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Fossil collections from Pleistocene South America in the MNHN

By Richard Fariña, Sebastián Tambusso and Luciano Varela, UdelaR

Formed in the highly prestigious school of medicine in Paris, Teodoro Vilardebó must have experienced great concern when the cruel symptoms of the yellow fever he was all too familiar with when treating his patients were observed in himself. What must have been his worst fears were sadly confirmed: Vilardebó died in March of 1857, leaving a tremendous legacy as a physician, politician, compiler of words in native languages and, among other aspects of his ingenuity, as a palaeontologist and fossil merchant.

Precisely, this latter activity turns out of our interest, since he happened to have been involved in selling to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris a fine collection of South American (mostly Argentinian) fossils of the impressive Pleistocene megafauna, an assemblage of giant mammals that includes glyptodonts, ground sloths, sabretoothed felids and many other very large species.

Another person of importance was François Séguin, referred in some documents as a confectioner in Buenos Aires, but an adventurous collector (and, most importantly, fossil vendor as well) that deserves more attention than traditionally assigned.

Both collectors had their fossils sold to the MNHN and many important specimens are highlighted here as examples of the treasures of the past that, having been found in the then new republics of the Plata along the 19th century, moved to one of the centres of intellectual endeavours in Europe. Among many other examples, we analysed the following material in our visit of April 2022 to that venerable institution, cradle of the vertebrate palaeontology and comparative anatomy. As can be seen in the photos, the fossils are diversely labelled and conserved, the hallmark of the changes in techniques and criteria over the past decades, even centuries.

Fig. 1. A fossil bone showing different labels used during different times, as well as different techniques used for preparation. In particular, a layer of varnish is clearly seen, making the surface of the bone extremely shiny.

A nearly complete skeleton of the ground sloth Glossotherium (actually, the type species of today’s synonymised genus Pleurolestodon) from the Vilardebó’s collection was carefully photographed with the aim of digitally reconstructing it. The technique used, called photogrammetry, consists in taking pictures of an object from many different angles to make a digital 3D model that can also be physically printed or reproduced otherwise.

Fig. 2. Digital 3D reconstruction of the forelimb of the specimen of Glossotherium robustum from the Viladebó collection.

Other materials from Uruguay are found in the collections of the MNHN (but not necessarily collected by the people mentioned above), a cast of glyptodont osteoderms was donated by the great Argentinian palaeontologist Florentino Ameghino, revealing the tight network of fossil travelling of the time.

Fig. 3. Gypsum replica of a fragment of the armour of a species of Panochthus (P. morenoi, no longer valid) erected by Ameghino.

Also of interest, especially for those that study fossils, some fragments of the caudal sheath of Panochthus nodotianus, a no longer valid species created by Ameghino in 1889, were observed. Surprisingly enough one of the pieces seems not to belong with the two others, according to their preservational characteristics, a subject we might want to further study in the future.

Fig. 4. Labels of the type material of Panochthus nodotianus, a no longer valid species.

Other fragments, possibly collected by Vilardebó in Uruguay, of the impressive armour of a glyptodont show a curious story: kept under the code PAM 216 to 218, they are referred to as the type of Boreostracon and corrected as Hoplophorus. However, the figures in the publication that describes those remains show a rather different material.

Fig. 5. Glyptodonts scutes of South American Pleistocene glyptodonts and excerpts from the publication that described it glued on an annotated common paper long time ago.

Further curiosities are the skull of a juvenile ground sloth Scelidotherium, originally lacking the skull roof and the snout, reconstructed as that of an armadillo. Despite the donations and purchases of cast is nowadays as frequent as in those times, there are several specimens labelled as from “Museo de La Plata” but with no indication of them having been donated or sold.

Fig. 6. Humerus assigned to Glossotherium robustum (PAM 120) labelled as “Museo de La Plata” Number 38.

Finally, the type of the giant sloth Lestodon armatus, from the Vilardebó collection, is mentioned by the French palaeontologist Paul Gervais in the publication that created it in 1855 as having only one mandibular ramus, but the specimen has the two rami artificially glued together. It can be speculated that the second ramus was found after the material was published in some of the boxes of the Vilardebó collection and it was noted to belong to the same individual. Further research in the yet undigitised archives might shed light on this subject.

Fig. 7. Mandible of the sloth Lestodon armatus representing the type material of the species and the drawing of the original description of the material showing only half of the mandible.

In another publication from 1873, more material from Séguin’s collection was added to the description of Lestodon armatus. Found together with them, there is a hip fragment that, due to their size, might belong actually to a smaller ground sloth, perhaps Glossotherium robustum. The hip was mounted on display along with the complete leg for a century and all these elements were taken down a couple of years ago.

Fig. 8. Hindfoot of Lestodon armatus mounted on display for several years in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

Further reading:

  • Podgorny I. 2001. El camino de los fósiles: las colecciones de mamíferos pampeanos en los museos franceses e ingleses del siglo XIX. Asclepio 53: 97-116.
  • Podgorny I. 2011. Mercaderes del pasado: Teodoro Vilardebó, Pedro de Angelis y el comercio de huesos y documentos en el Río de la Plata, 1830-1850. Circumscribere9: 29-77.
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From Le Mans into the World Wide Web: The Advantages of Digital Techniques for Curating, Networking and Exhibition-Making

By Simon Hirzel, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn

As a young scientist from Bonn, who is affiliated with the ethnological and archaeological Museum of the Bonn Collection of the Americas (BASA Museum) and who has just started his PhD project there, I was allowed to travel to Le Mans for a month and exchange ideas about digital curating with local and regional museums as part of a sub-project of SciCoMove. The goal of this sub-project is to create a concept that will be used to develop a joint digital exhibition of all museums and collections involved in this sub-project. The Bonn team, led by Karoline Noack and Daniel Grana-Behrens, has taken on the coordination of this project.

First of all, I was able to get an impression of the collections and thematic focus of the museums of the city of Le Mans by visiting the different exhibitions and a partial inspection of the depots. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to exchange views with the SciCoMove coordinator of the museums of Le Mans, Nicolas Morel from the Musée Vert (zoological and mineralogical museum), about the collections, individual objects and about the connecting themes between our different disciplines.

