Posted by: Rob Viens | September 9, 2013

Barbarians and Horses

Darwin’s diary was quiet for several days, but on September 7th he wrote a long entry – mostly about the “war against the indians”.  In general though, he was still waiting to head out on the next leg of his journey, and was clearly ready to move on:

 “These four days were lost in miserable ennui. A man, whom I had engaged to be my Vacciano, disappointed me & ultimately at some risk & much trouble I hired another. — My only amusement was reading a Spanish edition published at Barcelona of the trial of Queen Caroline!” (Sept 4-7)

Pampas peoples by Juan León Pallière (1823–1887):

People of the Pampas

In his boredom, Darwin was more than willing to listen to stories about the ongoing war. For example:

“I heard many curious anecdotes respecting the Indians. — The whole place was under great excitement, there were continual reports of victories &c. — A prisoner Cacique had given information of some Indians at the small Salinas. — On the 5th a party of a hundred men were sent against them. — These Salinas only lie a few leagues out of the road between the Colorado & Bahia Blanca. The Chasca (or express) who brought this intelligence, was a very intelligent man & gave me an account of the last battle, at which he was present. — Some Indians, taken previously, gave information of a tribe North of the Colorado. Two hundred soldiers were sent. — They first discovered the Indians, by the dust of their horses, in a wild mountainous country. — My informer thought they were half as high as the Sierra Ventana, therefore between 1 & 2000 feet high. — The Andes were clearly in sight, so that it must have been very far in the interior. — The Indians were about 112, women & childer & men, in number. — They were nearly all taken or killed, very few escaped.” (Sept 4-7)

He goes on in some (disturbing) detail, describing the genocide happening around him. If you’d like to see the entire (several page) entry, click on “Darwin’s Beagle Diary” in the right-hand margin.  For today, I thought I would share just a few excerpts that get at Darwin’s thoughts on the subject.  He was not as impassioned about this issue as he was about slavery (maybe because he had a healthy dose of fear about what the natives might do to him if he was set upon in the wilderness), but it is clear that Darwin did not approve of the “war” on the indigenous people.  A few excerpts that give a good sense of what he thought:

“The Indians are now so terrified that they offer no resistance in body; but each escapes as well as he can, neglecting even his wife & children. — The soldiers pursue & sabre every man.”

“This is a dark picture; but how much more shocking is the unquestionable fact, that all the women who appear above twenty years old, are massacred in cold blood. — I ventured to hint, that this appeared rather inhuman. He answered me, “Why what can be done, they breed so.” — Every one here is fully convinced that this is the justest war, because it is against Barbarians. Who would believe in this age in a Christian, civilized country that such atrocities were committed?”

“General Rosas’s plan is to kill all stragglers & thus drive the rest to a common point. — In the summer, with the assistance of the Chilians, they are to be attacked in a body, and this operation is to be repeated for three successive years. — I imagine the summer is chosen as the time for the main attack, because the plains are then without water, & the Indians can only travel in particular directions. — The escape of the Indians to the South of the Rio Negro, where in such a vast unknown country they would be safe, is prevented by a treaty with the Tehuelches to this effect. — that Rosas pays them so much to slaughter every Indian who passes to the South of the river. — but if they fail in doing this, they themselves shall be exterminated. — The war is chiefly against the Indians near the Cordillera; for many of the tribes on this Eastern side are fighting with Rosas. The general however, like Lord Chesterfield, thinking that his friends may in a future day become his enemies, always places them in the front ranks, so that their numbers may be thinned.”

“If this warfare is successful, that is if all the Indians are butchered, a grand extent of country will be gained for the production of cattle: & the vallies of the R. Negro, Colorado, Sauce will be most productive in corn. The country will be in the hands of white Gaucho savages instead of copper-coloured Indians. The former being a little superior in civilization, as they are inferior in every moral virtue.”

“Great as it is, in another half century I think there will not be a wild Indian in the Pampas North of the Rio Negro. — The warfare is too bloody to last; The Christians killing every Indian, & the Indians doing the same by the Christians.” (Sept 4-7)

Unfortunately, he turned out to be more or less correct on that account.

On a different note, Darwin also commented on the natural history of the region and, through a series of logical steps, concludes that (1) arrowhead found nearby must have been from an older people and (2) horses were not native to this area. He wrote:

“I saw one day a soldier striking fire with a piece of flint; which I immediately recognized as having been a part of the head of an arrow. — He told me it was found near the island of Churichoel, & that they were frequently picked up there. — It was between two & three inches long, & therefore twice as large as those used in Tierra del Fuego; it was made of opake cream-coloured flint, but the point & barbs had been intentionally broken off. It is well known that no Pampas Indians now use bows & arrows; I believe a small tribe in Banda Oriental must be excepted, but they are widely separated from the Pampas Indians & border close to those tribes which inhabit the forest & live on foot.— It appears therefore to me that these heads of arrows are antiquarian relics of the Indians before the great changes in habit consequent on the introduction of horses into South America. This & the invention of catching animals with the balls would certainly render the use of arrows in an open country quite superfluous. — In N: America bones of horses have been found in close proximity to those of the Mastodon; and I at St Fe Bajada found a horses tooth in the same bank with parts of a Megatherium; if it had not been a horses tooth, I never should have for an instant doubted its being coeval with the Megatherium. — Yet the change of habits, proved by the frequency of the arrow heads, convinces me that the horse was not an original inhabitant.”

Horse Evolutionary tree – notice the modern horse (Equus) at the top

Horse Evolution

Interestingly, (as you can see in the image above) horses actually evolved in the Americas over the last ~50 million years but went extinct there after spreading to the rest of the world. They were then brought back to the New World by the Spanish in the 16th century. Guess the age of the latest fossil horse remains are found in North America… yup, about 10,000 years ago.  That puts their extinction at the same time as the megafauna extinction that took out the ground sloths and mammoths.  Hmm…. pesky humans…. always trying to eradicate something… (RJV)

PS – Presumable the last paragraph was added to Darwin’s diary at a later date, as it would be a month before he actually discovered the fossil horse tooth.


  1. […] Recall that these “wild horses” were still just domesticated horses whose recent ancestors had escaped.  Indigenous horses went extinct in South America long before the Spanish arrived (see Barbarians and Horses). […]

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