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The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 106/Physical History of the Valley of the Amazons

 

PHYSICAL HISTORY OF THE VALLEY OF THE AMAZONS.

II.

MAJOR COUTINHO aand myself passed three days in the investigation of the Serra of Erreré. We found it to consist wholly of the sandstone deposits described in my previous article, and to have exactly the same geological constitution. In short, the Serra of Monte Alegre, and of course all those connected with it on the northern side of the river, lie in the prolongation of the lower beds forming the banks of the river, their greater height being due simply to the fact that they have not been worn to the same low level. The opposite range of Santarem, which has the same general outline and character, shares, no doubt, the same geological structure. In one word, all these hills were formerly part of a continuous formation, and owe their present outline and their isolated position to a colossal denudation. The surface of the once unbroken strata, which in their original condition must have formed an immense plain covered by water, has been cut into ravines or carried away over large tracts, to a greater or less depth, leaving only such portions standing as from their hardness could resist the floods which swept over it. The longitudinal trend of these hills is to be ascribed to the direction of the current which caused the denudation, while their level summits are due to the regularity of the stratification. They are not all table-topped, however; among them are many of smaller size, in which the sides have been gradually worn down, producing a gently rounded surface. Of course, under the heavy tropical rains this denudation is still going on, though in a greatly modified form.

I cannot leave this Serra without alluding to the great beauty and extraordinary extent of the view to be obtained from it. Indeed, it was here that for the first time the geography of the country presented itself to my mind as a living reality, in all its completeness. Insignificant as is its actual height, the Serra of Erreré commands a wider prospect than is to be had from many a more imposing mountain; for the surrounding plain, covered with forests, and ploughed by countless rivers, stretches away for hundreds of leagues in every direction, without any object to obstruct the view. Standing on the brow of the Serra, with the numerous lakes intersecting the low lands at its base, you look across the Valley of the Amazons, as far as the eye can reach, and through its midst you follow for miles on either side the broad flood of the great river, carrying its yellow waters to the sea. As I stood there, panoramas from the Swiss mountains came up to my memory, and I fancied myself standing on the Alps, looking across the plain of Switzerland, instead of the bed of the Amazons, the distant line of the Santarem hills on the southern bank of the river, and lower than the northern chain, representing the Jura range. As if to complete the comparison, I found Alpine lichens growing among cactus and palms, and a crust of Arctic cryptogamous growth covered rocks, between which sprang tropical flowers. On the northern flank of this Serra I found the only genuine erratic boulders I have seen in the whole length of the Amazonian Valley, from Pará to the frontier of Peru, though there are many detached masses of rock, as, for instance, at Pedreira, near the junction of the Rio Negro and Rio Branco, which might be mistaken for them, but are due to the decomposition of the rocks in place. The boulders of Erreré are entirely distinct from the rock of the Serra, and consist of masses of compact hornblende.

It would seem that these two ranges skirting a part of the northern and southern banks of the Lower Amazons are not the only remnants of this arenaceous formation in its primitive altitude. On the banks of the Japura, in the Serra of Cupati, Major Coutinho has found the same beds rising to the same height. It thus appears, by positive evidence, that over an extent of a thousand miles these deposits had a very considerable thickness in the present direction of the valley. How far they extended in width has not been ascertained by direct observation, for we have not seen how they sink away to the northward, and towards the south the denudation has been so complete that, except in the very low range of hills in the neighborhood of Santarem, they do not rise above the plain. But the fact that this formation once had a thickness of more than eight hundred feet within the limits where we have had an opportunity of observing it, leaves no doubt that it must have extended to the edge of the basin, filling it to the same height throughout its whole extent. The thickness of the deposits gives a measure for the colossal scale of the denudations by which this immense accumulation was reduced to its present level. Here then is a system of high hills, having the prominence of mountains in the landscape, produced by causes to whose agency inequalities on the earth's surface of this magnitude have never yet been ascribed. We may fairly call them denudation mountains.

At this stage of the inquiry we have to account for two remarkable phenomena. First, the filling of the Amazonian bottom with coarse arenaceous materials and finely laminated clays, immediately followed by sandstones rising to a height of more than eight hundred feet above the sea; the basin meanwhile having no rocky barrier towards the ocean on its eastern side. Second, the wearing away and reduction of these formations to their present level, by a denudation, more extensive than any thus far recorded in the annals of geology, which has given rise to all the most prominent hills and mountain chains along the northern bank of the river. Before seeking an explanation of these facts, let us look at the third and uppermost deposit.

