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Bestiary of Improbable Animals Mateo Pizarro

Text by Mar Gámiz

Drawings by Mateo Pizarro*

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The dawn of the sixteenth century represents the greatest transgression, in the limits of human consciousness (conceptual, geographic, moral and sensory).  It was during those years that the state of things known and studied lost the security provided by the appearance of totality and the need to find new categories to describe reality became urgent.

The realizations of those efforts are the texts comprised of stories of initial encounters with the New World grouped under the category of the “Indies Chronicles”.  On one hand there was the personal testimony of missionary friars and conquering soldiers; on the other, the work of official chroniclers who, although always resident in Europe, described not only their countrymen’s feats but even more impressively, the never personally seen fauna and flora native to the New World.

Reading such texts reveals the intellectual struggle involved in trying to attain understanding but, above all, a recalcitrant sense of wonder and marvel impossible for the chroniclers to disguise.  Wonder is the exact element with which they build a novel imagery and with which they populate the Old World with cities built on water, new forms of witchcraft, trees that exude edible resins and animals more improbable than chimeras.

It is there that the “Bestiary of Non-existent Animals” is placed, Setting himself as an illustrator of that period, Mateo Pizarro draws American animals on the basis of careful textual selection from which all mention of names has been extracted.  In that manner Pizarro avoids any prior knowledge of such animals and approaches a world made up of incomplete words and maps, prior to encyclopedias, photography and “Google Earth”.

Moreover, the proyect is based on the idea that a text can have as many interpretations as it has readers. Thus, out of each of the descriptions that where chosen for this Bestiary, it  would be possible to imagine any number of different animals; each as faithfull to the description as the next one.

Here follows the results of that dialogue between Mateo Pizarro and the chroniclers of the Indies:


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It is a species of lacustrine fish covered with soft skin and whose four legs resemble those of the lizard. Its vulva is most like a woman’s, its belly is mottled with brown patches, and from the midline to the tail, which is long and whose extreme is thin, its body tapers gradually; as tongue it hath a short and thick cartilage; it swimeth using its four legs, which end in fingers most like the frog’s; the head is flat and big in relationship to the body; the mouth is half opened and of a black color. It hath been observed various times that it experienceth menstrual flows like those of women and that food exciteth the genesic activity in a way not unlike the skinks, which some call terrestrial crocodiles and may be of the same species. Its name derives from its strange and fun shape. -Francisco Hernández de Toledo (1514-1587), Obras completas, edición y estudio a cargo de Germán Molinos, Tratado quinto, pp. 390-391, v.III.


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“There is an animal in this land, hitherto unknown, that lives in water and it is called ***. In size it resembles a small dog, it hath very short and brittle hair and small, pointy ears, its body is very black and smooth, its tail long and at its tip is found something like a person’s hand; it hath feet and hands, and the hands and feet are in the likeness of the monkey’s; this animal inhabits profound water springs; and if any person reacheth the shore whence it is found, it grabs after him with the hand on its tail and pulls him underwater and takes him to the deep […]. And he who is pulled under the water dies tither and after a few days the water will cast forth the body of he who was drowned and it riseth without eyes, teeth or fingernails […]. Some said that whoever died in this way was thus killed because he was very good and the Tlaloque gods wanted his company in the earthly paradise; or else because he hath, perchance, some gems in his power, which had angered the Tlaloque gods, for they did not want mankind to possess precious stones.” -Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, edición de Ángel María Garibay, México: Porrúa, lib. XI, cap. IV, pp. 627-628.



“Of this dog or skunk, that takes flight at night and frightens away our sleep. I saw him once in the hands of an Indian. It hath fiendish eyes that allow it to see during the night, its wings resemble those of a large parrot, and it is of a docile character, in the likeness of a donkey’s. Its flavor is also that of the donkey. To achieve this said seasoning, it is recommended to boil its flesh in lard after giving it repeated blows to the head with a small mallet. The Indians always gave it to us at breakfast and, as they wake very early, and our stay was short, we never knew if they themselves ate it.” -Torcuato de Barbante (1499-1542), Descripción histórica y geográfica de las Indias occidentales, el mar del Sur y las islas Molucas, ed. Rafael Pardo Fernández Rodríguez y Tlön, Manila: Umlaut p. 63.



“There are *** so small that the whole bulge of one of them is smaller than the head of the thumb and bald he is more than the smaller half of what is said; not only is this bird small, but it also possesseth such speed and readiness to fly that, seeing it on air, its wings seemeth no different than those of beetles or drones and there is no person that, upon observing its flight, could think of aught other than a drone. Its nests are in accord to its proportions and size. I have seen one of these *** in which it and its nest, when placed on a gold balance, weighed a whole two silver coins, which equals twenty and four grams including the feather, without which the weight would be a lot less. In the fineness of its legs and hands it doubtlessly resembles those birds that illuminators are wont to place at the margins of the praying hours and its feathers are of very beautiful colors, gold and green and others, and the length of its beak is in accordance to its body and as thin as a pin. They are most daring, and when it sees a person climbing the tree whence it keeps its young, it forces itself into the eyes and with such alacrity it runeth and turneth that one cannot believe it but in seeing it; true thing it is the smallness of this *** that I would not dare speak of it if there were not others apart from me in His Majesty’s court that have also been eye witnesses. They construct their nests from filaments or cotton fibers, which abound and which they put to very good use.” – Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557), Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias, ed. Manuel Ballesteros Gaibrois, Madrid: Dastin, pp. 136-137.


