Scheffel’s Megatherium


In considering the history of science, it is easy to think of scientific discovery and debate as distinct from the rest of culture. Academics picked away at fossils and squinted at the eyepieces of microscopes in isolation, and only in exceptional cases did science jump the cultural barrier to challenge cherished beliefs. This is nonsense, and even though arguments over scientific minutiae may have been restricted to journals and learned societies, there have been many times when scientific discoveries have stirred great public interest.

One way to get at the interaction between science & popular culture is to look for cartoons, paintings, and poetry. It would seem absurd that anyone should write poetry about a giant sloth, for example, yet the 19th century German poet Joseph Scheffel did just that. In 1789 the skeleton of a giant sloth, Megatherium, was found in the vicinity of Buenos Aires and was shipped to Madrid where it was displayed. (This individual is depicted in the illustration to the left.) It was a bizarre and fascinating representative of a lost world, and here is Scheffel’s poem about the beast, translated into English by Charles Leland;

What hangs there like a frozen pig,
Or knot all twisted rude?
So giant lazy, giant big,
In the prim-rim-aeval wood?

Thrice bigger than a bull–at least
Thrice heavier, and dumb–
A climbing and a clawing beast,
The Megatherium !

All dreamily it opes its jaws
And glares so lazily.
Then digs with might its cutting claws
In the Embahuba tree.
It eats the fruit, it eats the leaf,
Soft, happy, grunting ‘ Ai!’
And when they re gone, as if with grief,
Occasionally goes ‘ Wai!’

But from the tree it never crawls.
It knows a shorter way ;
For like a gourd adown it falls,
And will not hence away.
With owly eyes awhile it hums.
Smiles wondrously and deep ;
For after good long feeding comes
Its main hard work–to sleep.

Oh, sceptic mortal–brassy, bold.
Wilt thou, my words deride ?
Go to Madrid and there behold
His bones all petrified.
And if thou hast before them stood,
Remember these my rhymes,
Such laziness held only good
In ant’diluvian times.

Thou art no Megatherium,
Thy soul has aims divine,
Then mind your studies, all and some,
And eat not like a swine.
Use well your time–’tis money worth,
Yea, work till death you see.
And should you yield to sloth and mirth.
Do it not sloath–somely !


  1. #1 J-Dog
    January 14, 2009

    OK! Now re-read it as a rap… Awesome.

  2. #2 Scicurious
    January 14, 2009

    Awesome, Brian! This might be a good topic for science history, maybe?

  3. #3 Laelaps
    January 14, 2009

    Thanks, Sci. I will try to remember to bring it up this weekend (I don’t know if I’m up to performing the poem as a rap, though).

    I am consistently bugged by all the hand-wringing over the “two cultures” model that reinforces the idea that science & “culture” are separate entities that need to be reconciled. The truth is that they already infiltrate each other; the trick is recognizing it.

  4. #4 Raymond Minton
    January 14, 2009

    Did you see the article in “Discover” magazine about 12-13 years ago where a scientist believes Megatherium was a carnivore? That’s one they’ll have to prove before I believe it.

  5. #5 Laelaps
    January 14, 2009

    Raymond; Ah yes, that would be the Megatherium the stabber” paper. I wouldn’t say that sloths never, ever ate meat (hippos have been known to eat meat every now and then), but I don’t think that they were primarily carnivores by any means.

  6. #6 Lilian Nattel
    January 14, 2009

    1789: giant sloth. 1789: French revolution. It’s probably just got to do with which dates I learned in school, but I can’t help thinking they are connected through the influence of the enlightenment.

  7. #7 gg
    January 14, 2009

    REALLY weird coincidence: earlier today (before seeing this post), I was scrolling through early (1800s) issues of Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. A, and found papers by Richard Owen on Megatherium! Even weirder as a coincidence: I was planning to pass them along to you to see if you were interested…

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