Until now, the city of Le Mans was only known to me from the field of motor sports, after all, the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans are held here. This event has been portrayed in movies several times, for example in the movie “Le Mans” (1971) with Steve McQueen. However, the city is also known for its medieval inner city district Cité Plantagenêt, whose building facades are largely still preserved in the style of the 15th century. This part of the city also serves as a location for movies of national and international renown, such as “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1990) or “The Man in the Iron Mask” (1998). The Cité Plantagenêt, which at first sight resembles an open-air museum, is surrounded by a city wall from the Gallo-Roman era, which has been largely preserved. This period is characteristic for the entire region and one of the focal points of the archaeological-historical Museé Jean-Claude Boulard on the edge of the Cité Plantagenêt.

The collection of this museum, like that of the Hôtel Cabu – Musée d’Histoire et d’Archéologie in Orléans, houses numerous objects from the ‘cultural clash’ between Romans and Gauls. The Roman god Mercurius seems to have been particularly venerated in this area due to the large number of representations of him as a bronze figure. It is interesting to note that some of these figures were not made in the Roman style, but in the Gallic style. Certainly one of the most outstanding objects of this kind is the bronze figure of a wild boar in life size, which can be visited in the Hôtel Cabu. I was also impressed by a large bronze cauldron for heating over fire and by a Gallic drinking horn made of glass, both objects in the permanent exhibition of the Musée Boulard.

Based on other objects from the Musées de la Ville du Mans, I have been able to identify some revealing cross-connections both between participating institutions and between the different disciplines represented. Among others, by means of staurolites of the Musée Vert, natural mineral formations in the shape of crosses, originating from Coray, Finistère in the west of France. In the past, these stone crosses were interpreted by devotees of the church as a sign of God, thus attributing a religious-cultural meaning to these mineralogical objects.

To my surprise, I found institutional connections between the Musée de Tessé (Museum of Fine Arts) and the colleagues from the Egyptological Museum in Turin, whose director Christian Greco had given the opening speech of the second SciCoMove workshop. In the basement of the Musée de Tessé, as part of the permanent exhibition, there is a replica of Nefertari’s burial chamber. Her husband Ramses II had it built around 1250 BC. The original tomb is located in Thebes and was discovered in 1904 by the Turin Egyptologist Ernesto Schiaparelli.

Further cross-connections between museums of different affiliations and disciplinary orientations can be drawn through well-functioning databases. Nicolas Morel was so kind to introduce me to some of the basics of digital curating in France, which surprised me positively based on my previous experiences as a museum employee in Germany. In addition to the museum’s own databases for documenting and inventorying objects, I was amazed at the digital infrastructure that exists and is being used in France. In particular, the “pop” database created by the French government for the area of cultural patrimony is fascinating ( This database contains all objects from art and culture that are in the collections of French public museums as well as state-recognized private museums.

Using the search function, Nicolas Morel gave me a basic illustration of the structure and function of the database. After he typed the word “Bonn” into the search mask, a multitude of objects appeared on the screen that historically depict my hometown of Bonn. From photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century to porcelain plates, engravings, lithographs, and technical drawings of the main building of my university, there was much to see. Two photographs of a hussar regiment on horseback, taken in 1898 that are contemporary historical documents of Franco-German relations, caught my attention in particular. In no other context have I ever seen so many pictorial representations of my city before the destruction and changes caused by the two world wars or even from the interwar period.

These and other databases are used extensively by French museums to plan exhibitions and request objects on loan. This promotes networking between museums and holds enormous potential for mutual knowledge gain and for the creation of joint exhibition and research projects. On an international level, our SciCoMove project therefore also holds this potential, especially the sub-project on digital exhibition.

However, the French museums that I visited in the region and with whose staff I had the opportunity to exchange ideas are using the digital and virtual possibilities not only for the management of databases and the search for exhibition objects, but also for the analog exhibition design. Storytelling has gained in importance; visitors should and can no longer read information exclusively from the accompanying texts attached to sterile display cases. Knowledge about the objects and their contexts can also be conveyed by means of graphic novels, comics, podcasts, introductory videos, music and animations. New and further target groups are reached, knowledge is spread, polyphony in storytelling is allowed.

In short: Museums are being democratized to a certain extent.

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How two amateur botanists from peripheries assembled important herbaria from different parts of Europe

Eugene Louis Honoré Monguillon (1865-1940) (Figure 1) was a French teacher and botanist who worked at various public schools in the department of Sarthe. After 1923, he retired at Le Mans (France). He published the “Catalogue descriptive des lichens du department de la Sarthe” (Le Mans, 1901), among other important publications. He described new species and varieties of mosses and lichens (i.e. Sticta plumbea Mong. and Bacidia arceutina var. punctiformis Mong.) (Figure 2) as a part of making 14 recombination of the names of lichens.

Figure 1. Portrait extracted from the article “Galerie des Naturalistes Sarthois” Bulletin de la Société d’agriculture, sciencies et arts de la Sarthe, LVII, 1939-1940. p. 222. © Archives of department de la Sarthe.
Figure 2. Type specimen of Bacidia arceutina var. punctiformis Mong. LMS-2015.0.1.758 © Le musée Vert

His herbarium (Figure 3) is conserved in Le musée Vert in Le Mans. It includes 17,150 specimens of mosses and lichens with several dozens of types with all data computerized. The collection conserved specimens dated from 1811 to 1939 and collected from France, Europe and the rest of the world.  This collection has been formed by exchanges with more than hundred French and European botanists, and it represents an interesting network of circulations in the “provinces”. E. Monguillon made the donation of his herbarium to the Société d’Agriculture, Sciences et Arts de la Sarthe in 1928 and 1929, according to the catalogue conserved in Le musée Vert (Figure 4). The main collection is conserved in this museum, but there are other specimens of E. Monguillon conserved in P (Paris herbarium), COLO (Colorado University of Colorado Museum of Natural History), BR (Meise Botanic Garden), BC (Botanic Institute of Barcelona) and DBN (National Botanic Garden Irland), among others.

