Mighty Skeletons

The Americas' Mighty Skeletons, 1800–1850

Irina Podgorny

Cooperation Partners: 

Susana V. García, Museo de La Plata

In late colonial and post-independence times—in a context of commercial rivalry among French, American, and British interests—maps, manuscripts, and drawings were turned into valued and high priced objects of commerce whose ownership was disputed by many individuals, learned societies, and patrons all over the world. The same happened with the bones of those huge extinguished animals of the Pampas and Tarija (currently Bolivia), which were being shipped to London, Paris, and several German collections.

In that specific sense, the study of the American past is connected with the nineteenth-century routes of commerce, which included the trading of manuscripts and fossil bones. The age-old problem of how to prove the “authenticity” of information that originated in the New World reappeared in the first half of the nineteenth century, connected with the end of the Spanish administration, access to the archives, and the consolidation of new agents and a new political order in the region. In this project Irina Podgorny contributed to the analysis of how this trade of information and data shaped the study of the antiquity and geological times of the Americas, intrinsically bound to commerce, roads, transportation, and communication with Europe.

This project referred to the unearthing of two “mighty skeletons” that attracted the attention of the European erudite world of the early nineteenth century: the “Megatherium” from Buenos Aires and the ruins of an ancient city close to Palenque (Chiapas). They can both be studied as mute things that—to be transformed into reliable objects—had to be transported and incorporated into the language of the new disciplines of paleontology, geology, or archeology. In this mobilization of ruins and fossils by the commerce between the Americas and Europe, the ruins of Palenque and the South American fossils became pieces scattered amidst the goods and information that circulated through consuls, travelers, merchants, and local residents. While European museums enlarged their collections by means of this commerce, they also increased the demand and price of the items, turning these things into commodities and, at the same time, scientific objects. It could be argued that this commerce shaped both a new remote scientific space where scientists depended upon personal networks that included many local people, and the manners of collecting, storing, and classifying.