Astrapotherium Magnum

Date: 1935
Owner: Biodiversity Heritage Library
Source Type: Images

This Astrapotherium magnum, a bison-sized mammal with huge mandibles from the middle Pleistocene, was discovered in 1923 by U.S. paleontologist Elmer Samuel Riggs (1869-1963) as part of a scientific expedition to Patagonia. This was the most complete skeleton yet found from the order Astrapotheria and the team shipped their prize back to their sponsor, the Field Museum in Chicago (where the bones arranged here were displayed). In the words of Riggs, this was done "in accordance with a plan for placing...collections of South American fossil vertebrates in the hands of specialists best qualified to study them" (Riggs 1935). It apparently went without saying that these experts were in the United States.

Following the death of Florentino Ameghino, who did much to make the fossil wealth of Patagonia known to the world, there was a long period in which scientific expeditions from the United States dominated South American paleontology. As in other areas of natural science (and even anthropology and ethnology), U.S scientists used the south as a field in which to do science while giving little or nothing back to the local scientific community. To be sure, institutions such as the Museo de La Plata continued to contribute to the field, but the superior resources and funding of U.S. expeditions quickly reduced the international importance of Argentine paleontologists. Furthermore, many of the most exciting new finds, such as this skeleton, ended up in American museums.

As early as the 1890s, scientific expeditions to Patagonia were (surprisingly) more convenient for U.S. paleontologists than those from Argentina. According to historian Irina Podgorny, the many English, Scottish, and Irish ranchers who lived in Patagonia to profit from the wool trade with Great Britain provided U.S. teams with a network of well connected Anglophones who had direct access to local officials and ships leaving the area's few ports. Furthermore, U.S. paleontologists may have felt more at home in Patagonia than their Argentine counterparts; the harsh conditions resembled those of Wyoming and Montana (where many U.S. paleontologists had proven themselves) and the local population were often less hostile to foreigners than porteno Argentines, who they had good cause to resent during the late nineteenth century.

References: 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.

Riggs, Elmer S. "A Skeleton of Astrapotherium." In Fieldiana, Geology, vol. 6, no. 13. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1935.

Simpson, George Gaylord. Discoverers of the Lost World: An account of some of those who brought back to life South American mammals long buried in the abyss of time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984.

CITATION: Skeleton of Astrapotherium magnum, No. P14251, as mounted in Field Museum. From: Riggs, Elmer S. "A Skeleton of Astrapotherium." In Fieldiana, Geology, vol. 6, no. 13. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1935. Image courtesy Biodiversity Heritage Library.