Was the legendary Argentinian paleontologist simply a fraudster, or was he a product of his time?
Cover Image Credit: Portrait of Florentino (upper left) and Carlos (lower left) Ameghino1 and the measuring device Florentino used to justify his claims on human evolution.2
In a dark, dusty corridor in a museum in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a German paleontologist eagerly shuffled through the seemingly endless cabinets filled with fossil curiosities. He had read about the amazing finds of Florentino Ameghino and came to look at the original fossil specimens himself. If Ameghino’s conclusions were correct, the entire paleontological world would be flipped on end.
Several years earlier, Ameghino published his finds of fossil human remains from the Miocene and Pliocene of Argentina, millions of years earlier than any yet found, even in Africa.
When he opened the cabinets that contained the fossil human remains, the paleontologist’s eyes widened. His heart skipped a beat.
Before him was a haphazard mess of bones and other geologic specimens. Nothing was labeled by location or geologic age.
Ameghino was wrong after all. He, being the simple minded Argentinian, must not have known what he was doing and incorrectly identified modern human remains as ancient proto-humans. Without the detailed information of where and when the fossil came from, Ameghino’s claims were moot.
Quickly thereafter, more accusations were leveled at the Argentinian scientist. Geologists from the United States bemoaned that Ameghino never went into the field, and was therefore not a “real” paleontologist. The new science of paleoanthropology was taking off in Europe and America and many prominent scholars in the field leveled accusations that Ameghino at best was an inept scientist and at worst a fraud.
Within the following years and decades Ameghiono’s paleontological contributions were lessened. He was no longer a trailblazing Argentinian paleontologist whose ideas fundamentally altered our understanding of Earth history. Instead, he was a self-trained and an ignorant Argentinian, despite being formally trained in trained in anthropology and paleontology in France. Many modern biographies of Ameghino still label him as “self-taught” or consider him an amateur scientist who wasn’t up to the task of “real” science.3 His controversial ideas led to a smear campaign to make him seem like a simple, Latin American fool compared to the more intelligent members of the Euro-American establishment.
But were these accusations warranted? Was Ameghino a bad scientist, or, even worse, did he willingly lie and concoct evidence in order to fit his nationalistic views on paleontology?
Last time, I mentioned two of Ameghino’s biggest scientific errors: his insistence that the diverse mammalian fossil assemblage he found was Cretaceous aged and that humans evolved in Patagonia. I want to spend some time talking about why he got those two aspects wrong as they give us insight into the kind of person Ameghino was.
After Ameghino’s bold claims of Cretaceous-aged mammals, two scientists from Princeton University, Arnold Ortmann and John Bell Hatcher, travelled to Patagonia to see the Argentinian fossils. They traversed the rugged Patagonian terrain and investigated the sites Ameghino’s brother Carlos had been to. They discovered that the mammal-bearing rocks were definitely younger than Ameghino claimed. The Americans identified the fossils sites (correctly) as being Miocene in age (on the order of 20-5 million years old). Further questioning of Ameghino led them to discover that he had never been to the field sites, and had instead taken his brother’s word on the stratigraphy as the source for his claims.
The lack of fieldwork was seized upon by his critics as proof that Ameghino did not know what he was doing. Additionally, his overreliance on museum collections lacked the context to put the fossils in the correct stratigraphic “place” and made his age assessments suspect.
Ameghino defended his brother. He insisted the paleontological establishment was too biased by their reliance on the fossils of the Northern Hemisphere and lacked the correct context. The fossils were markedly different in Patagonia, and the usual way of thinking did not fit the evidence. Ameghino was not alone in his day for being someone who never visited a field site. And in fact, going into the field was often seen as “lesser” work by many established paleontologitsts.3
I mentioned last time that Ameghino loved making casts of his fossils and he distributed these amongst the paleontological community. Unfortunately, while these made him world famous, they also allowed his critics to study his fossils without travelling to Argentina. The budding paleoanthropological community closely studied casts of Ameghino’s human fossils and quickly deduced that they all came from modern humans, not human ancestors.2,3,4
It came to light that Ameghino either relied on unmarked remains found in the museums unorganized collections or random remains brought to him by others.3 Rarely, if ever, did he know from where the fossils actually came from. Despite any direct evidence of their age, Ameghino used the fossils to fit into his preconceived idea that humans evolved in Patagonia millions of years ago. As I mentioned last time, many of his “ancient” humans come not from millions of years ago but were as young as 200 years old.5
Ameghino derived his conclusions partially off of detailed measurements he made of the skulls that he discovered. From these measurements, he deduced that the remains were not of Homo sapiens, but instead more ancestral relatives that evolved in South America.
