And your bones shall flourish like an herb—Isaiah 66:14
The year 1787 would go down on record in Argentina as having had the hottest New Year’s Day in decades. The Spanish colonialists of the Viceroyalty of the Rıó de la Plata had a propensity for record-keeping, which is how we know about the high temperatures. That year also saw the signing of the U.S Constitution in Philadelphia and the debut of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Prague. But these events were thousands of miles away from the heat of the Pampas, in Argentina.
Manuel de Torres, for his part, thought it was hotter than Hell. He knew he was not supposed to use profanities, even in his private thoughts. He was a priest. A Dominican, no less. But it was simply too warm to be sent on a fool’s errand. His superiors had explained that some unusual bones had been uncovered in his hometown of Luján, a two-day’s walk from the capital of Buenos Aires. And he was ordered to leave at once to investigate.
Why me? Torres had wanted to ask. But he knew that Dominicans are not trained to ask questions. Organized like an army, the brothers sometimes referred to themselves as “the soldiers of God.” Outsiders called them the “Hounds of the Lord,” for they sniffed out the truth wherever they traveled. It was not for nothing that it was the Dominicans—not the Franciscans or Jesuits—who had been entrusted by the Pope to carry out the Inquisition.
Dominican or not, what in the world did his superiors imagine he would be able to do with that pile of bones? He was not educated in anatomy. He was a linguist. A translator. But the mayor of Luján had insisted it had to be Torres, who was a native son of the village. The mayor had known Torres as a young boy. Remembering him fondly for his intelligence and curiosity, he felt sure that Torres was the perfect man for the job.
And so, Torres found himself on the road back home. Clad in his black cloak and wearing leather sandals, he was coughing and covered in dust upon arrival in the village. It had been a blazing hot two-day march from the capital. He wanted to bathe, but the mayor insisted on taking him to the place where the bones had been discovered, without so much as a drink of water.
Torres was taken aback by how much the mayor had aged. Who was this frail old man, stooped over and almost completely bald? But then again, what had happened to Torres? The bright-eyed child the mayor remembered had grown into a stout middle-aged man. Prone to wheezing when he walked too fast, Torres was well-aware that his thick black hair was streaked with gray.
The mayor looked at him fondly.
“You know how superstitious the villagers are, Padre.”
“Yes, it is the same everywhere. But what exactly was uncovered, Señor? “Let’s just say, it appears to have been something very large,” said the Mayor.
They had reached a small hill overlooking a narrow canyon, where long ago a tributary of the river had flowed. Dust was swirling in the air due to strong winds. It was the high sun season in the pampas.
“Look there, Padre, you can see them down in the gully.”
The bones were gigantic. Sizzling white and strewn in the dirt directly beneath where he was standing, they were baking in the mid-day sun.
Torres looked at the mayor and saw worry on the old man’s face.
“Señor, I will need a few of the villagers to help me scour the area. It won’t do to leave any bones behind since I have been ordered to put the creature—whatever it is—back together again.”
“Yes, Padre. Juan and his brother Tomas have already agreed to assist you. You went to school with their father, Antonio Navarro. Surely, you remember Antonio?”
Torres shook his head. No, he had no memory of Antonio. He remembered few people from the village. Many years had passed since he had left, and since his mother’s death over a decade ago, he had little reason to remember things from this place.
The mayor, looking back toward the bones said, “What do you think it is?” Torres remained silent, for he had absolutely no idea.
Torres was aware that news of the discovery was already being talked about in Buenos Aires, which meant the information was also on its way across the Atlantic to Madrid. And worse still, now the Viceroy’s Office was involved. He knew there was no time to waste. Still, it took five long days working in the heat and dust just to clear the area of all the soil. The skeleton was now exposed, and Torres requested that the Viceroy send an artist to Luján to draw a picture of how the bones appeared in the ground. The Viceroy readily agreed and sent a draftsman, along with a few Spanish soldiers to ensure the bones were recovered properly and made-ready for the trip back to the city. The draftsman was an artillery lieutenant from the Royal Body of Artillerymen. Francisco Pizarro was his name—apparently some distant descendent of the murderous Conquistador himself. The tall and powerfully built man was trouble for our priest from his first day in the village.
