Ameghino, Florentino

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Ameghino, Florentino

(b. Moneglia, Liguria, Italy, 19 September 1853; d. La Plata, Argentina, 6 August 1911)

paleontology, prehistory, anthropology, geology.

The son of Antonio Ameghino, a mason and a warehouse keeper, and Maria Dina Armanino, both of whom had come to Argentina from Italy, Florentino received only a scanty formal education. One of his teachers. Carlos D’Aste, awed by Ameghino’s intelligence, took him to his home in Buenos Aires in 1868 so that he could attend the Escuela Normal de Preceptores. He was thus able to teach school in Mercedes in the early 1870’s.

At fourteen Ameghino read Lyell in French and was imbued with the spirit of evolutionism. The geology and geography of the Lujan area, particularly the exposed strata and the fauna fossils in the ravines of the Luján River, had aroused his interest in natural science. In 1869 he explored the area around Luján, collecting fossil bones of extinct fauna and Indian relics. His studies at this time included anthropology, Argentine geology, and paleontology. He also frequented the German naturalist Karl Burmeister’s natural history museum and library. Ironically, in later life Ameghino and Burmeister became bitter enemies through the combination of Burmeister;s professional jealousy and Ameghino’s bold advocacy of his doctrines.

In 1873 Ameghino contracted an unidentified illness and was directed to take long walks as part of the cure. His interest in and love of nature were thus increased, as was his endurance; in 1882, short of funds, he walked from the capital to Luján. His health was again threatened when he was poisoned by a mushroom of the type identified by R. Singer as Amanita ameghinoi. From 1890 on, Ameghino suffered from diabetes and other disabilities, especially in the four years after 1898. He died of gangrene of the foot.

Soon after he turned twenty, Ameghino published his first important geological work, “El Tajamar y sus futuras consecuencias y el origen de la Tosca,” On 31 October 1875 he announced to Paul Gervais, director of the Journal de zoologie, that he had made a discovery in the Frias brook near Mercedes, which had been verified by Ramorino, and another in the Luján River. Gervais also helped him to publish a summary of his years in Mercedes. In it Ameghino claimed that the Argentine Amerindian was contemporary with the extinct fauna of the Pampas, a position that encountered stiff opposition. Ameghino sent a work on fossil man, espousing Darwin’s transformist view, to the Scientific Society of Argentina. It was not published, but it put him in touch with Francisco Moreno and Estanislao Zeballos. Articles on the Pampean formation, written in 1875, were incorporated into “Los terrenos de transporte cuaternario de la provincia de Buenos Aires,” which was presented to the Scientific Society of Argentina in 1876 but was never published. In this work he defended his Pliocene chronology (now accepted as Pleistocene) and Lyell’s uniformitarianism against catastrophism.

Nogaro and Salomones, two friends from Mercedes, provided Ameghinto with the means to go to Paris. “El hombre de la formación pampeana,” presented at the French exposition early in 1878, was published in The American Naturalist. During his three years in Europe, Ameghino did much to increase his knowledge: he traveled to Copenhagen, where he examined the Brazilian fossils collected by Lund; he attended the Zoological Congress in Bologna; he visited museums in Belgium and England; and he took courses at the Museum of Natural Sciences and the School of Anthropology in Paris. Ameghino supported himself at this time mainly through selling fossils he had brought with him. He became a friend of Paul Gervais, who helped him classify many specimens, and of Henri Gervais, with whom he collaborated on the publication of a work detailing seventy new species of fossil mammals. With the help of Adolph and Oskar Doering he published his principal work, Contribución al conocimiento de los mamiferos fósiles de la República Argentina (1880). The two-volume work was so expensive to produce that he suffered financially, but it brought him gold medals at the Paris Exposition of 1889 and the Chicago Exposition of 1892. In 1880-1881 he published La antigüedad del hombre en el rio de La Plata, the first work on Argentine prehistory in both Spanish and French. He acquired direct knowledge of the first European fossil discoveries and, with Mortillet, he visited the Chelles site near Paris.

