If there is one recurring theme we’ve encountered time and again on this blog, it’s the propensity of researchers of all stripes to keep on copying from one another without recourse to primary sources. As promised yesterday, I’ve been looking into more claims that the Spanish conquistadors encountered giants in North America. Today, I started looking into the claim made here that in 1519 Alvarez de Pineda found “a race of giants from ten to eleven palms in height” at or near the coast of modern Texas, which is presented as though it were a direct quotation from Pineda. It appears as the words of Pineda’s “report” in Charles DeLoach’s Giants: A Reference Guide from History, the Bible, and Recorded Legend (Scarecrow, 1995). It’s not a quote from Pineda; it’s a quotation from Woodbury Lowery’s The Spanish Settlements within the Present Limits of the United States (1901), which gives no source.
This is a problem because I don’t have any way of knowing whose palms are being referred to. Are they original or a translator’s interpolation? The English palm, the one that an English translator might use, is but 3 inches in length (hardly a giant!) but the Continental palm varied from seven to eleven inches by country and time. At seven inches, the giants would be of above average, but normal height; at eleven inches, astonishing.
Worse, every source that even vaguely hints of where to look for the information outside of other authors’ copies of Lowery has contradictory material. The nearest citation in Lowery, coming a paragraph later, is to page 147 of “Navarrete,” by which he means the Colección de los viages y descubrimientos que hieieron. Navarrete speaks himself of this on page 58. Here is the relevant text:
Llamábase la provincia de Amichel: tierra buena, apacible, sana, provista de muchos bastimentos y frutas: sus habitantes traian muchas joyas de oro en narices y orejas; era gente amorosa y dispuesta para recibir la doctrina religiosa y política: su estatura variaba segun la diversidad de provincias. En unas dicen que vieron gente agigantada, en otras de estatura regular, y que en algunas eran casi pigmeos.
Well that’s not exactly the same thing.
The footnote tells us to see the primary sources, which are given on, yes, page 147ff. This is the account of Pineda’s boss, Galay, as preserved in a royal decree of 1521 giving him the right to colonize Amichel. Finally, success! The text gives us the same material Navarrete had summarized before, but with more detail that I’m sure you don’t care about. The relevant clauses are as follows:
…é que hay gente en alguna parte desta tierra muy crecida de diez á once palmos en alto, y otra gente baja, é otra gente muy baja hasta cinco ó seis palmos…
These words actually appear on page 149, but most subsequent authors merely copy page 147 from Lowery, probably because they did not actually read the original or note that Lowery was not sourcing these specific words.
However, while this seems superficially to support the idea that Pineda saw giants and pygmies, the important thing is to go all the way back to the beginning of the interminably long Spanish sentence, whose relevant clause, introducing a long series of “é que” (“and that…”) clauses. The grammar of the sentence does not make clear whether Galay asserted on his own authority that there were giants and pygmies or whether, as with the other “and that” clauses, he was following “segun que los indios,” according to the Indians. As I read the sentence, the information about the giants and pygmies seems to have come secondhand from Native informants; i.e., it’s a myth.
Diego Ribero included the phrase “Rio de Gigantes” (Giants’ River) on a 1529 map of the world, applied to a region Pineda explored, apparently on the strength of this account. It’s now the Rio de Palmas.
The interesting thing is that Navarrete’s use of the words “gigantic” and “pygmy” have influenced later writers, who have applied them indiscriminately, despite the primary source—the royal patent—not using those words. In Spain, a palm was about 8.2 inches (though it varied prior to partial standardization in 1801), so the “pygmies” were about 4 ft. tall, while the “giants” came in between 6.8 and 7.5 feet, as estimated, apparently, from a distance. This is still tall, but not impossibly tall, and more likely is a slight exaggeration of well-fed people who were perhaps a bit above 6 feet in height—assuming they actually existed. The gold-laden rivers and gold-covered Indians did not exist, so I am not sure I would vouch for the giants just yet, though the nearby Karankawans were often said to be very tall, at more than six feet.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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