This deposit, essentially the same as the Rio drift, has been minutely described in my former article; but in the north, it presents itself under a somewhat different aspect. As in Rio, it is a clayey deposit, containing more or less sand, and reddish in color, though varying from deep ochre to a brownish tint. It is not so absolutely destitute of stratification here as in its more southern range, though the traces of stratification are rare, and, when they do occur, are faint and indistinct. The materials are also more completely comminuted, and, as I have said above, contain hardly any large masses, though quartz pebbles are sometimes scattered throughout the deposit, and occasionally a thin seam of pebbles, exactly as in the Rio drift, is seen resting between it and the underlying sandstone. In some places this bed of pebbles even intersects the mass of the clay, giving it in such instances an unquestionably stratified character. There can be no question that this more recent formation rests unconformably upon the sandstone beds beneath it; for it fills all the inequalities of their denudated surfaces, whether they be more or less limited furrows, or wide, undulating depressions. It may be seen everywhere along the banks of the river, above the stratified sandstone, sometimes with the river mud accumulated against it; at the season of the enchente, or high water, it is the only formation left exposed above the water level. Its thickness is not great; it varies from twenty or thirty to fifty feet, and may occasionally rise nearly to a hundred feet in height, though this is rarely the case. It is evident that this formation also was once continuous, stretching over the whole basin at one level. Though it is now worn down in many places, and has wholly disappeared in others, its connection may be readily traced; since it is everywhere visible, not only on opposite banks of the Amazons, but also on those of all its tributaries, as far as their shores have been examined. I have said that it rests always above the sandstone beds. This is true, with one exception. Wherever the sandstone deposits retain their original thickness, as in the hills of Monte Alegre and Almeyrim, the red clay is not found on their summits, but occurs only in their ravines and hollows, or resting against their sides. This shows that it is not only posterior to the sandstone, but was accumulated in a shallower basin, and consequently never reached so high a level. The boulders of Erreré do not rest on the stratified sandstone of the Serra, but are sunk in the unstratified mass of the clay. This should be remembered, as it will presently be seen that their position associates them with a later period than that of the mountain itself. The unconformability of the ochraceous clay and the underlying sandstones might lead to the idea that the two formations belong to distinct geological periods, and are not due to the same agency, acting at successive times. One feature, however, shows their close connection. The ochraceous clay exhibits a remarkable identity of configuration with the underlying sandstones. An extensive survey of the two, in their mutual relations, shows clearly that they were both deposited by the same water-system within the same basin, but at different levels. Here and there the clay formation has so pale and grayish a tint, that it may be confounded with the mud deposits of the river. These latter, however, never rise so high as the ochraceous clay, but are everywhere confined within the limits of high and low water. The islands also in the main course of the Amazons consist invariably of river-mud, while those arising from the intersection and cutting off of portions of the land by diverging branches of the main stream always consist of the well-known sandstones, capped by the ochre-colored clay.

It may truly be said that there does not exist on the surface of the earth a formation known to geologists resembling that of the Amazons. Its extent is stupendous; it stretches from the Atlantic shore, through the whole width of Brazil, into Peru, to the very foot of the Andes. Humboldt speaks of it "in the vast plains of the Amazons, in the eastern boundary of Jaen de Bracamoros," and says, "This prodigious extension of red sandstone in the low grounds stretching along the east of the Andes is one of the most striking phenomena I observed during my examination of rocks in the equinoctial regions."[1] When the great natural philosopher wrote these lines, he had no idea how much these deposits extended beyond the field of his observations. Indeed, they are not limited to the main bed of the Amazons; they have been followed along the banks of its tributaries to the south and north as far as these have been ascended. They occur on the margins of the Huallaga and the Ucayall, on those of the Iça, the Jutahy, the Jurua, the Japura, and the Purus. On the banks of the Japura, where Major Coutinho has traced them, they are found as far as the Cataract of Cupati. I have followed them along the Rio Negro to its junction with the Rio Branco; and Humboldt not only describes them from a higher point on this same river, but also from the valley of the Orinoco. Finally, they may be tracked along the banks of the Madeira, the Tapajos, the Xingu, and the Tocantins, as well as on the shores of the Guatuma, the Trombetas, and other northern affluents of the Amazons. The observations of Martius, those of Gardner, and the recent survey above alluded to, made by my assistant, Mr. St. John, of the valley of the Rio Guruguea and that of the Rio Paranahyba, show that the great basin of Piauhy is also identical in its geological structure with the lateral valleys of the Amazons. The same is true of the large island of Marajo, lying at the mouth of the Amazons. And yet I believe that even this does not cover the whole ground, and that some future writer may say of my estimate, as I have said of Humboldt's, that it falls short of the truth; for, if my generalizations are correct, the same formation will be found extending over the whole basin of the Paraguay and the Rio de la Plata, and along their tributaries, to the very heart of the Andes.