They were still busy clearing the dirt and rocks from the area when Pizarro arrived. The work was abruptly stopped when the village boy, Tomas, only a teenager, broke one of the bones during its excavation.
It had happened early in the morning, and Pizarro dashed over to where Tomas was kneeling in the dirt. Towering over the boy, he shouted at him, “Imbecile! These bones are property of the King! How dare you mishandle them?”
Torres rushed over to find Tomas trembling. He turned back around to shout something back at Pizarro but found the odious man was walking back toward the village. And for what was perhaps the hundredth time, he dearly longed to be back home with his books in Buenos Aires. Torres would later find out that the enraged Pizarro ordered the mayor to bring in more men to help guard the excavation site. Pizarro clearly didn’t trust Torres, who was not of pure Spanish blood. And he trusted the Indian villagers even less.
It should be noted that the Viceroyalty of the Rıó de la Plata in Argentina, was the most cosmopolitan place in the New World of the time outside of Lima. The streets were crowded with African slaves and mulattos, criollos, Indians, half-blood mestizos—and from Spain—both New Christians and Old Christians. A cross-section of the Spanish Old World mixed and mingled. Why, there was even a Basque nun who had escaped her convent in San Sebastian by dressing as a man. Hopping on a boat bound for the New World, she posed as a soldier to make her fortune before finally taking up holy orders once more—but this time as a priest not a nun—right under the nose of the Holy Office and Tribunal for the Inquisition. In the great taxonomy of peoples of the Spanish empire, there was a strict hierarchy. A mixed-blood Mestizo like Torres knew he could never hope to best a man of pure Spanish blood like Pizarro. And Juan and Tomas were even more terrified of the muscular Spaniard.
It was the villager Juan who was the one who uncovered the thigh bone. With a look of sheer terror on his face, he shouted to the Padre. Torres felt his body grow cold when he saw the bone held up in Juan’s hands –a femur. It was of such a monumental size as to make him question everything he had been taught. Though he was not new to such questioning, still nothing in his life had prepared him to understand what it could be.
The Europeans had long speculated that there were monsters in the antipodes. The ancients had called it Terra Incognita. Over a thousand years ago, Saint Augustine had declared that no humans could dwell in the southern part of the world, for how could man, descended from Noah, have made it across the vast oceans when the people of Augustine’s day had been incapable of this feat?
No, the antipodes were devoid of human life.
Torres had been incredulous. Torres’ grandparents on his mother’s side had come from the land of the llamas in the snowy mountains of the Andes. So he knew there had been people living in the antipodes before the arrival of the Spanish, since his own great grandparents had been among them! Reading the words of Saint Augustine, Torres had to wrestle with the idea that the church and its great men were not infallible.
And now these bones had emerged from the earth.
Oh, how tempted Torres had been to toss the damn thigh bone into the river. The bones would only bring more trouble. And by trouble, what he meant was peskier interference from his superiors. Instead of exploring the world to discover the truth of God’s creation, as it was written in the Great Book of Nature, the Spanish seemed only interested in fitting the world into existing church dogma. Torres couldn’t help but wonder: how could the limited minds of men truly understand what God had planned?
As a child, the search for truth had occupied his mind day and night. For what was God but Truth? After reading all the books in the village, it had been his father—not his devout mother—who had advised him to join the Dominicans since, “Those priests control the libraries of the world.”
After pausing for a moment, his father had continued, “Though, it is my opinion, everything a person really needs to know is contained in just one book.”
“The Bible, Papa?”
“No, my boy. I am talking about Don Quixote. Now, that is a book that can occupy a man for all his life.”
