Florentino Ameghino was born on September 19, 1854. He came from a family of Italian immigrants who settled in 1854 in the town of Lujan, Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the extraction and exportation of fossils were a lucrative activity. The first well known fossil from South America, Megatherium americanum, was recovered by Fray Manuel Torres in this place and later described by George Cuvier in 1796. Fossil collectors and museum commissioners visited the Lujan area pursuing the colossal fossil bones. Darwin himself described the small city in his famous Notebook: “The houses at Luxan are all of one ground-floor, except that of the Cabildo, on the east side of the plaza, which has rooms above. They are all built with sun-burnt bricks, called adobes, not white-washed. The church is a small plain building, with a little turret, and a cupola top.”
Despite being a self-taught naturalist, Ameghino became an international authority in the field of paleontology of vertebrates, geology, and archeology. He was portrayed by his biographers as the incarnation of materialism, leftist culture and national genius. Throughout his scientific career, Ameghino was seconded by his younger brother Carlos Ameghino (1865–1936), who was a “travelling naturalist” for the Museo de La Plata. During his trips, he gathered a remarkable collection of fossil mammals, later described by Florentino.
Thanks to the ﬁnancial support obtained by members of the Genovese community in Argentina, Ameghino traveled to Paris in 1878 and presented his archaeological and paleontological collections at the Paris Anthropological Exhibition. He studied with various French experts, including Paul Gervais and Gabriel de Mortillet, and sold part of his collection to the North American paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. In 1879, he married Léontine Poirier. She became an important part of Ameghino’s scientific career helping him with his writings, their bookstore, and hosting her husband’s visitors in their home in La Plata. In 1880, Ameghino published La antigüedad del Hombre en el Plata (Man’s Antiquity in the la Plata Basin). He and Léontine stayed in France until 1881.
In 1884, Ameghino published Filogenia, his most important theoretical work which evidenced that Ameghino was a true Darwinist. The book was shaped by Haeckel’s reconstruction of the human ancestral tree, and Gabriel de Mortillet’s ideas. A year later, Ameghino was appointed professor of zoology at Universidad de Córdoba a position that he quit for the vice-directorship of the recently founded Museo de La Plata.
Between the 1880s and 1890s, Ameghino’s descriptions revolutionized scientific opinion regarding primitive mammals. He began corresponding with Hermann von Ihering, a German scientist who had settled in São Paulo, Brazil. They both studied the Tertiary geological formations in South America and elaborated the idea that all mammals had originated in Patagonia and then moved to Africa through the continental bridges connecting the ancient continents. This partnership was internationally known as Ameghino, von Ihering & Co. At the time, Ameghino had alredy published his monograph Contribución al conocimiento de los mamíferos fósiles de la República Argentina. The work was praised by Karl von Zittel in his History of Geology and Paleontology of 1899, who remarked that “the most important paleontological event of the last two decades of the nineteenth century has been the disclosure made by Florentino Ameghino of a rich Mammalian fauna in the Tertiary rocks of Patagonia.”
In 1887, Ameghino described a large, toothless jaw from the Miocene of the Province of Santa Cruz, naming it Phorusrhacos longissimus and assigning it to a new family of edentulous mammals. He used this finding as a critical evidence for his contention that modern mammalian lineages originated in Argentina and later spread across the globe. At that time, Ameghino and Francisco P. Moreno, Director of the Museo de la Plata, were in the middle of a bitter dispute. The feud between the two men was in many aspects similar to the well-known feud between E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh, which took place in the United States at roughly the same time. Four years later, Moreno and Alcides Mercerat recognized for the first time that the mandible described by Ameghino was really that of a bird.
Ameghino resigned from his position at the Museo de La Plata in 1888, and Moreno denied him access to the paleontological collection. From that moment, and until became head of the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales in Buenos Aires in 1902, the Ameghino brothers continued with their palaeontological exploration, without any permanent official support, but they managed to get the funds to run their paleontological investigations as a private enterprise. Karl von Zittel, subsidized their explorations, receiving in exchange fossils for the collection of the Munich University. Meanwhile Moreno, in order to gain priority over his rivals, published a series of brief reports about the new palaeontological discoveries made by his field researchers.
In 1895, the critical financial situation forced Florentino Ameghino to sell his fossil bird collection, in order to support his further work in Patagonia. The collection was purchased by the London Museum by the sum of 350 £ in 1896. When Florentino became director of the Museo Nacional de Buenos Aires in 1902 the selling of fossils ceased, and he started making claims for the return of the museum’s collections. He also proposed for the most remarkable specimens of Patagonian and Pampean fossil faunas to be cast and stored in Buenos Aires and La Plata museums to be used in Argentinean schools. The same casts were sent to Museums all over the world and in exchange, Ameghino received casts of the oldest fossil mammals from Africa and the Northern Hemisphere to compare with the Patagonian faunas. It was a clever way to prevent the sale of the original fossils.
Florencio Ameghino died on August 6, 1911. After his death, he became a national icon for his role in creating national science and culture. The Ameghino collection is still today the reference collection of the entire Cenozoic Era biostratigraphic system for the South American continent. The Florentino Ameghino Partido, situated in the north-west of Buenos Aires Province, was named after him, as well as various educational institutions across the country, libraries and museums, squares, schools, parks and other locations. The Ameghino Crater, located to the north of the Sinus Successus on the Moon, is also named in his honor. A very rare privilege for a paleontologist.
Ameghino, F. 1889. Contribución al conocimiento de los mamíferos fósiles de la República Argentina. Actas de la Academia Nacional de Ciencias en Córdoba 6: 1-1028.
Podgorny, I. (2016). The Daily Press Fashions a Heroic Intellectual: The Making of Florentino Ameghino in Late Nineteenth-Century Argentina. Centaurus, 58(3), 166–184. doi:10.1111/1600-0498.12125
Ludueña, E. 2011. La Casa era de los Ameghino. Monumento Histórico Nacional. La Graphica, Luján, 176 pp.