While he was in Paris, Ameghino lost his teaching position in Mercedes. When he returned to Buenos Aires he started a bleaching business, which soon failed. He then opened a secondhand bookshop in 1882 and brought his brother Juan into the business. Later Ameghino gave the shop to his mother, who ran it until 1908, and then to his brother, who kept it going until his death in 1932.

In 1884 Ameghino published Filogenia, in which he proposed to find irrefutable proof of transformism. This gave rise to a great quarrel with the Linnaean-Cuvierist wing of the clergy. In the same year, with the help of Juárez Celman, he obtained the chair of zoology at the University of Córdoba. Through the intercession of Adolph Doering, he was also offered the directorship of the Anthropological Museum, but he remained there for only a year. Two years later Francisco Moreno nominated him for secretary of the La Plata Museum, and he was appointed to the post in July 1886. Ameghino sold to the museum at least part of his collection of fossils and archaeological finds for $16,500. The collection was thought to number about 15,000 items, although Ameghino later said that there were only 8,000, of which half would go to the museum. He was named professor of geology and mineralogy at the University of La Plata in 1887. Unfortunately, his friend Moreno had an exaggerated concept of his authority, and they quarreled. Ameghino resigned as secretary of the museum in 1890.

The saddest period of Ameghino’s life began in 1890, when he lost his professorship and was barred from entering the museum housing his collection. He attempted to support himself by opening a bookstore in La Plata and by founding the Revista argentina de historia natural, which lasted for only six issues. What little money he did accumulate was lost in the depression of 1893. Ameghino therefore sent a collection to Zittel in Munich, and was too poor to refuse the pittance offered for it. The American paleontologist William B. Scott, who benefited from Ameghino’s hospitality and scholarly materials during this period, wrote: “I do not know of a finer example of courage and abnegation under the most distressing circumstances in the history of science… . He has made a vow of humility and poverty in the name of science and he is one of the greatest civil heroes in Argentina.”

Despite the hardships, the period from 1895 to 1902 was Ameghino’s most fruitful; the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London published his account of the plexodontal molars of mammals in 1899. His fortunes improved considerably in 1902, when, thanks to the minister of education, Joaquin González, he was made director of the Museum of Natural Sciences in Buenos Aires. During his nine years as director he added 71,000 objects to its collections and published fifteen issues of its Anales. In 1906 he assumed the added duties of professor of geology at the University of La Plata.

Ameghino’s brothers were of great help to him. Carlos assisted him on sixteen classification explorations, and his accurate observations resulted in Florentino’s modification of his identification of a number of orders and genera. Juan, although an accomplished botanist, was too timid to publish any of his work; he preferred to help in the family bookstore, thereby freeing Florentino for science.

Ameghino was one of the most eminent geologists and paleontologists of his day and discovered many fossil fauna. On the other hand, his anthropological works are of doubtful value today. For instance, it is now known that his Pampas finds were more recent than he and his disciples thought. His errors were unavoidable, however, because of his early isolation and because the sciences themselves were so new. As so often happens, his fame was greater outside his own country.

In geology, Ameghino placed the Guarani and Chubut formations in the Cretaceous period of the Secondary; six Argentine formations in the Tertiary period; the post-Pampean in the Pleistocene period of the Quaternary; and upper alluvial deposits in the Holocene. He then divided each of these formations into subaerial and freshwater stages with marine parallels, detailing and dividing them further in 1908. This paleontological geochronology has been disputed by geologists relying upon tectonic and mineralogical characteristics. Ingenieros, however, believes that Ameghino’s stratigraphy itself is correct, very valuable, and based upon a great deal of material.

In paleontology, his first specialty, Ameghino achieved the same results that Haeckel had achieved in embryology by utilizing mathematical zoology with the seriation procedure. In 1889 he determined 450 species of fossil mammals, an astounding year’s work. By 1906 he had classified thirty-five suborders; in all, he discovered over 6,000 species. His most controversial theory was that these fossils were older than those of other countries and that Argentina was the center from which those creatures had spread.