The young Torres had not been convinced at the time. But there came a day when his thirst for knowledge could no longer be quenched in the village. That was when he followed his father’s advice and joined the Dominicans. Many years had passed, such that he had almost forgotten the village of his birth. Who could have imagined he would ever find himself back here once more?
A week before their discovery of the monstrous thigh bone, Torres had sent a tooth back to Buenos Aires. This had resulted in his being immediately recalled, along with Pizarro, back to Buenos Aires. Ordered to transport the skeleton back to the great Offices of the Viceroy, it seemed that the Marquis of Loreto (also known as the Lord Viceroy) would be taking charge of the discovery himself.
And so the bones were carefully wrapped in animals hides and loaded on the backs of mules. Taking nearly a week to cover the distance he had made alone on foot in two days, Torres had trudged miserably alongside the animals. Pizarro rode in front on a white horse with a bell around its neck. Enraged by Torres’ handling of the excavation, he wrote to the Viceroy repeatedly itemizing every mistake the “peasant priest” had made:
The most monumental discovery in the Viceroyalty’s glorious history entrusted to a native priest? A mestizo? Why, he is nothing more than a dimwit. I could describe his mistakes in detail, but that would fill a hundred pages of small script. For now, please understand, my Dear Lord Viceroy that not only did he damage the skull of the strange and monstrous creature, but he also damaged the hip. How, pray tell, are we to understand its locomotion with a damaged skull and a damaged hip?
(The letters go on and on—and can be perused today at the Reader’s leisure in the General Archives of the Indies, in Seville.)
Oh, our poor maligned padre, how he must have regretted his mistake in not throwing the bones into the river!
The Viceroy, in all his wisdom, commanded Torres report to the Office of Commerce on his first full day back in the city. Resisting would be futile, so at the appointed time, Manuel de Torres found himself in one of the grandest buildings in the New World. Arriving for his appointment, he was escorted into a large sitting room, where wine was served. It was difficult for Torres to keep the emotion off his face, as he was worried indeed to find not just the bastard soldier Pizarro, but several councilors from the Council of the Office. And if that was not bad enough, also present were two senior Jesuit priests, identically dressed in their shabby brown habits and grubby sandals.
Not the damned Jesuits, he thought. Anything but them.
The Jesuits had arrived in Argentina along with the establishment of the Rıó de la Plata a decade earlier. Before that, the Spanish had ruled their colonies in the New World overland from their headquarters in Peru. Being so far from Lima, the Argentines had enjoyed tremendous freedom, despite being a Spanish colony. But now, it was the Viceroy in Buenos Aires who called the shots.
The Viceroy cleared his throat, indicating he was preparing to speak.
Torres braced himself for more bad news.
“Padre, we are most pleased with your work on the mass of bones in question,” he announced as he waved his right hand toward the corner of the room. It was at that moment that Torres noticed the gigantic femur placed on the Viceroy’s desk in the corner.
God help me, thought Torres.
“I have been instructed by our Great King to collect as many natural products as available—from the Pampas to Patagonia—to fill the newly appointed Royal Cabinet of Natural History, back in our wondrous capital city of Madrid. For some years now, we Spanish have been in some competition with certain peoples living not far from our borders.” At this, the Viceroy cast a disparaging eye at one of the men present, who could only have been of Portuguese descent.
The Viceroy continued, “Part of my glorious mission as Viceroy of the Viceroyalty of the Rıó de la Plata is to engage in scientific studies. And these bones... well, I can hardly describe how excited the King is back in Madrid.”
One of the Jesuits—a very old man who spoke slowly—explained how the people back in the capital in Spain were engaged in all manner of speculation about the bones.
“Some believe they are the bones of a giant,” said the priest.
“Impossible,” said Pizarro. “They are not human.”
The Viceroy’s blue eyes lit up. “Well, I am commanding you, my dear Padre,” he said looking gently at Torres—who, it was noted by the Viceroy, appeared quite dark of complexion—“to work with this gentleman José Custodiode Sáa y Farıá , who is, it happens, of Portuguese descent, to put the bones together again so that we may ascertain exactly what kind of creature we are dealing with.”