Figure 3. E. Monguillon herbarium. © Le musée Vert
Figure 4. Catalogue of E. Monguillon herbarium conserved in Le musée Vert © Le musée Vert

The other botanist studied in our research is Longí Navàs i Ferré (1858-1938) (figure 5). He was one of the most prominent entomologists of the first third of the twentieth century: a naturalist, botanist, priest and Jesuit teacher. He was a very active scientist and disseminator; he described more than 3,300 new taxa, between genera, species and varieties, almost 2,200 correspond to the order of neuropterans. He was professor at Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza (Spain), where he was in charge of the museum of natural history of this school. He made different herbaria of lichens and in 1902 founded the Sociedad Aragonesa de Ciencias Naturales and organized the first congress of naturalists in Zaragoza (1908). The most of the specimens can be found in Colegio del Salvador in Zaragoza, and also in the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona, British Museum in London, Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, museums in Brussels, Tervuren (Belgium), Turin (Italy) and Tucumán (Argentina). He donated his herbarium, the same as E. Monguillon, to an academy of sciences, in this case, la Real Academia de Ciencias y Artes de Barcelona in 1896 (figure 6). Nowadays, these 135 specimens are conserved in Botanic Institute of Barcelona.

Figure 5. Portrait of Longí Navas. From © Academicos. Real Academia de Ciencias de Zaragoza
Figure 6. Catalogue of Longi Navas herbarium conserved in the archives of Botanic Institute of Barcelona. © Botanic Institute of Barcelona

About the specimens exchanged between these two botanists, we have studied 22 specimens collected by Longi Navas conserved in herbarium E. Monguillon from Saragossa, Madrid, Olot, Gipuzkoa, Castellon, La Rioja, Tenerife, La Palma and El Hierro (figure 7) and 4 specimens conserved in Botanic Institute of Barcelona (BC herbarium), all belonging to the exsiccata Colegio del Salvador-Zaragoza with exactly the same label that those conserved in Monguillon herbarium (figure 8).

Figure 7. Specimen of Cetraria islandica L. var. vulgaris Schaer. collected by Longi Navs and conserved in E. Monguillon herbarium. LMS_2015.0.1.2357. © Le musée Vert
Figure 8. LMS-2015.0.1.2390 specimen on the left  (© Le musée Vert) and BC-983792 specimen on the right (© Botanic Institue of Barcelona) with the same label. These specimens are Alectoria crinalis Ach collected in november of 1898 in Ortogisa (Logroño, Spain) by M. Vicente. Exsiccata of COLEGIO DEL SALVADOR – ZARAGOZA

We also have studied the specimens from Spain and/or collected by Spanish botanist conserved in E. Monguillon herbarium (100 specimens). Among these specimens we have found three types (a type sheet means that a new species was described on base of this specimen), that are currently being studied by our team for typification and publication in a scientific journal. The most interesting thing about these specimens are that from Olot (Catalonia) from volcanic zone, where new species were described in that time, and where the knowledge for volcanoes and by such phenomena increase in that century.

A part of these, E. Monguillon exchanged specimens with Ramon Bolos i Saderra (1852-1914), grandchild of Francesc Xavier Bolos i Germà (1773-1844), a naturalist who took an important part in the discovery of the Garrotxa volcanoes (an isolated region in Catalonia at that time), who published a description in Noticia de los extinguidos volcanes de la villa de Olot (first edition, 1820; second edition, enlarged, 1841). (Figure 9). After the study of this specimen, we have recognized the authorship thanks to the handwriting of the label.

Figure 9. The specimen collected by Ramon Bolos in Olot (Catalonia) and conserved in E. Monguillon herbarium (© Le musée Vert)

All these results show us that local herbaria made in provinces, by such amateur botanists like E. Monguillon or Longí Navas, two regional teachers, can become of great interest to the scientific community and to the history of science at the European level and explain how the exchanges took place at that time.

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La moda de los canastos de armadillo

Por Susana V. García, CONICET-Museo de La Plata

Entre las colecciones zoológicas del Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Barcelona se encuentra una canasta de armadillo, inventariada con el número MZB 99-1252. Fue donada en 1999, junto con otros especímenes zoológicos, y había sido comprada una década antes en un mercadillo de la ciudad. Este tipo de objeto, más frecuente en museos de curiosidades o de etnografía, fue aceptado en donación como un reservorio de datos genéticos. La canasta esta confeccionada con la coraza, la cabeza y la cola de un animal propio de Sudamérica: el llamado “peludo” en las pampas argentinas o “quirquincho grande” en las regiones andinas (Chaetophractus villosus). Este animal, se encuentra en Argentina, el “Gran Chaco” de Paraguay y Bolivia, y sur de Chile, y es una de las 22 especies que forman el orden de mamíferos conocidos como armadillos o tatúes (Cingulata) (Gallo, Superina y Abba, 2022). Los ejemplares disecados de armadillos o sus corazas y colas secas, fáciles de conservar y transportar, tienen una larga historia en los gabinetes y museos europeos desde principios del siglo XVI (Egmond y Mason, 1994, Podgorny, 2012). Recordemos, por ejemplo, que sesenta años después del arribo de Colón a América, se podían encontrar ejemplares en el mercado de Constantinopla según observó el naturalista francés Pierre Belon (Belon, 1588). La historia de estos ejemplares en diversas colecciones privadas – y luego museos estatales – remite, en gran medida, a las redes comerciales, las prácticas coleccionistas y las modas por nuevos objetos curiosos y coleccionables. Las “canastas de armadillo” ilustran estas interacciones.

