Geological Observations on South America - Charles Darwin - ebook

Of the remarkable trilogy constituted by Darwin's writings which deal with the geology of the Beagle, the member which has perhaps attracted least attention, up to the present time is that which treats of the geology of South America. The actual writing of this book appears to have occupied Darwin a shorter period than either of the other volumes of the series; his diary records that the work was accomplished within ten months, namely, between July 1844 and April 1845; but the book was not actually issued till late in the year following, the preface bearing the date September 1846.

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Geological Observations on South America

Charles Darwin




Upraised shells of La Plata. Bahia Blanca, Sand-dunes and Pumice-pebbles. Step-formed plains of Patagonia, with upraised Shells. Terrace-bounded Valley of Santa Cruz, formerly a Sea-strait. Upraised shells of Tierra del Fuego. Length and breadth of the elevated area. Equability of the movements, as shown by the similar heights of the plains. Slowness of the elevatory process. Mode of formation of the step-formed plains. Summary. Great Shingle Formation of Patagonia; its extent, origin, and distribution. Formation of sea-cliffs.

In the following Volume, which treats of the geology of South America, and almost exclusively of the parts southward of the Tropic of Capricorn, I have arranged the chapters according to the age of the deposits, occasionally departing from this order, for the sake of geographical simplicity.

The elevation of the land within the recent period, and the modifications of its surface through the action of the sea (to which subjects I paid particular attention) will be first discussed; I will then pass on to the tertiary deposits, and afterwards to the older rocks. Only those districts and sections will be described in detail which appear to me to deserve some particular attention; and I will, at the end of each chapter, give a summary of the results. We will commence with the proofs of the upheaval of the eastern coast of the continent, from the Rio Plata southward; and, in the Second Chapter, follow up the same subject along the shores of Chile and Peru.

On the northern bank of the great estuary of the Rio Plata, near Maldonado, I found at the head of a lake, sometimes brackish but generally containing fresh water, a bed of muddy clay, six feet in thickness, with numerous shells of species still existing in the Plata, namely, the Azara labiata, d'Orbigny, fragments of Mytilus eduliformis, d'Orbigny, Paludestrina Isabellei, d'Orbigny, and the Solen Caribaeus, Lam., which last was embedded vertically in the position in which it had lived. These shells lie at the height of only two feet above the lake, nor would they have been worth mentioning, except in connection with analogous facts.

At Monte Video, I noticed near the town, and along the base of the mount, beds of a living Mytilus, raised some feet above the surface of the Plata: in a similar bed, at a height from thirteen to sixteen feet, M. Isabelle collected eight species, which, according to M. d'Orbigny, now live at the mouth of the estuary. ("Voyage dans l'Amerique Merid.: Part. Geolog." page 21.) At Colonia del Sacramiento, further westward, I observed at the height of about fifteen feet above the river, there of quite fresh water, a small bed of the same Mytilus, which lives in brackish water at Monte Video. Near the mouth of Uruguay, and for at least thirty-five miles northward, there are at intervals large sandy tracts, extending several miles from the banks of the river, but not raised much above its level, abounding with small bivalves, which occur in such numbers that at the Agraciado they are sifted and burnt for lime. Those which I examined near the A. S. Juan were much worn: they consisted of Mactra Isabellei, d'Orbigny, mingled with few of Venus sinuosa, Lam., both inhabiting, as I am informed by M. d'Orbigny, brackish water at the mouth of the Plata, nearly or quite as salt as the open sea. The loose sand, in which these shells are packed, is heaped into low, straight, long lines of dunes, like those left by the sea at the head of many bays. M. d'Orbigny has described an analogous phenomenon on a greater scale, near San Pedro on the river Parana, where he found widely extended beds and hillocks of sand, with vast numbers of the Azara labiata, at the height of nearly 100 feet (English) above the surface of that river. (Ibid page 43.) The Azara inhabits brackish water, and is not known to be found nearer to San Pedro than Buenos Ayres, distant above a hundred miles in a straight line. Nearer Buenos Ayres, on the road from that place to San Isidro, there are extensive beds, as I am informed by Sir Woodbine Parish, of the Azara labiata, lying at about forty feet above the level of the river, and distant between two and three miles from it. ("Buenos Ayres" etc. by Sir Woodbine Parish page 168.) These shells are always found on the highest banks in the district: they are embedded in a stratified earthy mass, precisely like that of the great Pampean deposit hereafter to be described. In one collection of these shells, there were some valves of the Venus sinuosa, Lam., the same species found with the Mactra on the banks of the Uruguay. South of Buenos Ayres, near Ensenada, there are other beds of the Azara, some of which seem to have been embedded in yellowish, calcareous, semi-crystalline matter; and Sir W. Parish has given me from the banks of the Arroyo del Tristan, situated in this same neighbourhood, at the distance of about a league from the Plata, a specimen of a pale- reddish, calcereo-argillaceous stone (precisely like parts of the Pampean deposit the importance of which fact will be referred to in a succeeding chapter), abounding with shells of an Azara, much worn, but which in general form and appearance closely resemble, and are probably identical with, the A. labiata. Besides these shells, cellular, highly crystalline rock, formed of the casts of small bivalves, is found near Ensenada; and likewise beds of sea-shells, which from their appearance appear to have lain on the surface. Sir W. Parish has given me some of these shells, and M. d'Orbigny pronounces them to be:--

1. Buccinanops globulosum, d'Orbigny.

2. Olivancillaria auricularia, d'Orbigny.

3. Venus flexuosa, Lam.

4. Cytheraea (imperfect).

5. Mactra Isabellei, d'Orbigny.

6. Ostrea pulchella, d'Orbigny.

Besides these, Sir W. Parish procured ("Buenos Ayres" etc. by Sir W. Parish page 168.) (as named by Mr. G.B. Sowerby) the following shells:--

7. Voluta colocynthis.

8. Voluta angulata.

9. Buccinum (not spec.?).

All these species (with, perhaps, the exception of the last) are recent, and live on the South American coast. These shell-beds extend from one league to six leagues from the Plata, and must lie many feet above its level. I heard, also, of beds of shells on the Somborombon, and on the Rio Salado, at which latter place, as M. d'Orbigny informs me, the Mactra Isabellei and Venus sinuosa are found.