Pizarro glowered, and the Viceroy explained that Senhor Sáa y Farıá—in addition to being of obviously Portuguese descent, was a cartographer, geographer, architect and engineer, not to mention a military man and civil servant who had held an important post in the Portuguese colonies of Brazil. And now, for unknown reasons, he was here in Spanish Argentina.
“You will work, Padre, with Commander Pizarro and the Senhor Sáa y Farıá to put the creature—whatever it may be—back together again.”
“Yes, Lord Excellency,” Torres mumbled miserably.
The Viceroy then looked at the rest of the men and commanded that Torres would be in charge of the mission—shocking and dismaying no one more than Torres!
At this, the second Jesuit priest, whose feet were almost as filthy as those of his partner, picked up the thread in the discourse: “The problem being the identity of the creature. Not any of the learned doctors in Buenos Aires can reconcile such a creature, which must have been as corpulent as an elephant. Or even a rhinoceros.”
Manuel de Torres had no idea what a rhinoceros was and decided to remain silent.
But everyone in the room was looking at him, and so he ventured, “Well, we know it was very large. Its head alone is enormous. And then there are the teeth we discovered.”
“The teeth of an herbivore!” Pizarro piped in.
“Yes, but toe bones that indicate the claws of a carnivore,” Torres explained.
“We know not whether it was an amphibian animal or perhaps an aquatic creature?” the elder Jesuit mused.
“Perhaps,” ventured the Viceroy, “It was a chimera—part-pachyderm, part-feline?”
“A chimera, of course,” Pizarro pandered.
“In any case, it will be up to you, Pizarro, working under the direction of the Padre, to solve the riddle. Once the pieces are put in order, the Senhor Sáa y Farıá will be able to make a detailed drawing.”
Met with silence, the Viceroy continued, “Our Great and Glorious King has also commanded that we locate some creature that might resemble the monster—however small—in the same general region along the River Luján to be dissected and then stuffed with straw and sent back to Madrid.”
After another moment’s silence, the Viceroy explained, “Padre, you are a translator, correct?”
“Yes, Lord Viceroy. I am proficient in many of the local languages, not to mention Latin and Greek.”
“Then that is what you must do. Translate these bones into the language of something alive today. Some creature right here in the Pampas.”
“Or perhaps Patagonia,” ventured the younger Jesuit.
“But Lord Viceroy,” Torres took a deep breath, “What if this creature has long since died out. Perhaps something that once existed, but no longer does so.”
The younger Jesuit looked indignant, “Are you insinuating that God would destroy His own work?”
Pizarro interrupted, “As a priest, Torres, I would assume you would have known the answer to that question.”
The older Jesuit was scowling and said, “It is Divine Providence that has created everything as it is in perfect perfection. No creatures exist and then cease to exist. Particulars live and die, but not species. The Lord would not have created the world in that way. This is the standard model of the world as made known to us by the Holy Book.”
But the Portuguese cartographer José Custodio de Sáay Farıá, one eyebrow raised toward the heavens, said, “Well, it seems like we have encountered some cracks in the standard model, then.” He pointed toward the bone sitting precariously on the edge of the Viceroy’s vast desk.
“Well,” said the Viceroy wisely, “There is a difference between the meaning of things and the plot of the story.”
When no one responded (for indeed, what was there left to say?), the Viceroy in all his wisdom decided it was time to end the assembly, “In any case, the King must have his curiosity satisfied, so I suggest you get to work.”
It was, after all, time for lunch.
Imagine, Dear Reader, a gigantic all-white jigsaw puzzle with no box or image printed on the lid or any indication of how the pieces are supposed to fit together. Since there is only one head among the bones, you assume the pieces will form one creature. There are two front legs, which are mysteriously shorter than the two hind legs. With uneven legs, how could such a creation run?
And then what to make of its giant claws and peg-like teeth?
