Posted by: Rob Viens | October 3, 2013

Of Mastodons and Missionaries

Darwin started out the month of October with a moonlit ride – continuing his journey to Sante Fe. Part of his reason for making the trip up river was the rumor of fossils – and there were said to be some nearby. Who wouldn’t get up early when there were fossils nearby! Heck, I’m surprised if he slept much at all. Darwin wrote:

“Started by moonlight & arrived at the R. Carcavàna by sun rise. — This river is also called the Saladillo, & it deserves the name for the water is brackish. — I staid here the greater part of the day, searching for bones in the cliff. Old Falkner mentions having seen great bones in this river; |384| I found a curious & large cutting tooth. Hearing also of some “giants” bones on the Parana, I hired a canoe; there were two groups of bones sticking out of a cliff which came perpendicular into the water. The bones were very large, I believe belonging to the Mastodon. — they were so completely decayed & soft, that I was unable to extract even a small bone. — In the evening rode on another stage on the road, crossing the Monge, another brackish stream.” (Oct 1)

“Old Falkner” refers to an English Jesuit missionary Thomas Falkner, who spent most of his life in Argentina in the 1700’s. In 1731, Falkner took a position as ship’s surgeon and traveled to Buenos Aires.  He became so sick from the trip that, rather than return to England, he stayed in Argentina and joined the Roman Catholic Church where he ultimately became a Jesuit missionary.  He proceeded to spend the next 40 years in Argentina, before he returned to England at the age of about 65.

Upon his return, Falkner wrote A description of Patagonia, and the adjoining parts of South America where he describes his life on the pampas. It was this book that got Darwin interested in the local fossils, as Falkner is cited as being the first (European at least) to discover fossils in Argentina – including gyptodons and mastodons. (More on these Argentinean mastodons and other large mammals in the coming days.)

A map of South America from Falkner’s book:

Thomas Falkner map of South America

On October 2nd, Darwin was coming down with something, but it did not diminish his ability to both observe and record the weather and the beauty of his surroundings. He wrote:

“Unwell & feverish, from having exerted myself too much in the sun. — The change in latitude between St Fe & Buenos Ayres is about 3 degrees; the change in climate is much greater. — everything shows it. — the dress & complexion of the inhabitants, the increased size of the Ombus, many new cacti, the greater beauty of the birds & flowers; all proves the greater influence of the sun. We passed Corunda, from the luxuriance of its gardens it is the prettiest village I have seen. — From this place to St Fe, the road is not very safe; it runs through one large wood of low prickly trees, apparently all Mimosa. — As there are no habitations to the West of this part of the Parana, the Indians sometime come down & kill passengers. — On the road there were some houses now deserted from having been plundered; there was also a spectacle, which my guide looked at with great satisfaction, viz the skeleton with the dried skin hanging to the bones, of an Indian suspended to a tree. The wood had a pretty appearance opening into glades like a lawn.” (Oct 2)

For those who want to experience first hand the differences between Buenos Aires and Rosario, here are the current weather conditions for those two sites (from Weather Underground). These weather reports will change depending on when you read this, but as I write this (on the evening of October 3rd) the temperatures of the two sites range from about 54 to 59°F.

Buenos Aires:

Find more about Weather in Buenos Aires, AGClick for weather forecast



Find more about Weather in Rosario, AG
Click for weather forecast

By the end of the day, Darwin was in Santa Fe, though he would find himself battling illness for the next few days.  Those darn fossils were just to tempting to pass up…

“We changed our horses at a Posta where there are twenty soldiers: & by sun set arrived at St Fe. There was much delay on the road, on account of having to cross an arm of the Parana, St Fe being situated in a large island. — I was much exhausted & was very glad to procure an unfurnished room.” (Oct 2)

Darwin’s journey up the Paraná River – Sept 27 to October 2, 1833 (Satellite image from Google Maps):

Darwin's route up the Parana River

He would spend the better part of two weeks in the region before traveling (this time by boat) back to the Rio de la Plata. (RJV)


  1. […] that he was talking about a mammoth tooth that day, since he also found some mammoth bones (see Of Mastodons and Missionaries). However, it turns out that this curious tooth came from another prehistoric giant – the […]

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