Such are the facts. The question now arises, How were these vast deposits formed? The easiest answer, and the one which most readily suggests itself, is that of a submersion of the continent at successive periods to allow the accumulation of these materials, and its subsequent elevation. I reject this explanation for the simple reason that the deposits show no sign whatever of a marine origin. No seashells nor remains of any marine animal have as yet been found throughout their whole extent, over a region several thousand miles in length and from five to seven hundred miles in width. It is contrary to all our knowledge of geological deposits to suppose that an ocean basin of this size, which must have been submerged during an immensely long period in order to accumulate formations of such a thickness, should not contain numerous remains of the animals formerly inhabiting it.[2] The only fossil remains of any kind truly belonging to it, which I have found in the formation, are the leaves mentioned above, taken from the lower clays on the banks of the Solimoens at Tomantins; and these show a vegetation similar in general character to that which prevails there to-day. Evidently, then, this basin was a fresh-water basin; these deposits are fresh-water deposits. But as the Valley of the Amazons exists to-day, it is widely open to the ocean on the east, with a gentle slope from the Andes to the Atlantic, determining a powerful seaward current. When these vast accumulations took place, the basin must have been closed; otherwise the loose materials would constantly have been carried down to the ocean.

It is my belief that all these deposits belong to the ice period in its earlier or later phases, and to this cosmic winter, which, judging from all the phenomena connected with it, may have lasted for thousands of centuries, we must look for the key to the geological history of the Amazonian Valley. I am aware that this suggestion will appear extravagant. But is it, after all, so improbable that, when Central Europe was covered with ice thousands of feet thick; when the glaciers of Great Britain ploughed into the sea, and when those of the Swiss mountains had ten times their present altitude; when every lake in Northern Italy was filled with ice, and these frozen masses extended even into Northern Africa; when a sheet of ice, reaching nearly to the summit of Mount Washington in the White Mountains (that is, having a thickness of nearly six thousand feet), moved over the continent of North America,—is it so improbable that, in this epoch of universal cold, the Valley of the Amazons also had its glacier poured down into it from the accumulations of snow in the Cordilleras, and swollen laterally by the tributary glaciers descending from the table-lands of Guiana and Brazil? The movement of this immense glacier would be eastward, and determined as well by the vast reservoirs of snow in the Andes as by the direction of the valley itself. It must have ploughed the valley bottom over and over again, grinding all the materials beneath it into a fine powder or reducing them to small pebbles, and it must have accumulated at its lower end a moraine of proportions as gigantic as its own; thus building a colossal sea-wall across the mouth of the valley. I shall be asked at once whether I have found here also the glacial inscriptions,—the furrows, striæ, and polished surfaces so characteristic of the ground over which glaciers have travelled. I answer, not a trace of them; for the simple reason that there is not a natural rock surface to be found throughout the whole Amazonian Valley. The rocks themselves are of so friable a nature, and the decomposition caused by the warm torrential rains and by exposure to the burning sun of the tropics so great and unceasing, that it is hopeless to look for marks which in colder climates and on harder substances are preserved through ages unchanged. With the exception of the rounded surfaces so well known in Switzerland as the roches moutonnées heretofore alluded to, which may be seen in many localities, and the boulders of Erreré, the direct traces of glaciers as seen in other countries are wanting here. I am, indeed, quite willing to admit that, from the nature of the circumstances, I have not here the positive evidence which has guided me in my previous glacial investigations. My conviction in this instance is founded, first, on the materials in the Amazonian Valley, which correspond exactly in their character to materials accumulated in glacier bottoms; secondly, on the resemblance of the upper or third Amazonian formation to the Rio drift,[3] of the glacial origin of which there cannot, in my opinion, be any doubt; thirdly, on the fact that this fresh-water basin must have been closed against the sea by some powerful barrier, the removal of which would naturally give an outlet to the waters, and cause the extraordinary denudations, the evidences of which meet us everywhere throughout the valley.

