- The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History by Juan Pimentel
Pimentel’s book about a rhinoceros and a giant fossil sloth is an astute account of scientific imagination at work. Pimentel draws from a broad range of seamlessly integrated disciplines, ranging from biology and geology to archaeology and paleontology, to create an engrossing and meticulous historical analysis.
In 1515, a rhinoceros named Ganda spent four months caged in a ship’s hold, sailing from Goa in India to Lisbon—a gift from an Indian sultan to Alfonso de Albuquerque, the governor of the Portuguese Indies. Symbolic, lavish gifts like Ganda were part of a long tradition of keeping exotic animals in captivity. King Manuel I, who became Ganda’s master, decided to pit him against an elephant (Ganda won), before sending him, seven months later, to Italy as a gift to the son of Lorenzo de Medici, who had just become Pope Leo X. After being exhibited before the French monarch at Marseilles, Ganda perished in a shipwreck off the Ligurian coast.
Rhinoceroses were well-known creatures, said to be hostile to elephants, who were at the pinnacle of ancient zoology. Ganda and his ilk, described and named by the Greek geographer Strabo, were considered marginal creatures. Pimentel guides us adeptly through the intricacies of medieval allegories and through the observations of Pliny and Marco Polo. The artist Albrecht Durer drew a definitive portrait of a rhinoceros from secondary sources. He never saw one, but his image communicated far more than merely the horn and armor that had fascinated earlier spectators. The history of Ganda, an armored beast, is a testimony to the power of an engraving, created by human technology to color human perceptions. These chapters of Pimentel’s book discuss the strength of the human imagination and creative genius.
Another huge vertebrate traveled in a hold, this time from South America to Madrid in 1789, but in seven wooden crates—a collection of fossilized bones discovered near Buenos Aires. Manuel de Torres, a Dominican friar, extracted the complete skeleton of the enormous beast from soft alluvial deposits. The disarticulated bones were drawn, then provisionally reassembled, showing a small skull and a full length of four-and-a-half meters. It looked like a chimera, a mythical monster that combined parts of different animals. Pimentel describes the intricate researches that led to the identification of the mysterious beast as the Megatherium—a long-extinct giant sloth—by Jacques Cuvier, a French paleontologist and catastrophist, in 1796. Cuvier’s identification came as the study of fossils advanced by leaps and bounds; the exotic creatures of the remote past, like the rhinoceros, first had to be accommodated to the Scriptures, the word of God. Pimentel analyzes Cuvier’s lifelong researches into fossils and his preoccupation with comparative anatomy, taxonomy, and the once-living creatures behind silent fossils. [End Page 241]
Richard Owen, a nineteenth-century British anatomist, took over where the Frenchman left off. He provided the great sloth “with a skin and a history, an identity and habits—a life” (283). He also showed that animals of the distant past did not necessarily behave the same way. Megatherium never dangled from branches like modern sloths. It used its strong limbs to rear up to forage leaves high off the ground.
Ganda and the Megatherium appear to have very different histories, but, as Pimentel points out, both have very deep roots in the past. One brought the wonders of the Orient to the west, whereas the other brought those of remote geological time. They must indeed have seemed almost extraterrestrial, prodigies of nature, chimeras. These two extraordinary creatures expanded both the frontiers of what was zoologically real and what was possible to imagine.
Pimentel tellingly asks in his engrossing account of Megatherium, “What is more fascinating than the history of how we came to know what we know?” (262). This question distills the essence of his skilled, beautifully written (and superbly translated) essay. Pimentel must have had great fun...