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“Spiders and scorpions and other bugs are, as is known, numberless. Even other small beasts which in civilization are benevolent and docile creatures, in these swampy jungles not one of them hath not its sting or its venom. Provoking the livid fury of certain frogs may occasion the death of several people. And yet these are not worst than those that hither are called ***, wicked vermin that verily deserve infamy. Among all the varieties of bugs that crawl, fly or walk on water, the *** harbors the most hate in its black heart. Its size is small but the evils it encompasses are great, the first being that it sleepeth during the day and waketh at night […] the roads it elects are mysterious, its legs: between four and ten. It also flieth and jumpeth very high. The *** choseth the night so that nobody might chance upon it singing its songs, which it chants in such fashion that no one could doubt the nasty animal fluently speaks German. It needs be said that when many *** sing as one, and due to the great darkness that night brings into the jungle, the chant seemeth a church chorus heard even from a great distance, that when this happens nobody is able to sleep due to the phantasmagoric and malign sound of such a night. Its poisonous bite brings about lymphatic scrofulae and hysterical cramping among the soldiery. It is said that one of the soldiers, his name being Francisco Camacho, crushed and killed one of these bugs in the darkness. Its blood is brown.” -Torcuato de Barbante (1499-1542), Descripción histórica y geográfica de las Indias occidentales, el Mar del sur y las islas Molucas, ed. Rafael Pardo Fernández Rodríguez y Tlön, Manila: Umlaut pp. 95-96.


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“[…] and on that night the Indians gave us their liquors to drink, which closely resembled orujos but were bitter and difficult to digest […] Three men were sick to their stomachs at that very moment, and all others were soon to follow. Upon these events, I left the hut, disposed have a stroll in the surroundings despite the thick and absolute darkness. Thus, I began to stagger in such fashion that I landed upon a shrub, which by and by began to complain in its own language. It was quite like a combination of rosebush and woman and in her many eyes she began to reveal her bad intentions against me. For this reason, I hit it on its most vociferous mouth with the hilt of my sword. I still keep one of its teeth. The bush continued to lament until morning, it howled like a sad dog, and, for that reason, I was unable to sleep that night, which is, forsooth, as difficult a task in these jungles as the procurement of spices.” -Torcuato de Barbante (1499-1542), Descripción histórica y geográfica de las Indias occidentales, el Mar del sur y las islas Molucas, ed. Rafael Pardo Fernández Rodríguez y Tlön, Manila: Umlaut pp. 238-239.


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The *** is the most clumsy beast that could ever exist in the world, and so heavy and so ponderous in its movement that to advance the space equivalent of fifty paces, it requires a whole day; […]. It must be about two hand-breaths long, once it be fully grown and a little more than this measure if someting were larger; […] It hath four paws, and thin, and in each paw it hath four long claws as those of a bird, and close together; but neither claws nor paws are arranged so that the animal might lift itself upon them and, as a result of this, and of the thinness of the paws and the heaviness of the body, its belly almost drags over the ground; the neck being so tall and straight and in the likeness of a pestle that continues equally until the end, without making in the head proportion or any difference from the neck; and at the end of this neck it hath an almost round face, quite similar to that of the owl, and its own hair tracing a profile of itself as a framed face, slightly longer than wider, and the eyes are small and round and the nose as that of a monkey and the mouth very small and it moveth its neck from one side to the other, absentmindedly […] Its hair color is between gray-brown and white. […] It doth not bite, nor can it, as its mouth is very small, nor is it pernicious, nor have I hitherto seen another animal as ugly or that seemeth as useless as this one. -Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557), Sumario de la natural historia de las Indias, ed. Manuel Ballesteros Gaibrois, Madrid: Dastin, pp. 115-117.


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“There is an animal on this land called ayotochtli, which means rabbit as pumpkin; it is thoroughly covered in shells and of the size of a rabbit; the shells of which it is covered seemeth like pieces of pumpkin peelings.” -Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, edición de Ángel María Garibay, México: Porrúa, lib. XI, cap. IV, p. 626.


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“The *** are greater than goats and smaller than calves; their color resembles a lion’s but is somewhat lighter; they have no horns as those of deer or goats, they graze and live in the colder and most unpopulated parts of the high lands, which thither are called punas […]. The animal is noteworthy mainly because of the bezoar stones found within it […]. Presently, it is enough to say that this stone called bezoar is found in the stomach and gut of these animals, sometimes one, others two, three and four […] The main effect of bezoar stones is against venoms and other pernicious diseases, although opinions differ on this topic, and some call it a thing of folly, others do miracles with her. The fact is that it is most advantageous when applied at the convenient time and in the right fashion.” -José de Acosta (1540-1600), Historia natural y moral de las Indias, en Obras del padre José de Acosta, tomo LXXIII de la Biblioteca de Autores Españoles, estudio preliminar y edición del padre Francisco Mateos, Madrid: Atlas, 1954, pp. 135 y 137-138.


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“There is another animal which, due to its resemblance with the bear, seemeth like one, and if it is no bear I do not know of which of the animals we know it is composed; it is a hairy animal, covered with long wool; its tail is very hairy as that of the fox but of a dark gray-brown color; when it is old its wool gathers into thick locks; it hath small and narrow ears; its face is round and wide, quite alike a person’s face; its snout is thick; it casts forth the pernicious vapor that poisons all it toucheth; the breath or steam it is thus emitted is variously colored, much like the rainbow in the sky; it is very cautious and stalketh to hunt or kill.” –Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, edición de Ángel María Garibay, México: Porrúa, lib. XI, cap. I, p. 602.

*Produced as part of the Cisneros Fontanals Art Foundation's 2014 grants and comissions program.

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