On a smaller scale, phenomena of this kind have long been familiar to us. In the present lakes of Northern Italy, in those of Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden, as well as in those of New England, especially in the State of Maine, the waters are held back in their basins by moraines. In the ice period these depressions were filled with glaciers, which, in the course of time, accumulated at their lower end a wall of loose materials. These walls still remain, and serve as dams to prevent the escape of the waters. But for their moraines, all these lakes would be open valleys. In the Roads of Glen Roy, in Scotland, we have an instance of a fresh-water lake, which has now wholly disappeared, formed in the same manner, and reduced successively to lower and lower levels by the breaking down or wearing away of the moraines which originally prevented its waters from flowing out. Assuming then, that, under the low temperature of the ice period, the climatic conditions necessary for the formation of land-ice existed in the Valley of the Amazons, and that it was actually filled with an immense glacier, it follows that, when these fields of ice yielded to a gradual change of climate, and slowly melted away, the whole basin, then closed against the sea by a huge wall of débris, was transformed into a vast fresh-water lake. The first effect of the thawing process must have been to separate the glacier from its foundation, raising it from immediate contact with the valley bottom, and thus giving room for the accumulation of a certain amount of water beneath it; while the valley as a whole would still be occupied by the glacier. In this shallow sheet of water under the ice, and protected by it from any violent disturbance, those finer triturated materials always found at a glacier bottom, and ground sometimes to powder by its action, would be deposited, and gradually transformed from an unstratified paste containing the finest sand and mud, together with coarse pebbles and gravel, into a regularly stratified formation. In this formation the coarse materials would of course fall to the bottom, while the most minute would settle above them. It is at this time and under such circumstances that I believe the first formation of the Amazonian Valley, with the coarse, pebbly sand beneath, and the finely laminated clays above, to have been accumulated.

I shall perhaps be reminded here of my fossil leaves, and asked how any vegetation would be possible under such circumstances. But it must be remembered, that, in considering all these periods, we must allow for immense lapses of time and for very gradual changes; that the close of this first period would be very different from its beginning; and that a rich vegetation springs on the very borders of the snow and ice fields in Switzerland. The fact that these were accumulated in a glacial basin would, indeed, at once account for the traces of vegetable life, and for the absence, or at least the great scarcity, of animal remains in these deposits. For while fruits may ripen and flowers bloom on the very edge of the glaciers, it is also well known that the fresh-water lakes formed by the melting of the ice are singularly deficient in life. There are indeed hardly any animals to be found in glacial lakes.

The second formation belongs to a later period, when, the whole body of ice being more or less disintegrated, the basin contained a larger quantity of water. Beside that arising from the melting of the ice, this immense valley bottom must have received, then as now, all which was condensed from the atmosphere above, and poured into it in the form of rain or dew. Thus an amount of water equal to that now flowing in from all the tributaries of the main stream must have been rushing towards the axis of the valley, seeking its natural level, but spreading over a more extensive surface than now, until, finally gathered up as separate rivers, it flowed in distinct beds. In its general movement toward the central and lower part of the valley, the broad stream would carry along all the materials small enough to be so transported, as well as those so minute as to remain suspended in the waters. It would gradually deposit them in the valley bottom in horizontal beds, more or less regular, or here and there, wherever eddies gave rise to more rapid and irregular currents, characterized by torrential stratification. Thus has been consolidated in the course of ages that continuous sand formation spreading over the whole Amazonian basin, and attaining a thickness of eight hundred feet.

