In 2022, the 500th anniversary of the First Circumnavigation of the World was celebrated, the Spanish maritime expedition that allowed for global circumnavigation and opened a route to the Spice Islands as an alternative to the route along the southern tip of Africa, which was monopolized by Portugal. It was a grand adventure in which the first major discovery took place in the winter of 1520, six months after setting sail. It wasn’t geographic, but anthropological: the fleet anchored in San Julián Bay, in what is now Argentina, where the explorers encountered an indigenous tribe whose members were very tall, leading them to call them patagones.

Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese mariner born in Sabrosa (Vila-Real) in 1480, began sailing with the India Armadas (fleets organized by the Portuguese Crown to maintain the so-called Carreira da India, a sea route connecting Lisbon to Goa by rounding the Cape of Good Hope) in 1505, gaining significant knowledge of Southeast Asia during an eight-year stay.

In 1511, he participated in the conquest of Malacca and returned wealthy to his homeland, joining the military expedition that King Manuel I sent two years later against Azamor, a city in the Kingdom of Fez that owed allegiance to Portugal.

After the battle, Magellan was accused of trading during his time in Azamor, which was prohibited, causing him trouble with the Portuguese authorities upon his return to Lisbon. Disgraced and without work, he began considering the possibility of embarking again to the Moluccas, from where an old companion, Francisco Serrao, had written to him, urging him to join him because he was serving the Sultan of Ternat. Magellan used that downtime to study maps and portolans with the cosmographer Rui Falero, who suggested that the Moluccas might be in the Spanish side of the Treaty of Tordesillas, not the Portuguese side.

That archipelago in present-day Indonesia was known as the Spice Islands because it produced the coveted spices, aromatic plant substances used since ancient times as condiments and to mask unpleasant tastes and smells caused by spoilage, at a time when cold preservation was limited to ice and snow in natural sites. This was why they fetched exorbitant prices, and some grew exclusively in those islands—also called the Maluco in general—particularly nutmeg and cloves (also found in Madagascar).

Because of this, the Portuguese guarded the route to the Spice Islands closely, which followed the Atlantic coastline of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and continued through the Indian Ocean, considering it their monopoly granted by the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas. However, if Falero was correct and the pontiff’s cartographers were wrong about the dividing line, it meant that the Spanish King Charles I was the true owner of the Spice Islands. So he convinced Magellan to propose a journey to the Maluco to the soon-to-be all-powerful Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.

However, the route had to be different, following a different course, as King Manuel I would never authorize it through Africa. In fact, they initially offered it to him, but he flatly rejected it because it would have created two problems. First, it would have caused a conflict with Charles because the South American subcontinent, except for what is now Brazil, belonged to Spain. Second, opening a new route would have meant a risk of the existing one declining, thus putting an end to the monopoly that brought Portugal so much profit.

Traveling by land was ruled out because it was too long, dangerous, and costly, leaving only one option: to cross the Atlantic, round the southern tip of South America, cross the South Sea (which they would name the Pacific, discovered by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513), and reach the archipelago from the other side. All of this demonstrates, by the way, that the Earth’s sphericity was fully accepted among the moderately educated; it had already been proven by Eratosthenes in the 3rd century BC, and Columbus’s own voyage was based on this understanding.

Magellan and Falero went to Castile, and in Seville, they received the support of Juan de Aranda, an official at the Casa de Contratación, which was later joined by Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the Bishop of Burgos, during a time of intense exploration. This is how, in 1518, the King accepted the proposal and named them admirals of the expedition that they would have to organize, granting them several privileges, including being governors of the lands they would find, a twentieth of the profits, and a decade-long monopoly on exploitation.

After everything was set, despite multiple obstacles (including Portugal’s complete opposition), the five ships set sail from the Iberian Peninsula on September 20, 1519, heading to the Canary Islands, where they resupplied before crossing the Atlantic. The Atlantic crossing ended on December 13, with their arrival at what is now Rio de Janeiro. There were no significant issues, except for the always intimidating appearance of St. Elmo’s fire on the masts (an electro-luminescent discharge caused by air ionization) and the discontent of some officers with Magellan’s secrecy.

