Yesterday I talked about Klaus Dona and Michael Tellinger promoting claims about giants in Ecuador. This prompted me to revisit the famous discussion of Pedro Cieza de Leon, who reported a Native Ecuadoran legend, possibly influenced by Catholic missionaries, that alleged that megafauna bones found around Santa Elena and Puerto Viejo were the remains of a race of cruel rapist giants whom God killed with fire from heaven for having gay sex. It’s no surprise that gigantologists made use of this legend for their own purposes, but I was surprised to see that there is a second version of the story contemporary with and apparently independent of the first, and that this version ended up getting mangled thanks to a bad translation.
Cieza de Leon’s version of the story was published in 1553 and is available in my Library. The second version was published two years later by Agustín de Zárate, a Spanish government official who spent 1543 and 1544 in Peru before returning to Spain to face charges of treason. He compiled an account of the Spanish conquest of Peru that was published in 1555. His version of the giant story overlaps Cieza de Leon’s to the point that they must reflect a genuine tradition, perhaps even from the same informants, but Zárate differs on some details and includes others not found in Cieza de Leon.
Before we look at how the text got mangled, let’s look at what Zárate wrote. The translation below of the first part of Chapter 5 of Book I is one I have revised, expanded, and corrected from that of Charles Reginald Enock:
Around this country, on a promontory that the Spanish call Santa Elena, there are certain veins extending into the sea which contain bitumen, which looks like alquitran, and the Indians say that giants of great stature inhabited the land at this point, four times as large as a man. They do not say whence these came, but they sustained themselves on the same foodstuffs, according to these same Indians, especially fish, because they were great fishermen, and went in balsas, each one in his own, because the rafts could not carry more than one, though they could carry three horses. They could wade into the sea to two fathoms and a half, and disported themselves in taking many types of sharks, dolphins, and other large fish. But because they needed to eat so much, each one ate more than thirty Indians. And they went naked because of the difficulty they had in making themselves clothes, and they were so cruel that without any apparent cause they would kill many Indians, who greatly feared them. The Spaniards in Puerto Viejo saw two massive sculptured figures of these giants, a male and female, and that the Indians preserved from father to son many particulars of the giants, especially as concerned their end, which was brought about by the advent from heaven of a young man, shining like the sun, who drove the giants into a valley and killed them with flames of fire, marks of which remain upon the rocks still. Yet everyone gave little credence to what these Indians said until the time when Captain Juan de Olmos of Trujillo, Lieutenant to the Governor of Puerto Viejo, in 1543, hearing about them, caused excavations to be made in the valley, which laid bare enormous ribs and bones, which if they had not appeared with their heads, would not have been believed to be of human beings. But with this confirmation, and seeing the marks of the thunderbolts on the rocks, what the Indians had said was taken for true. They sent to different parts of Peru some teeth that had been found there, each of which was three fingers wide and four fingers long. These things have convinced the Spaniards that it is as they said, that these people were much given to unnatural vice and divine justice removed them from the Earth, sending some angel for them, as happened at Sodom and other places…
It would probably be interesting to compare the two accounts of the “giants” and their varying details, but they are similar enough that we needn’t concern ourselves with whether the fictitious giants ate the equivalent of thirty or fifty normal men, for we have a more interesting problem: The first to publish an English translation of this passage completely messed it up.
Charles Reginald Enock was a British engineer who traveled extensively in Latin America in the early twentieth century and wrote a series of books about it. Despite marrying a Mexican woman and spending much of his life in Latin America (and living until 1970!), his command of Spanish wasn’t apparently as good as he thought, to judge by how badly he messed up Zárate’s text. His book on Ecuador was published in 1914, and in it he quotes about 65% of the above text, with modest success. But remember that line about how the giants were so hungry that each one ate thirty times more than an Indian? Here’s how Enock mistranslated the line: “They devoured Indians, thirty-two each, went naked, and were very cruel in killing the Indians.” Enock was probably influenced by Victorian scholars like Rushtom M. Dorman, who incorrectly cited Zárate as evidence for Peruvian cannibal giant myths. This was hardly the only sentence that Enock mangled, but it is the most important one. (He also though the giant skeletons were missing their heads.) The issue is that in the sentence Indians are not the direct object of ate, so they are not the foodstuffs being consumed.
Normally, when there is a crappy translation that seems to reaffirm a key gigantological belief, such as cannibalism in this case, we’d see it popping up all over the place. So why didn’t this error end up canonized alongside other dubious translations, like the way Francis Augustus MacNutt’s 1912 mistranslation of Peter Martyr on giant bones ended up as the quasi-official gigantology version of the text, wrong measurements and all? While occasional reference to “anthropophagus” giants based on Zárate show up from time to time, Enock’s text never made it into gigantology circles because in 1968 John Michael Cohen published a more accurate translation in English, and that made it just old enough that gigantologists were comfortable using it in their work around the turn of this century. Charles DeLoach quoted from Cohen in his encyclopedia of giants in 1995, and from there most later gigantologists and fringe historians have referred to Cohen’s translation. But for Cohen’s work, we might have had another set of “cannibal” giants!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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