world maps would sometimes even label this region “Land of the Giants” (regio gigantum).

What are we to make of this report? It is possible that Magellan encountered members of the Tehuelche people, who were, in fact, unusually tall—at least compared to the relatively short 16th-century Europeans. We’re talking six-footers, not ten-footers. When Sir Francis Drake visited this same region in 1628, he encountered these tall native people. Though acknowledging their impressive size, he is quick to call Magellan out for his gross exaggeration:

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.

Ah, the joys of professional rivalry!

 

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