While these accumulations were taking place within this basin, it must not be forgotten that the sea was beating against its outer walls,—against that gigantic moraine which I suppose to have closed it at its eastern end. It would seem that, either from this cause, or perhaps in consequence of some turbulent action from within, a break was made in this defence, and the waters rushed violently out. It is very possible that the waters, gradually swollen at the close of this period by the further melting of the ice, by the additions poured in from lateral tributaries, by the rains, and also by the filling of the basin with loose materials, would overflow, and thus contribute to destroy the moraine. However this may be, it follows from my premises that, in the end, these waters obtained a sudden release, and poured seaward with a violence which cut and denuded the deposits already formed, wearing them down to a much lower level, and leaving only a few remnants standing out in their original thickness, where the strata were solid enough to resist the action of the currents. Such are the hills of Monte Alegre, of Obydos, Almeyrim, and Cupati, as well as the lower ridges of Santarem. This escape of the waters did not, however, entirely empty the whole basin; for the period of denudation was again followed by one of quiet accumulation, during which was deposited the ochraceous sandy clay resting upon the denudated surfaces of the underlying sandstone. To this period I refer the boulders of Erreré, sunk as they are in the clay of this final deposit. I suppose them to have been brought to their present position by floating ice at the close of the glacial period, when nothing remained of the ice-fields except such isolated masses,—ice-rafts as it were; or perhaps by icebergs dropped into the basin from glaciers still remaining in the Andes and on the edges of the plateaus of Guiana and Brazil. From the general absence of stratification in this clay formation, it would seem that the comparatively shallow sheet of water in which it was deposited was very tranquil. Indeed, after the waters had sunk much below the level which they held during the deposition of the sandstone, and the currents which gave rise to the denudation of the latter had ceased, the whole sheet of water would naturally become much more placid. But the time came when the water broke through its boundaries again, perhaps owing to the further encroachment of the sea and consequent destruction of the moraine. In this second drainage, however, the waters, carrying away a considerable part of the new deposit, furrowing it to its very foundation, and even cutting through it into the underlying sandstone, were, in the end, reduced to something like their present level, and confined within their present beds. This is shown by the fact that in this ochre-colored clay, and penetrating to a greater or less depth the sandstone below, are dug, not only the great longitudinal channel of the Amazons itself, but also the lateral furrows through which its tributaries reach the main stream, and the network of anastomosing branches flowing between them; the whole forming the most extraordinary river system in the world.

My assumption that the sea has produced very extensive changes in the coast of Brazil—changes more than sufficient to account for the disappearance of the glacial wall which I suppose to have closed the Amazonian Valley in the ice period—is by no means hypothetical. This action is still going on to a remarkable degree, and is even now rapidly modifying the outline of the shore. When I first arrived at Pará, I was struck with the fact that the Amazons, the largest river in the world, has no delta. All the other rivers which we call great, though some of them are insignificant as compared with the Amazons,—the Mississippi, the Nile, the Ganges, and the Danube,—deposit extensive deltas, and the smaller rivers also, with few exceptions, are constantly building up the land at their mouths by the materials they bring along with them. Even the little river Kander, emptying into the Lake of Thun, is not without its delta. Since my return from the Upper Amazons to Pará, I have made an examination of some of the harbor islands, and also of parts of the coast, and have satisfied myself that, with the exception of a few small, low islands, never rising above the sea-level, and composed of alluvial deposit, they are portions of the mainland detached from it, partly by the action of the river itself, and partly by the encroachment of the ocean. In fact the sea is eating away the land much faster than the river can build it up. The great island of Marajo was originally a continuation of the Valley of the Amazons, and is identical with it in every detail of its geological structure. My investigation of the island itself, in connection with the coast and the river, leads me to suppose that, having been at one time an integral part of the deposits described above, at a later period it became an island in the bed of the Amazons, which, dividing in two arms, encircled it completely, and then, joining again to form a single stream, flowed onward to the sea-shore, which in those days lay much farther to the eastward than it now does. I suppose the position of the island of Marajo at that time to have corresponded very nearly to the present position of the island of Tupinambaranas, just at the junction of the Madeira with the Amazons. It is a question among geographers whether the Tocantins is a branch of the Amazons, or should be considered as forming an independent river system. It will be seen that, if my view is correct, it must formerly have borne the same relation to the Amazons that the Madeira River now does, joining it just where Marajo divided the main stream, as the Madeira now joins it at the head of the island of Tupinambaranas. If in countless centuries to come the ocean should continue to eat its way into the Valley of the Amazons, once more transforming the lower part of the basin into a gulf, as it was during the cretaceous period, the time might arrive when geographers, finding the Madeira emptying almost immediately into the sea, would ask themselves whether it had ever been indeed a branch of the Amazons, just as they now question whether the Tocantins is a tributary of the main stream or an independent river. But to return to Marajo, and to the facts actually in our possession.

