A Day in Patagonia

Collecting remains of prehistoric animals in southernmost South America

Williams, unfortunately for him now, is a water-person. I am more of the desert-people, and I love the scene spread before us now: the great cañadón falling away at our feet to its distant depths, a maze of sharp ridges and of deeply dissected gullies where panthers lurk; the almost black mountains, scores of miles away, their peaks severed from earth by mirage and seeming to hang shivering in space; and the hard, blue dome of the air in which eagles wheel and soar.

We plunge into this wilderness, sliding and jumping down steep slopes of dazzling white volcanic ash, and painfully groping our way up the sides of ravines, until we come to the scene of our labors. La Oficina del Diablo,—the Devil’s Office—a local sheepherder called it one day when, to his amazement, he came upon us working there, and the name is as apt as any. It is a sort of natural amphitheater of Brobdingnagian proportions, almost completely devoid of vegetation, and excavated in the thick beds of volcanic ash. In the center rises a conical peak of the same ash, with streams of dark brown pebbles from the pampa above spilled down its sides, like a portion of vanilla ice-cream a quarter of a mile in diameter with a few tons of chocolate syrup poured over it.

The wind is blowing hard, as usual, and it fills eyes and hair and teeth with the knifelike fragments of ash and sends the dark pebbles blowing and clattering over the ground. But we are resigned, especially as we know that the slightest lull in the almost eternal wind will bring clouds of flies swirling around us. It is January, midsummer, and at the height of the short fly season.

Near the place where we have been working is the fresh carcass of a sheep with the breast torn out but otherwise untouched. Our hitherto unseen friend, a puma (or panther), has been around again. The big cat seems to like the Oficina del Diablo since we have been here and perhaps has left us the unused part of her kill as a token of esteem.

We set about working on the fossils we have already found, and hunting for new ones. I wish all the people who have asked me “how we know where to dig for fossils” could sit on the Ice-cream Peak and watch the process. I go walking over the bare face of the slope, cut by wind and rain from the once deeply-buried beds of compact ash. I walk slowly, eyes glued to the ground. There is a loose fragment that seems to have a different shape and texture from the pebbles and ashblocks. I pick it up. Yes, it is a sliver of petrified bone. I get down on hands and knees and look around for more. There is another, a few inches farther up the little wash, and above that are several others. I follow them up until I come to the highest ones; they must be weathering out of the ash bed near here. Wash has covered any bone that may still be buried, so I scrape the surface with a small pick until the broken end of a bone is revealed. Then with pick and sharp, curved awls, enough of the rock is scraped away to show the form of the bone, and to see whether it is isolated or whether it may not be connected with other parts of the skeleton. It is only a lone fragment of a limb bone, not worth collecting, so I leave it.

As I start on, my eye is caught by an object sticking out of the rock a few feet away. This is more like it! Here is a fragment of bone just beginning to be exposed by the constant erosion, and in it a tooth is showing—it must belong to a jaw or skull, perhaps broken, perhaps complete, but in either event worth collecting, for it has teeth, and from them can be determined the species of extinct animal to which they belong. And so I start digging to get it out. You see, all of you whom I have in imagination placed on the Ice-cream Peak to watch, how easy it is to know where to dig for fossils! You simply dig where you know there is a fossil.

Meanwhile, Williams is working on a skull found yesterday. The top has already been exposed, just enough of it to see how large a block must be made to contain it, and leave it surrounded by the rock in which it is imbedded, as this will help hold it together during shipment and as cleaning the fragile bone is a long and delicate process much better done in a well-equipped laboratory in New York. The top has then been soaked with shellac, to strengthen it and help hold it together, and to this has been applied thin rice paper, to give a firm surface and to keep bandages from sticking tight to the specimen itself. Then the bandages were applied, strips of burlap soaked in flour paste. These have dried and formed a hard shell which holds the specimen together and will protect it during the long journey ahead of it. Now Williams cuts a deep channel around the specimen, which is still exactly in the position in which it was found and as it had been buried so many millions of years ago. The channel cut, he carefully undercuts the block. If it were larger, he would tunnel under it and apply cinches to keep the bottom from falling out, but it is little more than a foot in diameter and so does not require this. Soon it is supported only on a thin pillar; this is broken and the block rolled over. Now the bottom is trimmed away until bone is reached, and shellac, paper, and bandages are applied to this side as they already have been to the other. As soon as it is dry, it will be ready to take to camp.

Later the bandaged block will be taken to Comodoro Rivadavia, Metropolis of Patagonia, and there packed with others in stout boxes and shipped by boat to Buenos Aires. In Buenos Aires, government officials will examine the boxes and give a permit to export them. Then they will start on the eighteen-day voyage to New York, where they will finally come to rest in the American Museum. A preparator will unpack the box and place the block on a temporary plaster bed. The bandages, paper, and surface shellac will be carefully taken off one side and the rock scraped and chiseled away from the bone, then the specimen will be turned over and the process repeated on the other side, finally freeing the bone and resurrecting it from the ash in which it was entombed ages before man came into existence. Cracks and missing fragments in the skull and jaws will be filled in with plaster and the completely prepared specimen shellacked again to preserve it from moisture.