It is very possible that Ameghino had no knowledge of the work in prehistory that occurred during his early life, and therefore, according to Schobinger, he re-created and rediscovered human prehistory in Argentina. This brought him into conflict with Europeans over the characteristics he attributed to Pampean man, although his contacts with Gervais lead one to suppose that he soon came to know the work of his French contemporaries. In Luján and Mercedes he found worked stones (chips), arrowheads, boleadora stones, and other more modern items, as well as ceramics and objects made of bone. Near the Córdoba observatory he found an authentic Pleistocene site with a fire site, some stone chips, and animal bones. He was not infallible, however: he attributed two rough artifacts from the Buenos Aires seashore to the Tertiary period, when they actually belonged to the beginning of the Holocene.

In his later years Ameghino had four theories on the evolution of the higher primates: (1) He excluded Homo heidelbergensis (Mauer’s mandible) and Pithecanthropus erectus from the direct line of human phylogeny, considering them extinct lateral branches. (2)The primitive hominids of the early Miocene were derived from the anthropoid apes. (3) Homo simius, or Homo australopithècus, of Africa, was derived from the Tetrapraothomo,(4) the Neanderthal man (Homo primigenus) was derived laterally from Homo sapiens.

All was not success, however, for Ameghino’s construction of Eocene ancestors and his stubborn identification of remains he found with various stages of protohumanity (his prothomo) have since been repudiated. His anthropological knowledge of the Tetraprothomo was based only on an atlas and a femur he found in Monte Hermoso in 1907, and the latter was accepted as human by only a few scholars. Ameghino provided no physical evidence for the Triprothomo, and the Diprothomo of 1909 was also very weak, for it was based only on a piece of cranial cap. Ever since Father Blanco there has been criticism of the circumstances of the latter discovery, which took place in terrain of doubtful antiquity in the port of Buenos Aires, and was based upon an erroneous bone orientation.

This was not the only criticism of Ameghino’s work. Márquez considered his four phylogenetic links irritatingly simple, but he accepted the contemporaneity of the extinct large mammals of the loess and Pampean man. He also felt Ameghino’s philosophical elucidations were colored by a markedly candid materialism. Frenguelli criticized his geological stratigraphy because the Pampas were more modern than Ameghino claimed, but nevertheless recognized Ameghino’s great perceptivity, his profound powers of observation, and his great talent. His theory that man originated during the Tertiary period on the Pampas has been rejected, and the bones and archaeological items he uncovered have proved, upon investigation, to be the weakest part of his work in prehistory.


I. Original Works. Ameghino’s writings were collected as Obras completas y correspondencia cientifica, Alfredo Torcelli, ed., 24 vols. (La Plata, 1913–1936). Individual works are “El Tajamar y sus futuras consecuencias y el origen de la Tosca,” in El pueblo of Mercedes (2 June 1875) and in Obras completas, I, 11; “Nouveaux débris de I’homme et de son industrie melés á des ossements quaternaires recueillis auprèes (près) de Mercedes,” in Journal de zoologie, 4 (1875), 527; 5 (1875), 27; “The Man of the Pampean Formation,” in The American Naturalist, 12 (1880), 828; Contribucion al conocimiento de los maniferos fósiles de la República Argentina, 2 vols, (1880); Aires, 1880), text in both Spanish and French, written with H. Gervais; “Un recuerdo a la memoria de Darwin. El transformismo considerado como ciécia exacta,” in Boletin del Instituto geográfico argentino, 3, no. 12 (1882), 205–213; Filogenia (Buenos Aires, 1884, 1915); “New Discoveries of Fossil Mammalians of Southern Patagonia,” in The American Naturalist, 27 (1893), 445 ff.; the account of the primitive types of plexodontal molars of mammals, in Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London (1899), 555–571 (or 575), also trans, into French in Anales del Museo Nacional de historia natural de Buenos Aires (16 Dec. 1902); and La antigü;edad del hombre en el rio de La Plata, Vol. III of Ameghino’s Obras completas (La Plata, 1915), also published separately in 2 vols. (Buenos Aires, 1918).