Ten years after our story, in 1797, none other than Thomas Jefferson proposed to name a similar pile of fossilized bones discovered in a cave in West Virginia, “Megalonyx”—meaning “great claw.” This was still decades before the first dinosaur fossils were discovered, so the large bones of these early prehistoric creatures in America made for quite a story. Jefferson was fascinated by them and wondered whether the huge beasts that belonged to the bones could be found roaming in the unexplored places of his new country. This was one of the reasons he dispatched Lewis and Clark into the interior: to search for bones. Imagine Jefferson’s delight in later years spreading out his large collection of fossils on the floor of the White House, like a boy with his tinker toys!
The claws in particular were of interest to Jefferson—and it was because of those claws that the Spanish couldn’t help but imagine a giant feline.
The same thing happened with the bones found in Luján. And you can hardly blame the Europeans, since how were they supposed to imagine an animal that they had never seen before?
But let’s get back to our dear padre. By Easter the following year, the order came from the Lord Viceroy that Torres and the team were to finish up with their work. After making a detailed drawing, they were commanded to disassemble the bones once more for immediate dispatch across the ocean, where the Big Boys at the Royal Academy would turn their attention to it.
The Viceroy gave them one week.
“The King needs to see the bones for himself,” he said, rolling his crystal-blue eyes. By then, Pizarro had taken charge. It was a giant cat. And that was that.
Torres, Pizarro, the Jesuits and the Portuguese cartographer Sáa y Farıá were working in a windowless room in the Office of Commerce. The room was small and most of the space taken up by a large walnut table, upon which the men worked to put the pieces of the creature back together again.
“A fierce carnivorous feline,” said Pizarro. “A perfect symbol of our colonial enterprise.” Pizarro towered over the three priests, his voice echoing painfully in the stuffy room.
Torres, by this time, had ceased to try and reason with him. Their dogma was blinding them to what was obvious.
“Look at the teeth,” Torres suggested again and again in the first few weeks. “You must focus on the teeth. Only sloths and armadillos have teeth like that.”
“Like what?” Pizarro thundered.
“Tubular teeth that continuously grow. Can’t you see, the teeth are tubular? And look at the legs. Why else would the creature have longer back legs, if not to stand up on its hind quarters and reach up into trees to grab at leaves?”
“Are you trying to tell me that our cat is a twenty-foot-tall sloth?”
Pizarro and the Jesuits were incredulous, but Torres was certain. He had figured it out as soon as the bones began taking shape on the table. He was, after all, a child of the Pampas and had grown up watching sloths in the trees.
“Only a sloth has that combination of herbivorous teeth, longer hind legs, and claws.”
“Where do sloths live, Torres?” Pizarro demanded, doing a great impression, of an Inquisitor in the Holy Office in Lima.
“Trees, of course...”
Pizarro screamed, “Well, what tree could support the weight of a sloth of this size? My dear Torres, I think you are terribly misguided.”
By this time the Jesuits had gotten out their hand-saws to turn those bones into a giant cat once and for all. After trimming the hind leg bones, they had then gotten to work filing down the large vertebrae to enable them to put the animal together like it was a true quadruped—all four feet flat on the ground.
It was the idea of José Custodio de Sá a y Farıá to attach the bones of a mule tail to its rear.
The drawing was made at last by Sáa y Farıá. The Viceroy was pleased and the people of Buenos Aires marveled.
And then, everyone satisfied, the majestic heap of bones was cushioned in straw, before being packed into and placed in the care of none other than the Viceroy himself for the long trip across the Atlantic.
It was in the summer of 1788 when the bones finally arrived in the Spanish port city of La Coruña. From there, it was another trip by mule and donkey overland to Madrid. After being reassembled once more with the help of Sáa y Farıá ’s drawings, the creature was put on display on a pedestal in the Royal Cabinet of Natural History, causing both delight and disgust in the Royal Household.