During the elevation of the Provinces of La Plata, the waters of the ancient estuary have but little affected (with the exception of the sand- hills on the banks of the Parana and Uruguay) the outline of the land. M. Parchappe, however, has described groups of sand dunes scattered over the wide extent of the Pampas southward of Buenos Ayres (D'Orbigny "Voyage Geolog." page 44.), which M. d'Orbigny attributes with much probability to the action of the sea, before the plains were raised above its level. (Before proceeding to the districts southward of La Plata, it may be worth while just to state, that there is some evidence that the coast of Brazil has participated in a small amount of elevation. Mr. Burchell informs me, that he collected at Santos (latitude 24 degrees S.) oyster-shells, apparently recent, some miles from the shore, and quite above the tidal action. Westward of Rio de Janeiro, Captain Elliot is asserted (see Harlan "Med. and Phys. Res." page 35 and Dr. Meigs in "Transactions of the American Philosophical Society"), to have found human bones, encrusted with sea-shells, between fifteen and twenty feet above the level of the sea. Between Rio de Janeiro and Cape Frio I crossed sandy tracts abounding with sea-shells, at a distance of a league from the coast; but whether these tracts have been formed by upheaval, or through the mere accumulation of drift sand, I am not prepared to assert. At Bahia (latitude 13 degrees S.), in some parts near the coast, there are traces of sea-action at the height of about twenty feet above its present level; there are also, in many parts, remnants of beds of sandstone and conglomerate with numerous recent shells, raised a little above the sea-level. I may add, that at the head of Bahia Bay there is a formation, about forty feet in thickness, containing tertiary shells apparently of fresh-water origin, now washed by the sea and encrusted with Balini; this appears to indicate a small amount of subsidence subsequent to its deposition. At Pernambuco (latitude 8 degrees S.), in the alluvial or tertiary cliffs, surrounding the low land on which the city stands, I looked in vain for organic remains, or other evidence of changes in level.)


The coast as far as Bahia Blanca (in latitude 39 degrees S.) is formed either of a horizontal range of cliffs, or of immense accumulations of sand-dunes. Within Bahia Blanca, a small piece of tableland, about twenty feet above high-water mark, called Punta Alta, is formed of strata of cemented gravel and of red earthy mud, abounding with shells (with others lying loose on the surface), and the bones of extinct mammifers. These shells, twenty in number, together with a Balanus and two corals, are all recent species, still inhabiting the neighbouring seas. They will be enumerated in the Fourth Chapter, when describing the Pampean formation; five of them are identical with the upraised ones from near Buenos Ayres. The northern shore of Bahia Blanca is, in main part, formed of immense sand-dunes, resting on gravel with recent shells, and ranging in lines parallel to the shore. These ranges are separated from each other by flat spaces, composed of stiff impure red clay, in which, at the distance of about two miles from the coast, I found by digging a few minute fragments of sea-shells. The sand-dunes extend several miles inland, and stand on a plain, which slopes up to a height of between one hundred and two hundred feet. Numerous, small, well-rounded pebbles of pumice lie scattered both on the plain and sand-hillocks: at Monte Hermoso, on the flat summit of a cliff, I found many of them at a height of 120 feet (angular measurement) above the level of the sea. These pumice pebbles, no doubt, were originally brought down from the Cordillera by the rivers which cross the continent, in the same way as the river Negro anciently brought down, and still brings down, pumice, and as the river Chupat brings down scoriae: when once delivered at the mouth of a river, they would naturally have travelled along the coasts, and been cast up during the elevation of the land, at different heights. The origin of the argillaceous flats, which separate the parallel ranges of sand-dunes, seems due to the tides here having a tendency (as I believe they have on most shoal, protected coasts) to throw up a bar parallel to the shore, and at some distance from it; this bar gradually becomes larger, affording a base for the accumulation of sand- dunes, and the shallow space within then becomes silted up with mud. The repetition of this process, without any elevation of the land, would form a level plain traversed by parallel lines of sand-hillocks; during a slow elevation of the land, the hillocks would rest on a gently inclined surface, like that on the northern shore of Bahia Blanca. I did not observe any shells in this neighbourhood at a greater height than twenty feet; and therefore the age of the sea-drifted pebbles of pumice, now standing at the height of 120 feet, must remain uncertain.

The main plain surrounding Bahia Blanca I estimated at from two hundred to three hundred feet; it insensibly rises towards the distant Sierra Ventana. There are in this neighbourhood some other and lower plains, but they do not abut one at the foot of the other, in the manner hereafter to be described, so characteristic of Patagonia. The plain on which the settlement stands is crossed by many low sand-dunes, abounding with the minute shells of the Paludestrina australis, d'Orbigny, which now lives in the bay. This low plain is bounded to the south, at the Cabeza del Buey, by the cliff-formed margin of a wide plain of the Pampean formation, which I estimated at sixty feet in height. On the summit of this cliff there is a range of high sand-dunes extending several miles in an east and west line.

Southward of Bahia Blanca, the river Colorado flows between two plains, apparently from thirty to forty feet in height. Of these plains, the southern one slopes up to the foot of the great sandstone plateau of the Rio Negro; and the northern one against an escarpment of the Pampean deposit; so that the Colorado flows in a valley fifty miles in width, between the upper escarpments. I state this, because on the low plain at the foot of the northern escarpment, I crossed an immense accumulation of high sand-dunes, estimated by the Gauchos at no less than eight miles in breadth. These dunes range westward from the coast, which is twenty miles distant, to far inland, in lines parallel to the valley; they are separated from each other by argillaceous flats, precisely like those on the northern shore of Bahia Blanca. At present there is no source whence this immense accumulation of sand could proceed; but if, as I believe, the upper escarpments once formed the shores of an estuary, in that case the sandstone formation of the river Negro would have afforded an inexhaustible supply of sand, which would naturally have accumulated on the northern shore, as on every part of the coast open to the south winds between Bahia Blanca and Buenos Ayres.

