A Digital Look at Darwin’s Trove of Prehistoric Fossils


Another <em&gtMegatherium</em> on view at the Natural History Museum.
Another Megatherium on view at the Natural History Museum. Eduard Solà Vázquez/CC By-SA 3.0

The year was 1832. It was decades before Charles Darwin would compile his field notes into a treatise on natural selection, and the naturalist was obsessed with fossils. On the second day ashore at Punta Alta, Argentina, Darwin didn’t return to the Beagle until long after nightfall. He was busy poking and prodding at a cliff—and when he did finally board, it was with a new shipmate: the fossilized skull of Megatherium, a massive ground sloth roughly the size of a modern elephant.

As the ship drifted from one South American port to another, Darwin stockpiled mandibles, molars, skulls, and other bones. Many of these he extracted from rocks himself, or with the help of his shipmates. A few others were purchased. A shilling and a sixpence seemed like a fine price to pay for a skull from Toxodon platensis—a rhino relative—purchased from a now-unknown owner on a farm in Uruguay. When it surfaced in a stream after a deluge, “locals believed it to be giant’s bones,” says Jennifer Pullar of the digital collections team at London’s Natural History Museum. Afterwards, “children had been using the…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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