Left: Human femur; Right: Fossil femur of the Pleistocene elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus
Following on the heels of Spanish conquistadores and adventurers in the Americas was a significant number of fellow Crown subjects who – for a variety of motives – hoped to provide accounts of these unprecedented events. Among these chroniclers was Pedro de Cieza de León, the son of a minor Extremaduran merchant who had connections to the Castilian court. Few writers of the early period of Spanish conquest retain as much respect among modern historians as Cieza de León, whose straightforward style and simple prose camouflaged the sharp-eyed analysis and detached ethnography lurking in the thousands of pages of material he composed.
I came across a fascinating chapter in Cieza de León's Crónicas dedicated to a Peruvian myth of the appearance of giant beings on the Pacific coast. The passage provides insight into the ways in which early modern thinkers understood natural history, and how the natural world affects the human myth-making process.
The keen-eyed Cieza de León - despite his historical reputation as a reliable source - remained solidly a man of the sixteenth century in his understanding of the natural world. The author heard from a variety of Spanish and native sources that a race of giants once landed on the coast of Punta Santa Elena, which is located west of modern-day Guayaquil, Ecuador. Cieza de León noted that he ignored the exaggerated stories “current among the vulgar,” instead parsing together the origin of the myth of Peruvian giants from reliable indigenous sources.
The purported giants, noted Cieza de León, arrived on the shore in “boats made of reeds, as big as large ships.” The giants were “men of such size that, from the knee downwards, their height was as great as the entire height of an ordinary man,” and these gargantuan interlopers had eyes the size of “small plates.” Possessing appetites to match their immense stature, the giants were such voracious eaters that “one of them ate more meat than fifty of the natives of the country could.”
Ever the dedicated collector of information about sexual practices in Peru, Cieza de León also learned that the giants angered the indigenous peoples because “in using their [Peruvian] women, they killed them, and the men also in another way;” the invading behemoths, it appears, were bisexual in their wanton desires for the peoples of coastal Santa Elena, and the horror of leviathan-rape ended only when – in Sodom-like fashion – a “terrible fire came down from heaven with a great noise.” Cieza de León recorded that the fossilized bones that remained were left as a “memorial of this punishment,” ostensibly to prevent another return of the oversexed titans from the Pacific.
Readers of the work of this sixteenth century chronicler will find the chapter on the giants of Punta Santa Elena to be a fascinating example of early modern thinkers coming to grips with puzzling paleontological evidence. Evolutionary theory was, of course, centuries away in human history, and Cieza de León possessed only Biblical and classical explanations for the presence of large objects that looked like enormous examples of the skeletal remains of known creatures.