At San Blas (40 degrees 40' S.) a little south of the mouth of the Colorado, M. d'Orbigny found fourteen species of existing shells (six of them identical with those from Bahia Blanca), embedded in their natural positions. ("Voyage" etc. page 54.) From the zone of depth which these shells are known to inhabit, they must have been uplifted thirty-two feet. He also found, at from fifteen to twenty feet above this bed, the remains of an ancient beach.

Ten miles southward, but 120 miles to the west, at Port S. Antonio, the Officers employed on the Survey assured me that they saw many old sea- shells strewed on the surface of the ground, similar to those found on other parts of the coast of Patagonia. At San Josef, ninety miles south in nearly the same longitude, I found, above the gravel, which caps an old tertiary formation, an irregular bed and hillock of sand, several feet in thickness, abounding with shells of Patella deaurita, Mytilus Magellanicus, the latter retaining much of its colour; Fusus Magellanicus (and a variety of the same), and a large Balanus (probably B. Tulipa), all now found on this coast: I estimated this bed at from eighty to one hundred feet above the level of the sea. To the westward of this bay, there is a plain estimated at between two hundred and three hundred feet in height: this plain seems, from many measurements, to be a continuation of the sandstone platform of the river Negro. The next place southward, where I landed, was at Port Desire, 340 miles distant; but from the intermediate districts I received, through the kindness of the Officers of the Survey, especially from Lieutenant Stokes and Mr. King, many specimens and sketches, quite sufficient to show the general uniformity of the whole line of coast. I may here state, that the whole of Patagonia consists of a tertiary formation, resting on and sometimes surrounding hills of porphyry and quartz: the surface is worn into many wide valleys and into level step-formed plains, rising one above another, all capped by irregular beds of gravel, chiefly composed of porphyritic rocks. This gravel formation will be separately described at the end of the chapter.

My object in giving the following measurements of the plains, as taken by the Officers of the Survey, is, as will hereafter be seen, to show the remarkable equability of the recent elevatory movements. Round the southern parts of Nuevo Gulf, as far as the River Chupat (seventy miles southward of San Josef), there appear to be several plains, of which the best defined are here represented.

(In the following Diagrams: 1. Baseline is Level of sea. 2. Scale is 1/20 of inch to 100 feet vertical. 3. Height is shown in feet thus: An. M. always stands for angular or trigonometrical measurement. Ba. M. always stands for barometrical measurement. Est. always stands for estimation by the Officers of the Survey.


From East (sea level) to West (high): Terrace 1. 80 Est. Terrace 2. 200-220 An. M. Terrace 3. 350 An. M.)

The upper plain is here well defined (called Table Hills); its edge forms a cliff or line of escarpment many miles in length, projecting over a lower plain. The lowest plain corresponds with that at San Josef with the recent shells on its surface. Between this lowest and the uppermost plain, there is probably more than one step-formed terrace: several measurements show the existence of the intermediate one of the height given in Diagram 1.


From East (sea level) to West (high): Terrace 1. 250 An. M. Terrace 2. 330 An. M. Terrace 3. 580 An. M. Terraces 4, 5 and 6 not measured. Terrace 7. 1,200 Est.)

Near the north headland of the great Bay of St. George (100 miles south of the Chupat), two well-marked plains of 250 and 330 feet were measured: these are said to sweep round a great part of the Bay. At its south headland, 120 miles distant from the north headland, the 250 feet plain was again measured. In the middle of the bay, a higher plain was found at two neighbouring places (Tilli Roads and C. Marques) to be 580 feet in height. Above this plain, towards the interior, Mr. Stokes informs me that there were several other step-formed plains, the highest of which was estimated at 1,200 feet, and was seen ranging at apparently the same height for 150 miles northward. All these plains have been worn into great valleys and much denuded. The section in Diagram 3 is illustrative of the general structure of the great Bay of St. George. At the south headland of the Bay of St. George (near C. Three Points) the 250 plain is very extensive.


From East (sea level) to West (high): Terrace 1. 100 Est. Terrace 2. 245-255 Ba. M. Shells on surface. Terrace 3. 330 Ba. M. Shells on surface. Terrace 4. Not measured.)

At Port Desire (forty miles southward) I made several measurements with the barometer of a plain, which extends along the north side of the port and along the open coast, and which varies from 245 to 255 feet in height: this plain abuts against the foot of a higher plain of 330 feet, which extends also far northward along the coast, and likewise into the interior. In the distance a higher inland platform was seen, of which I do not know the height. In three separate places, I observed the cliff of the 245-255 feet plain, fringed by a terrace or narrow plain estimated at about one hundred feet in height. These plains are represented in the section Diagram 3.

In many places, even at the distance of three and four miles from the coast, I found on the gravel-capped surface of the 245-255 feet, and of the 330 feet plain, shells of Mytilus Magellanicus, M. edulis, Patella deaurita, and another Patella, too much worn to be identified, but apparently similar to one found abundantly adhering to the leaves of the kelp. These species are the commonest now living on this coast. The shells all appeared very old; the blue of the mussels was much faded; and only traces of colour could be perceived in the Patellas, of which the outer surfaces were scaling off. They lay scattered on the smooth surface of the gravel, but abounded most in certain patches, especially at the heads of the smaller valleys: they generally contained sand in their insides; and I presume that they have been washed by alluvial action out of thin sandy layers, traces of which may sometimes be seen covering the gravel. The several plains have very level surfaces; but all are scooped out by numerous broad, winding, flat-bottomed valleys, in which, judging from the bushes, streams never flow. These remarks on the state of the shells, and on the nature of the plains, apply to the following cases, so need not be repeated.


From East (sea level) to West (high): Terrace 1. Shells on surface. 90 Est. Terrace 2. 430 An. M. Terrace 3. 560 An. M. Terrace 4. 950 An. M.)

Southward of Port Desire, the plains have been greatly denuded, with only small pieces of tableland marking their former extension. But opposite Bird Island, two considerable step-formed plains were measured, and found respectively to be 350 and 590 feet in height. This latter plain extends along the coast close to Port St. Julian (110 miles south of Port Desire); see Diagram 4.

