The Naturalist in Nicaragua, by Thomas Belt

Chapter 14.

Great range composed of boulder clay. Daraily. Lost on the savannahs. Jamaily. A deer-hunter’s family. Totagalpa. Walls covered with cement, and whitewashed. Ocotal. The valley of Depilto. Hawks and small birds. Depilto. Silver mine. Geology of the valley. Glacial drift. The glacial period in Central America. Evidence that the ice extended to the tropics. Scarcity of gold in the valley gravels. Difference of the Mollusca on the east and west coast of the Isthmus of Darien. The refuge of the tropical American animals and plants during the glacial period. The lowering of the sea-level. The land shells of the West Indian Islands. The Malay Archipelago. Easter Island. Atlantis. Traditions of the deluge.

BIDDING adieu to our hosts, we mounted our mules and descended the ridge on which their hut is built. The range was very steep, and fully 1200 feet high, composed entirely of boulder clay. This clay was of a brown colour, and full of angular and subangular blocks of stone of all sizes up to nine feet in diameter. The hill on the slope that we descended was covered with a forest resembling that around Santo Domingo, though the trees were not so large; but tree-ferns, palms, lianas, and broad-leaved Heliconiae and Melastomae were again abundant. In these forests, I was told, the “Quesal,” the royal bird of the Aztecs (Trogon resplendens), is sometimes found.

After descending about 1000 feet, we issued from the forest and passed over well-grassed savannahs surrounded by high ranges, on the eastern slopes of which were forests of pine-trees. The ground was entirely composed of boulder clay, and not until we had travelled about five miles did we see any rock in situ. This boulder clay had extended all the way from San Rafael, and ranges of hills appeared to be composed entirely of it. The angular and subangular stones that it contained were an irregular mixture of different varieties of trap, conglomerate, and schistose rocks. In the northern states of America such appearances would be unhesitatingly ascribed to the action of ice, but I was at the time unprepared to believe that the glacial period could have left such a memorial of its existence within the tropics, at no greater elevation above the sea than 3000 feet.

Riding on without stopping, we passed through Yales, a small village of scattered huts, and reached a river flowing north through a fine alluvial plain almost uninhabited. After crossing the river three times, we turned off to the north-west, and passed over low grassy ranges with scattered pine-trees, and in the hollows a few clearings for growing maize, wheat, and beans. At noon we halted for an hour to let our mules feed on a small alluvial flat, for they had had nothing to eat the night before on the bleak mountain summit.

Continuing our journey, we arrived at Daraily, where was a fine large clearing, with stone walls and a sugar-mill. The house was about half a mile from the road, at the foot of a hill covered with scattered pine-trees, forming a fine background to the scene. The farm was well cultivated, and kept clean from weeds. Altogether the scene was a most unusual one for the central provinces of Nicaragua, and reflected great credit on the proprietor, Don Estevan Espinosa. Had Nicaragua many such sons they would soon change the face of the country, and turn many a wilderness into a fruitful garden.

Passing over a stony range, we descended by a steep pass into the valley of the Estely, and followed it down to the westward across low dry hills with prickly bushes and scrub. About five o’clock we reached an extensive plain, covered with prickly trees and shrubs, and pressed on to get to the village of Palacaguina, where we proposed to pass the night. There were many paths leading across the plain, and there was no person to be seen to direct us which to take; whilst the scrubby trees interrupted our view in every direction. Rito had once before been in the neighbourhood, and thought he knew the way, so we submitted ourselves to his guidance; but, as it proved, he took a path which led us past, instead of to, the town. Night set in as we were pushing across dry weed-covered hills, destitute of grass or water, every minute expecting to meet some one who could tell us about the road. Rito was still confident that he was right, although both Velasquez and myself had concluded we must have got on the wrong road. The only animal we met with was a black and white skunk, with a young one following it. The mother ran too fast up a rocky slope for the young one, which was left behind, and came towards us. It was very pretty, with its snow-white bushy tail laid over its black back. We were, however, afraid to touch it, fearing that, young as it was, it might have a supply of that foetid fluid that its kind discharge with too sure an aim at any assailant. The skunks move slowly about, and their large white tails render them very conspicuous. Their formidable means of defence makes for them the obscure colouration of other dusk-roaming mammals unnecessary, as they do not need concealment.

