Popular Science Monthly/Volume 80/March 1912/Florentino Ameghino
By Dr. W. D. MATTHEW
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
IN the death of this distinguished paleontologist science has sustained a heavy loss. Our knowledge of the splendid succession of fossil mammalian life in the Argentine is due principally to the work of Ameghino. A collector and explorer whose energy and enthusiasm no handicap of opposition and poverty could overcome, a student of immense learning and keen insight, a writer and controversialist of extraordinary facility and dialectic skill, a broad thinker and daring speculator, above all a man of high ideals and great patriotism, his life and achievements are well worthy of admiration and' respect.
Ameghino seems to have interested himself in fossils from boyhood. In 1880, while still, it would seem, in the early twenties, he had already spent ten years of his life in collecting fossil mammals in the Pampean formation in the vicinity of Buenos Aires, and especially in searching for evidences of man contemporaneous with these extinct animals. His conclusions as to the antiquity of man had received notice in the local journals as early as 1875, but had failed to secure the endorsement of the heads of the two great Argentine museums. Failing this endorsement at home, he sought to secure it abroad, and in 1878 exhibited at the Paris Exposition a great collection of archeologic and paleontologic remains. (The fossils were purchased by the late E. D. Cope and later came into possession of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.) Fortified by the support received abroad, Ameghino published in 1880-81 a two-volume brochure entitled "La Antiguedad del Hombre en La Plata," in which his views were set forth in full, together with a history of the controversy.In succeeding years his time was given more and more to researches in the older formations underlying the Pampean, and to the collection and study of the wonderful mammalian faunæ which they contained. To explore these formations, lying mostly far to the southward, 500 to 800 miles from Buenos Aires, involved long expeditions on the part of Ameghino's younger brother Carlos, the elder brother remaining at home to earn the necessary funds for his own and his brother's support through a small stationer's shop which he kept in La Plata. Year after year< these expeditions continued, and their results were published by Florentino in a flood of descriptive and controversial papers, amazing
in volume, learning and acrimony. In 1889 he published a revision of the fossil mammals of Argentina in two large quarto volumes abundantly illustrated. During thirty years of work Ameghino described over 500 new genera, with probably some thousands of species of fossil mammals.
These papers made known to science a whole new world of animal life. The Tertiary mammals of South America were as different from those of the rest of the world as is the modern Australian fauna, and for most of our knowledge of them we are indebted to Ameghino. Besides the Santa Cruz with its wonderful riches of fossil mammals, he described a series of older faunas no less interesting. That so much should be accomplished by one man is remarkable enough. It is far more remarkable that he should achieve so much in spite of straitened means, and bitter official opposition, which he had, it must be admitted, brought upon himself by his vehement, combative and controversial spirit. Some of his work, indeed, appears hasty and ill-considered, and its value seriously marred by a partisan and contentious maintenance of theoretic conclusions which most paleontologists have found it impossible to accept. Ameghino regarded the age of the later formations of Argentina as much greater than his confrères in Europe and North America could admit, and maintained views in regard to the phylogeny and derivation of the Tertiary faunæ, which, however skilfully defended, are not likely to find acceptance. But these peculiarities of theory and temperament should not blind us to the immense value and interest of his discoveries, nor to the vast learning and indefatigable industry with which they were brought before the scientific world. Nor should they prevent due meed of admiration to his enthusiasm and energy and sincere love of science. It is pleasant to record that even in his earlier years he had won his way to the high respect and honor of his fellow citizens and to an admittedly high standing abroad. He occupied for a time the chair of zoology and comparative anatomy in the University of Cordoba, and in 1886 was appointed secretary and sub director of the La Plata Museum, but resigned this post two years later owing to differences with the director, Señor F. P. Moreno, and for ten or twelve years afterwards seems to have held no important official positions. In 1903 when the directorship of the Museo Nacional of Buenos Aires became vacant, Señor Ameghino was appointed to this honorable post. Under his direction the museum has shown great vigor and activity, while his researches bore fruit in a series of publications, now
|Courtesy of Professor W. B. Scott.|
|From the management of this business Ameghino secured the means to carry on his great researches in Argentine paleontology, and to maintain numerous expeditions 'by his brother Carlos into central and southern Patagonia.|
abundantly illustrated, describing new discoveries and supporting and elaborating his stratigraphic and phylogenetic views.
His untimely death in August, 1911, is stated to have been due to blood poisoning from a neglected wound.
Through the courtesy of Professor W. B. Scott and Dr. W. J. Sinclair I am enabled to illustrate this notice with a portrait of Dr. Ameghino, and with views of the shop which supplied the funds for his explorations and the little workshop and study where his collections were installed and the greater part of his monumental researches were
|Courtesy of Professor W. B. Scott.|
|Packing cases stacked against the walls and in every available space served to accommodate the boxes of fossils, and rough deal tables to lay them out for examination and study.|
carried on. There is something peculiarly affecting and inspiring in the picture of this great paleontologist, maintaining through all these years of straitened circumstance a record of splendid achievement, in a field which beyond most others is supposed to require ample means in order to accomplish much that is worth while. For the most conservative of paleontologists will accord to him a record of accomplished work equalled by few of his confreres in amount and importance.
Time will show how much of Ameghino's contribution to paleontologic theory will stand. But, right or wrong, his challenging of many accepted views has compelled a reconsideration and more careful sifting of the evidence upon which they are based, which can not but be beneficial, whatever conclusions it leads to. In this field he stood forth as the chief exponent of doctrines maintained against strong and widespread opposition, forced into recognition and partial acceptance by the sheer vigor and energy with which he defended them, and the learning and skill with which he marshalled a tremendous array of evidence in their support. I, who disbelieve these views and have taken some share in combating them, can well afford to honor the ability and industry with which they were defended. Heterodoxy is of the life of scientific doctrine, the surest indication of its vigor and progressiveness. Only in decadence will our theories degenerate into a "body of geologic dogma," admitted to universal belief with universal indifference.