Hacia el 1900 se generó una nueva industria alrededor de los armadillos: la confección de canastos que se vendieron como “curiosidades” y circularon alrededor del mundo. El negocio fue comenzado por inmigrantes europeos familiarizados en la preparación de cestos o pieles, buscando aplicar sus saberes a las materias primas que encontraban en América y tal vez inspirados en artefactos indígenas. En Texas se desarrolló una floreciente industria alrededor del armadillo de nueve bandas (Dasypus novemcinctus), un animal relativamente nuevo para la fauna texana, ya que comenzó a llegar al territorio norteamericano en la segunda mitad del siglo XIX ligado a la acción humana. La empresa más conocida fue la iniciada hacia 1898 por el migrante alemán, Charles Apelt, una década después de radicarse en Comfort, Texas (Smith y Doughty, 1984). Aplicando su experiencia en la manufactura de cestos, Apelt abrió una fábrica de canastas de armadillo en 1898, vendiendo más de 40.000 cestas en sus primeros 6 años en Estados Unidos y otras partes del mundo. Campesinos e indígenas de la frontera con México proveyeron miles de ejemplares para la fabricación de canastos y también para vender como mascotas (Newman, 1913). Tiempo después, la empresa pudo mantener y reproducir estos animales en cautiverio y formar una granja de armadillo. El negocio se extendió a la producción de lámparas y otros objetos decorativos con estos animales, así como a la provisión de ejemplares vivos para jardines zoológicos y laboratorios científicos (Smith y Doughty, 1984). La Apelt Armadillo Company and Farm, continuada por miembros de la familia estuvo activa por siete décadas. El negocio declinó a inicios de la década de 1970, aunque los cestos de armadillo siguieron circulando en las casas de objetos de arte, anticuarios y mercadillos.

Propaganda de la compañía Apelt Armadillo

El cesto conservado en el Museo de Ciencias Naturales de Barcelona, fabricado con una especie particular de Sudamérica que no se encuentra naturalmente en México ni Texas, nos muestra que este tipo de emprendimientos estuvo presente en otras partes del continente americano. En Buenos Aires, por ejemplo, un taxidermista italiano que arribó a la Argentina en 1894, se presentaba unos años después como “inventor y fabricante de canastos de armadillo”. Su negocio, al igual que el de otros taxidermistas de la época, abarcaba la preparación de las pieles de otros animales para distintos fines: alfombras, peletería, adornos y ejemplares embalsamados para las colecciones de estancieros, coleccionistas, colegios y museos. En esa época, la carne de armadillo, al igual que en otras partes de América, era un plato muy popular lo que era muy fácil conseguir cientos de ejemplares en el mercado de Buenos Aires (García, 2008). Hacia 1910, los canastos de armadillo junto con fotografías, pieles de jaguar y mates de calabaza, eran los pocos souvenirs locales que podían adquirir los turistas como recuerdo de la visita a la capital argentina, tal como relató el naturalista norteamericano William Jacob Holland, director del Museo Carnegie de Pittsburgh. Holland visitó la Argentina en 1912 para armar el calco del Diplodocus carneggi en el Museo de La Plata y se volvió con varios de esos canastos, después de varios días de buscar recuerdos locales:

“Pasé cierto tiempo tratando de reunir souvenirs. Al igual que en Bahía, en Buenos Aires eso me resultó difícil. Aunque en las tiendas se exhibía una gran cantidad de hermosos objetos de plata, bronce, cristalería, porcelana y artículos de lujo, que eran a la vez útiles y atractivos a la vista, todos ellos eran cosas hechas en Europa o Norteamérica, y podían comprarse mucho más baratos en Pittsburgh, o incluso en Nueva York. Un amigo que estaba empeñado en la misma tarea, me informó que todo lo que había logrado encontrar, que en cualquier sentido podría considerarse como característico del país, y por lo tanto adecuado para ser recuerdos de un viaje, eran fotografías, mates de calabazas, cestas de armadillo y pieles de jaguar. Había descubierto un lugar donde se vendían estas cosas y me guió hasta el lugar. Los pobres armadillos […] se venden en los mercados como alimento. […] El uso más curioso que se le da a estas pobres criaturas es convertir sus corazas en cestas. La boca es abierta y el extremo de la cola se introduce en ella, formando así el asa de la cesta, mientras que el caparazón hueco sirve de receptáculo. El caparazón está forrado de seda. Compré varios como recuerdo.”(Holland,1913).

Cesta de armadillo que se vendía en Buenos Aires en 1912 (Holland, 1913)

El comercio de canastos de armadillo continuó muy activo en la década de 1920, constituyendo parte de la industria “nacional” o regional de souvenirs de varios países americanos. Por esa época, cientos de armadillos eran capturados y preparados por indígenas del Chaco y los canastos se vendían en casas de taxidermia y de objetos de arte de Buenos Aires. También se producían en el Estado de São Paulo (Brasil), mientras abundaban en mercadillos de Berlín.  Queda para futuras investigaciones determinar hasta qué punto la moda por estos objetos promocionados en las exposiciones internacionales y catálogos, cuya fabricación a gran escala fue emprendida por inmigrantes europeos en América, fomentó una nueva artesanía entre las comunidades indígenas, vendida como recuerdo a los turistas o como objetos etnográficos para los museos de la segunda parte del siglo XX. Actualmente estos canastos se pueden adquirir en internet como objetos vintage o curiosidades con un valor que puede llegar a ser cien veces más alto que en la década de 1920, cuando se ofrecían como regalos para navidad o souvenirs para viajeros.  Los canastos de armadillos constituyen un ejemplo más de las distintas capas de historias entrecruzadas, emprendimientos comerciales, circulación y modas que esconden las piezas de muchos museos.


Agradezco a Eulalia García Franquesa, Jefa de colecciones, y a Javier Quesada, Conservador de Vertebrados, del Museo Ciencias Naturales de Barcelona por la consulta y datos de cesta de armadillo. También a Agustín M. Abba, especialista en armadillos e investigador del CONICET (Argentina) por la determinación y la información sobre esta especie.

Referencias bibliográficas

BELON, Pierre, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez & choses memorables, trouuées en Grece, Asie, Iudée, Egypte, Arabie, & autres pays estranges, redigées en trois liures, Par Pierre Belon du Mans. Reueuz de nouueau & augmentez de figures. Paris : Guillaume Cauellat, 1588.

FLORIKE, Egmond  y MASON, Peter, “Armadillos in Unlikely Places. Some Unpublished Sixteenth-Century Sources for New World “Rezeptionsgeschichte” in Northern Europe”, Ibero-amerikanisches Archiv, vol. 20, n° 1/2 ,1994, pp. 3-52.