The task of interpreting the fossils fell to Juan Bautista Bru, the “Artist and First Dissector” at the Royal Cabinet. In the days before photography artists such as Bru played crucial roles in scientific research. Spending some four years researching the Luján fossils, he published a thorough study of the skeleton including his detailed drawings, in 1793. It was Bru who created the mount to display the skeleton. “The big monster from the River Luján,” as it was labeled, dazzled the people of Madrid in what had been a steady flow of wondrous “goods” from the New World for two hundred years. There were Siamese Twins and tapirs; giant sea turtles and even a satyr in the Cabinet. How exciting the world had become!
It was almost fifty years later, in 1832, when the young Charles Darwin traveled to Argentina on the HMS Beagle. Marveling at the stars above the Andes, he would begin dreaming about his new theory concerning the evolution of the species. On that same trip, on what was only his second day fossil-hunting, along the Patagonian coast at Punta Alta, near Buenos Aires, he found a gigantic skull. Lucky Darwin, he already knew it must be from an extinct giant sloth, since by then the esteemed Parisian paleontologist Georges Cuvier had determined that the fossils in Madrid were those of a giant sloth. Cuvier never saw the fossils themselves but, in what is considered to this day to have been a triumph of comparative anatomy, drew his conclusion based on Bru’s drawings. Christening the creature: Megatherium or “great beast,” Cuvier placed the now-extinct monster in the “edentate” order of mammals, along with living sloths, anteaters and armadillos. Darwin sailed on the MSS Beagle with Cuvier’s book, which is how he knew he had found a giant sloth.
And so in the end, our gentle priest Manuel de Torres was vindicated. Except he would never know. It was only the Portuguese cartographer Sáa y Farıá who took the time to thank Manuel de Torres. This happened on the night before Sáa y Farıá left Argentina forever. Visiting the Padre in his room in the Order, he discovered every square inch of the priest’s room was taken over by great towers of teetering books. He assumed they were organized by subject, as some towers rose higher than others. Sáa y Farıá was not sure where to sit, so Torres invited him to take a seat on the bed—which was also filled with piles of books. Who knew where the priest slept at night? Maybe amidst his beloved books?
“May I offer you a cup of chocolate Señor?” Torres asked.
“There is no time, Padre. I came to speak to you about the giant cat.”
“I see.” Torres wondered if his face appeared as weary as he felt.
“I am leaving for Madrid in the morning. When I arrive, I believe I will have a chance to make one more set of drawings. I will work with the Keeper of the King’s Cabinet.”
“Why do you need to make another set of drawings, Señor?”
“Well, you see, Padre, life in the Spanish colonies is like taking a step backward in time. Back in Europe, the latest scientific investigations being done in places like Paris and Oxford are becoming known in Madrid and Lisbon—and your ideas, dear Padre, are not as outlandish as the Viceroy’s men would have you believe. You must understand, the men here in Buenos Aires are afraid of new ideas that might threaten their understanding of God’s creation.”
“But don’t you see, Señor, those ideas are only their opinions. They are not facts. They are opinions that hold people back in pursuing the truth.”
“And you believe, Padre, that God is Truth?”
“I do. The motto of our Dominican Order is Veritas. Truth and knowledge were the great passions of our founder, Saint Dominic. And I believe it is our duty to pursue Truth as far as it can lead us—so that we can know God.”
“I see,” said Sáa y Farıá, much impressed by the priest.
“Saint Catherine used the term, la scientia to describe Dominic’s gift of learning. Knowledge is truth and truth is God.”
“I was taught much the same thing in Lisbon, Padre. That we can see God face-to-face reflected in his creations on earth.”
Torres smiled. He was tired but said, “People thought the great errant knight, Don Quixote de La Mancha was chasing after illusions, but in the end, he showed us that the truth is multi-faceted. The Viceroy and Pizarro only see through a glass darkly, as Corinthians teaches us.”
“I did not expect you to be a fan of the Quixote, Padre.”