The island is intersected, in its south-eastern end, by a considerable river called the Igarapé Grande. The cut made through the land by this stream seems intended to serve as a geological section, so perfectly does it display the three characteristic Amazonian formations above described. At its mouth, near the town of Souré, and at Salvaterra, on the opposite bank, may be seen, lowest, the well-stratified sandstone, with the finely laminated clays resting upon it, overtopped by a crust; then the cross-stratified, highly ferruginous sandstone, with quartz pebbles here and there; and, above all, the well-known ochraceous, unstratified sandy clay, spreading over the undulating surface of the denudated sandstone, following all its inequalities, and filling all its depressions and furrows. But while the Igarapé Grande has dug its channel down to the sea, cutting these formations, as I ascertained, to a depth of twenty-five fathoms, it has thus opened the way for the encroachments of the tides, and the ocean is now, in its turn, gaining upon the land. Were there no other evidence of the action of the tides in this locality, the steep cut of the Igarapé Grande, contrasting with the gentle slope of the banks near its mouth, wherever they have been, modified by the invasion of the sea, would enable us to distinguish the work of the river from that of the ocean, and to prove that the denudation now going on is due in part to both. But besides this, I was so fortunate as to discover here unmistakable and perfectly convincing evidence of the onward movement of the sea. At the mouth of the Igarapé Grande, both at Souré and at Salvaterra, on the southern side of the Igarapé, is a submerged forest. Evidently this forest grew in one of those marshy lands constantly inundated, for between the stumps is accumulated the loose, felt-like peat characteristic of such grounds, and containing about as much mud as vegetable matter. Such a marshy forest, with the stumps of the trees still standing erect in the peat, has been laid bare on both sides of the Igarapé Grande by the encroachments of the ocean. That this is the work of the sea is undeniable, for all the little depressions and indentations of the peat are filled with sea-sand, and a ridge of tidal sand divides it from the forest still standing behind. Nor is this all. At Vigia, immediately opposite to Souré, on the continental side of the Pará River, just where it meets the sea, we have the counterpart of this submerged forest. Another peat-bog, with the stumps of innumerable trees standing in it, and encroached upon in the same way by tidal sand, is exposed here also. No doubt these forests were once all continuous, and stretched across the whole basin of what is now called the Pará River.

Since I have been pursuing this inquiry, I have gathered much information to the same effect from persons living on the coast. It is well remembered that, twenty years ago, there existed an island, more than a mile in width, to the northeast of the entrance of the Bay of Vigia, which has now entirely disappeared. Farther eastward, the Bay of Braganza has doubled its width in the last twenty years, and on the shore, within the bay, the sea has gained upon the land for a distance of two hundred yards during a period of only ten years. The latter fact is ascertained by the position of some houses, which were two hundred yards farther from the sea ten years ago than they now are. From these and the like reports, from my own observations on this part of the Brazilian coast, from some investigations made by Major Coutinho at the mouth of the Amazons, on its northern continental shore, near Macapa, and from the reports of Mr. St. John respecting the formations in the valley of the Paranahyba, it is my belief that the changes I have been describing are but a small part of the destruction wrought by the sea on the northeastern shore of this continent. I think it will be found, when the coast has been fully surveyed, that a strip of land not less than a hundred leagues in width, stretching from Cape St. Roque to the northern extremity of South America, has been eaten away by the ocean. If this be so, the Paranahyba and the rivers to the northwest of it, in the province of Maranham, were formerly tributaries of the Amazons; and all that we know thus far of their geological character goes to prove that this was actually the case. Such an extensive oceanic denudation must have carried away not only the gigantic glacial moraine here assumed to have closed the mouth of the Amazonian basin, but the very ground on which it stood.

