The Patagones or Patagonian giants are a mythical race of people, who first began to appear in early European accounts of the then little-known region and coastline of Patagonia. They were supposed to have exceeded at least double normal human height, some accounts giving heights of 12 to 15 feet (3.7 to 4.6 m) or more. Tales of these improbable people would take a hold over European concepts of the region for some 250 years, until they were substantially debunked at the end of the 18th century.
First mention of these people came from the voyage of Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, who claimed to have seen them while exploring the coastline of South America en route to their circumnavigation of the world in the 1520s. Antonio Pigafetta, one of the expedition's few survivors and the chronicler of Magellan's expedition, wrote in his account about their encounter with natives twice a normal person's height:
- "One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general [i.e., Magellan] sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general's and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned..."
Pigafetta also recorded that Magellan had bestowed on these people the name "Patagão" (i.e. "Patagon", or Patagoni in Pigafetta's Italian plural), but he did not further elaborate on his reasons for doing so. The original word would probably be in Magellan's native Portuguese (patagão) or the Spanish of his men (patagón). Since Pigafetta's time the assumption that this derived from pata or foot took hold, and "Patagonia" was interpreted to mean "Land of the Bigfeet". However, this etymology remains questionable, since amongst other things the meaning of the suffix -gon is unclear. It is now understood that the etymology refers to a literary character in a Spanish novel of the early 16th century. Nevertheless, the name "Patagonia" stuck, as did the notion that the local inhabitants were giants. Early maps of the New World afterwards would sometimes attach the label regio gigantum ("region of giants") to the area.
In the 1590s, Anthonie Knivet claimed he had seen dead bodies 12 feet (3.7 m) long in Patagonia.
Also in the 1590s, William Adams, an Englishman aboard a Dutch ship rounding Tierra del Fuego reported a violent encounter between his ship's crew and unnaturally tall natives.
In 1766, a rumour leaked out upon their return to Britain that the crew of HMS Dolphin, captained by Commodore John Byron, had seen a tribe of 9-foot-tall (2.7 m) natives in Patagonia when they passed by there on their circumnavigation of the globe. However, when a newly edited revised account of the voyage came out in 1773, the Patagonians were recorded as being 6 ft 6 in (1.98 m); very tall, but by no means giants.
The people encountered by Byron were in all likelihood the Tehuelches, indigenous to the region. Later writers consider the Patagonian giants to have been a hoax, or at least an exaggeration and mis-telling of earlier European accounts of the region.
- Antonio Pigafetta, Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo, 1524: "Il capitano generale nominò questi popoli Patagoni."
- Anthony Munday, The Famous and Renowned Historie of Primaleon of Greece, 1619, cap.XXXIII: "How Primaleon… found the Grand Patagon ".
- "The Patagonian Giants". Museum of Hoaxes. Retrieved August 15, 2005.
- Carolyne Ryan. "European Travel Writings and the Patagonian giants". Lawrence University. Retrieved August 15, 2005.