Hour after hour passed, and we reached no house, nor met any one on the road; and at last, about nine o’clock, we determined to stop at a spot where there was a little grass, but no water, as the poor jaded mules had been ridden since daylight, excepting for an hour at midday. We spread our waterproof sheet from the branch of a tree, and lay down dinnerless and supperless, having had nothing but a little sweet bread and native cheese all day; we were now too thirsty to eat even that. Hearing some frogs croaking in the distance, Velasquez went away in the direction from whence the sound came, hoping to find some water: but there was none, the frogs being in damp cracks in the ground. About eleven we heard the noise of men talking; and holloaing to them, our shouts were returned. We ran across the plain, through the bushes, and found two Indians, who were returning from some plantations of maize to their home, several miles distant. Both were nearly naked, the youngest having only a loin-cloth on. When talking to us, they shouted as if we were many yards distant; and as soon as one began to answer a question, the other went on repeating, in a higher key, what the first said.

They told us that we had come two leagues past Palacaguina, and were on the road to a small town called Pueblo Nuevo, and directed us how we should find the right track in the morning for continuing our journey to Ocotal. They were highly amused at our misadventure, and laughed and talked to each other about it. Rito also laughed much at the mistake he had made, and though disposed to be angry at his obstinacy in bringing us several miles out of our course, we knew that he had done his best. All the native servants, when they make a mistake, or do any damage accidentally, treat it as a joke; and it is best, under such circumstances, to be good-humoured with them, as, if reproved, they are very likely to turn sulky, and do some more damage. They are independent, and care nothing about being discharged, as any one can live in Nicaragua without working much. Rito was an active, merry fellow, and might every now and then be observed laughing to himself; if asked what it was about, he was sure to answer that he was thinking about some little accident that had occurred. I once, when trying to loop up the side of my hammock, fell out of it, and next day Rito could not control himself, but was continually exploding in a burst of laughter; and for days afterwards any allusion to it would set him into convulsions. When we returned to Santo Domingo, it was one of his stock stories. He used to say he wanted very much to come to my assistance, but could not for laughing.

Next morning we started at daylight, and soon found the path the Indians had told us about, which took us to a place called Jamaily (pronounced Hamerlee), where was an extensive indigo plantation. About 100 men were employed weeding and clearing the ground. No fences are required for indigo growing, as neither horses nor cattle will eat the plant. A mile beyond Jamaily we saw, amongst some bushes, a poor-looking, grass-thatched hut, with the sides made of an open work of branches and leaves. We went up to it to try to buy something to eat, but found only three children in it; the oldest, a very dirty little girl of about five years of age, with a piece of cloth worn like a shawl, her only clothing, and the two younger quite naked. A little boy, about three years old, was very talkative, and prattled away all the time we were there. He said that some people living near had four cows, but that they had none; that his father shot deer and sold their skins, and that two days before he fired at a rock, thinking it was a deer.

We heated some water and made tea, and with some sweet bread and native cheese managed to allay our hunger, the little boy amusing us all the time with his prattle. Pointing to a mangy dog lying on the floor covered with some old rags, he said it had fever, and that at night it threw off the rags, and the fleas got at it, but that during the day he kept it well covered up. I was amused with the little fellow, who in that squalid hut, without a scrap of clothing, and fed with the coarsest food, was as happy as, if not happier than, any child I had seen. By and by an elder girl came along from some other hut, and told us that the man was away hunting for deer, and that his wife had gone to her mother’s, about a mile distant. She also informed us that the hunter had not a gun of his own, but gave half the meat of the deer he killed for the loan of one. He had a trained ox, which, as soon as it saw a deer, commenced eating, and walking gradually towards it; whilst the man followed, concealed, and thus got within distance to shoot it. He generally got two when he went out, and sold the hides for twenty cents per pound, the skins averaging five pounds’ weight each. It is astonishing that deer should be so little afraid of man as they are, after having been objects of chase for probably thousands of years. Sometimes when one is encountered in the forest it will stand within twenty yards stupidly gazing at a man, or perhaps striking the ground impatiently with its forefoot, and often waiting long enough for an unloaded gun to be charged. The woman of the house came in before we left and we paid her for the use of her fire. She did not know how old her children were, and Velasquez told me that very few of the lower classes in Nicaragua knew either their own age or that of their children.

The soil about here, for many leagues, was full of small angular fragments of white quartz. They had attracted my attention the day before, and I now found they were derived from thick beds of conglomerate, the decomposition of which released the fragments of quartz, of which it was mainly composed. Many of these beds of conglomerate were inclined at high angles. I noticed also some contorted, highly inclined talcose schists, full of small quartz veins, generally running between the laminae of the schists. Probably the conglomerates had been produced by the wearing down of these schists.