The lowest plain was estimated at ninety feet: it is remarkable from the usual gravel-bed being deeply worn into hollows, which are filled up with, as well as the general surface covered by, sandy and reddish earthy matter: in one of the hollows thus filled up, the skeleton of the Macrauchenia Patachonica, as will hereafter be described, was embedded. On the surface and in the upper parts of this earthy mass, there were numerous shells of Mytilus Magellanicus and M. edulis, Patella deaurita, and fragments of other species. This plain is tolerably level, but not extensive; it forms a promontory seven or eight miles long, and three or four wide. The upper plains in Diagram 4 were measured by the Officers of the Survey; they were all capped by thick beds of gravel, and were all more or less denuded; the 950 plain consists merely of separate, truncated, gravel-capped hills, two of which, by measurement, were found to differ only three feet. The 430 feet plain extends, apparently with hardly a break, to near the northern entrance of the Rio Santa Cruz (fifty miles to the south); but it was there found to be only 330 feet in height.


From East (sea level) to West (high): Terrace 1. (sloping) 355 Ba. M. Shells on surface. 463 Ba. M. Terrace 2. 710 An. M. Terrace 3. 840 An. M.)

On the southern side of the mouth of the Santa Cruz we have Diagram 5, which I am able to give with more detail than in the foregoing cases.

The plain marked 355 feet (as ascertained by the barometer and by angular measurement) is a continuation of the above-mentioned 330 feet plain: it extends in a N.W. direction along the southern shores of the estuary. It is capped by gravel, which in most parts is covered by a thin bed of sandy earth, and is scooped out by many flat-bottomed valleys. It appears to the eye quite level, but in proceeding in a S.S.W. course, towards an escarpment distant about six miles, and likewise ranging across the country in a N.W. line, it was found to rise at first insensibly, and then for the last half-mile, sensibly, close up to the base of the escarpment: at this point it was 463 feet in height, showing a rise of 108 feet in the six miles. On this 355-463 feet plain, I found several shells of Mytilus Magellanicus and of a Mytilus, which Mr. Sowerby informs me is yet unnamed, though well-known as recent on this coast; Patella deaurita; Fusus, I believe, Magellanicus, but the specimen has been lost; and at the distance of four miles from the coast, at the height of about four hundred feet, there were fragments of the same Patella and of a Voluta (apparently V. ancilla) partially embedded in the superficial sandy earth. All these shells had the same ancient appearance with those from the foregoing localities. As the tides along this part of the coast rise at the Syzygal period forty feet, and therefore form a well-marked beach-line, I particularly looked out for ridges in crossing this plain, which, as we have seen, rises 108 feet in about six miles, but I could not see any traces of such. The next highest plain is 710 feet above the sea; it is very narrow, but level, and is capped with gravel; it abuts to the foot of the 840 feet plain. This summit-plain extends as far as the eye can range, both inland along the southern side of the valley of the Santa Cruz, and southward along the Atlantic.


This valley runs in an east and west direction to the Cordillera, a distance of about one hundred and sixty miles. It cuts through the great Patagonian tertiary formation, including, in the upper half of the valley, immense streams of basaltic lava, which as well as the softer beds, are capped by gravel; and this gravel, high up the river, is associated with a vast boulder formation. (I have described this formation in a paper in the "Geological Transactions" volume 6 page 415.) In ascending the valley, the plain which at the mouth on the southern side is 355 feet high, is seen to trend towards the corresponding plain on the northern side, so that their escarpments appear like the shores of a former estuary, larger than the existing one: the escarpments, also, of the 840 feet summit-plain (with a corresponding northern one, which is met with some way up the valley), appear like the shores of a still larger estuary. Farther up the valley, the sides are bounded throughout its entire length by level, gravel-capped terraces, rising above each other in steps. The width between the upper escarpments is on an average between seven and ten miles; in one spot, however, where cutting through the basaltic lava, it was only one mile and a half. Between the escarpments of the second highest terrace the average width is about four or five miles. The bottom of the valley, at the distance of 110 miles from its mouth, begins sensibly to expand, and soon forms a considerable plain, 440 feet above the level of the sea, through which the river flows in a gut from twenty to forty feet in depth. I here found, at a point 140 miles from the Atlantic, and seventy miles from the nearest creek of the Pacific, at the height of 410 feet, a very old and worn shell of Patella deaurita. Lower down the valley, 105 miles from the Atlantic (longitude 71 degrees W.), and at an elevation of about 300 feet, I also found, in the bed of the river, two much worn and broken shells of the Voluta ancilla, still retaining traces of their colours; and one of the Patella deaurita. It appeared that these shells had been washed from the banks into the river; considering the distance from the sea, the desert and absolutely unfrequented character of the country, and the very ancient appearance of the shells (exactly like those found on the plains nearer the coast), there is, I think, no cause to suspect that they could have been brought here by Indians.

The plain at the head of the valley is tolerably level, but water-worn, and with many sand-dunes on it like those on a sea-coast. At the highest point to which we ascended, it was sixteen miles wide in a north and south line; and forty-five miles in length in an east and west line. It is bordered by the escarpments, one above the other, of two plains, which diverge as they approach the Cordillera, and consequently resemble, at two levels, the shores of great bays facing the mountains; and these mountains are breached in front of the lower plain by a remarkable gap. The valley, therefore, of the Santa Cruz consists of a straight broad cut, about ninety miles in length, bordered by gravel-capped terraces and plains, the escarpments of which at both ends diverge or expand, one over the other, after the manner of the shores of great bays. Bearing in mind this peculiar form of the land--the sand-dunes on the plain at the head of the valley--the gap in the Cordillera, in front of it--the presence in two places of very ancient shells of existing species--and lastly, the circumstance of the 355-453 feet plain, with the numerous marine remains on its surface, sweeping from the Atlantic coast, far up the valley, I think we must admit, that within the recent period, the course of the Santa Cruz formed a sea-strait intersecting the continent. At this period, the southern part of South America consisted of an archipelago of islands 360 miles in a north and south line. We shall presently see, that two other straits also, since closed, then cut through Tierra del Fuego; I may add, that one of them must at that time have expanded at the foot of the Cordillera into a great bay (now Otway Water) like that which formerly covered the 440 feet plain at the head of the Santa Cruz.