GALLO, Jorge A., SUPERINA, Mariella y ABBA, Agustín M., Chaetophractus villosus (Xenarthra, Chlamyphoridae), Mammalian Species, vol. 54, n° 1014, 2022, pp:186–201.

GARCÍA, Susana V. “Especies locales, mercado y transporte en las investigaciones embriológicas: el estudio de la poliembrionía en armadillos a principios del siglo XX”,  História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos, vol.15, n° 3, 2008, pp.697-717.

HOLLAND, W. To the River Plate and back: the narrative of a scientific mission to South America, with observations upon things seen and suggested, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913.

NEWMAN, Horatio H. “The natural history of the nine-banded armadillo de Tejas”, American Naturalist, vol.47, n° 561, 1913, pp.513- 546.

PODGORNY, Irina. “Los conejos de calabaza”, en: El mundo atlántico y la modernidad americana, México: RGM. 2012, p. 222 – 237.

SMITH, Larry L. y DOUGHTY, Robin W., The Amazing Armadillo: Geography of a Folk Critter, University of Texas Press, 1984.

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Armadillo basket fashion

By Susana V. García, CONICET-Museo de La Plata

Among the zoological collections of the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona, there is an armadillo basket, inventoried with the number MZB 99-1252. It was donated in 1999, along with other zoological specimens, and had been purchased a decade earlier at a street market in the city. This type of object, more frequently found in ethnographic, antiquities or curiosity museums, was accepted as a donation as a reservoir of genetic data. This basket is made from the armour, head and tail of an animal native to South America: the large hairy armadillo (Chaetophractus villosus),  called “peludo” in the Argentine pampas or “quirquincho grande” in other regions. This animal is found in Argentina (with a wide distribution), the “Gran Chaco” of Bolivia and Paraguay, and southern Chile.  It is one of 22 species of the order of mammals known as armadillos or tatúes(Cingulata) (Gallo, Superina y Abba, 2022). Dried armadillo carapaces and tails or stuffed specimens, easy to preserve and transport, have a long history in European cabinets and museums since the early 16th century (Egmond y Mason, 1994, Podgorny, 2012). It is interesting to mention, for example, that sixty years after Columbus’ arrival in America, armadillos could be found in the Constantinople market, as the French naturalist Pierre Belon observed (Belon, 1588). The history of these specimens in various private collections – and later state museums – is in large part a reflection of trade networks, collecting practices and fashions for new curiosities and collectibles. The “armadillo baskets” illustrate these interactions.

Around 1900 a new industry was generated around armadillos: the making of baskets. These were sold as “curiosities” or souvenirs and circulated around the world. The business was started by European immigrants with experience in the preparation of baskets or skins, seeking to apply their knowledge to the raw materials they found in America and perhaps inspired by indigenous artefacts. In Texas, a flourishing industry has developed around the nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus), a relatively new animal to the Texas fauna, which began to arrive in North America in the second half of the 19th century linked to human activity. The best-known enterprise was started by German immigrant Charles Apelt, a decade after he settled in Comfort, Texas. Applying his knowledge of basket making, Charles Apelt opened an armadillo basket factory in 1898, selling over 40,000 baskets in his first 6 years in the United States and other parts of the world (Smith y Doughty, 1984). Farmers and indigenous people from the Mexican border provided thousands of specimens for basket making and also for sale as pets (Newman, 1913). Some time later, the Apelt company was able to keep and breed these animals in captivity and form an armadillo farm. The business extended to the production of lamps and other decorative objects with these animals, as well as the supply of live specimens for zoological gardens and scientific laboratories (Smith y Doughty, 1984). The Apelt Armadillo Company and Farm, continued by family members, was active for around seven decades. The business declined in the early 1970s, although armadillo baskets continued to circulate in antique and curiosity shops and street markets.

Advertising of Apelt Armadillo Company

The basket preserved in the Museum of Natural Sciences of Barcelona, made from a particular South American species not found naturally in Mexico or Texas, shows that this type of enterprise was present in other parts of the American continent. In Buenos Aires, for example, an Italian taxidermist who arrived in Argentina in 1894, presented himself a few years later as “inventor and manufacturer of armadillo baskets”. His business, like that of other taxidermists of the time, included the preparation of animal skins for various purposes: carpets, fur, ornaments for ladies and gentlemen, and embalmed specimens for the collections of wealthy landowners, schools and museums. At that time, armadillo meat, as in other parts of America, was a very popular dish and hundreds of specimens were readily available in the Buenos Aires market (García, 2008). By 1910, armadillo baskets, along with photographs, jaguar skins and mate-gourds, were the few local souvenirs that travellers could buy in Buenos Aires, as American naturalist William Jacob Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh, recounted. Holland visited Argentina in 1912 to assemble the Diplodocus carneggi cast in the La Plata Museum and returned with several armadillo baskets, after several days of searching for local souvenirs:

“A certain amount of time was spent in endeavouring to pick up souvenirs. As at Bahia, so in Buenos Aires, I found this difficult. While there was displayed in the shops an abundance of beautiful silverware, bronzes, glassware, porcelain, and articles de luxe, which were at once useful and attractive to the eye, all of these were things made in Europe or North America, and could be purchased far more cheaply in Pittsburgh, or even in New York. A friend bent upon the same errand, who had the same thought, informed me that all which he had succeeded in finding, which in any sense might be regarded as characteristic of the country, and therefore fit to be souvenirs of a visit, were photographs, mate-gourds, armadillo-baskets, and jaguar-skins. He had discovered a place where these things were for sale, and he guided me to the spot. The poor little armadillos […] are sold in the markets as food. […] The most curious use to which these poor creatures are put is to convert their carapaces into baskets. The mouth is opened and the end of the tail is inserted into it, thus forming the handle of the basket, while the hollow carapace serves as a receptacle. The carapace is lined with silk. I bought several as souvenirs” (Holland,1913).