We passed through two Indian towns — the first Yalaguina, the second Totagalpa. At the last the church looked very clean and pretty, and was ornamented with a single square tower, built of rough stones, and covered with white cement that glistened like marble at a short distance. The peculiar shining appearance of the cement is due to the admixture of a fine black sand in the whitewash used. The cement itself is strong and durable, and its manufacture was known to the Indians long before the advent of the Spaniards. Bernal Diaz de Castillo, one of the followers of Cortez, often speaks, in his history, of the houses built of stone and lime, and covered with cement. On their march to Mexico, when they arrived at Cempoal, he says, “Our advanced guard having gone to the great square, the buildings of which had been recently plastered and whitewashed, in which art the people are very expert, one of our horsemen was so struck with the splendour of their appearance in the sun that he came back in full speed to Cortez to tell him that the walls of the houses were of silver.” We also learn from the same historian that the city of Cholula “had at that time above 100 lofty white towers, which were the temples of their idols.”

Between Yalaguina and Totagalpa there was much of the conglomerate rock that I have already mentioned. Over this the soil was dry and stony, and filled with small quartz pebbles. The vegetation was scanty, principally thorny shrubs and trees. Amongst the former the Pinuela, a plant closely allied to the pine-apple, and used to make fences, was the most abundant. In the alluvial flats were many fine patches of maize looking extremely well, for in Segovia the crops had not been injured by drought. The low hills were very sandy and dry, and the beds of the brooks waterless, but a little beyond Totagalpa we found a small running stream, and stopped an hour to refresh our mules and to eat some provisions we had bought at Yalaguina.

All through Segovia the country is divided into townships, embracing an area of from twenty to twenty-five square leagues. Over each of these there is an alcalde, living in the small central town, and elected by the inhabitants of the townships. The boundaries are marked by heaps of stones surmounted by wooden crosses, set up on the roads leading from one town to another.

After riding a few more leagues over rocky hills with scanty vegetation, we came in sight, from the top of one of the ranges, of the town of Ocotal, the capital of Segovia, with its white walls and red-tiled roofs. Descending a long rocky slope we forded one of the affluents of the Rio Wanks, and half a mile further on arrived at the town, situated on a dry plain. A heavy thunderstorm broke over us as we entered the town, and the rain came down in torrents whilst we were searching for a house to put up at. In answer to our inquiries we were directed to the best house in the town. It was situated at the corner of the plaza, had lofty well-built walls, large doors and gateway, clean tiled floors, and in the courtyard behind a pretty flower garden, with a tank to hold rain water. We were received by two elderly ladies, the sisters of the owner Don Pedro, who made us welcome in a stately sort of way, and got some dinner prepared, consisting of beans, tortillas, avocados, and coffee.

We learnt that the present town was about seventy years old and not very flourishing, as the land around was dry and sterile. The old capital of Segovia was situated five leagues further down the river, where the land around was fertile. But the buccaneers came up the river in their boats and sacked the town, and the site was deserted for one more difficult of access, the river being much shallower and obstructed by rapids higher up. At the site of the old town the church still stands, but only a few poor Negroes live there now. Two branches of the river unite a little below the present town, and following it down for about four days’ journey a place named Cocos is reached, which is the furthest settlement of the Spaniards towards the Atlantic. To this point large bungos come up the river, and Don Pedro had been very wishful to get it opened out above for navigation, but had not succeeded.

There were very few men to be hired at Ocotal, and we determined to go on to Depilto, a small mining town near the Honduras boundary, where we were assured there were plenty to be obtained. We had only engaged the mules to come as far as Ocotal, and had great difficulty in getting others to go on with. I think the people at first were afraid that we might cross the boundary and never return. We afterwards learnt that robberies of mules often took place; some rogues making a business of stealing mules out of Honduras, bringing them into Nicaragua, selling them, and stealing others to return with. There were, however, some people in Ocotal who had worked at the mines and knew us, and when this information spread we had the offer of several animals. If we had known the cause of the reluctance of the people to let us have mules at first, we should easily have got over the difficulty by leaving the value of the animals in the hands of some responsible person, but the owners had made all sorts of excuses for not lending them, and we had not suspected the true cause. We had been travelling continually for nine days, and looked more like brigands than honest travellers, and the good easy-going people of Ocotal had their suspicions about us.