After the necessary rest, they resumed sailing, doing coastal navigation until they thought they had found the passage to the South Sea; they entered, but ultimately gave up after two weeks. It was actually the Río de la Plata estuary, so they returned to the ocean and continued down the coast, arriving at the mentioned San Julián Bay, where they encountered the tribe of very tall people. They called them patagones, an uncertain etymological term that would later name the entire region, Patagonia.

Traditionally, the name was attributed to the large footprints left on the ground, likely enlarged by the animal skins used by the indigenous people to wrap their feet for protection against the intense cold. However, this explanation is from later, appearing in Francisco López de Gómara’s chronicle, though Gómara never set foot in America, and is mostly known for being Hernán Cortés’s official biographer and personal chaplain.

It’s more likely that the name was a reference to “Patagón” a giant character in a chivalric novel titled Primaleón, published in 1512 as a sequel to Palmerín de Oliva. The book, attributed to the Castilian writer Francisco Vázquez, was quite popular at the time, so Magellan might have read it. After all, he was the one who named those natives, as chronicled by the expedition’s writer, Antonio Pigafetta, without specifying the reason.

Pigafetta was around the same age as his captain but born in Vicenza, a city in the Republic of Venice. An esteemed astronomer and cartographer, he had arrived in Spain accompanying the papal nuncio in 1518, just in time to join the expedition because he knew that by sailing in the Ocean, one sees amazing things and determined to confirm with my own eyes the truth of all the stories, to be able to report my journey to others, for entertainment, to be useful, and to earn myself a name that would endure for posterity.

Registered as Antonio de Lombardía, he became Magellan’s personal cartographer and translator, being assigned to the Trinidad ship. He later authored an account of the journey, “Account of the First Voyage Around the World”, published upon his return in 1522 (though the original text has not been preserved). Interestingly, it never mentions Juan Sebastián Elcano, who ultimately gained fame for completing the pioneering circumnavigation after the Portuguese died on the Philippine island of Mactan.

But that would come much later. For now, the fleet was anchored in San Julián Bay, with the crew trading goods with those now labeled as patagones, a term that would later become synonymous with the entire region, Patagonia. Early maps often included the tag Gigantum Regio (the region of giants). The territory is now shared between Argentina and Chile, stretching from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, passing through the eastern desert plateau, the southern Colorado River, the Aysén region, and the southern part of the Andes, including today’s Tierra del Fuego, the Falkland Islands, and the archipelagos south of Chiloé.

That intercultural exchange was prompted by the arrival of the austral winter, forcing Magellan to spend the winter there. It is interesting to reproduce Pigafetta’s exact words on how the first encounter occurred:

One day, when we least expected it, a man of gigantic stature approached us. He was on the beach, almost naked, singing and dancing while throwing sand on his head. The commander sent one of the sailors ashore with orders to make the same gestures to show friendship and peace. This was so well understood that the giant allowed himself to be calmly led to a small island where the commander had landed. I was also there with a few others. Upon seeing us, he expressed much admiration and, raising a finger upward, he likely wanted to indicate that he thought we had descended from the sky.

The Venetian then describes the native’s unusual physical features:

This man was so tall that we could barely reach his waist with our heads. He was well-formed, with a broad face dyed red, eyes circled in yellow, and two heart-shaped spots on his cheeks. His sparse hair appeared bleached with some powder. His outfit, or rather his cloak, was made from sewn-together animal skins, a common animal in the region, as we later found out. This animal has the head and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, the legs of a deer, and the tail of a horse, mimicking a horse’s neigh. This man also wore some type of footwear made from the same skin. He held a short and thick bow in his left hand, with a string slightly thicker than a lute string made from the same animal’s intestine; in the other hand, he had cane arrows, short, with feathers on one end like ours, and on the other end, instead of iron, a stone tip with black-and-white patterns. From the same type of flint, they made cutting tools for working wood.

