Florentino Ameghino

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


From the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, the name of Florentino Ameghino (1854-1911) was synonymous with Argentine paleontology. Although he was certainly not the only Argentine of his day to study fossils, he was well known throughout the international scientific community for his remarkable work on Patagonian vertebrates and his polemical and highly nationalistic brand of science. Most of his field work was entrusted to his brother Carlos while Florentino, from his position as director of the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires, published almost twenty volumes on vertebrate paleontology, including the famous, controversial, and decidedly incorrect article "Les Formations Sedimentaires..." (1906).

Whereas many of his positivist contemporaries in Argentina used modern theories like Darwinism to bolster their country's present and future glory, Ameghino combined evolutionary theory and the Patagonian fossil record to laud Argentina's place in mankind's and the world's past. According to Ameghino, Patagonian marsupials were the evolutionary ancestor of every mammal on earth, including the genus homo. Thus such widely dispersed animals as Eurasian horses, African rhinoceroses, and Asian elephants all descended from distinct Patagonian species. The earliest humans, according to Ameghino, also arose in Argentina.

Ameghino arrived at these thoroughly wrong conclusions by selectively miscalculating the ages of various geologic strata. By dating the Late Cretaceous era (the last age of dinosaurs that ended about 65 million years ago by modern estimates) around 30 million years ago, he was able to claim that Argentine mammals existed contemporaneously with dinosaurs before spreading to the rest of the world. His hypotheses were incredibly popular among contemporary Argentine scientists who saw his work as proof of the primacy of Argentina in human history. Ameghino exemplified how scientific work, even on such remote topics as the bones of extinct species, was closely tied with Argentina's emerging national science.

References: Ameghino, Florentino. "Les Formations Sedimentaires du Cretace Superieur et du Tertiare de Patagonie avec un Parallele entre leurs Fraunes Mammalogiques et celles de l'Ancien Continent." In Anales del Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires, (3) 8: pp. 1-568.

Rodriguez, Julia. Civilizing Argentina: Science, Medicine, and the Modern State. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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.

---. "Early Mammals in South America: Fact, Controversy, and Mystery." In: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 122, no. 5 (Oct. 19, 1978), pp. 318-328.

CITATION: Florentino Ameghino, 1854-1911. From Obras Completas y Correspondencia Cientifica de Florentino Ameghino, volumen I, Vida y obras del sabio. Dirigida por Alfredo J. Torcelli. La Plata: Taller de impresiones oficiales, 1913.