There is perhaps no better word than “counterfeit” to describe cultural representations of the natural world. This is the duality that the Spanish historian Juan Pimentel explores in his 2010 book, The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History, now translated into English for the first time by Peter Mason. The book follows the lives of its two titular animals: the first rhinoceros brought to Europe in captivity and the first discovered bones of the Megatherium, a massive sloth-like beast that went extinct around 8,000 years ago.
What do these two creatures have in common? Morphologically, they’re not terribly similar, other than both being large, exotic mammals. The rhinoceros is a Perissodactyla (an odd-toed ungulate): it’s related to the horse, the zebra, and the tapir, and like them it’s distinguished by the fact that it digests plant material through its intestine (rather than through multiple stomach chambers, like a cow). The Megatherium, despite its 20-foot length, is most closely related to tree sloths, anteaters, and armadillos.
Pimentel is a historian, not a biologist, and his methodology is not taxonomic but essayistic. The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium, he writes in the book’s opening pages, “proceeds rather like one of those experiments of old in which assayers exposed materials to strange conditions simply to see what happened.” In structuring an entire book around a seemingly random comparison, Pimentel takes his inspiration from the Italian children’s writer Gianni Rodari’s concept of “the fantastic binominal”: a process for generating stories and ideas by the random juxtaposition of unlikely words or concepts. Pimentel takes this creative writing prompt to a fantastic extreme, crafting a dazzlingly strange and resolutely readable dual biography. Through the unwieldy grafting of these two narratives, The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium becomes as much an interrogation of history and science as it is a chronicle of these two animals’ stories.
In the early 16th century, Portuguese merchants attempted to build an outpost in India, and during the negotiations diplomatic gifts were exchanged between Sultan Muzaffar II of Gujarat and Portugal’s Manuel I. Among these gifts was a captive rhinoceros, who was given the name “Ganda” (the Gujarati word for the animal). “Collecting live exotic animals was becoming a sign of distinction,” Pimentel writes, “the expression of symbolic power over distant territories and over nature itself.” A gift like Ganda was “more valuable than the most valuable work of art because of its ephemeral nature,” keeping such an animal in one’s royal stables was “beyond the ambitions of all but a very few.” In addition to symbolizing wealth, the rhinoceros satisfied an exotic fetish for all things “Oriental,” for “the sensuality of the East in opposition to the rationality of the West.”
Ganda arrived in Lisbon in May 1515. For just over six months, the rhinoceros lived a bizarre existence in the Portuguese capital, where he was poked and prodded by scientists and philosophers. At the time, Pimentel notes, “Renaissance natural history, like other disciplines related to scientific activity, was a body of knowledge based on the importance of the word” rather than any kind of empirical observation. For centuries, Europeans had known about rhinoceroses from classical depictions, without ever having laid eyes on the actual living animals. Scientists had inherited the observations of classical scholars like Pliny, Aristotle, and Galen, and they set about looking for confirmation of these classical sources in the natural world around them. “A rhinoceros,” Pimentel explains, “had to be what others who were more learned had declared that it was.”
Nowhere is the power of the classical tradition more evident than in the bizarre duel that Ganda was subjected to in the summer of 1515. In order to prove Pliny the Elder’s theory that elephants and rhinoceroses were mortal enemies, Manuel I arranged for a battle between his new prize and a juvenile male elephant in his possession. Locked in a ring with the elephant, Ganda charged, terrifying his opponent and scoring a hit with its horn on the elephant’s underside. The young elephant, whose tusks were not long enough to defend himself from Ganda’s horn, ran in fear to a far wall, where he wrenched a wrought iron grill off a window with his trunk and forced his body through the small hole he’d made, while Ganda stood in the middle of the arena, the expression on his face combining confusion and boredom.
At the end of the year, Manuel I decided to transfer his new prize to Pope Leo X, and had him shipped to Rome. But while in transit, the ship carrying the rhinoceros encountered a storm and sank, killing all aboard, including Ganda, thus ending his short tenure as Europe’s most celebrated oddity. Before his death, however, a prose description of the animal, along with a now-lost sketch, ended up in Nuremberg, and it was from these documents that Dürer created his iconic image.
Dürer’s rhinoceros now ranks as one of the engraver’s most recognizable works, in part because of its bizarre misunderstanding of the anatomy of the animal depicted. The body of Dürer’s rhinoceros is composed of interlocking armored plates, like a knight ready for battle, its legs emerging below this carapace covered in crocodilian scales. Between its shoulders sits a smaller horn, with no apparent purpose or real-life point of reference. The creature’s head is finely detailed, a series of masterfully rendered bumps and ridges leading the eye down to the horn itself, which appears to have been grafted from some medieval dragon. The overall effect is fascinating: each of the parts appears totally incongruous, a haphazard collection of mismatched body parts and aesthetic choices, and yet the image as a whole has a striking authority and beauty.