It was common then to exaggerate narratives. You just have to read Marco Polo’s Book of Marvels or the stories the Spaniards would tell about cities of gold. However, when Pigafetta wrote that the sailors’ heads barely reached the waist of the patagón (in 1526, the clergyman Juan de Aréizaga, chronicler of Jofre García de Loaysa’s expedition, clarified by attributing them thirteen spans in height, meaning about two meters and ninety centimeters), you can understand why all sorts of fantasies arose regarding their average height. This wasn’t exclusive to Pigafetta. Over the decades and centuries that followed, other sailors would visit Patagonia and leave similarly exaggerated accounts.

For instance, Francis Drake passed through the region aboard the Golden Hind, on his way to the Strait of Magellan, during his three-year global voyage (1577-1580), and his ship’s chaplain, Francis Fletcher, went ashore and met the patagones, claiming they were about seven and a half feet tall (almost two meters and twenty-nine centimeters), though his captain seemed disappointed and wrote in his History that the savages were not as tall as the Spaniards had claimed.

Ten years later, Anthony Kivet, one of the sailors from corsair Thomas Cavendish’s crew who had been abandoned in Patagonia due to illness, said he had seen the bodies of patagones measuring three meters and seventy centimeters tall. Before the end of the century, these strange descriptions were joined by the account of the English pilot William Adams, known for reaching Japan and becoming an advisor to the shogun (his story was novelized by writer James Clavell and adapted into a couple of TV series). Adams said that his ship had an altercation with the Tierra del Fuego natives, confirming they were extraordinarily tall without specifying further.

The British seemed to be keeping up with the Spaniards in the global circumnavigation race while trying to outdo them in fantasy. Even in a relatively late date like 1766, Commodore John Byron (grandfather of the famous poet of the same name) made a global circumnavigation aboard the HMS Dolphin, completing it in less than two years, during which he claimed to have seen natives eight feet tall (two meters forty centimeters), with the tallest reaching up to nine feet (two meters seventy-four). However, seven years later, when he published his story, he reduced the measurement to six feet six inches (one meter ninety-eight); after all, he admitted they hadn’t measured them.

Even Dutch navigators wanted to join in on the creative boasting. Thus, Sebald de Weert, a merchant with the Dutch East India Company in 1598, the pirate Olivier van Noort in 1599, and corsair Joris van Spilbergen in 1615 all claimed Patagonia was inhabited by giants. That same year, Willem Cornelisz Schouten and Jacob Le Maire were tasked with finding another route to the Spice Islands, for which they headed toward Cape Horn (discovering the Le Maire Strait to cross), stating they had found a tomb with giant bones in Puerto Deseado (which are now believed to be fossils of some prehistoric animal).

What caused this distorted view, especially since it conflicted with the count of Buffon’s theory that New World plants and animals were smaller than their European counterparts? Some 20th-century scientific cranio-metric studies even suggested that Patagonia’s inhabitants were quite tall, around two meters on average, but these studies were not unanimous. That height might have been exaggerated by the use of additional clothing, as explained by Charles Darwin after seeing some during the Beagle expedition, leaving a record in his book “The Voyage of a Naturalist Around the World”:

During our previous visit (in January), we had an encounter at Cape Gregory with the famous Patagonian giants, who received us with great cordiality. Their large guanaco fur coats, long flowing hair, and general appearance made them appear taller than they really were. On average, they were about six feet, though some were taller; there were few shorter ones, and the women were also quite tall. Overall, this was the most robust group I had ever seen in my life.