As I have said, when satisfied of our good faith, the mule owners soon offered us the use of their beasts, and next morning Velasquez and I started at seven o’clock on two fine fresh mules and rode merrily up the valley of the Depilto. The river rises in the high ranges that form the boundary between Honduras and Nicaragua, and running down past Depilto joins the Ocotal river a little below the capital. Our road lay up the valley close to the river, which we crossed and recrossed several times. The vegetation was scanty, but the morning was a lovely one after the thunderstorm of the night before, and we greatly enjoyed our ride. We did not see many birds, a pretty hawk that I shot being the most noticeable. Hawks of various kinds are very abundant in the tropics, and if the small birds had to personify death, they would certainly represent him as one, for this is the form in which he must generally appear to them. Towards evening the hawk glides noiselessly along and alights on a bough, near where he hears the small birds twittering amongst the bushes. Perhaps they see him and are quiet for a little, but he sits motionless as the sphinx, and they soon get over their fear and resume their play or feeding. Then suddenly a dark mass swoops down and rises again. It is the hawk, with a small bird grasped in his strong talons, gasping out its last breath. Its comrades are terror-struck for a moment and dash madly into the thickets, but soon forget their fear. They chirp to each other, the scattered birds reunite; there is a fluttering and twittering, a rearranging of mates, then again songs, feeding, love, jealousy, and bickerings.

The banks of the river were sandy and sterile, and the soil contained much small quartz. The bed rock was a talcose schist near to Ocotal, but higher up the river it changed to gneissoid and quartz rocks, the latter in hard and massive beds. As we ascended the valley, the ranges bounding it got higher and steeper, the soil more sandy and barren, with scattered pine trees growing amongst the rocks. Great, bare, rounded masses of hard quartzite protruded through the scanty soil, and in the river were enormous boulders of granite-like gneiss.

Depilto is only nine miles from Ocotal, but we took three hours to reach it, as I made many stoppages to examine the rocks and to catch fleet-limbed speckled tiger-beetles on the sandy roads. The little town was not half populated, the silver-mines had been closed for some time, most of the houses were empty, and the people still clinging about the place seemed to have nothing to do, for the land is too barren for cultivation. We made known our requirements for labourers, and were assured that plenty would be glad to go to Santo Domingo. They would not, however, bind themselves there, but preferred to go down untrammelled with any conditions about pay or work, and I may anticipate here by saying that the result of our visit was very satisfactory, numbers of workmen having been obtained for the mines.

After getting some breakfast at a house that seemed to be the hotel of Depilto, we set out to visit a silver-mine named “El Coquimba.” We had to ascend a high range opposite the town, and found riding over the steep bare exposures of quartz rock so difficult and dangerous that about half way up we tied our mules to some young pine trees and proceeded on foot. The mine was abandoned, and the shafts and levels were closed by falls of rock. Some of the ore, sulphide of silver, was lying at the mouth of one of the old shafts. Our guide told us that the lode was two feet wide. Both it and the containing rock was very hard, and the miners had also water to contend against. I do not think from what I saw that the mine could be made to pay on a large scale, though next the surface small remunerative deposits of ore had been found. In depth the hardness of the rocks would make the sinking of shafts and driving of levels, the “dead work” of the miners, very costly.

We started on our return down the valley at three o’clock, and took particular note of the succession of the rocks, as I had become much interested in finding these quartz and gneissoid beds, which I had no doubt were the same Laurentian rocks that I had seen in Canada and Brazil — the very backbone of the continent, ribbing America from Patagonia to the Canadas — the fundamental gneiss which is covered, in other parts of Central America that I had visited, by strata of much more recent origin. Going down the valley of the Depilto the massive beds of quartz and gneiss are soon succeeded by overlying, highly inclined, and contorted schists, and as far as where the road from Ocotal to Totagalpa crosses the river, the exposures of bed rock were invariably these contorted schists, with many small veins of quartz running between the laminae of the rock. On the banks of the river, from about a mile below Depilto, unstratified beds of gravel are exposed in numerous natural sections. These beds deepen as the river is descended, until at Ocotal they reach a thickness of between two and three hundred feet, and the undulating plain on which Ocotal is built is seen in sections near the river to be composed entirely of them. These unstratified deposits consist mostly of quartz sand with numerous angular and subangular blocks of quartz and talcose schist. Many of the boulders are very large, and in some parts great numbers have been accumulated in the bed of the river by the washing away of the smaller stones and sand. Some of these huge boulders were fifteen feet across, the largest of them lying in the bed of the river two miles below Depilto. Most of them were of the Depilto quartz rock and gneiss, and I saw many in the unstratified gravel near Ocotal fully eight miles from their parent rock. Near Ocotal this unstratified formation is nearly level, excepting where worn into deep gulches by the existing streams. The river has cut through it to a depth of over two hundred feet, and there are high precipices of it on both sides, similar to those near streams in the North of England that cut through thick beds of boulder clay.