Hairy Armadillo basket sold in Buenos Aires in 1912 (Holland, 1913)

The trade in armadillo baskets continued to be very active in the 1920s, constituting part of the “national” or regional souvenir industry of several American countries. At that time, hundreds of armadillos were captured and prepared by indigenous people from the Chaco and the baskets were sold in taxidermy and art object shops in Buenos Aires. They were also produced in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, while they were also offered at street markets in Berlin.  It remains for future research to determine to what extent the fashion for these objects promoted in international exhibitions and catalogues, whose large-scale manufacture was undertaken by European immigrants in America, fostered a new craftsmanship among indigenous communities, sold as souvenirs to tourists or as ethnographic objects for museums in the second part of the 20th century. Today these baskets can be purchased on the internet as vintage objects or curiosities with a value that can be a hundred times higher than in the 1920s, when they were offered as Christmas gifts or as souvenirs to travellers.  Armadillo baskets are an example of the many layers of intertwined stories, commercial ventures, movements and fashions that lie behind the objects of many museums.


I am gratful to Eulalia García Franquesa, Head of Collections, and Javier Quesada, Curator of Vertebrates, of the Natural Sciences Museum of Barcelona for the consultation and data on this piece. I thank Agustín M. Abba, Armadillo specialist and researcher at CONICET (Argentina), for this determination and the information on this species.

Bibliographic references

BELON, Pierre, Les observations de plusieurs singularitez & choses memorables, trouuées en Grece, Asie, Iudée, Egypte, Arabie, & autres pays estranges, redigées en trois liures, Par Pierre Belon du Mans. Reueuz de nouueau & augmentez de figures. Paris : Guillaume Cauellat, 1588.

FLORIKE, Egmond and MASON, Peter, “Armadillos in Unlikely Places. Some Unpublished Sixteenth-Century Sources for New World “Rezeptionsgeschichte” in Northern Europe”, Ibero-amerikanisches Archiv, vol. 20, n° 1/2, 1994, pp. 3-52.

GALLO, Jorge A., SUPERINA, Mariella and ABBA, Agustín M., Chaetophractus villosus (Xenarthra, Chlamyphoridae), Mammalian Species, vol. 54, n° 1014, 2022, pp:186–201.

GARCÍA, Susana V. “Especies locales, mercado y transporte en las investigaciones embriológicas: el estudio de la poliembrionía en armadillos a principios del siglo XX”,  História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos, vol.15, n°3, 2008, pp.697-717.

HOLLAND, W. To the River Plate and back: the narrative of a scientific mission to South America, with observations upon things seen and suggested, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1913.

NEWMAN, Horatio H. “The natural history of the nine-banded armadillo de Tejas”,.American Naturalist, vol. 47, n° 561, 1913, pp.513- 546..

PODGORNY,  Irina. “Los conejos de calabaza”, en: El mundo atlántico y la modernidad americana, México: RGM. 2012, p. 222 – 237.

SMITH, Larry L. and DOUGHTY, Robin W., The Amazing Armadillo: Geography of a Folk Critter, University of Texas Press, 1984.

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Alejandro Martinez présente ses travaux à Angers

Bacilles, sauterelles et controverses scientifiques. Félix d’Hérelle (1873-1949) et les premiers essais de contrôle biologique des insectes nuisibles en Argentine.

Le 14 mars 2022 à 16h30 à la Maison de la recherche Germaine Tillion (5bis bd. Lavoisier Angers)

 De la fin du XIXe siècle jusqu’au milieu du XXe siècle, les infestations de sauterelles ont été l’un des problèmes les plus graves à résoudre pour les agriculteurs argentins. Différentes méthodes ont été utilisées pour les arrêter : barrières de métal ou de tissu, différents types de pièges, leurs œufs ont été détruits, des lance-flammes et toutes sortes d’engins ont été utilisés, qui se sont souvent avérés inutiles. Les moyens chimiques, tels que l’arsenic, ont également eu leur tour, bien qu’en raison de leur toxicité pour les humains et le bétail, ils n’aient pas été largement utilisés. Dans l’historiographie de la lutte antiacridienne, le récit de ces moyens “mécaniques” et chimiques plus populaires et plus connus a jeté une ombre sur l’histoire des moyens biologiques et leur rôle dans la gestion d’insectes économiquement importants.

En Argentine en particulier, la lutte biologique contre les insectes nuisibles a démarré relativement tôt, entre la fin du XIXe siècle et le début du XXe siècle. L’un de ses principaux promoteurs de l’époque, l’entomologiste Angel Gallardo, proposait de suivre l’exemple des États-Unis et de certains pays européens qui ont introduit des espèces exotiques pour lutter contre les parasites agricoles par des “moyens scientifiques”. Dans cette optique, Gallardo se rend en France en 1911 et entre en contact avec le bactériologiste Félix d’Hérelle, qui a découvert un bacille capable d’infecter et de tuer les sauterelles, et l’invite à tester sa méthode en Argentine. 

Il s’agissait toutefois d’une tentative de résolution d’un problème complexe – qui retient encore l’attention des scientifiques aujourd’hui – par le biais d’une solution qui, bien qu’innovante, nécessitait encore beaucoup de recherches et de tests. La lutte biologique n’était pas seulement en contradiction flagrante avec les méthodes chimiques, mais c’était une activité qui nécessitait également, et nécessite toujours, de développer une compréhension détaillée des relations écologiques qui n’étaient pas claires. Son efficacité restait à prouver et en ce sens, malgré l’enthousiasme manifesté par certains, beaucoup étaient réticents et méfiants quant à l’utilité réelle de cette “nouvelle” méthode. Ainsi, l’avis des “experts” n’était pas unanime et les contestations n’étaient pas rares.

Les différends avec d’autres collègues et groupes de recherche ont laissé une trace durable dans la carrière scientifique de Félix d’Hérelle. La plus célèbre d’entre elles, la dispute sur la priorité de la découverte du bactériophage, a été largement rapportée et discutée dans l’historiographie de ces dernières années. Dans le cadre de cette conférence, nous souhaitons toutefois nous concentrer sur les étapes précédant cette découverte, alors que d’Hérelle débutait dans la bactériologie et cherchait à se faire une place dans le concert scientifique international. Son séjour en Amérique latine a constitué une étape stratégique dans sa formation et sa future carrière. Nous sommes particulièrement intéressés par les essais réalisés en Argentine et les conflits qui ont surgi autour de cette expérience.