The height of each terrace, above the level of the river (furthest to nearest to the river) in feet:

A, north and south: 1,122 B, north and south: 869 C, north and south: 639 D, north: not measured. D, north? (suggest south): 185 E: 20 Bed of River.

Vertical scale 1/20 of inch to 100 feet; but terrace E, being only twenty feet above the river, has necessarily been raised. The horizontal distances much contracted; the distance from the edge of A North to A South being on an average from seven to ten miles.) I have said that the valley in its whole course is bordered by gravel- capped plains. The section (Diagram 6), supposed to be drawn in a north and south line across the valley, can scarcely be considered as more than illustrative; for during our hurried ascent it was impossible to measure all the plains at any one place. At a point nearly midway between the Cordillera and the Atlantic, I found the plain (A north) 1,122 feet above the river; all the lower plains on this side were here united into one great broken cliff: at a point sixteen miles lower down the stream, I found by measurement and estimation that B (north) was 869 above the river: very near to where A (north) was measured, C (north) was 639 above the same level: the terrace D (north) was nowhere measured: the lowest E (north) was in many places about twenty feet above the river. These plains or terraces were best developed where the valley was widest; the whole five, like gigantic steps, occurred together only at a few points. The lower terraces are less continuous than the higher ones, and appear to be entirely lost in the upper third of the valley. Terrace C (south), however was traced continuously for a great distance. The terrace B (north), at a point fifty- five miles from the mouth of the river, was four miles in width; higher up the valley this terrace (or at least the second highest one, for I could not always trace it continuously) was about eight miles wide. This second plain was generally wider than the lower ones--as indeed follows from the valley from A (north) to A (south) being generally nearly double the width of from B (north) to B (south). Low down the valley, the summit-plain A (south) is continuous with the 840 feet plain on the coast, but it is soon lost or unites with the escarpment of B (south). The corresponding plain A (north), on the north side of the valley, appears to range continuously from the Cordillera to the head of the present estuary of the Santa Cruz, where it trends northward towards Port St. Julian. Near the Cordillera the summit-plain on both sides of the valley is between 3,200 and 3,300 feet in height; at 100 miles from the Atlantic, it is 1,416 feet, and on the coast 840 feet, all above the sea-beach; so that in a distance of 100 miles the plain rises 576 feet, and much more rapidly near to the Cordillera. The lower terraces B and C also appear to rise as they run up the valley; thus D (north), measured at two points twenty-four miles apart, was found to have risen 185 feet. From several reasons I suspect, that this gradual inclination of the plains up the valley, has been chiefly caused by the elevation of the continent in mass, having been the greater the nearer to the Cordillera.

All the terraces are capped with well-rounded gravel, which rests either on the denuded and sometimes furrowed surface of the soft tertiary deposits, or on the basaltic lava. The difference in height between some of the lower steps or terraces seems to be entirely owing to a difference in the thickness of the capping gravel. Furrows and inequalities in the gravel, where such occur, are filled up and smoothed over with sandy earth. The pebbles, especially on the higher plains, are often whitewashed, and even cemented together by a white aluminous substance, and I occasionally found this to be the case with the gravel on the terrace D. I could not perceive any trace of a similar deposition on the pebbles now thrown up by the river, and therefore I do not think that terrace D was river-formed. As the terrace E generally stands about twenty feet above the bed of the river, my first impression was to doubt whether even this lowest one could have been so formed; but it should always be borne in mind, that the horizontal upheaval of a district, by increasing the total descent of the streams, will always tend to increase, first near the sea-coast and then further and further up the valley, their corroding and deepening powers: so that an alluvial plain, formed almost on a level with a stream, will, after an elevation of this kind, in time be cut through, and left standing at a height never again to be reached by the water. With respect to the three upper terraces of the Santa Cruz, I think there can be no doubt, that they were modelled by the sea, when the valley was occupied by a strait, in the same manner (hereafter to be discussed) as the greater step-formed, shell- strewed plains along the coast of Patagonia.

To return to the shores of the Atlantic: the 840 feet plain, at the mouth of the Santa Cruz, is seen extending horizontally far to the south; and I am informed by the Officers of the Survey, that bending round the head of Coy Inlet (sixty-five miles southward), it trends inland. Outliers of apparently the same height are seen forty miles farther south, inland of the river Gallegos; and a plain comes down to Cape Gregory (thirty-five miles southward), in the Strait of Magellan, which was estimated at between eight hundred and one thousand feet in height, and which, rising towards the interior, is capped by the boulder formation. South of the Strait of Magellan, there are large outlying masses of apparently the same great tableland, extending at intervals along the eastern coast of Tierra del Fuego: at two places here, 110 miles a part, this plain was found to be 950 and 970 feet in height.

From Coy Inlet, where the high summit-plain trends inland, a plain estimated at 350 feet in height, extends for forty miles to the river Gallegos. From this point to the Strait of Magellan, and on each side of that Strait, the country has been much denuded and is less level. It consists chiefly of the boulder formation, which rises to a height of between one hundred and fifty and two hundred and fifty feet, and is often capped by beds of gravel. At N.S. Gracia, on the north side of the Inner Narrows of the Strait of Magellan, I found on the summit of a cliff, 160 feet in height, shells of existing Patellae and Mytili, scattered on the surface and partially embedded in earth. On the eastern coast, also, of Tierra del Fuego, in latitude 53 degrees 20' south, I found many Mytili on some level land, estimated at 200 feet in height. Anterior to the elevation attested by these shells, it is evident by the present form of the land, and by the distribution of the great erratic boulders on the surface, that two sea-channels connected the Strait of Magellan both with Sebastian Bay and with Otway Water. ("Geological Transactions" volume 6 page 419.)