Then the specimen will go from the laboratory to my office where I will measure it and study it, comparing it with any similar animals previously known. If it is new, I will give it a name and publish a description of it in the scientific publications of the Museum. Finally, two or three years after this day when we are collecting it and forty or fifty million years after the live animal roamed the plains of ancient Patagonia, work on the skull will be complete and it will be placed on exhibition in the Museum.

But all that lies in the future now, for we are still in Patagonia with months of field work ahead of us. While we have been working, clouds have rolled up from the west and the sky has become overcast. Suddenly rain begins to fall with stinging force. As uncovered or bandaged specimens may be seriously damaged by water, we hastily cover them, and crawl under a rock ledge near by where it is still fairly dry. With water pouring over the ledge in a cataract, forming a veil between us and the outer world, we eat our lunch and roll cigarettes of rank, black, hairlike native tobacco.

There has been an unusual amount of rain lately, and it seriously interferes with our work. It is extremely difficult to prospect for specimens on wet days, and impossible to collect them properly, so that rain brings work almost to a standstill. Fortunately the rain soaks into the ground almost at once and dries up quickly in the dry wind. This noon it is only a passing shower, and after lunch we are able to uncover the specimen again and go back to work.

Toward the end of the afternoon a man comes riding up on horseback. Although he is a Boer, like everyone who lives around cañadón Vaca, he is more acriollado, Argentinized, than most of his compatriots, and rides in native fashion, with only one stirrup which serves for mounting and is usually not used in riding. He has a native saddle, too, consisting of two cyclindrical leather pads, one on either side of the horse ’s sharp backbone, over which are piled several sheepskins and a soft, tanned piece of cool, porous carpincho hide. Such a saddle is very soft, but the posture required to ride it is most uncomfortable to one unaccustomed to it, like riding on a backless and armless, greatly overstuffed rocking-chair.

Although annoying to us, the rain has been very convenient to our visitor. For weeks he has been trying to catch our nocturnal prowler, the puma. Today the big cat was out during the rain and left tracks in the mud when she went back to her lair. Our visitor and another neighbor (and by “neighbor,” I should have said, I mean anyone living within twenty-five or thirty miles, which includes three families in this case)—our visitor and another neighbor found the tracks and trailed the puma to her den. They had not found it before, because their hunting dogs, galgos, hunt by sight and could not follow the scent and because the puma never left a visible trail on dry ground. The den proved to be a small cave under a rock ledge, very similar to that in which we had lunch and about half a mile away. They sent the dogs in to get the cat, but a puma at close quarters and with its back to the wall is too much for any dogs and, after one trial, the galgos retreated rapidly and in bad order. Finally the entrance to the hole was enlarged, flaming bushes were thrown in, and the pumas were shot as they came out—for there proved to be not only the old one, an unusually large female, about seven feet long, but also two cubs, each as large as the dogs.

The hunter has one of the dead cubs slung over the horse ’s back, which surprises me as the horses I have known in North America would have hysterics at this. Our visitor assures me that most horses here would not like it, either, but that this horse has a phlegmatic Nordic temperament. After a short smoke and chat, the hunter goes on his way, happy that there are three fewer pumas to kill his sheep.

Before sunset the sky once more darkens and we decide to hit for home. As we climb laboriously up to the pampa, the rain again falls in torrents, and, soaked through and shivering, we reach the car. While we are starting, the rain changes to a drizzle and mist closes in so that we can see only a few feet in any direction. After running for half an hour, we have not come to an expected landmark on the almost featureless pampa, so we stop, walk away from the car to get out of its magnetic influence, and plot a new course with the compass. By repeating this process several times we finally reach the ravine down which we must go. While navigating without the compass, we had made almost a complete circle, and would not have gotten off the pampa safely at least until the storm cleared, had we not had more faith in the instrument than in our own thoroughly disoriented sense of direction.

Even on the flat plains, motor travel in Patagonia is beset by constant difficulties.
Photo: AMNH

Getting down off the pampa with the car is dangerous and rather nerve-racking, for it is impossible to steer in this slimy mud, and we can only start the car in the right direction down the steep slope and trust to luck, which proves to be with us, and we land right side up. In the middle of the cañadón we get thoroughly stuck in the softened sand of the normally dry water-course, but that is all in the day ’s work, too, and half an hour of digging and filling gets us out again.

We reach camp sometime after dark, feeling tired and bedraggled, but a few boiling hot matés revive us thoroughly and we are ready for our third heavy meal of mutton, this time in the form of estofado, boiled with numerous sorts of spices. The cook also has some fresh tortas fritas, of which we are very fond, not unlike American baking-powder biscuits but fried in deep fat (mutton grease, of course), like doughnuts.

After dinner I have to work on the expedition records. As each important specimen is found it is given a field number which is marked on it, or on its bandages, paper wrapping, etc. The number must then be entered in a notebook with full and exact data, the geological horizon, geographic locality, nature of the specimen, date, and name of the collector. Without such records the specimens would have very little scientific value. There are also many other things to do besides the actual collecting, both in the field and camp. Maps must be made, rock strata described and samples taken, geologic structures observed and recorded, cross sections of the fossil fields made with the exact levels of all specimens marked and a journal of the progress of the expedition kept up to date. Each night the information gathered in the field must be transferred from rough notes, written in wind and, often, rain, hastily and with numbed, clumsy fingers, into neater and more legible form in permanent notebooks, and observations and comments entered while they are freshly in mind.

This done, I happily roll up in my fur blanket and instantly fall asleep. The day is over.

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