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The day Magellan “found” 3-meter giants in Patagonia

In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan made time in his worldwide seafaring schedule to stop in what is now Patagonia, where he encountered giants.

Magellan ordered one of his men to make contact with the giant (the emissary’s reaction would have to be seen but sadly has been lost in history), and thus be sure that exchanging dances and songs would lead to a demonstration of friendship

It worked. The man was able to bring the giant to a small island off the coast, where the great captain awaited. The description of the scene was carried out by a scholar during the day, Antonio Pigafetta, who kept the travel diary that later became Magellan’s Voyage: First Voyage Around the World.

“When he stood before us, he began to wonder and fear, and he raised a finger upwards, believing that we came from heaven. He was so tall that the tallest of us was only up to his waist’, and he had a deep, resonant voice.

The illustration above proves it, Patagonia was once inhabited by giants who dwarfed the celestial Europeans who came to conquer them.

Okay, maybe that’s not a perfect test. But it could be that the people Magellan encountered, the Tehuelches, were indeed huge, and therefore this myth has some basis in reality.

On that small island, Magellan had his men give the giant food and drink, and then made the mistake of showing him a mirror.

“The moment the giant could see himself he was terrified,” wrote Pigafetta, “he jumped back throwing four of our men to the ground.”

But once things had settled down, the explorers proceeded to make contact with the rest of the tribe, hunting with them and even building a house to store their supplies while they stayed on the coast.

After several weeks with the tribe, Magellan came up with a plan: he had to kidnap two of them and take them back with him to Spain to test these giants he had discovered.

“But this had to be cunningly plotted, otherwise the giants would have gotten our men into trouble.” Magellan offered them all kinds of metal products to waste their time, such as mirrors, scissors and bells, so they wouldn’t mind putting handcuffs and chains on their legs.

“Whereupon these giants were pleased to see these chains, not knowing where to put them.” Magellan, however, lost evidence of him during the long journey back to Spain. The giants did not survive.

But what Magellan and Pigafetta brought back was that story and the new name of the land of the giants, Patagonia, its etymology is still not entirely clear. Some argue that it means “Land of the big feet”, because of the “leg”.

Although Magellan most likely took his name from a novel popular at the time, Primaleón was called, and he told about a race of wild people called the Patagonians.

Although they let the British pour cold water on the whole affair, Sir Francis Drake managed to come into contact with the Patagonians themselves, as his nephew summarized in The World Encompassed in 1628:

“Magellan was not entirely deceived in naming these giants, in general they differ so much in stature, greatness and bodily strength, and also in the ugliness of their voices, but neither were they as monstrous and giant as they were represented, there are some English as tall as the tallest we could see, but by chance the Spaniards do not think that any English would come here to fail them and that makes them more audacious to lie».

For scholars that was like an open sore, and rightly so. According to William C. Sturtevant in his essay, Patagonian Giants and Baroness Hyde de Neuville’s Iroquois Drawings, the Tehuelches were just a particularly statuesque people.

While Magellan’s later voyages measured Patagonians up to 3 meters tall, others put them further into the 1.82 meter range.

“Popular interest in the giants of Patagonia waned when the scientific reports began to appear,” Sturtevant writes. “Some estimates from the 19th century or from measurements of some individuals are still high,” more than 2 meters.

But the best measurements of Tehuelche men placed them around 1.80 meters tall, perfectly reasonable for a human being, but totally unpresentable for a giant.

“If we accept the lowest (and least documented) of these means based on modern measurements of males,” he adds, “the Tehuelches are nonetheless among the highest known populations worldwide.”

In contrast, male Europeans, such as Magellan, in the 16th to 18th centuries would have measured in a low range of 1.5 meters. His imagination, however, seems to have surpassed his small stature.

But why was there such a difference in height between Europeans and these “end of the world” natives? Animals, including humans, have a tendency to grow more in cold climates and less in warm ones.

This is known as Bergmann’s rule: With a larger body, you lose less heat, and are therefore better suited to surviving sub-zero temperatures.

So it’s no accident that the world’s largest land predators, like the polar bear, live in the far north, while tropical creatures, which lose heat faster, are better suited to sweltering jungles.

And over evolutionary time, environments can put the same pressure on humans. Thus, the natives of glacial Patagonia would have grown—in theory—more than their European counterparts.

In a feeble attempt to explain something without actually investigating the issue, skeptics claim that gigantism is probably the cause of many of the reports of giants in the Americas, however, they have never presented evidence for such a claim.

Gigantism is extremely rare, so rare that there are no incidence statistics for this hormonal disease. In the history of the United States there are less than 100 recorded cases of gigantism.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of tall people today—reaching or approaching 2 meters—do not have any gigantism disorder. On the other hand, the percentage of modern humans that reach 2 meters in height is 0.000007%.

So how come, for example, the Smithsonian happens to have in its possession 17 skeletons over 7 feet tall found in ancient burial mounds in a relatively small region of North America?