The 16th-Century Myth Of Giants In South America

“But one day (without anyone expecting it) we saw a giant who was on the shore, quite naked, and who danced, leaped, and sang, and while he sang he threw sand and dust on his head.” —From the journal of Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition

In A Nutshell

The Age of Exploration resulted in numerous misconceptions and wild fantasies about the New World being spread as fact throughout Europe. According to the diaries, journals, and writings of Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, the Pacific Coast of South America was populated by a tribe of giants called the Patagonians. These giants were so tall that the Europeans were only waist-high to them, and two were even captured to be brought back to show all of Europe.

The Whole Bushel

The first accounts of a race of giants living on the Pacific Coast of South America come from the chronicler on Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage in 1520. According to Antonio Pigafetta, they first saw a giant singing, dancing, and cavorting on the beach. As he seemed lighthearted and happy, they assumed he was friendly and approached him in much the same manner. He was; they communicated with him through a sort of sign language, and he made it clear that he thought they were from heaven.

Pigafetta tells of an entire race of the people. They were said to be so tall that the tops of the Europeans’ heads only reached to their waists. Upon meeting the rest of the people, Magellan was said to be anxious to take a few of them back to Europe. And that meant a good ol’ kidnapping scheme. Pigafetta describes an incident in which nine of their strongest men were sent to capture two of the giants. They had such strength that the men were barely successful. Unfortunately, both captives fell ill and died on the journey back to Europe.

The myth, unlike Magellan’s captives, didn’t die there.

Next, Sir Francis Drake got in on the story. In his nephew’s published account of their journeys, he told of encountering the massive giants. But, he estimated their height at closer to 2.2 meters (7.5 ft) instead of 3 meters (10 ft), probably in an attempt to discredit earlier accounts. He tells of how wary and untrusting the giants became after Magellan’s cruel treatment of them and attempted abduction, painting a very clear picture of the Spanish expedition ruining a people that had previous been kind and amiable. And instead of entirely discrediting Magellan, he gave the myth a boost.

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Another voyage, this time commanded by John Byron of the British Royal Navy in the mid-1700s, seemed to confirm the tales. A conveniently anonymous book published two years after the ship’s return told more stories about the giants. And this account included illustrations, lending more and more credence to its claims. (So much so that it seemed to be overlooked that there was no named author, much less a named author that could be confirmed to have been on the HMS Dolphin for the voyage.) The book succeeded in not only selling well, but increasing interest in the myth across Europe.

And the myth got yet another boost when a priest named Pernety, who had been on a previous round-the-world voyage, decided to write his own book about how the captains of his ship had met the elusive giants. Even though he himself had no first-hand experience with the peoples, he quite openly condemned those who would doubt in the face of such evidence.

Several years after the anonymous book and the priest’s follow-up, the captain of the HMS Dolphin released his own statement. The people they had met were tall, yes, but hardly the massive giants that everyone was making them out to be. He presented the first accurate picture of a people that were still tall enough that they would have seemed to tower over the smaller Europeans, but certainly not giants. Now, it’s thought that the references made were really to some tall natives that the explorers encountered; but that these were probably the Tehuelche or the Aonikenk people—not the giants that Europeans told stories of for more than two centuries.

Show Me The Proof

Princeton University: Patagonian Giants
Patagonian Giants in the work of Dom Pernety, 1769–1771

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