Darwin’s observation aligns with what the French navigator Louis Antoine de Bouganville noted while visiting Patagonia during France’s first circumnavigation between 1766 and 1769. More conservative than his predecessors, Bouganville claimed that none of these men were under five feet five inches to six inches, and no taller than five feet nine to ten inches, which translates to a maximum height of one meter seventy-eight; tall, indeed, especially for the era (the average height in mid-18th-century France was one meter sixty-six), but still within reasonable limits. Bouganville also introduced a new concept, as seen by Darwin: What seemed gigantic about them was their enormous build, the size of their heads, and the thickness of their limbs.

Darwin arrived in these latitudes on the Beagle in December 1832 and stayed for several months. This was two years after French explorer and naturalist Alcide d’Orbigny, who spent eight months studying the indigenous people and wrote in his book, Voyage dans l’Amérique Méridionale that they did not seem like giants to me, but only beautiful people. D’Orbigny documented his encounters with the puelches and patagones, though the latter are now known as tehuelches (or aonikenk in their language). Some include the selknam (or onas), but they lived farther south, in Tierra del Fuego, and their language doesn’t match Magellan’s records, excluding them from being the ones he encountered.

Photograph of tehuelches exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904) by the Department of Anthropology
Photograph of tehuelches exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (1904) by the Department of Anthropology. Credit: Public domain / Wikimedia Commons

In reality, not all tehuelches spoke the same language because they were a mosaic of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes with no structural unity due to their dispersion in aiken or family camps (known as tolderías by the Spanish), spread across a vast territory. However, they shared a common culture, reflected in shamanistic religion and the practice of polygamy and exogamy (sometimes arranged marriages, sometimes abducted women from other tribes, which led to inevitable warfare).

They are often misidentified with the Mapuches (araucanos for the Spanish), due to the heavy influence starting from the early 18th century, adopting many of their customs, similar to what happened with the ranqueles in La Pampa. Additionally, before this, they had received Hispanic influence (such as the introduction of horses into their lives). The question of whether they were tall enough to be considered giants is already answered. It wasn’t an easy question to answer, as the purest group, living in Argentina’s Santa Cruz province, consists of less than two hundred people, though including those of second and third generations, they would number around ten thousand six hundred in 1904.

The low numbers are due to two reasons. First, during the 19th century, they were massively exterminated by the newly independent authorities during the “Conquest of the Desert”, which sought to expand into previously uncolonized lands, leaving only a handful of survivors. Second, they had already experienced demographic decline, especially in the northern region, due to their lack of biological defenses against unknown viruses like smallpox, flu, and measles.

However, the first to fall were two men that Magellan tricked into boarding one of the ships, sailing away to the Pacific shortly afterward. The plan was to take them to the court at the end of the journey to show them to Emperor Charles V as an anthropological curiosity, similar to what Columbus had done. Unfortunately, neither made it to Spain alive: one managed to escape, and the other died because he refused to eat (also, note that there was one Spanish casualty, a sailor poisoned by an arrow during a skirmish while trying to capture women to accompany the lone captive).

This contrasted with what happened weeks earlier during the first evangelization of what is now Argentina: the baptism of one of those natives, who, after learning to pray in Spanish -with a very strong voice, as Pigafetta detailed-, was given the name Juan.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 2, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Patagones, los «gigantes de tres metros de altura» que Magallanes encontró en el extremo sur de América


Antonio Pigafetta, Primer viaje alrededor del mundo | Federico Lacroix, Historia de la Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego è Islas Malvinas | Irma Bernal y Mario Sánchez Proaño, Los tehuelche | José Miguel Martínez Carrión, La talla de los europeos, 1700.2000: ciclos, crecimiento y desigualdad | Carolyne Ryan, European Travel Writings and the Patagonian giants. How Patagonia got its name — among other things | C. A. Brebbia, Patagonia, a forgotten land. From Magellan to Perón | Jean-Paul Duviols, Trois ans chez les Patagons. Le récit de captivité d’Auguste Guinnard (1856-1859) | Wikipedia

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