1393Re: [mythsoc] on the trail of the Succarath
- Mar 31, 2000Here's some of the Succarath/Megatherium story, a translation or paraphrase
of the highlights. Be very aware that the whole story dates back to 1898;
still, it is fascinating. I have a few comments of my own in [ ]
The megatheriums are huge. Toothless, with a special conformation, somewhat
like sloths and somewhat like anteaters, they resemble the first in their
heads and the second in their legs and tail.
Who has not heard of the megatherium, or if living in a city, has not seem
their skeletons? It's the strongest, thickest, heaviest mammal which has
ever trodden the earth's surface.
The bones look like a house under construction. The owner of this
substructure could in life be longer than seven meters and 2 1/2 meters tall
and of an extraordinary weight.
The remains of the megatherium are frequently found in the clay of the
pampas, mixed with others of the same family but not as huge, such as
Lestodon, Scelidotherium and Mylodon. The Mylodons reached the size of
rhinoceroses and have a lot of tiny seed-like bones found in association with
their skeletons, apparently part of a sort of flexible armor.
In 1789 the first megatherium skeleton was found and was sent by the Spanish
Viceroy to Spain; King Carlos III sent word that the government should send
him a living specimen, even if it were a small one, and if not a living one,
the freshest one available, packed in straw! This is generally quoted as
an example of howling ignorance, but is really reasonable considering the
amount of unexplored territory at the time, and the excellent condition of
the fossil skeleton which reached Spain.
The few travelers who have gone through Patagonia and been the guests of the
Tehuelche Indians, have heard them speak of a mysterious large quadruped,
horrible to look at and invulnerable, which, they say, cannot be wounded by
arrows, spears or firearms. They call it the Iemisch or "water tiger," and
are afraid even of the name: when asked for details, they become quiet and
subdued, silent, or evasive in their answers.
Recently, my brother Carlos Ameghino, who has been going through Patagonia
for the last twelve years making scientific collections and geological
studies, has pulled back a tiny corner of the dense veil which has covered
the existence of this mysterious being. In the middle of last year, from
Santa Cruz, he sent me a few specimens with the following message: ....
"in the possession of an Indian I have seen a piece of Iemisch hide in which
are wrapped the tiny bones which I send you, similar to those which are found
with Mylodon fossil skeletons. Hompen, another Tehuelche Indian, has told me
how going from Senguer to Santa Cruz, he met on the road a Iemisch which
would not let him pass, but which he succeeded in killing with "bolazos" [a
bola? Good heavens! or it might mean he threw rocks at it.] According to
them, it is amphibious and walks and swims with equal ease.
"It is nocturnal and strong enough (they say) to take horses with its claws
and drag them underwater.
"They say it has a short head, with large tusks, and ears without flaps, or
very small ones; short, flat feet, with three toes on the front feet and four
on the back, membraned for swimming and armed with formidable claws. The
tail is large, low-hanging and prehensile. The body is covered with short,
firm, stiff hair, of a uniform bay color. They say it is taller than a puma,
but with shorter legs and a much thicker body.
(1) F. Ameghino, Premiére notice sur le Neomylodon Listai un
vivant des anciens Edentés Gravigrades fossiless de l’Argentine.
Août, 1898, id. An existing Ground-Sloth in Patagonia, in "Natural
Science", vol XIII, p. 324-326, London 1898. Supplementary data which I
sent to the naturalist Mr. Oldfield Thomas of the British Museum were
communicated by him to the London Zoological Society, 19 November 1898.
Various scientists sent expeditions from several countries, some said they
had seen it, or shot at it with no success, or barely escaped from it.
There are various references in print to this animal, but we will only
mention the History of the Conquest of Paraguay, Rio de la Plata and Tucuman,
by the Jesuit Father Pedro Lozano, written in 1740-1746, before the famous
skeleton was sent to Spain.
In Vol. 1, pp. 185-186 of the Lamas Edition of 1873 of this work, we find
"On the edges of the Rio de la Plata province, towards Patagonia, we find a
very fierce animal called Su or Succarath, which generally walks toward the
"It is horrible to look at; at first it appears to have the face of a lion,
or even a man, since in front the ears the face is bearded, with short hair;
its body is narrow near the loins, but thick at the rear; the tail is long
and very thickly bristled, with which it loads up its pups when attacked by
hunters, covers them and hides them, yet can run away in spite of its load.
[I'd say there's a load here, all right]
"It lives by stealing, and because of its hide is pursued by the natives, who
can use the skin to protect themselves from the weather. They are usually
hunted by digging a pit, covered with branches.
"When the incautious animal falls in, with its young, seeing that it cannot
get out, either through rage or generosity it destroys the young with its
nails, so that they will not come into the hands of humans, giving at the
same time horrendous roars to frighten the hunters, coming up to the mouth
of the hole to shoot the beast with their arrows until it dies, raging."
From beyond the tomb an anonymous and silent witness gives testimony to the
truth of Lozano's report, with bones lost in the depths of a cavern, there at
the southern extremity of Patagonia.
Three years ago in April of 1896, Dr Otto Nordenskhold of the University of
Upsala was visiting Southern Argentina. He went into a cave and found parts
of the hide of an unknown quadruped. These remains were taken to Sweden, and
remained without identification until our first publication about the
mysterious mammal of Patagonia permitted them to recognize that it was the
same animal. These remains were described by Dr. Einar Lonnberg, who proved
that they belonged to a representative of the Megatherium family, similar to
(2) On some remains of Neomylodon Listai Ameghino, brought home by the
Swedish expedition to Tierra del Fuego, 1895-1897, by Dr. Einar
Another piece of skin was taken to London and has been described in detail by
A. Smith Woodward [wasn't he mixed up with Piltdown Man?]
Dr Lonnberg noted that the skin was accompanied by some shattered guanaco
bones, stone instruments and a human skeleton: evidently the skeleton of an
ancient Patagonian who was using the hide as a covering when he took refuge
in the cave and died there!
Published in La Piramide, June 15 1899, Vol. 1, pp. 51ff.
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