Geological section near Ocotal

Section of Strata between Depilto and the hill three miles south-west of Ocotal. Gravel with boulders of trap and conglomerate. Gravel with boulders of gneiss and quartz rock. Contorted schists. Quartz rock and gneiss.

The evidences of glacial action between Depilto and Ocotal were, with one exception, as clear as in any Welsh or Highland valley. There were the same rounded and smoothed rock surfaces, the same moraine-like accumulations of unstratified sand and gravel, the same transported boulders that could be traced to their parent rocks several miles distant. The single exception was, I am convinced, one of observation and not one of fact, namely, I saw no glacial scratches on the rocks; but geologists know how rare these are on natural exposures in some districts that have certainly been glaciated, and will not be surprised that in a hurried visit of only a few hours I should not have discovered any. Glacial scratches are seldom preserved on rock surfaces exposed to the action of the elements. Even in Nova Scotia, where scratches and grooves are met with wherever the rock surface has been recently laid bare, I do not remember having ever seen any on natural exposures. It is only where protected by a covering of clay or gravel from the action of the elements, that they have been preserved through the ages that have passed since the glacial epoch, and as I did not see any rock surfaces near Depilto that had been recently bared, it is not surprising that, notwithstanding the other proofs of glacial action, I should not have seen any ice scratches or grooves.

I could no longer withstand the evidence that had been gradually accumulating of the presence of large glaciers in Central America during the glacial period, and these, once admitted, afforded me a solution of many phenomena that had before been inexplicable. The immense ridges of boulder clay between San Rafael and Yales, the long hog-backed hills near Tablason, the great transported boulders two leagues beyond Libertad on the Juigalpa road, and the scarcity of alluvial gold in the valleys of Santo Domingo, could all be easily explained on the supposition that the ice of the glacial period was not confined to extra-tropical lands, but in Central America covered all the higher ranges, and descended in great glaciers to at least as low as the line of country now standing at two thousand feet above the sea.

In my description of the mines of Santo Domingo I have only briefly alluded to the scarcity of alluvial gold in the valleys. It may be correlated with a similar scarcity in the glaciated valleys of Nova Scotia and North Wales, in the neighbourhood of auriferous quartz veins, and is probably due to the same cause. Glacier ice scoops out all the contents of the valleys, and in deepening them does not sort the materials like running water or the action of the waves upon the sea coast. I have in another place1 shown that in Nova Scotia, in the neighbourhood of rich auriferous quartz veins that have been greatly denuded, grain gold is only sparingly disseminated throughout the drifts of the valleys, whilst in Australia every auriferous quartz vein has been the source of an alluvial deposit of grain gold, produced by the denudation and sorting action of running water. When the denuding agent was water, the rocks were worn away, and the heavier gold left behind at the bottom of the alluvial deposits; but when the denuding agent was glacier ice the stony masses and their metallic contents were carried away, or mingled together in the unassorted moraines.

1 “The Glacial Period in North America” by Thomas Belt. Published in “Transactions of the Nova Scotian Institute of Natural Science” 1866 page 91.