Upraised shells of species, still existing as the commonest kinds in the adjoining sea, occur, as we have seen, at heights of between a few feet and 410 feet, at intervals from latitude 33 degrees 40' to 53 degrees 20' south. This is a distance of 1,180 geographical miles--about equal from London to the North Cape of Sweden. As the boulder formation extends with nearly the same height 150 miles south of 53 degrees 20', the most southern point where I landed and found upraised shells; and as the level Pampas ranges many hundred miles northward of the point, where M. d'Orbigny found at the height of 100 feet beds of the Azara, the space in a north and south line, which has been uplifted within the recent period, must have been much above the 1,180 miles. By the term "recent," I refer only to that period within which the now living mollusca were called into existence; for it will be seen in the Fourth Chapter, that both at Bahia Blanca and P. S. Julian, the mammiferous quadrupeds which co-existed with these shells belong to extinct species. I have said that the upraised shells were found only at intervals on this line of coast, but this in all probability may be attributed to my not having landed at the intermediate points; for wherever I did land, with the exception of the river Negro, shells were found: moreover, the shells are strewed on plains or terraces, which, as we shall immediately see, extend for great distances with a uniform height. I ascended the higher plains only in a few places, owing to the distance at which their escarpments generally range from the coast, so that I am far from knowing that 410 feet is the maximum of elevation of these upraised remains. The shells are those now most abundant in a living state in the adjoining sea. (Captain King "Voyages of 'Adventure' and 'Beagle'" volume 1 pages 6 and 133.) All of them have an ancient appearance; but some, especially the mussels, although lying fully exposed to the weather, retain to a considerable extent their colours: this circumstance appears at first surprising, but it is now known that the colouring principle of the Mytilus is so enduring, that it is preserved when the shell itself is completely disintegrated. (See Mr. Lyell "Proofs of a Gradual Rising in Sweden" in the "Philosophical Transactions" 1835 page 1. See also Mr. Smith of Jordan Hill in the "Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal" volume 25 page 393.) Most of the shells are broken; I nowhere found two valves united; the fragments are not rounded, at least in none of the specimens which I brought home.

With respect to the breadth of the upraised area in an east and west line, we know from the shells found at the Inner Narrows of the Strait of Magellan, that the entire width of the plain, although there very narrow, has been elevated. It is probable that in this southernmost part of the continent, the movement has extended under the sea far eastward; for at the Falkland Islands, though I could not find any shells, the bones of whales have been noticed by several competent observers, lying on the land at a considerable distance from the sea, and at the height of some hundred feet above it. ("Voyages of the 'Adventure' and 'Beagle'" volume 2 page 227. And Bougainville's "Voyage" tome 1 page 112.) Moreover, we know that in Tierra del Fuego the boulder formation has been uplifted within the recent period, and a similar formation occurs on the north-western shores (Byron Sound) of these islands. (I owe this fact to the kindness of Captain Sulivan, R.N., a highly competent observer. I mention it more especially, as in my Paper (page 427) on the Boulder Formation, I have, after having examined the northern and middle parts of the eastern island, said that the formation was here wholly absent.) The distance from this point to the Cordillera of Tierra del Fuego, is 360 miles, which we may take as the probable width of the recently upraised area. In the latitude of the R. Santa Cruz, we know from the shells found at the mouth and head, and in the middle of the valley, that the entire width (about 160 miles) of the surface eastward of the Cordillera has been upraised. From the slope of the plains, as shown by the course of the rivers, for several degrees northward of the Santa Cruz, it is probable that the elevation attested by the shells on the coast has likewise extended to the Cordillera. When, however, we look as far northward as the provinces of La Plata, this conclusion would be very hazardous; not only is the distance from Maldonado (where I found upraised shells) to the Cordillera great, namely, 760 miles, but at the head of the estuary of the Plata, a N.N.E. and S.S.W. range of tertiary volcanic rocks has been observed (This volcanic formation will be described in Chapter IV. It is not improbable that the height of the upraised shells at the head of the estuary of the Plata, being greater than at Bahia Blanca or at San Blas, may be owing to the upheaval of these latter places having been connected with the distant line of the Cordillera, whilst that of the provinces of La Plata was in connection with the adjoining tertiary volcanic axis.), which may well indicate an axis of elevation quite distinct from that of the Andes. Moreover, in the centre of the Pampas in the chain of Cordova, severe earthquakes have been felt (See Sir W. Parish's work on "La Plata" page 242. For a notice of an earthquake which drained a lake near Cordova, see also Temple's "Travels in Peru." Sir W. Parish informs me, that a town between Salta and Tucuman (north of Cordova) was formerly utterly overthrown by an earthquake.); whereas at Mendoza, at the eastern foot of the Cordillera, only gentle oscillations, transmitted from the shores of the Pacific, have ever been experienced. Hence the elevation of the Pampas may be due to several distinct axes of movement; and we cannot judge, from the upraised shells round the estuary of the Plata, of the breadth of the area uplifted within the recent period.

Not only has the above specified long range of coast been elevated within the recent period, but I think it may be safely inferred from the similarity in height of the gravel-capped plains at distant points, that there has been a remarkable degree of equability in the elevatory process. I may premise, that when I measured the plains, it was simply to ascertain the heights at which shells occurred; afterwards, comparing these measurements with some of those made during the Survey, I was struck with their uniformity, and accordingly tabulated all those which represented the summit-edges of plains. The extension of the 330 to 355 feet plain is very striking, being found over a space of 500 geographical miles in a north and south line. A table (Table 1) of the measurements is given below. The angular measurements and all the estimations (in feet) are by the Officers of the Survey; the barometrical ones by myself:--


Gallegos River to Coy Inlet (partly angular partly estimation) 350 South Side of Santa Cruz (angular and barometric) 355 North Side of Santa Cruz (angular and barometric) 330 Bird Island, plain opposite to (angular) 350 Port Desire, plain extending far along coast (barometric) 330 St. George's Bay, north promontory (angular) 330 Table Land, south of New Bay (angular) 350

A plain, varying from 245 to 255 feet, seems to extend with much uniformity from Port Desire to the north of St. George's Bay, a distance of 170 miles; and some approximate measurements (in feet), also given in Table 2 below, indicate the much greater extension of 780 miles:--


Coy Inlet, south of (partly angular and partly estimation) 200 to 300 Port Desire (barometric) 245 to 255 C. Blanco (angular) 250 North Promontory of St. George's Bay (angular) 250 South of New Bay (angular) 200 to 220 North of S. Josef (estimation) 200 to 300 Plain of Rio Negro (angular) 200 to 220 Bahia Blanca (estimation) 200 to 300

The extension, moreover, of the 560 to 580, and of the 80 to 100 feet, plains is remarkable, though somewhat less obvious than in the former cases. Bearing in mind that I have not picked these measurements out of a series, but have used all those which represented the edges of plains, I think it scarcely possible that these coincidences in height should be accidental. We must therefore conclude that the action, whatever it may have been, by which these plains have been modelled into their present forms, has been singularly uniform.

