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The Supposed Glaciation of Brazil (S480: 1893)

Editor Charles H. Smith's Note: A letter to the Editor printed in the 19 October 1893 number of the journal Nature. Original pagination indicated within double brackets. To link directly to this page, connect with: http://people.wku.edu/charles.smith/wallace/S480.htm

    [[p. 589]] In the second volume of Nature, p. 510, I reviewed the late Prof. Hartt's "Geology and Physical Geography of Brazil," and called attention to the author's views, as well as those of the late Prof. Agassiz, relating to the supposed glaciation of that country. From their very positive statements I concluded that the evidence as described by them did actually exist, and that until it was disproved it should not be ignored. In my "Darwinism," p. 370, I stated, on the authority of my friend, Mr. J. C. Branner, now Professor of Geology in the Stanford University, California, who succeeded Prof. Hartt in Brazil, and had a much more extensive knowledge of the country, that the supposed glacial drift and erratic blocks were all results of subaërial denudation. Recently, however, Sir Henry Howorth has quoted some passages from my review in illustration of the wild and incredible theories of some geologists, as samples, in fact, of the "Glacial Nightmare"; and, as no authoritative disproof has yet been given of the exceedingly strong and positive statements of Agassiz and Hartt, I beg leave to lay before the readers of Nature some extracts from a paper on "The Supposed Glaciation of Brazil," by Prof. Branner, which will shortly be published, and of which he has kindly sent me a type-written copy in advance. As a partial justification of what has now proved my too hasty acceptance of the statements of these gentlemen, I will give one passage in which Prof. Agassiz refers to the supposed glacial phenomena near Ceara:--"I may say that in the whole valley of Hasli there are no accumulations of morainic materials more characteristic than those I have found here, not even about the Kirchel; neither are there any remains of the kind more striking about the valleys of Mount Desert in Maine, where the glacial phenomena are so remarkable; nor in the valleys of Loch Fine, Loch Awe, and Loch Long, in Scotland, where the traces of ancient glaciers are so distinct." Both Agassiz and Hartt were equally strong as to similar phenomena near Rio.

    It is to be first noted that Hartt had only spent eighteen months in Brazil when he wrote his book, and his views on the glacial phenomena were thus based on a very hasty survey of that enormous territory. Prof. Branner went with him when he again visited Brazil in 1874, helped him in his geological work till his death in 1877, and himself remained five years longer making a geological survey of the country; and he states that, before his death, Hartt's views underwent a radical change. Prof. Branner says:--

    "Under his direction I did more or less work in the mountains about Rio de Janeiro for the purpose of sifting the evidence of glaciation in that region, and I am glad to say, in justice to the memory and scientific spirit of my former chief and friend, that long before his death he had entirely abandoned the theory of the glaciation of Brazil, and that the subject had ceased to receive further attention, even as a working hypothesis."

    A few extracts must now be given showing to what causes the phenomena which deceived these observers are really due. And first as to what were supposed to be erratic boulders often embedded in boulder clay.

    "The boulders believed to be erratics are not erratics in the sense implied, though they are not always in place. The first and most common are boulders of decomposition, either rounded or subangular, left by the decay of granite or gneiss. Sometimes they are embedded in residuary, and therefore unstratified, clays, formed by the decomposition in place of the surrounding rock. And everyone has heard of the great depth to which rocks are decomposed in Brazil. The true origin of these boulders and their accompanying clays is often obscured by the 'creep' of the materials, or in hilly districts by land slides, great or small, that throw the whole mass into a confusion closely resembling that so common in the true glacier boulder clays. In this connection too much stress cannot be placed upon the matter of land slides; they are very common in the hilly portions of Brazil, and aside from profound striations and facetting produce phenomena that, on a small scale, resemble glacial till in a very striking degree." . . .

    "The second method by which these boulders have been formed is quite similar to the first, but instead of being cores of granite or gneiss, they have been derived by the same process of exfoliation and decomposition from the angular blocks into which the dikes of diorite, diabase, or other dark-coloured rocks break up. Their colour marks them as quite different from the surrounding granites, and the dikes themselves are almost invariably concealed. The residuary clays derived from the decomposition of these dikes are somewhat different in colour from those yielded by the granites, so that when 'creep' or land-slides add their confusion to the original relations of the rocks the resemblance to true glacial boulder clays is pretty strong. The chance of discovering the source of such boulders is further decreased by the depth to which the mass of the rock has decayed, and by the inpenetrable jungles that cover the whole country, and so effectually limit the range of one's observations. Dikes, such as these last mentioned, are not uncommon in the mountains about Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, what have generally been regarded as the very best evidences of Brazilian glaciation, some of the boulders near the English hotel at Tijca, fall under this head, though some are of gneiss. The fact is that the great mountain masses about Rio are of granite or gneiss, while some of the boulders come from the dikes of diabase or other dark-coloured rock high on their sides--dikes which were not visited by Agassiz or Hartt."

    Prof. Branner then describes a third class of supposed erratic, derived from certain sandstone beds of the tertiary deposits, which, by exposure, change to the hardest kind of quartzite, and when the surrounding strata are removed by denudation, and a few blocks of this quartzite are left, they are so unlike the rocks by which they are surrounded that unless the observer has given a special study to the tertiary sediments, he is liable to be misled by them.

    The wide-spread coating of drift-like materials that covers considerable areas of the country, consisting of boulders, cobbles, and gravels, sometimes assorted and sometimes having clay and sand mixed with them, are then described, and are shown to be due to the denudation of the tertiary beds during the last emergence of the land, aided by subsequent subaërial denudation and surface wash. Prof. Branner thus concludes:--

    "I may sum up my own views with the statement that I did not see, during eight years of travel and geological observations that extended from the Amazon valley and the coast through the highlands of Brazil and to the head waters of the Paraguay and the Tapagos, a single phenomenon in the way of boulders, gravels, clays, soils, surfaces, or topography, that required to be referred to glaciation."

    The very clear statement above given of the real nature of the phenomena which deceived Prof. Agassiz and Mr. Hartt, is very instructive, and it shows us that a superficial resemblance to drift, boulder-clay, and erratic blocks, in a comparatively unknown country, must not be held to be proofs of glaciation. [[p. 590]] We require either striated rock surfaces or boulders, or undoubted roches moutonnées, or erratics, which can be proved not to exist sufficiently near to have been brought by "creep" or land-slides. In view of these liabilities to error, we may be almost sure that the supposed evidences of glaciation described by the late Mr. Belt in his "Naturalist in Nicaragua" (p. 260), are explicable in the same manner as the Brazilian evidences, since he nowhere found glacial striæ or any boulders that could be proved to be true erratics; and this is the more certain because he himself states (p. 265), "I have myself seen, near Pernambuco, and in the province of Maranham, in Brazil, a great drift deposit that I believe to be of glacial origin."

    All students of the past and present history of the earth are indebted to Prof. Branner for having relieved them of a great difficulty--a true glacial nightmare--that of having to explain the recent occurrence of glaciation on a large scale far within the tropics and on surfaces not much elevated above the sea-level.

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