That the transportation of boulders in Nicaragua was due to glaciers, and not to floating icebergs, may be argued on zoological grounds. The transported boulders, near Ocotal, are about three thousand feet above the sea, those near Libertad about two thousand feet. The low pass between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans, through the valley of the San Juan and the Lake of Nicaragua, is less than two hundred feet above the sea,1 and to allow for the flotation of icebergs at the lower of the two places named, a channel of more than eighteen hundred feet in depth would have connected the two oceans. This supposition is negatived by the fact that the mollusca on the two coasts, separated by the narrow Isthmus of Darien, are almost entirely distinct, whilst we know that since the glacial period there has been little change in the molluscan fauna, nearly, if not all, the shells found in glacial deposits still existing in neighbouring seas. In the Caribbean province, which includes the Gulf of Mexico, the West Indian Islands, and the eastern coast of South America as far as Rio de Janeiro, the number of marine shells is estimated by Professor C.B. Adams at not less than 1500 species. From the Panamic province, which, on the western coast of America, extends from the Gulf of California to Payta in Peru, there has been catalogued 1341 distinct species of marine molluscs. Out of this immense number of species, less than fifty occur on both sides of the narrow Isthmus of Darien. So remarkably distinct are the two marine faunas, that most zoologists consider that there has been no communication in the tropics between the two seas since the close of the miocene period, whilst the connection that is supposed to have existed at that remote epoch, and to account for the distribution of corals, whilst advocated by Professor Duncan and other eminent men, is disputed by others equally eminent. No zoologist of note believes that there has been a submergence of the land lying between the Pacific and the Atlantic since the pliocene period, and icebergs could not have floated without such submergence, so that, in the cases I have mentioned, the boulders, if ice-borne, have been carried by glaciers and not by floating ice.

1 See ante, Chapter 4.

Whilst I thus found evidence of the ice of the glacial period reaching, in the northern hemisphere, to within the tropics; in the southern hemisphere Professor Hartt has found glacial drift extending from Patagonia, all through Brazil to Pernambuco, and Agassiz has even announced the discovery of glacial moraines up to the equator. I have myself seen, near Pernambuco, and in the province of Maranham, in Brazil, a great drift deposit that I believe to be of glacial origin; and I think it highly probable that the evidence that is accumulating will force geologists to the conclusion that the ice of the glacial period was not only more extensive than has been generally supposed, but that it existed at the same time in the northern and southern hemispheres, leaving, at least, on the American continent, only the lower lands of the tropics free from the icy covering.

I shall not enter upon the question of the cause of the cold of the glacial period. It is probably closely connected with the cause of an exactly opposite state of things, the heat of the miocene period, when the beech, the hazel, and the plane lived and flourished in Spitzbergen, as far north as latitude 78 degrees, and, according to Heer, firs and poplars reached to the North Pole, if there was then land there for them to grow upon. I consider that the great extension of the ice in the glacial period supports the conclusion of Professor Heer, founded on the northern extension of the miocene flora, that these enormous changes of climate cannot be explained by any rearrangement of the relative positions of land and water, and that “we are face to face with a problem whose solution must be attempted and doubtless completed by the astronomer.”1

1 I have since discussed this question in the “Quarterly Journal of Science” for October 1874.

There is another branch of the subject that I cannot so easily leave. It is the answer to the question, What became of the many peculiar tropical American genera of animals and plants, when a great part of the tropics was covered with ice, and the climate of the lower lands much colder than now? For instance, the Heliconii and Morphos are a group of butterflies peculiar to tropical America, containing many distinct genera which, on any theory of descent from a common progenitor, must have originated ages before the glacial period. How is it that such peculiarly tropical groups were not exterminated by the cold of the glacial period, or if able to stand the cold, that they did not spread into temperate regions on the retreat of the ice? I believe the answer is, that there was much extermination during the glacial period, that many species and some genera, as, for instance, the American horse, did not survive it, and that some of the great gaps that now exist in natural history were then made; but that a refuge was found for many species, on lands now below the ocean, that were uncovered by the lowering of the sea caused by the immense quantity of water that was locked up in frozen masses on the land.

Mr. Alfred Tylor considers that the ice cap of the glacial period was the cause of a great reduction of the level of the sea, amounting to at least 600 feet.1 But if we admit that the ice existed in both hemispheres at the same time, we shall have to speculate on a lowering of the level of the sea to at least 1000 feet. We have many facts tending to prove that during the extreme extent of the glacial period the land stood much higher relatively to the sea than it now does. Professor Hartt believes that during the time of the drift, Brazil stood at a much higher level than at present,2 and we can, on the supposition of a general lowering of the sea all over the world, account for the distribution of animal life over islands now separated by shallow seas. Thus Mr. Bland, in a paper read before the American Philosophical Society, on “The Geology and Physical Geography of the West Indies, with reference to the distribution of Mollusca,” states his opinion that Porto Rico, the Virgins, the Anguilla group, Cuba, the Bahamas, and Hayti, once formed continuous dry land that obtained its land molluscs from Central America and Mexico. The land molluscs of the islands to the south, on the contrary, from Barbuda and St. Kitt’s down to Trinidad, are of two types, one Venezuelan, the other Guianian; the western side of the supposed continuous land, namely, Trinidad, Tobago, Grenada, the Grenadines, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia, belonging to the first type; the eastern side, from Barbados to Antigua, to the second.3

1 “Geological Magazine” volume 9 page 392.