Aleš Hrdlička, a Czech paleoanthropologist, was among Ameghino’s most vocal critics. He pointed out that the Argentinian’s measurement tools could be used in different ways to prove instead that the specimens were from modern humans.2,3 In one case, paleontologist Hawthorne Harris Wilder implied that a simple rotation of a sketch Ameghino made was responsible for the Argentinian’s incorrect conclusion that it wasn’t a modern human.4
It became clear that Ameghino made some very basic errors when he developed his two most controversial claims. But why had he made those errors? Did, as some of his contemporaries claim, willingly lie about his finds in order to bolster Argentina’s standing in the paleontological world?
The Complicated Nature of Florentino Ameghino
Most of Ameghino’s mistakes were so basic in nature, that some claimed he made up evidence or lied about his fossils to fit his narrative. Ameghino, however, made many of the same mistakes as other paleontologists of his day, and several of his ideas were accepted by the establishment. It is also clear now that he and his team discovered many important paleontological finds that are valid. It therefore doesn’t seem likely that he lied about his discoveries.
But could Ameghino have tried to mold the data to fit his viewpoints in order to prop up the importance of his home country?
First, many of Ameghino’s initial writings on paleontology were not completely his own. Instead, they can be more correctly described as paraphrasing European scientists who had already studied the fossils of Argentina. He also readily omitted the contributions of his brother. Ameghino likely directly translated the writings of his younger brother and then published them under his name instead.3
Ameghino readily engaged in other underhanded tactics. When he developed a rivalry with a Museo de La Plata director, Ameghiono wrote personal attacks in his work and hid his fossil sites to keep them away from his rival. He also published his results even before fossils reached him in Buenos Aires.3
Furthermore, Ameghino was strongly motivated. He was incensed that his country’s paleontological treasures were being pawned off to Europe and the United States. He worked tirelessly to keep fossils in Argentina and propped up geoscience education in Argentinian schools. In his position as director of the Museuo Nacional in Buenos Aires, he made formal demands to international museums to return their collections to Argentina. He desperately wanted to prove to the world that Argentina was an important center of paleontology.
But did he commit scientific fraud in the attempt to decolonialize paleontology in Argentina?
I think Ameghino is more complicated than that. He certainly had motivation to try and cheat the system to make Argentina’s fossils look more important. However, his discoveries showed that Argentina was an important area of mammalian evolution. He and his team correctly identified that the standard models of biostratigraphy could not be applied directly to Patagonia. He described many new orders of mammals that never before had been seen. And he wrested control of Argentina’s paleontological heritage away from the Euro-American community.
Additionally, many of the biggest criticisms of Ameghino: that he rarely if ever went to his field sites, that he relied on museum collections, and that he invoked fanciful land bridges without any evidence, all were sins committed by other paleontologists in the Euro-American establishment at that time.
Instead, I think what happened was that Ameghino was at first mistaken by his brother’s incorrect stratigraphic interpretation of the mammalian fossil sites. Thinking that Argentina had complex mammals millions of years earlier than anywhere else, he surmised that humans must have also likely came from this hotspot of diversity. His idea was wrong, but it seems plausible if we accept his first premise that Patagonia was a center of mammal evolution.
However, in his drive to prove to the world how important his home country was, he was too careless when he found human fossils. He, willingly or accidentally, molded the evidence to fit his idea and ran with it. The overly harsh naysaying from the Euro-American community probably fueled his resolve rather than redirecting him to be more careful. Ameghino made many of the same mistakes as others in his field, but his insistence that Argentina had to be the center of mammal and human evolution clouded his judgement.
Had Ameghino been more careful with the fossils or the sites themselves, he maybe would now be remembered as a controversial scientist who was nonetheless ahead of his time in recognizing the unique fossil history of his homeland. I this way I see him more as a tragic figure, not without faults, but one who tried to take back his country’s fossil history from the centuries of outsider pilfering.
Humans did not originate in Patagonia, but the Florentino Ameghino was certainly a paleontological giant.
- Vizcaíno, S. F., & Bargo, M. S. (2013). De Patagonia a Budapest: caminos europeos de fósiles santacrucenses (1845-1956). Museo.
- Hrdlička, A., 1912. Early Man in South America (Vol. 52). US Government Printing Office.
- Podgorny, I. (2005). Bones and devices in the constitution of paleontology in Argentina at the end of the nineteenth century. Science in context, 18(2), 249-283.
- Wilder, H. H. (1923). Man’s prehistoric past. Macmillan.
- Politis, G.G., 2011. Nuevos datos sobre el “hombre fósil” de Ameghino. Publicación Electrónica de la Asociación Paleontológica Argentina, 12(1).
- Vizcaíno, S.F., De Iuliis, G., Brinkman, P.D., Kay, R.F. and Brinkman, D.L., 2017. On an album of photographs recording fossils in the” old collections” of the Museo de La Plata and Ameghino’s private collection at the beginning of the XXth century. Publicación Electrónica de la Asociación Paleontológica Argentina, 17.