Owner: W.M. Jackson, Inc.
Source Type: Private Papers
Francisco Javier Muniz (1795-1871) was the first native-born Argentine to explore his country's rich deposits of fossils in the systematic method advocated by Georges Cuvier, the French father of vertebrate paleontology. He was a lifelong member of Argentina's army, first as a soldier (he was wounded defending Buenos Aires against the British invasion of 1807) and later as a physician. His first foray into paleontology occurred largely by accident in 1825, when he stumbled upon the bones of an ancient armadillo-like creature (perhaps a glyptodont) and decided to dig them up.
Over fifteen years later, Muniz decided to devote himself to paleontology in earnest, largely because of the influence of Charles Darwin. Although On the Origin of Species was not yet published, Darwin had already been recognized for the work he did in South America and it was Darwin's fossil discoveries that piqued Muniz's interest. In 1842, Muniz excavated megatheres, a primitive horse, and a kind of saber-toothed cat. He donated his new collection to the government of General Rosas, who promptly sold them to various European collectors. Although Muniz himself sent many specimens overseas, he also presented some of his finds to the Museo Publico de Buenos Aires.
In this 1847 letter (probably originally written in English), Darwin expresses his admiration for the Argentine's "zeal" for natural history and thanks Muniz for sending him "very curious" and "very valuable" information on a kind of extinct mammal (the Niata cow). Although their correspondence was limited, the fact that an Argentine naturalist was in contact with European experts evinces that South American science had begun to be reborn following the wars of independence.
Muniz became an important figure for natural scientists of the Generation of 1880, who considered him a paragon of nationalism and progress. In fact, the prologues to his Escritos Cientificos were by Florentino Ameghino and President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento. Ameghino wrote that Muniz "rivaled Darwin, and like all great men of science his knowledge was acquired in his own country." Such rhetoric connected the study of ancient fossils with modern science that was done within and for a modern state.
References: Ameghino, Florentino. "Prologo." In: Muniz, Francisco Javier. Escritos Cientificos. Grandes Escritores Argentinos, Director: Alberto Palcos, XIII. Buenos Aires and New York: W.M. Jackson, inc., 1916.
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: "Una Carta de Darwin," February 26, 1847. In: Muniz, Francisco Javier. Escritos Cientificos. Grandes Escritores Argentinos, Director: Alberto Palcos, XIII. Buenos Aires and New York: W.M. Jackson, inc., 1916.
DIGITAL ID: 13098