Posted by: Rob Viens | November 29, 2013

Wild Horses and Trustworthy Peons

Over the next few days, Darwin concluded his trip to the interior – wrapping back southward and taking a more direct route (rather than following the river) back to San Jose and Montevideo. Along the way he described some of his encounters.  I’ll keep my entry brief today and just share some of the observations he made.

Journey into the interior of Uruguay – Nov 14-28 (modified from Google Maps):

Map of Darwin's November 1833 Uruguay Trip

Always looking for bones, Darwin had the chance to do a little fossil hunting:

“We heard of some giants bones, which as usual turned out to be those of the Megatherium. — With much trouble extracted a few broken fragments.” (Nov 25)

When that did not work out, he did what any good paleontologist would do – he found a local farmer who had uncovered a complete skull and bought it from him:

“Began my return in a direct line to M. Video; went by an Estancia where there was a part, very perfect, of the head of a Megatherium. I purchased it for a few shillings.” (Nov 26)

If you recall – Megatherium is a giant round sloth (read more on megatherium at Lumbering Giants and Swimming Sloths).  However, Darwin later updates his assessment of the skull (and shares a little more about its origin) in Voyage of the Beagle:

“Having heard of some giant’s bones at a neighbouring farm-house on the Sarandis, a small stream entering the Rio Negro, I rode there accompanied by my host, and purchased for the value of eighteen pence the head of the Toxodon. When found it was quite perfect; but the boys knocked out some of the teeth with stones, and then set up the head as a mark to throw at.” (Voyage of the Beagle)

For more on toxodons see Toxodon Dentistry posted last month. Below are images from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle showing a side view of the toxodon skull, and some fragments of teeth and lower jaw:

toxodon skull from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle

toxodon jaw from Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle

Also, I should be fair and note that paleontology has changed a bit since Darwin’s day.  While finding new prehistoric species never grows old, it is just as important to modern-day fossil hunters to see the context in which the fossil was found. Know the rock type and where it is found in the sequence of things, helps us determine things such as the age of fossils and the environment in which they lived (or at least died).

Darwin also had the opportunity to watch how the locals “tamed” a wild horse.

“In the evening a domidor or horse-breaker came to the house & I saw the operation of mounting a perfectly wild horse. — They were too fat to fight much: and there was little to see in the operation; the horse is thrown down & the bridle is tied to the under jaw: — tying the hind legs together he is allowed to rise & is then saddled. — During these operations the horse throws himself down so repeatedly & is so beaten, that when his legs are loosed and the man mounts him, he is so terrified as hardly to be able to breathe, & is trickling down with sweat. — Generally however a horse fights for a few minutes desperately, then starts away at a gallop, which is continued till the animal is quite exhausted. — This is a very severe but short way of breaking in a colt.” (Nov 25)

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).

Darwin also learned the importance of having a good servant/guide on the road, and we see another point in the trip where, had things had gone just a little differently, there would not have been an Origin of Species:

“We had long gallop through a more rocky & hilly country than the coast road, to the R. Perdido, where we slept. — One of the Post-houses was kept by a man, apparently of pure Indian blood; he was half intoxicated. — My peon declares that he in my presence said I was a Gallego; an expression synonimous with saying he is worth murdering. — His companions laughed oddly: — & I believe what my Peon said was true; when I remonstrated with him on the absurdity, he only said, “you do not [know] the people of this country”. — The motive must have been to sound my Peon, who perhaps luckily for me was a trust worthy man. — Your entire safety in this country depends upon your companion. — At night there were torrents of rain; as the Rancho made but little pretensions to keep out water or wind, we were soon wet through.” (Nov 26)

The last two days of the trip were apparently uneventful – such that Darwin’s entries are short:

“In the morning had a long gallop: arrived at San losè, from which point the road is the same by which I started. San Josè, Canelones, St Lucia are all rather nice little rectangular towns, & all just alike. — Slept one post beyond San Josè, (Nov 27) & in the middle of the next day we arrived at Monte Video. The distance, paid by the Post, being about 70 leagues from Mercedes to the Capital.” (Nov 28)

Darwin’s time on the Rio de la Plata was drawing to a close.  In about a week he would depart for points south, and after a winter of survey work, would leave the Atlantic Ocean for new adventures in the Pacific. (RJV)

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