These plains or great terraces, of which three and four often rise like steps one behind the other, are formed by the denudation of the old Patagonian tertiary beds, and by the deposition on their surfaces of a mass of well-rounded gravel, varying, near the coast, from ten to thirty-five feet in thickness, but increasing in thickness towards the interior. The gravel is often capped by a thin irregular bed of sandy earth. The plains slope up, though seldom sensibly to the eye, from the summit edge of one escarpment to the foot of the next highest one. Within a distance of 150 miles, between Santa Cruz to Port Desire, where the plains are particularly well developed, there are at least seven stages or steps, one above the other. On the three lower ones, namely, those of 100 feet, 250 feet, and 350 feet in height, existing littoral shells are abundantly strewed, either on the surface, or partially embedded in the superficial sandy earth. By whatever action these three lower plains have been modelled, so undoubtedly have all the higher ones, up to a height of 950 feet at S. Julian, and of 1,200 feet (by estimation) along St. George's Bay. I think it will not be disputed, considering the presence of the upraised marine shells, that the sea has been the active power during stages of some kind in the elevatory process.

We will now briefly consider this subject: if we look at the existing coast-line, the evidence of the great denuding power of the sea is very distinct; for, from Cape St. Diego, in latitude 54 degrees 30' to the mouth of the Rio Negro, in latitude 31 degrees (a length of more than eight hundred miles), the shore is formed, with singularly few exceptions, of bold and naked cliffs: in many places the cliffs are high; thus, south of the Santa Cruz, they are between eight and nine hundred feet in height, with their horizontal strata abruptly cut off, showing the immense mass of matter which has been removed. Nearly this whole line of coast consists of a series of greater or lesser curves, the horns of which, and likewise certain straight projecting portions, are formed of hard rocks; hence the concave parts are evidently the effect and the measure of the denuding action on the softer strata. At the foot of all the cliffs, the sea shoals very gradually far outwards; and the bottom, for a space of some miles, everywhere consists of gravel. I carefully examined the bed of the sea off the Santa Cruz, and found that its inclination was exactly the same, both in amount and in its peculiar curvature, with that of the 355 feet plain at this same place. If, therefore, the coast, with the bed of the adjoining sea, were now suddenly elevated one or two hundred feet, an inland line of cliffs, that is an escarpment, would be formed, with a gravel-capped plain at its foot gently sloping to the sea, and having an inclination like that of the existing 355 feet plain. From the denuding tendency of the sea, this newly formed plain would in time be eaten back into a cliff: and repetitions of this elevatory and denuding process would produce a series of gravel-capped sloping terraces, rising one above another, like those fronting the shores of Patagonia.

The chief difficulty (for there are other inconsiderable ones) on this view, is the fact,--as far as I can trust two continuous lines of soundings carefully taken between Santa Cruz and the Falkland Islands, and several scattered observations on this and other coasts,--that the pebbles at the bottom of the sea QUICKLY and REGULARLY decrease in size with the increasing depth and distance from the shore, whereas in the gravel on the sloping plains, no such decrease in size was perceptible.

Table 3 below gives the average result of many soundings off the Santa Cruz:-- TABLE 3.

Under two miles from the shore, many of the pebbles were of large size, mingled with some small ones.

Column 1. Distance in miles from the shore.

Column 2. Depth in fathoms.

Column 3. Size of Pebbles.

1. 2. 3.

3 to 4 11 to 12 As large as walnuts; mingled in every case with some smaller ones.

6 to 7 17 to 19 As large as hazel-nuts.

10 to 11 23 to 25 From three- to four-tenths of an inch in diameter.

12 30 to 40 Two-tenths of an inch.

22 to 150 45 to 65 One-tenth of an inch, to the finest sand.

I particularly attended to the size of the pebbles on the 355 feet Santa Cruz plain, and I noticed that on the summit-edge of the present sea cliffs many were as large as half a man's head; and in crossing from these cliffs to the foot of the next highest escarpment, a distance of six miles, I could not observe any increase in their size. We shall presently see that the theory of a slow and almost insensible rise of the land, will explain all the facts connected with the gravel-capped terraces, better than the theory of sudden elevations of from one to two hundred feet.

M. d'Orbigny has argued, from the upraised shells at San Blas being embedded in the positions in which they lived, and from the valves of the Azara labiata high on the banks of the Parana being united and unrolled, that the elevation of Northern Patagonia and of La Plata must have been sudden; for he thinks, if it had been gradual, these shells would all have been rolled on successive beach-lines. But in PROTECTED bays, such as in that of Bahia Blanca, wherever the sea is accumulating extensive mud-banks, or where the winds quietly heap up sand-dunes, beds of shells might assuredly be preserved buried in the positions in which they had lived, even whilst the land retained the same level; any, the smallest, amount of elevation would directly aid in their preservation. I saw a multitude of spots in Bahia Blanca where this might have been effected; and at Maldonado it almost certainly has been effected. In speaking of the elevation of the land having been slow, I do not wish to exclude the small starts which accompany earthquakes, as on the coast of Chile; and by such movements beds of shells might easily be uplifted, even in positions exposed to a heavy surf, without undergoing any attrition: for instance, in 1835, a rocky flat off the island of Santa Maria was at one blow upheaved above high-water mark, and was left covered with gaping and putrefying mussel-shells, still attached to the bed on which they had lived. If M. d'Orbigny had been aware of the many long parallel lines of sand-hillocks, with infinitely numerous shells of the Mactra and Venus, at a low level near the Uruguay; if he had seen at Bahia Blanca the immense sand-dunes, with water-worn pebbles of pumice, ranging in parallel lines, one behind the other, up a height of at least 120 feet; if he had seen the sand-dunes, with the countless Paludestrinas, on the low plain near the Fort at this place, and that long line on the edge of the cliff, sixty feet higher up; if he had crossed that long and great belt of parallel sand-dunes, eight miles in width, standing at the height of from forty to fifty feet above the Colorado, where sand could not now collect,--I cannot believe he would have thought that the elevation of this great district had been sudden. Certainly the sand-dunes (especially when abounding with shells), which stand in ranges at so many different levels, must all have required long time for their accumulation; and hence I do not doubt that the last 100 feet of elevation of La Plata and Northern Patagonia has been exceedingly slow.