II. Secondary Literature. Among the works on Ameghino or his contributions are Juan B. Ambrosetti, “Florentino Ameghino,” in Anales del Museo nacional de historia natural de Buenos Aires (1912); Josè Maria Blanco, La evolución antropológica y Ameghino (Buenos Aires, 1916); Ángel Cabrera, El pensamiento vivo de Ameghino (Buenos Aires, 1944); Arturo Capdevila, “Ameghino el vidente,” in La prensa of Buenos Aires (25 May 1932); Alfredo Castellanos, Homenaje a Florentino Ameghino (Rosario, 1937); Pedro Daniels, “Presencia y actualidad de Ameghino,” In La hora Mèdica argentina (Sept. 1954), pp. 167–169; Joaquin Frenguelli, La Personalidad y la obra de Florentino Ameghino (La Plata, 934); Max Friedmann, “Vorlage eines Gipsabgusses des Schädeldaches von Diprothomo Platensis Ameghino,” in Zeitschrift für Ethnologie (1910); Bernardo González Arrili, Vida de Ameghino (Santa Fe, 1954): Mario Graci Larravide, Florentino Ameghino (Mendoza. 1944); Alex Hrdlicka, Early Man in South America (Washington, D.C., 1912), see index; Josè Ingenieros, Las doctrinas de Ameghino, Vol. XVIII of his Obras completas (Buenos Aires, 1939); Arthur Keith, The Antiquity of Man (London, 1916), ch. 17; Robert Lehmann-Nitsche, “Ameghino como antrpólogo,” in Renacimiento, 3 (31 Aug. 1911); P.G. Mahoudeau, “Les primates et les prosimiens fossiles de la Patagonie d’après les travaux de M. Florentino Ameghino,” in Revue de I’Ecole d’anthropologie de Paris, II (1907), 354–361; Osvaldo Menghin, Origen y desarrollo racial de la especie humana (Buenos Aires, 1957), p. 70; Fernanando Márquez Miranda, Ameghino. Una Vida heróica (Buenos Aires, 1951); Victor Mercante, “Dr. Florentino Ameghino. Su vida y sus obras,” in Ameghino;s Obras completas, I 148–170; Aldobrandino Mocchi, “Nota preventiva sul Diprothomo platensis,” in Revista del Museo de La Plata, 17 (1910–1911), 70; Ricardo Rojas, Historia de la literatura argentina, VII (Buenos Aires, 1960), 53–60; Alberto Rovero and Victor Delfino, “La obra antropológica de Florentino Ameghino,” in La semana Médica, no. 18 (1914); V. G. Ruggeri, “Die Entdeckungen Florentino Ameghino’s und der ursprung des menhschen,” in Globus, 94, no. II (1908), 21–26; Carlos Rusconi, Florentino Ameghino. Rasgos de su vida y su obra (Mendoza, 1965); and Animales extinguidos de Mendoza y de la Argentina (Mendoza, 1967), see index; Antonio Santiana, La personalidad creadora de Ameghino (Quito, 1954) Domingo Sarmiento, “El senor Ameghino,” in El nacional (10 July 1883) and in his Obras completas, XLII (Buenos Aires 1990), 140; Juan Schobinger, Cincuentenario de la muerte de Ameghino (Mendoza, 1961); G. Schwalbe, “Studien zur Morphologie der sü;damerikanischen Primatenformen,” in Zeitschrift Fü;r Morphologie und Anthropologie, 13 (1910); William B. Scott, A History of Land Mammals in the Western Hemisphere (New York, 1937), pp. 114, 500, 504, 544; Rodolfo Senet, Ameghino. Su vida y su obra (Buenos Aires, 1934); George Simpson, “The Beginning of Mammals in South America,” in Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, 91 (1948), which lists 19 works by Ameghino; Miguel Soria, “Intoxicatión accidental por Chlorophyllum molybdites,” in prensa universitaria of Buenos Aires (28 Nov. 1966), pp. 2427–2428; Kasimiers Stolihwo, “Contribución al estudio del hombre Fósil sudamericano y su pretendido precursor el Diprothomo platensis,” trans, from the Polish by Victor Delfino, in Semana Médica (15 Aug. 1912); Herbert Wenk, Tras las huellas de Adáan (Barcelona, 1958), pp. 545 547, 548; and Karl von zittel, Grundzü;ge der Paläontologie. Vertebrata (Munich–Berlina, 1911), see index.

Justo Garate