Argentina, Cradle of Mankind

Date: 1900
Owner: Taller de Impresiones Oficiales, La Plata, Argentina
Source Type: Images


Florentino Ameghino made this chart to help prove his fossil-based theory that all apes and people descended from a Patagonian primate that lived during the Cretaceous period. While today there is consensus among modern scientists that humans evolved in Africa, Ameghino postulated that Homo sapiens' ancestors crossed from South America to Africa when those continents were connected and evolved into the various types of Old World protohumans. South America did not contain anthropomorpha like Homo erectus because such species were actually evolved from homo sapiens. Ameghino thus turned Darwinian evolution on its head: humans were not an improved kind of ape, but apes were a beastly evolutionary offshoot of us. As he wrote in his  article "Les Formations Sedimentaires," "C'est ne pas l'Homme qui apparait comme un Singe perfectionne, sinon au contraire les Singes qui appraissent comme des homes bestializes" (loosely translated as "men are not improved apes, apes are men turned into beasts") (Ameghino 1906, 558).

Ameghino's nationalistic brand of paleontology--especially his ideas about the descent of humans--was very popular both in South America and southern Europe, regions that had long been relegated to a secondary role in the overall process of evolution and thus took a kind of pan-Latin pride in Ameghino's science. Argentine schoolbooks even published a version of Ameghino's evolution of man, a process that began with primitive primates in Patagonia and ended with modern citizens living in urban centers.

These neat charts and theories, however, were based on real fieldwork, expeditions in which Florentino himself took almost no part (he visited Patagonia for the first time in 1903). His brother Carlos took the lead in this crucial aspect of the family business by wandering around Patagonia, excavating fossils, and recording their strata. Florentino (who was given name recognition for these collaborative works) interpreted Carlos' evidence from the comfort of his position as director of the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires, where he was free to make the collected bones fit into his ideas about the primacy of Argentina in vertebrate mammal paleontology. The work of the Ameghinos is an important reminder that even empirical science is a complicated process; many distinct steps go into something like interpreting a fossilized tooth, all of which are vulnerable to subjective interpretation.

Reference: Podgorny, Irina. "Bones and Devices in the Constitution of Paleontology in Argentina at the End of the Nineteenth Century." In Science in Context, vol. 18, no. 2 (2005), pp. 249-283.

CITATION: From Obras Completas y Correspondencia Cientifica de Florentino Ameghino, volumen IV, Vida y obras del sabio. Dirigida por Alfredo J. Torcelli. La Plata: Taller de impresiones oficiales, 1915.