2 “Geology and Physical Geography of Brazil” by Ch. Fred. Hartt page 573.

3 Quoted in “At Last” by Charles Kingsley page 305.

Commenting on Mr. Bland’s valuable communication, Mr. Kingsley justly says: “If this be so, a glance at the map will show the vast destruction of tropic land during almost the very latest geological epoch; and show, too, how little, in the present imperfect state of our knowledge, we ought to dare any speculations as to the absence of man, as well as of other creatures, on those great lands destroyed. For, to supply the dry land which Mr. Bland’s theory needs, we shall have to conceive a junction, reaching over at least five degrees of latitude, between the north of British Guiana and Barbados; and may freely indulge in the dream that the waters of the Orinoco, when they ran over the lowlands of Trinidad, passed east of Tobago, then northward between Barbados and St. Lucia, afterwards turning westward between the latter island and Martinique, and that the mighty estuary — for a great part at least of that line — formed the original barrier which kept the land shells of Venezuela apart from those of Guiana.”1

1 Loc cit page 306.)

A very similar theory has been propounded by Mr. Wallace to account for the distribution of the faunas of the Malay Archipelago, in his admirable work on the natural history of that region.1 Java, Sumatra, and Borneo are separated from each other, and from the continent of Asia, by a shallow sea less than six hundred feet in depth, and must at one time have been connected by continuous land to allow of the elephant and tapir of Sumatra and Borneo, the rhinoceros of Sumatra and Java, and the wild cattle of Borneo and Java, to spread from the continent to these now sea-surrounded lands, as none of these large animals could have passed over the arms of the sea that now separate them. The smaller mammals, the birds, and insects, all illustrate this view, almost all the genera found in any of the islands occurring also on the Asiatic continent, and the species being often identical. On the other hand, the fauna of islands to the eastward are more closely connected with Australia, and must at one time have been joined to it by nearly continuous land. Honeysuckers and lories take the place of the woodpeckers, barbets, trogons, and fruit thrushes of the western islands, and the many mammals belonging to Asiatic genera are no more seen.

1 “The Malay Archipelago” volume 1 page 11.

Mr. Wallace ascribes the present isolation of the islands, and their separation from the adjoining continents, to the submergence of the channels between them caused by the abstraction of matter thrown out by the numerous volcanoes. Looking, however, at the fact that at the time when these islands were probably connected with the continents of Asia on the one side and Australasia on the other, namely, at the close of the pliocene period, England was connected with the continent; Malta, as shown by its fossil elephants, with Africa; the West Indies with Yucatan and Venezuela; it seems to me more probable that the cause was not a local one, but a general lowering of the waters of the ocean all over the world to at least one thousand feet, produced by the prodigious quantity of water locked up in the frozen masses that covered a great part of both hemispheres.

The wide diffusion of the Malayan dialects over the Pacific, reaching as far as the Sandwich Islands, shows the great extension of that race in former times. On numerous islands in Polynesia there are cyclopean ruins utterly out of keeping with their present size and population. Who can look at the pictures of little Easter Island, with its gigantic images standing up in unworshipped solitude, without feeling that that insignificant islet could never have supported the race that reared the monuments. But if that and other islands were once hills overlooking peopled lowlands, the sense of incongruity vanishes. We see the images, not gazing gloomily over the ocean that narrowly circles them in, but proudly looking across wide plains peopled by their worshippers, who from their villages and fields behold the gods they adore, and implore their protection and support.

Was the fabled Atlantis really a myth, or was it that great continent in the Atlantic laid bare by the lowering of the ocean, on which the present West Indian Islands were mountains, rising high above the level and fertile plains that are now covered by the sea? Obscurely the accounts of it have come down to us from the dim past, but there is a remarkable coincidence between the traditions that have been handed down on the two sides of the Atlantic.