If we extend this conclusion to Central and Southern Patagonia, the inclination of the successively rising gravel-capped plains can be explained quite as well, as by the more obvious view already given of a few comparatively great and sudden elevations; in either case we must admit long periods of rest, during which the sea ate deeply into the land. Let us suppose the present coast to rise at a nearly equable, slow rate, yet sufficiently quick to prevent the waves quite removing each part as soon as brought up; in this case every portion of the present bed of the sea will successively form a beach-line, and from being exposed to a like action will be similarly affected. It cannot matter to what height the tides rise, even if to forty feet as at Santa Cruz, for they will act with equal force and in like manner on each successive line. Hence there is no difficulty in the fact of the 355 feet plain at Santa Cruz sloping up 108 feet to the foot of the next highest escarpment, and yet having no marks of any one particular beach-line on it; for the whole surface on this view has been a beach. I cannot pretend to follow out the precise action of the tidal-waves during a rise of the land, slow, yet sufficiently quick to prevent or check denudation: but if it be analogous to what takes place on protected parts of the present coast, where gravel is now accumulating in large quantities, an inclined surface, thickly capped by well-rounded pebbles of about the same size, would be ultimately left. (On the eastern side of Chiloe, which island we shall see in the next chapter is now rising, I observed that all the beaches and extensive tidal-flats were formed of shingle.) On the gravel now accumulating, the waves, aided by the wind, sometimes throw up a thin covering of sand, together with the common coast-shells. Shells thus cast up by gales, would, during an elevatory period, never again be touched by the sea. Hence, on this view of a slow and gradual rising of the land, interrupted by periods of rest and denudation, we can understand the pebbles being of about the same size over the entire width of the step-like plains,--the occasional thin covering of sandy earth,--and the presence of broken, unrolled fragments of those shells, which now live exclusively near the coast.


It may be concluded that the coast on this side of the continent, for a space of at least 1,180 miles, has been elevated to a height of 100 feet in La Plata, and of 400 feet in Southern Patagonia, within the period of existing shells, but not of existing mammifers. That in La Plata the elevation has been very slowly effected: that in Patagonia the movement may have been by considerable starts, but much more probably slow and quiet. In either case, there have been long intervening periods of comparative rest, during which the sea corroded deeply, as it is still corroding, into the land. (I say COMPARATIVE and not ABSOLUTE rest, because the sea acts, as we have seen, with great denuding power on this whole line of coast; and therefore, during an elevation of the land, if excessively slow (and of course during a subsidence of the land), it is quite possible that lines of cliff might be formed.) That the periods of denudation and elevation were contemporaneous and equable over great spaces of coast, as shown by the equable heights of the plains; that there have been at least eight periods of denudation, and that the land, up to a height of from 950 to 1,200 feet, has been similarly modelled and affected: that the area elevated, in the southernmost part of the continent, extended in breadth to the Cordillera, and probably seaward to the Falkland Islands; that northward, in La Plata, the breadth is unknown, there having been probably more than one axis of elevation; and finally, that, anterior to the elevation attested by these upraised shells, the land was divided by a Strait where the River Santa Cruz now flows, and that further southward there were other sea-straits, since closed. I may add, that at Santa Cruz, in latitude 50 degrees S., the plains have been uplifted at least 1,400 feet, since the period when gigantic boulders were transported between sixty and seventy miles from their parent rock, on floating icebergs.

Lastly, considering the great upward movements which this long line of coast has undergone, and the proximity of its southern half to the volcanic axis of the Cordillera, it is highly remarkable that in the many fine sections exposed in the Pampean, Patagonian tertiary, and Boulder formations, I nowhere observed the smallest fault or abrupt curvature in the strata.


I will here describe in more detail than has been as yet incidentally done, the nature, origin, and extent of the great shingle covering of Patagonia: but I do not mean to affirm that all of this shingle, especially that on the higher plains, belongs to the recent period. A thin bed of sandy earth, with small pebbles of various porphyries and of quartz, covering a low plain on the north side of the Rio Colorado, is the extreme northern limit of this formation. These little pebbles have probably been derived from the denudation of a more regular bed of gravel, capping the old tertiary sandstone plateau of the Rio Negro. The gravel-bed near the Rio Negro is, on an average, about ten or twelve feet in thickness; and the pebbles are larger than on the northern side of the Colorado, being from one or two inches in diameter, and composed chiefly of rather dark-tinted porphyries. Amongst them I here first noticed a variety often to be referred to, namely, a peculiar gallstone-yellow siliceous porphyry, frequently, but not invariably, containing grains of quartz. The pebbles are embedded in a white, gritty, calcareous matrix, very like mortar, sometimes merely coating with a whitewash the separate stones, and sometimes forming the greater part of the mass. In one place I saw in the gravel concretionary nodules (not rounded) of crystallised gypsum, some as large as a man's head. I traced this bed for forty-five miles inland, and was assured that it extended far into the interior. As the surface of the calcareo- argillaceous plain of Pampean formation, on the northern side of the wide valley of the Colorado, stands at about the same height with the mortar- like cemented gravel capping the sandstone on the southern side, it is probable, considering the apparent equability of the subterranean movements along this side of America, that this gravel of the Rio Negro and the upper beds of the Pampean formation northward of the Colorado, are of nearly contemporaneous origin, and that the calcareous matter has been derived from the same source.