Thanks to the holiday, I’m flooded with work today, so I’m going to keep this short and sweet. Making the rounds on the internet again (for some reason) is the wild claim that the Conquistadors ran into various races of giants in Mexico. (See here, copying verbatim from here with additions.) Among the “evidence,” which I will examine in more detail in a future post, is this little number from José de Acosta’s Natural and Moral History of the Indies (1590), an early work that tried to tie Native groups to Israel and Atlantis. Here Acosta reports the discovery of the remains of a giant:
When I was in Mexico, in the year of our Lord one thousand five hundred eighty six, they found one of those giants buried in one of our farms, which we call Jesus del Monte, of whom they brought a tooth to be seen, which (without augmenting) was as big as the fist of a man; and, according to this, all the rest was proportionate, which I saw and admired at his deformed greatness. (Book VII, adapted from the Grimston translation of 1604)
Note that Acosta did not actually see any giants; in fact, a few paragraphs earlier, he specifically noted that the giants, called the Chichimeca, had been defeated and expelled from the land ages ago by the Tlascaltecas in a battle that parallels to an extent the Greek mythic Centauromachy. In the Greek myth, the Centaurs become wildly drunk at the wedding of Pirithous, attempted to rape and pillage, and were defeated by Theseus, who expelled them from Thessaly. In Acosta, we find the giant Chichimeca were invited to a banquet, where the Tlacaltecas got them drunk, stole their arms, and fought them into the deep woods, where they killed them all. (Yes, the entire civilization, which was apparently all male.) The best detail? Acosta says the giants wielded tree trunks as though they were leaves of lettuce. “We must not hold this of the giants to be strange or a fable,” Acosta says, “for at this day, we find dead men’s bones of an incredible bigness.”
Isn’t that cute? I think it should be obvious what is happening here. Acosta is reporting the discovery of a large prehistoric tooth, almost certainly one of a mastodon, mammoth, or other member of the paleomegafauna. In fact, an examination of the known finds of mastodon fossils and the habitation zone of the semi-mythical Chichimeca finds that they overlap as far south as Puebla, Mexico, the southernmost point of the known mastodon range, and near the southernmost range of the nomads who passed under the name Chichimeca. Similarly, the bones of “incredible bigness” must be mastodon bones, which as late as the eighteenth century were still confusing scholars into thinking they belonged to giants.
Acosta’s tooth almost exactly parallels the tooth seen by Gov. Dudley of Massachusetts in 1705 and declared by him to be that of a Biblical giant (Genesis 6:4) killed in the Flood, for he was “perfectly of opinion that the tooth will agree only to a human body, for whom the flood only could prepare a funeral; and, without doubt, he waded as long as he could keep his head above the clouds, but must, at length, be confounded with all other creatures.” The tooth is today a known mastodon tooth.
7/5/2013 05:15:35 pm
My father told me stories of when he visited Mexico around 70 years ago working for Braniff Airline. He said a common relic to show tourists was the skull of Pancho Villa. One place was fortunate enough to have a skull of Pancho Villa when he was a boy and another when he was a grown man.
7/5/2013 10:48:14 pm
I can remember seeing another version of this story in several joke books. The two skulls being Cleopatra when she was a girl and when she was a grown woman.
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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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