In a fragment of the works of Theopompus, who lived in the fourth century before the Christian era, is an account of a conversation between Silenus and Midas, the king of Phrygia, in which the former tells the king that Europe, Asia, and Africa were surrounded by the sea, but that beyond them was an island of immense size, in which were many great cities, and nations with laws and customs very different from theirs. Plato, in his “Timaeus and Critias,” relates that Solon was told by a priest of Sais, from the sacred inscriptions in the temple, how Solon’s country “once opposed a power which with great arrogance pushed its way into Europe and Asia from the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond the entrance which you call the Pillars of Hercules there was an island larger than Libya and Asia together. From it navigation passed to the other islands, and from them to the opposite continent which surrounded that ocean. On this great Atlantic island there was a powerful and singular kingdom, whose dominion extended not only over the whole island, but over many others, and parts of the continent. It ruled also over Libya as far as Egypt, and over Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This kingdom with the whole of its forces united tried to subjugate in one campaign your country and ours, and all the country within the strait. At that time, O Solon, your nation shone out from all others by bravery and power. It was placed in great danger, but it defeated the attacking army, and erected triumphal monuments. But when at a later period earthquakes and great floods took place, the whole of your united army was swallowed up during one evil day and one evil night, and at the same time the island of Atlantis sank into the sea.” Crantor, quoted by Proclus, corroborates the account by Plato, and says that he found this same story retained by the priests of Sais, three hundred years after the period of Solon, and that he was shown the inscriptions on which it was recorded.

Turning to the western side of the Atlantic, we find in the “Teo Amoxtli,” as translated by the Abbe Brasseur de Bourburg, an account of the overwhelming of a country by the sea, when thunder and flames came out of it, and “the mountains were sinking and rising.” Everywhere throughout America there are traditions of a great catastrophe, in which a whole country was submerged, and only a few people escaped to the mountains; and the Spanish conquerors relate with wonder the accounts they found amongst the Indians of a universal deluge. Amongst the modern Indians the traveller, Catlin, relates that in one hundred and twenty different tribes that he had visited in North, and South, and Central America, “every tribe related, more or less distinctly, their tradition of the deluge, in which one, or three, or eight persons were saved above the waters on the top of a high mountain.”1

1 “Lifted and Subsided Rocks in America” by G. Catlin page 182.)

If Atlantis were lowlands connecting the West Indian Islands with America, the other islands mentioned by Plato may have been the Azores, also greatly increased in extent by the lowering of the ocean; and the overwhelming of this lowland, on the melting of the ice at the close of the glacial period, may be that great catastrophe that is recorded on both sides of the Atlantic, but is more clearly remembered in the traditions of America, because all the highlands there had been covered with ice, and the inhabitants were restricted to those that were overwhelmed by the deluge.

I approached this subject from the side of Natural History. I was driven to look for a refuge for the animals and plants of tropical America during the glacial period, when I found proofs that the land they now occupy was at that time either covered with ice or too cold for genera that can now only live where frost is unknown. I had arrived at the conclusion that they must have inhabited lowlands now submerged, and following up the question, I soon saw that the very accumulation of ice that made their abode impossible provided another for them by the lowering of the sea. Then pursuing the subject still further, I saw that all over the world curious questions concerning the distribution of races of mankind, of animals, and of plants, were rendered more easy of solution on the theory that land was more continuous once than now; that islands now separated were then joined together, and to adjacent continents; and that what are now banks and shoals beneath the sea were then peopled lowlands.

I have said that during the glacial period, if, as I believe, it was contemporaneous in the two hemispheres, the sea must have stood at least 1000 feet lower than it now does. It may have been much lower than this, but I prefer to err on the safe side. When geologists have mapped out the limits of ancient glacier and continental ice all over the world, it will be possible to calculate the minimum amount of water that was abstracted from the sea; and if by that time hydrographers have shown on their charts the shoals and submerged banks that would be laid dry, fabled Atlantis will rise before our eyes between Europe and America, and in the Pacific the Malay Archipelago will give place to the Malay Continent. Here is a noble inquiry, an unexplored region of research, at the entrance of which I can only stand and point the way for abler and stronger minds; an inquiry that will lead to the knowledge of the lands where dwelt the peoples of the glacial period who lived before the flood.

Vague and visionary as these speculations must seem to many, to others who are acquainted with the enormous glaciation to which America has been subjected they will appear to be based on substantial truths. The immense accumulation of ice over both poles, reaching far down into the temperate zones, in some meridians encroaching on the tropics, and in Equatorial America certainly all the land, lying 2000 feet above the level of the sea, supporting great glaciers, involve conditions which must have greatly drained the sea. Lands now submerged must have been uncovered, and on the return of the waters at the close of the glacial period many a peopled lowland must have been overwhelmed in the nearly universal deluge.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/belt/thomas/naturalist_in_nicaragua/chapter14.html

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32