Update: See follow-up here.
Regular readers will recall that I’ve been looking over some of the evidence that the Spanish conquistadors encountered giants in the Americas. Today, let’s look at another piece of the evidence for an alleged giant. Today’s story comes from Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, Count Palatine, an Italian historian commissioned by Charles V to write the history of New Spain. In the fifth of his Decades, published in 1523, Peter described the conquest of Mexico, and in so doing he related the explorations of Diego de Ordaz, a conquistador most famous for his failed search for El Dorado across the northern areas of South America. That was still in the future, and at the time Peter Martyr wrote Ordaz had just finished his explorations of what is now Oaxaca and Veracruz, the onetime Olmec heartland, after having explored the region around what is now Mexico City.
Here’s what Ordaz found, as related in Decades 5, Book 9. I cannot seem to find the original Latin, [update: I found it] but I will give a Spanish version is first, followed by the standard 1912 English translation of papal chamberlain Francis Augustus MacNutt from which many alternative historians work. Hint: Be wary of this English translation.
Quiero terminar este capítulo con un relato giganteo, que cual firme y formidable Atlas venga a respaldar mis afirmaciones. Diego de Ordaz, de quien arriba hice mención, reconoció muchos lugares apartados de aquellas tierras, y sometió a muchos de sus régulos, sobre todo al que señoreaba la región del cacao, en la cual aprendió de qué modo se siembra y cría el árbol de la moneda, según lo expliqué en su lugar. En la bóveda de un templo encontró un pedazo del hueso femoral de un gigante, raído y semidestruido por la antiguedad. El licenciado Ayllón, jurisconsulto y uno de los oidores de la Española, trajo dicho hueso a la ciudad de Victoria poco después de la partida hacia Roma de Tu Beatitud. Yo lo tuve en casa durante algunos días; su largura, desde el nudo del anca a la rodilla, era de cinco palmos, y su ancho en proporción. Los que más adelante fueron enviados por Cortés a las montañas del sur, volvieron asegurando que habían encontrado una región habitada por gigantes y en prueba de su aserto dícese que trajeron muchas costilías de muertos.
Isn’t that fun? Peter Martyr gives the hip bone as being seven and a half feet long. Normally, when one sees such an account the temptation is to assume that it’s wrong. If it had taken place farther north, we might want to ascribe the bone to an exaggerated mastodon carcass or even a dinosaur bone. It seems just about the right size for a sauropod such as Apatosaurus, and we know from footprints left in the region that such dinosaurs existed throughout Mexico at one time.
Ah, but we don’t need to do that, do we? Check the Spanish again. (I have confirmed it with parallel translations in other languages.) It doesn’t say “five cubits.” It says “cinco palmos”—five palms—our friendly and wildly variable obsolete measurement! We know that the Spanish palm was approximately 8 inches through most of its history (varying from 7 to 11 inches across Europe), so that gives us a hip bone of around 40 inches, or a little more than three feet. This is still very large, but nowhere near 7.5 feet. That should be just about right for an extinct toxodon or other large Pleistocene mammal, perhaps the giant ground sloth, whose upright posture mimics that of a human and could easily be mistaken for an oversized giant. These fellows had especially thick bones, which also accords well with Peter Martyr’s alleged emphasis on the proportional thickness of the hip bone.
Check out the pelvis on the 20-foot-tall Eremotherium laurillardi and tell me that this doesn’t match the description as MacNutt translated it.
Ah, but we do not even have to go this far: The Spanish does not talk about hip bones! The Spanish (confirmed by other translations) says that Ordaz found “femoral” or a “thigh bone,” not a hip bone! Note that MacNutt failed to translate the section on how the bone went from the ankle to the knee. In the original Spanish, the thickness was no such thing, but merely a description of the proportional width of the leg bone. This makes it even more likely that the actual creature involved was simply one of many extinct Pleistocene mammals, again including the sloth, the Toxodon, or any other megafauna. Should the bone have come from father north, possibly the mastodon could be included on the list, too.
This looks like yet another case where a bad translation and a failure to check the original source documents created a myth with just enough grounding in fact to obscure the truth. For the record, this is what a more accurate English translation (my own) has to say. Note the many, many significant differences, including the more conditional description of the giants later found:
I wish to end this chapter with a gigantic story, which, like the formidable Atlas, comes to support my claims. Diego de Ordaz, whom I have before mentioned, knew many hidden places in those lands, especially in the land of cacao, where he learned to plant and grow the tree of money, as I have explained on that occasion. He found in the vault of a temple the thighbone of a giant, worn and nearly destroyed by age. The licentiate Ayllón, one of the most learned jurists in Hispaniola, brought this bone to the city of Victoria a short time after Your Holiness left for Rome. For some days I had that bone in my home; it measured five palms in length, and its width in proportion. Those who were afterwards sent by Cortes into the mountains if the south returned, saying that they had discovered a country inhabited by giants; in proof of this claim it is said that they brought back many ribs of the dead.
Notice that it is Peter Martyr, not Diego de Ordaz, who identified the bone as that of a giant, relating it to the myth of Atlas. Further, he is the one connecting the story to hearsay rumors of giants given by Cortes and his men. Further: money tree. Yes, a tree that grew money.
Extra fun fact: Mormon hyper-diffusionist Wayne May, in his book This Land: America 2,000 B.C. to 500 A.D. (2009) gets this wrong in a whole new way. May apparently knows that Charles V gave Ordaz the right to feature and erupting volcano on his coat of arms because he climbed the most famous volcano in Mexico, Popocatepetl (OK, he probably does not know this exactly). But he then goes on to make this distorted and corrupted claim: “When Diego de Ortaz climbed to the high volcano of Popocatepetl, near Mexico City, according to Las Casas, he found a giant thigh bone that he sent to the Vatican.” Suddenly the bone is on the mountaintop! Where, pray tell, did the temple fit? He got the thigh bone right, but he has seemingly mixed up Las Casas and Peter Martyr.
So, MacNutt muddled the translation into monstrosity, and May moved everything to the top of a volcano. This is why checking primary sources is so important.
See follow-up on the original Latin text here.
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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