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The reception of Cesare Lombroso’s theories in France: the case of Le Mans’ learned society

By Franco Capozzi, University of Turin

In 1876 Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), a professor of Forensic Medicine and Public Hygiene at the University of Turin and widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern criminology, published the first edition of The Criminal Man, one of the most famous criminological treatises ever written. In his book, Lombroso claimed that criminals were a subspecies of the human race and that they exhibited distinct physical and mental features than law-abiding individuals, such as unusual shapes of the skull, the presence of tattoos and a lack of moral sense. According to Lombroso, criminal behavior was not the result of a free will, but of a biological predisposition. Criminals were basically “throwbacks” to an earlier stage of human evolution, modern primitive men unable to control their violent and immoral instincts. The theory of the “born criminal” travelled all over the world and had an enormous influence on nineteenth century European culture, even though it had no scientific basis. This does not mean, however, that Lombroso did not encounter resistance to his ideas.

Cesare Lombroso. Photogravure. Credits: WikiMedia commons

This was particularly true in France, where Lombroso’s theories were rejected by the two leading representatives of the French School of criminology: Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904), magistrate and director of the Justice Ministry’s statistical service in Paris, and Alexander Lacassagne (1843-1924), professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Lyons. Unlike Lombroso, both scholars explained crime in sociological rather than biological terms. Tarde denied the existence of a “born criminal” marked by a cluster of physical anomalies and maintained that the similarities between offenders derived from their belonging to the same professional group. In Tarde’s view, criminality was a learned behavior that resulted primarily from the interaction with disadvantaged social environments rather than the product of a biological predisposition. Similarly, Lacassagne dismissed Lombroso’s atavistic explanation of crime and stressed the importance of poor living conditions in the etiology of crime. ‘The social milieu – he wrote – is the culture medium of crime; the microbe is the criminal, an element which only becomes active when it finds the medium to make it ferment’ (Lacassagne quoted from Renneville 2014).  

While the reception of Lombroso’s theories in France has been the subject of numerous studies in recent years, the way in which they were received by less known actors and in more peripheral contexts is still worth investigation. One interesting case study in this regard is represented by the learned society of Le Mans. Founded in 1761 by a royal decree of Louis XV, the Society of Agriculture, Sciences, and Arts of Sarthe is the oldest learned society in the Sarthe region. In 1840 it launched its own journal, which continues to be published to the present day. An analysis of all the volumes of the Bulletin published from 1840 to 1927 seems to reveal that Lombroso’s ideas did not spark much debate in the local scientific community. In fact, only one article refers to the controversial theories of the Italian scientist. The text was published in 1890 by Paul Hervé, a physician at the local hospital and a member of the Sarthe’s learned society, and reported the content of a communication he had presented a few months earlier to the Medical society of Le Mans. The article, which was entitled Essai sur la suggestion mentale (Essay on Thought Transmission), quoted the testimonies of several men of science of unquestionable credibility who had witnessed firsthand apparently inexplicable phenomena of thought transmission, mental telepathy and hypnosis, and concluded that the latter should be made the subject of serious scientific investigations. In the final bibliography, Hervé included two works written by Lombroso: the 1889 French translation of L’Homme de génie (The Man of Genius) and the 1886 second Italian edition of Studi sull’ipnotismo (Studies on Hypnotism). In addition to studying crime and criminals, Lombroso became in fact very interested in spiritualism, mediumship and hypnosis, publishing several works on the topic and even attending séances presided over by the world-famous medium Eusepia Palladino, an experience that produced a strong impression on him. After outlining the main theories that had been formulated hitherto to explain thought transmission, Hevré went on to discuss whether this phenomenon could be considered the product of a pathological condition. After all, he noted, most of the subjects involved in these experiments suffered from nervous disorders, hysteria in particular. Although he discarded this hypothesis, Hevré quoted in a footnote a passage from Lombroso’s L’Anthropologie criminelle et ses récents progrès (Criminal anthropology and its recent progress), in which the Italian criminal anthropologist had claimed that genius was often associated with pathology, especially with epilepsy and degeneration:

The fact that genius is frequently derived from parents either addicted to drink, of advanced age, or insane, certainly points to this conclusion, as also does the appearance of genius subsequently to lesions of the head. It is also indicated by frequent anomalies, especially of cranial asymmetry; the capacity of the skull being sometimes excessive, sometimes abnormally small; by the frequency of moral insanity, and of hallucinations; by sexual and intellectual precocity, and not rarely by somnambulism. To these we may add the prevalence of suicide, which is, on the other hand, very common among epileptic patients

(Lombroso 1890, pp. 110-111)
Cesare Lombroso attending a séance in Milan in 1908. Salt print photo. Credits: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology

In conclusion, an analysis of the Bulletin de la Société d’ agriculture, sciences et arts de la Sarthe seems to confirm that French scientists and physicians adopted a rather hostile attitude towards Lombroso’s theories. However, the article by Paul Harvé shows that Lombroso’s publication were read and discussed not only in intellectually thriving cities like Paris and Lyons, but also in more peripheral locations like Le Mans.

Selected bibliography

Paul Hevré, “Essai sur la suggestion mentale”, Bulletin de la Société d’ agriculture, sciences et arts de la Sarthe, 24 (1889), pp. 357-424.

Cesare Lombroso, L’anthropologie criminelle et ses récent progrès, Paris, Felix Alcan, 1890.

Marc Renneville, “Exploring the History of French Criminology (1885-1939): the Case of the Archives de l’Anthropologie Criminelle”, Criminocorpus, 2014,

Francesco Paolo de Ceglia, Lorenzo Leporiere, “Becoming Eusapia: The Rise of the ‘Diva of Scientists’” Science in Context 33, 4 (2020), pp. 441–71. doi:10.1017/S026988972100020X.