“Indeed, I am. My father loved the novel and insisted I take his only copy when I moved to Buenos Aires. And do you know what I have come to understand after countless readings?”
“No, Padre. What?”
“That everything we know—even our very selves—these are all fictions in the mind of God.”
Sáa y Farıá began to laugh and before he knew it his laughter became uncontrollable. And with that, he took his leave.
By this time in Madrid, the bones were on everyone’s mind. Described as grandiose, terrifying, novel, beautiful ... The King of Spain was delighted. And so was our hero. Released from his task at long last, he returned back to his books and tried to forget all the events that have been recounted here.
In writing this story, I reached out to a several paleontologists, as well as historians of science. From Paris to Buenos Aires they graciously responded, showering me with academic papers to read. And what is more, each and every one of them told me the same thing: that this was one of the most significant discoveries in the history of the field since it struck the decisive blow against the idea of fixism, the theory that all the species alive today are identical to those of the past and that evolution does not happen.
In a time when the earth had not been fully explored, it stands to reason that people would imagine that great beasts or monsters dwelled in the unknown parts of the world. Thomas Jefferson, for example, resisted the idea of extinction because it went against his Christian beliefs. And so he sent Lewis and Clark out in search of great beasts living in the interior of the country.
It’s also interesting to learn that the same drawings, created by Juan Bautista Bru—the “Artist and First Dissector” at the Royal Cabinet in Madrid—which were seen by Georges Cuvier and that led to his decisive identification of the bones as those of a now-extinct ground sloth, were also the ones seen by Thomas Jefferson when he was living in Paris. Jefferson was given a copy of Bru’s drawings by the American consul in Madrid, William Carmichael. This happened in 1789, when Jefferson had great problems on his mind, but upon his return home to Virginia he would turn his attention to the drawings again.
This was the age of the great science travelers, like Linnaeus, Humboldt, Darwin, and, of course Alfred Russell Wallace. Already most of the courts of Europe had their own Cabinets of Curiosities, zoos and exhibition halls. The cabinets were made possible by a world-roaming army of merchants and naturalists, who purchased and shipped back to Europe curiosities, hybrids and wonders from all corners of the world.
Spain came late to the age of cabinets. And with the rise of the Spanish Bourbons, the royals realized that it was time to play catch-up. After all, what was the point of controlling such a large portion of the world, if you couldn’t have your own cabinet of wonders. To gather natural samples in the New World for the Royal Cabinet became part of the job description of all colonial administrators. They were not just ordered to locate and ship such specimen back to Madrid, but detailed instructions for their proper handling was disseminated throughout the Spanish colonies—from Manila to Lima.
It was not too long after this time period when the first dinosaur bone was scientifically described and named by William Buckland in 1824, kicking off the great race for bones seen in Europe and the Americas in the mid to latter part of the 19th century.
These were exciting times indeed. And the case could be made that it was all made possible by Manuel de Torres and his excavation of the bones, which led to Cuvier’s crucial identification and the igniting of the European imagination.
It was only two decades later in 1852, that a group of young scientists began gathering in Washington D.C. at the home of one of the Smithsonian Institution’s greatest minds, William Stimpson. Dedicated to drinking alcohol, playing practical jokes on each other, and discussing recent advances in scientific research, Stimpson would name his group after Torres’ great bag of bones. The purpose of the Megatherium Club was explained by the founder in the following words:
What more noble pursuit for immortal souls? Riches? War and butchery? Political chicanery? Superstition? Pleasure? What we seek is the truth!
And what is the truth? It can rightly be said that no one knows, and we agree. But it is not so much what it is that matters, as the conscious spirit it foments in the brains of its pursuers.
In other words, the pursuit of truth implies a willingness to take great strides beyond oneself and one’s generation, says the leader of the group today. Yes, there is still a Megatherium Club in 2020, though it can be assumed that the members no longer lie in wait for other members in the halls of the Institution’s Castle in order to jump out screaming, “how, how,” the noise they had decided the now-extinct beast had once made!