The Megatherium also ended up in the Iberian peninsula, albeit through a very different process. Its bones were discovered on the banks of the River Luján, a few miles from Buenos Aires, in 1787, and were subsequently excavated by a Dominican friar named Manuel de Torres. De Torres disinterred the remains and cataloged them, so that, in his words, “this marvelous and providential work of the Lord [could] be made known to the public.” But exactly what kind of work the Lord had made here was still very much an open question. Even with a nearly complete skeleton, no one had any clue what kind of animal the bones belonged to. Initially, some thought the bones might have belonged to a giant humanoid of some kind, but this conjecture was quickly dismissed; others thought they were perhaps the remains of some creature normally found deep in Patagonia. The problem was that its various parts seemed to correspond to different animals: the massive overall shape, the elongated mouth filled with flat, molar-like teeth, and the ferocious claws. The fundamental problem that the Megatherium posed was that its morphology was strikingly similar to several known animals, but their combination rendered the beast utterly unfamiliar. It appeared to be a kind of chimera, a mythological monster made up of different animals.
The Megatherium’s bones were shipped to Spain, to be displayed in King Carlos III’s Royal Cabinet of Natural History, now the National Museum of Natural Sciences, where it remains today. When the Royal Cabinet’s taxidermist, Juan Bautista Bru de Ramón, was tasked with assembling the bones into a skeleton, he had very little to work with, and little sense of what the finished product should look like. Ultimately, he assembled them in a posture resembling a big cat or a bear: on all fours, legs at 90-degree angles to the body, staring straight ahead. To achieve this, he apparently resorted to filing down and cutting several of the priceless fossils, shoehorning them together with glue and wood, employing both a carpenter and a locksmith in the process.
The late 18th century was a time of momentous change in the sciences, and fossils of extinct species like the Megatherium helped play a crucial role in that change. The fossil record was beginning to unearth monstrous objects that had no corollaries in the natural histories of Pliny or Aristotle, and thus no conceptual framework for their imagining. The concept of extinction, which was just starting to becoming current in the natural sciences, posed a theological problem: why would God have destroyed his own creatures? “The hypothesis of a cataclysm and extinction,” Pimentel notes, “dealt a blow to any version of the argument from design, the plan of providence, the cornerstone of natural theology, or physical theology, which was still a major presence to be reckoned with in the natural history of the eighteenth century.” If God could manufacture something so strange and wondrous, and then casually allow it to die and be forgotten, what did that say about the divine order of the world?
Either way, it was clear enough that no amount of theological or classical learning would help anyone understand exactly what the thing unearthed in Argentina might be. It fell to the brilliant French naturalist Georges Cuvier, then at the start of his career, to solve the mystery of the Megatherium, which he did without ever laying eyes on the creature’s bones. He worked instead from engravings of the assembled skeleton and individual bones by an artist named Manuel Navarro.
The Megatherium’s teeth, Cuvier realized, matched no known creature of comparable size; they did, however, resemble the teeth of several smaller species, like the pangolin, the sloth, and the armadillo. This revelation also explained why an herbivore would have such ferocious claws, since sloths had similar claws they use primarily for self-defense. Cuvier’s distance from the actual specimen may have even been an advantage, Pimentel suggests, since it removed the problem of scale: “once the Megatherium had been sketched and represented in scale — in other words, once it became easier to discount its alarming dimensions — it could be seen as a sloth,” he writes. “It is easier to perceive the analogy between the two species if we detach ourselves from a fact that is as obvious as it is misleading: their different sizes.”
The Megatherium had, in some ways, an opposite trajectory to the rhinoceros: if Ganda disappeared into myth, the Megatherium emerged from it. Unlike the rhinoceros, which existed in language and image long before it actually arrived in Europe, the Megatherium “lacked both words and predicates. It had no history. It had never been described. […] There was no narrative, legend, or fable that preceded it, nothing to help it take shape and come to life. It was a skeleton without flesh, skin, or discourse.” This anonymity allowed it to play a decisive role in the reformation of scientific knowledge. “The history of the Megatherium is situated in a fold of the past in which things unheard of were beginning to be conceived,” Pimentel writes. “Nature was a book, but it did not have history.” Like a Dead Sea Scroll of bones, the Megatherium provided a vital chapter in this newly discovered history.
Pimentel’s book, born of a desire “to play with ideas and forms” is almost like a cruelty-free recreation of Manuel I’s rhino and elephant battle: it places two distinct animals, and stories, in the same arena to see what they’ll do to one another. What both narratives reveal is the extent to which science is “a profoundly social practice.” For all our attempts at objectivity and empiricism, we always see the world through any number of cultural filters that provide greater or lesser degrees of clarity, and which themselves are constantly evolving. The rhinoceros was an animal whose existence was overwritten by narratives that existed long before it was born, whereas the Megatherium was an animal in search of a narrative. As Pimentel repeatedly reminds us, we see the natural world best through some level of distortion. “The imagination, the capacity to produce images that can be perceived by the senses and that materialize the ideal, is a faculty that often depends on distance and abstraction, the free association of data, features and forms,” he writes. “To produce knowledge it can be helpful to detach yourself from events.” Both the rhinoceros and the Megatherium could become known only by being rendered into representations: false ones, perhaps, but what human representation of the nonhuman world isn’t false? “Sometimes forging an image of things, making it possible to see them, requires really imagining them.”
What do we see when we imagine Nature, when we make counterfeits of it? If you look at the portrait of Ganda the rhinoceros by Dürer, you can choose to fixate on the armor plating as proof of the engraver’s ignorance, or the extraneous horn as proof of his imagination. Or you can focus in on the animal’s face and notice what Pimentel identifies as “the half-human eye with its melancholy, tired expression.” When you stare into the face of Nature, it is your own eye that stares back at you.