Carlos S. Alvarado, Massimo Biondi, “Cesare Lombroso on Mediumship and Pathology”, History of Psychiatry 28, 2 (2017), pp. 225–241. doi:10.1177/0957154X16686904.

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Scientific police: an example of the technological transfer between the two sides of the Atlantic

By Silvano Montaldo, Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology, University of Turin

The circulation of the technical knowledge of the scientific police is an example of the technological transfer between the two sides of the Atlantic, and of the existing tensions in the field of positivist criminology. The important body of letters received by Juan Vucetich (La Plata, Museo Policial) from European correspondents is an eloquent demonstration of this. His personal identification system, which replaced Bertillon’s anthropometric measurements with the collection of fingerprints, was adopted by the Italian forensic police after it spread to Latin America. In this process, what was weakened was the anthropological perspective of Lombrosian criminology, with its baggage of signs of degeneration and atavism, while a new perspective of institutionalization of scientific knowledge by the state was opening up.

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Irina Podgorny, Silvano Montaldo and Nathalie Richard at the museums of Luján

On 10 December 2021, the three researchers went to present SciCoMove at the Historical Museum and the Ameghino House in Luján.

The Complejo Museográfico Provincial Enrique Udaondo incorporates the Museo Colonial e Histórico, which has a very interesting history. Founded by Enrique Udaondo (1880–1962) in 1918, this museum grew out of the transformation of its founder’s private collection into a public one; later its collections have been expanded through numerous donations and purchases of other private collections gathered by national history amateurs. Udaondo himself is quite a representative of amateur scholars, who collected the past often in a troubled political context and with partisan intentions. Belonging to the conservative circles, he collected traces of Argentina’s “colonial” past and did not radically oppose this past to the history of Argentina after its independence (María Elida Blasco, Un museo para la colonia. El Museo Histórico y Colonial de Luján, Rosario, Prohistoria ediciones, 2011). This scholar can be compared to his French counterparts who collected traces of France’s pre-revolutionary past after 1789 and whose private collections often enriched national or local public museums, such as the Musée Carnavalet in Paris (see Tom Stammers, The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c.1790–1890, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). Exchanges with the museum’s management team were very productive and allowed to widen the reach of the SciCoMove project. The Historical Museum might be interested in the virtual exhibition prototype that will be produced at the end of the project, as well as in the MOOC for its staff.

From left to right: Mauricio Cano, Viviana Melloni de Mallol, Irina Podgorny, Nathalie Richard and Silvano Montaldo

Luján is also the city where the family of the naturalist Florentino Ameghino (1853–1911), coming from Italy, settled when he was still an infant. This paleontologist, author of a theory that made Argentina the cradle of the human species, was transformed into an Argentine national hero (Irina Podgorny, “Florentino Ameghino entre Luján et Moscou (1911–1954)”, Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines, 36/2020, 79-102,; Irina Podgorny, Florentino Ameghino y Hermanos, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2021). His family home has become a small museum. The SciCoMove researchers met the museum team, and Irina Podgorny and Nathalie Richard were interviewed for a video dedicated to Ameghino on the city’s website. This visit was an opportunity to present the SciCoMove project and the local press reported on it.

Irina Podgorny at the Maison Ameghino
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Irina Podgorny, Silvano Montaldo et Nathalie Richard aux musées de Luján

Le 10 décembre, les trois chercheurs sont allés présenter SciCoMove au Musée historique et à la Maison Ameghino de Luján.

De gauche à droite : Mauricio Cano, Viviana Melloni de Mallol, Irina Podgorny, Nathalie Richard et Silvano Montaldo

Le Complejo Museográfico Provincial Enrique Udaondo intègre un Museo Colonial e Histórico dont l’histoire est très intéressante. Fondé par Enrique Udaondo (1880-1962) en 1918, ce musée historique est issu de la transformation de la collection privée de son fondateur en collection publique et ses collections se sont accrues grâce à de nombreux dons ou achats de collections privées rassemblées par des amateurs d’histoire nationale. Udaondo lui-même est tout à fait représentation des érudits amateurs, qui collectionnent le passé, souvent dans un contexte politique troublé et avec des intentions partisanes. Appartenant aux milieux conservateurs, il collectionne les traces du passé « colonial » de l’Argentine et n’oppose pas radicalement ce passé à l’histoire de l’Argentine après son indépendance (María Elida Blasco, Un museo para la colonia. El Museo Histórico y Colonial de Luján, Rosario, Prohistoria ediciones, 2011). Cet érudit conservateur peut être comparés à ceux qui, en France, ont collecté les traces du passé prérévolutionnaire après 1789 et dont les collections privées sont venues enrichir souvent les musées publics nationaux ou locaux, tel le Musée Carnavalet à Paris (voir Tom Stammers, The Purchase of the Past: Collecting Culture in Post-Revolutionary Paris c. 1790–1890, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020). Les échanges avec l’équipe de direction du Musée ont été très enrichissant et ont permis de faire connaître SciCoMove à ce musée qui pourrait être intéressé par le prototype d’exposition virtuelle qui sera produit en fin de projet, et par le Mooc pour son personnel.

Luján est aussi la ville où la famille du naturaliste Florentino Ameghino (1853-1911), venue d’Italie, s’est établie alors qu’il était encore un nourrisson. Ce paléontologue, auteur d’une théorie qui fait de l’Argentine le berceau de l’espèce humaine, a été érigé en héros national argentin (Irina Podgorny, « Florentino Ameghino entre Luján et Moscou (1911-1954) », Revue d’histoire des sciences humaines [En ligne], 36 | 2020, 79-102, ; Florentino Ameghino y Hermanos, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2021). Sa maison famille a été transformée en petit musée. Les chercheurs du projet ont été reçu par l’équipe en charge de cette structure, et Irina Podgorny et Nathalie Richard ont été interviewées afin d’intégrer leurs propos dans une vidéo consacrée à Ameghino qui sera valorisée sur le site de la ville. Cette visite a été l’occasion de présenter le projet SciCoMove et la presse locale en a rendu compte.

Irina Podgorny à la Maison Ameghino