During the last four or five years I have been engaged in a series of investigations, in the United States, upon the subject of the denudations connected with the close of the glacial period there, and the encroachments of the ocean upon the drift deposits along the Atlantic coast. Had these investigations been published in detail, with the necessary maps, it would have been far easier for me to explain the facts I have lately observed in the Amazonian Valley, to connect them with facts of a like character on the continent of North America, and to show how remarkably they correspond with facts accomplished during the same period in other parts of the world. While the glacial epoch itself has been very extensively studied in the last half-century, little attention has been paid to the results connected with the breaking up of the geological winter and the final disappearance of the ice. I believe that the true explanation of the presence of a large part of the superficial deposits lately ascribed to the agency of the sea, during temporary subsidences of the land, will be found in the melting of the ice-fields. To this cause I would refer all those deposits which I have designated in former publications as remodelled drift. When the sheet of ice, extending from the Arctic regions over a great part of North America and coming down to the sea, slowly melted away, the waters were not distributed over the face of the country as they now are. They rested upon the bottom deposits of the ice-fields, upon the glacial paste, consisting of clay, sand, pebbles, boulders, etc., underlying the ice. This bottom deposit did not, of course, present an even surface, but must have had extensive undulations and depressions. After the waters had been drained off from the more elevated ridges, these depressions would still remain full. In the lakes and pools thus formed, stratified deposits would be accumulated, consisting of the most minutely comminuted clay, deposited in thin laminated layers, or sometimes in considerable masses, without any sign of stratification; such differences in the formation being determined by the state of the water, whether perfectly stagnant or more or less agitated. Of such pool deposits overlying the drift there are many instances in the Northern United States. By the overflowing of some of these lakes, and by the emptying of the higher ones into those on a lower level, channels would gradually be formed between the depressions. So began to be marked out our independent river-systems,—the waters always seeking their natural level, gradually widening and deepening the channels in which they flowed, as they worked their way down to the sea. When they reached the shore, there followed that antagonism between the rush of the rivers and the action of the tides,—between continental outflows and oceanic encroachments,—which still goes on, and has led to the formation of our eastern rivers, with their wide, open estuaries, such as the James, the Potomac, and the Delaware. All these estuaries are embanked by drift, as are also, in their lower course, the rivers connected with them. Where the country was low and flat, and the drift extended far into the ocean, the encroachment of the sea gave rise, not only to our large estuaries, but also to the sounds and deep bays forming the most prominent indentations of the continental coast, such as the Bay of Fundy, Massachusetts Bay, Long Island Sound, and others. The unmistakable traces of glacial action upon all the islands along the coast of New England, sometimes lying at a very considerable distance from the mainland, give an approximate, though a minimum, measure of the former extent of the glacial drift seaward, and the subsequent advance of the ocean upon the land. Like those of the harbor of Pará, all these islands have the same geological structure as the continent, and were evidently continuous with it at some former period. All the rocky islands along the coast of Maine and Massachusetts exhibit the glacial traces wherever their surfaces are exposed by the washing away of the drift; and where the drift remains, its character shows that it was once continuous from one island to another, and from all the islands to the mainland.

It is difficult to determine with precision the ancient limit of the glacial drift, but I think it can be shown that it connected the shoals of Newfoundland with the continent; that Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard, and Long Island made part of the mainland; that, in like manner, Nova Scotia, including Sable Island, was united to the southern shore of New Brunswick and Maine, and that the same sheet of drift extended thence to Cape Cod, and stretched southward as far as Cape Hatteras;—in short, that the line of shallow soundings along the whole coast of the United States marks the former extent of glacial drift. The ocean has gradually eaten its way into this deposit, and given its present outlines to the continent. These denudations of the sea no doubt began as soon as the breaking up of the ice exposed the drift to its invasion; in other words, at a time when colossal glaciers still poured forth their load of ice into the Atlantic, and fleets of icebergs, far larger and more numerous than those now floated off from the Arctic seas, were launched from the northeastern shore of the United States. Many such masses must have stranded along the shore, and have left various signs of their presence. In fact, the glacial phenomena of the United States and elsewhere are due to two distinct periods: the first of these was the glacial epoch proper, when the ice was a solid sheet; while to the second belongs the breaking up of this epoch, with the gradual disintegration and dispersion of the ice. We talk of the theory of glaciers and the theory of icebergs in reference to these phenomena, as if they were exclusively due to one or the other, and whoever accepted the former must reject the latter, and vice versa. When geologists have combined these now discordant elements, and consider these two periods as consecutive,—part of the phenomena being due to the glaciers, part to the icebergs and to freshets consequent on their breaking up,—they will find they have covered the whole ground, and that the two theories are perfectly consistent with each other. I think the present disputes upon this subject will end somewhat like those which divided the Neptunic and Plutonic schools of geologists in the early part of this century; the former of whom would have it that all the rocks were due to the action of water, the latter that they were wholly due to the action of fire. The problem was solved, and harmony restored, when it was found that both elements had been equally at work in forming the solid crust of the globe. To the stranded icebergs alluded to above, I have no doubt, is to be referred the origin of the many lakes without outlet existing all over the sandy tract along our coast of which Cape Cod forms a part. Not only the formation of these lakes, but also that of our salt marshes and cranberry-fields, I believe to be connected with the waning of the ice period.

