Posted by: Rob Viens | September 23, 2012

The Bones of an Idea

September 22nd was the beginning of what I think was a pivotal event for Darwin (in regards to developing his “big idea”). From what I have seen so far, I’d call this his second pivotal event of the voyage.  I think the first was his time in the Brazilian rainforest – a world very different from home, yet full of familiar animals that were perfectly adapted to the tropical conditions.  The 22nd is Darwin’s first mention of the discovery of an important group of mammal fossils that would change the way he looked at the history of life on Earth.

He is what he has to say about the first glimpse of the bones:

“Had a very pleasant cruize about the Bay with the Captain & Sulivan.— We staid sometime on Punta Alta about 10 miles from the ship; here I found some rocks.— These are the first I have seen, & are very interesting from containing numerous shells & the bones of large animals. The day was perfectly calm; the smooth water & the sky were indistinctly separated by the ribbon of mud-banks:— the whole formed a most unpicturesque picture.— It is a pity such bright clear weather should be wasted on a country, where half its charms do not appear.— We got on board just in time to escape a heavy squall & rain.” (Sept 22)

There is something to be said for that first glimpse of a good outcrop.  I can recall spending days in southeast Alaska looking for places where the geologic story was revealed through the carpet of vegetation.  Trudging up a river valley for hours and coming around a bend to see a huge cliff of rock was exhilarating.  In geology, it is like uncovering a hidden library full of new stories and historical documents.  I can almost picture the boat coming around a bend and Darwin seeing the cliff.  He was probably squinting for details and looking through a spyglass. His glee, when the vessel came closer to the outcrop and he could make out the outline of fossils must have been tangible.  He might have even done a little dance!

Cliffs near Punta Alta (from Darwin in Argentina. Revista de la Asociación Geológica Argentina 64, No. 1 (February 2009): 1-180)

Punta Alta cliffs

On the 23rd he went back to the outcrop and described the discovery a little bit more, though he’ll have more to say later:

“A large party was sent to fish in a creek about 8 miles distant; great numbers of fish were caught.— I walked on to Punta alta to look after fossils; & to my great joy I found the head of some large animal, imbedded in a soft rock.— It took me nearly 3 hours to get it out: As far as I am able to judge, it is allied to the Rhinoceros.— I did not get it on board till some hours after it was dark.” (Sept 23)

As a geologist I can understand the “great joy” of discovering something meaningful in a remote rock outcrop.  The fossil of a megafauna, of course, trumps almost anything, but even finding a clue to a geologic story or some subfossil wood that could be carbon dated is a great thrill after days or weeks of searching.

More on the specifics of his fossil find in the coming days. But I thought I’d share a little of what FitzRoy had to say about Darwin and his new fossils:

“My friend’s attention was soon attracted to some low cliffs near Point Alta, where he found some of those huge fossil bones, described in his work; and notwithstanding our smiles at the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board, he and his servant used their pick-axes in earnest, and brought away what have since proved to be most interesting and valuable remains of extinct animals.” (FitzRoy’s Narrative)

“Apparent rubbish” indeed – if he only knew how it would change the world.  Even Darwin would not know the full meaning of the fossils until returning home, but I’m sure the wheels were already spinning in his head… (RJV)


  1. […] he tried to explain why fossil bones looked similar to, but yet different from modern species (see The Bones of an Idea), and he speculated on the slight modifications of tropical species compared to their northern […]

  2. […] glyptodon fossils he discovered were significant for Darwin (see Bones of an Idea).  They allowed him to make the connection between the modern armadillos (like the ones he would […]

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