I hope at some future time to publish in detail, with the appropriate maps and illustrations, my observations on our coast changes, and upon other phenomena connected with the close of the glacial epoch in the United States. It is reversing the natural order of things to give results without the investigations which have led to them; and I should not have introduced the subject here except to show that the fresh-water denudations and the oceanic encroachments which have formed the Amazonian Valley, with its river system, are not isolated facts, but that the process has been the same in both continents. The extraordinary continuity and uniformity of the Amazonian deposits are due to the immense size of the basin enclosed, and the identity of the materials contained in it.

A glance at any geological map of the world will show the reader that the Valley of the Amazons, so far as any attempt is made to explain its structure, is represented as containing isolated tracts of Devonian, Triassic, Jurassic, cretaceous, tertiary, and alluvial deposits. As is shown by the above sketch, this is wholly inaccurate; and whatever may be thought of my interpretation of the actual phenomena, I trust that, in presenting for the first time the formations of the Amazonian basin in their natural connection and sequence, as consisting of three uniform sets of comparatively recent deposits, extending throughout the whole valley, the investigations here recorded have contributed something to the results of modern geology.


  1. Bohn's edition of Humboldt's Personal Narrative, p. 134. Humboldt alludes to these formations repeatedly; it is true that he refers them to the ancient conglomerates of the Devonian age, but his description agrees so perfectly with what I have observed along the banks of the Amazons, that there can be no doubt he speaks of the same thing. He wrote at a time when many of the results of modern geology were unknown, and his explanation of the phenomena was then perfectly natural. The passage from which the few lines in the text are taken shows that these deposits extend even to the Llanos.
  2. I am aware that Bates mentions having heard, that at Obydos calcareous layers, thickly studded with marine shells, had been found interstratified with the clay, but he did not himself examine the strata. The Obydos shells are not marine, but are fresh-water Unios, greatly resembling Aviculas, Solens, and Arcas. Such would-be marine fossils have been brought to me from the shore opposite to Obydos, near Santarem, and I have readily recognised them for what they truly are, fresh-water shells of the family of Naiades. I have myself collected specimens of these shells in the clay beds along the banks of the Solimoens, near Teffe, and might have mistaken them for fossils of that formation had I not known how Naiades burrow in the mud. Their resemblance to the marine genera mentioned above is very remarkable, and the mistake as to their true zoological character is as natural as that by which earlier ichthyologists, and even travellers of very recent date, have confounded some fresh-water fishes from the Upper Amazons of the genus Pterophyllum (Heckel) with the marine genus Platax.
  3. As I have stated in the beginning, I am satisfied that the unstratified clay deposit of Rio and its vicinity is genuine glacial drift, resulting from the grinding of the loose materials interposed between the glacier and the solid rock in place, and retaining to this day the position in which it was left by the ice. Like all such accumulations, it is totally free from stratification. If this be so, it is evident, on comparing the two formations, that the ochraceous sandy clay of the Valley of the Amazons has been deposited under different circumstances; that, while it owes its resemblance to the Rio drift to the fact that its materials were originally ground by glaciers in the upper part of the valley, these materials have subsequently been spread throughout the whole basin and actually deposited under the agency of water.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.