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The ‘Sufficiently Strange’ Sloth

Seán Thomas Kane | Binghamton University

A sketch of the three-toed sloth
‘A Sufficiently Strange Beast called a Haüt,’ Thevet's first depiction of a three-toed sloth, from Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique, (Antwerp: Christophe Plantin, 1558), 99r. Public Domain.

On 6 May 1555, André Thevet embarked from the Norman port of Le Havre on a voyage to Brazil in the distant and strange Americas, a place best known to contemporaries for tales of cannibalistic inhabitants, deep forests, and the perceived persistence of the original state of nature. The Villegaignon expedition was the first formal French colonial mission to the Americas. In the fifty years prior, French explorers and merchants, seeking to establish their realm as an Atlantic power in the Iberian model, focused on Brazil as a place that had not been fully subjugated by either of the Iberian powers and thus remained open to French trade.

In his 1557 account of that voyage, Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique (The Singularities of France Antarctique), Thevet described many marvels which populated that world, endeavouring, as an expert eyewitness, to bring Brazil into the burgeoning natural history of the known world. Brazil became for Thevet a holotype of the singularity of the Americas. While his work has fallen into obscurity in the English-speaking world, this holotype of the Americas - their animals and inhabitants - has influenced how new worlds and creatures have been perceived ever since.

A map of the Atlantic taken from Guillaume Le Testu's Cosmographie Universelle
A map of the Atlantic taken from Guillaume Le Testu's Cosmographie Universelle, (1555), Public Domain. Brazil is labelled on the eastern tip of South America.

When he arrived in Brazil on 10 November 1555, the thirty-nine-year-old Franciscan priest set himself to the task of describing the many animals he and his fellows observed from their newly established base at Fort Coligny. The fort was built on ‘a good small island, surrounded by a league of water all around, situated near the mouth of Guanabara Bay.’ The Huguenot reformer Pierre Richer, who also lived briefly in Fort Coligny, lambasted the French outpost and its governor, Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, as ‘a deserted island, void of humans, which was associated with cruel serpentine beasts.’ Thevet’s detailed description of the animals that surrounded France’s first American colony characterised the way French naturalists saw American animals throughout the early modern period.

Thevet collected Brazil’s animals into his 1575 magnum opus - the two-volume Cosmographie Universelle - as representatives of the fourth part of the world; embodiments of the Americas in all their singularity, alongside the familiar animals of Europe and the exotic yet well-known creatures of Africa and Asia. What made American animals stand apart for Thevet was their existence in a closer relationship with their human neighbours – ‘who know as much as Nature has taught them’. The Tupinambá were one of the indigenous groups who lived in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest at first contact with Europeans in 1500 and became close trading partners with the French. They formed the core of the Tamoyo Confederation, an alliance of Amerindian nations against the Portuguese led by the Tupinambá leader Quoniambec (d. 1555). Thevet and his contemporaries held persistent beliefs that the Tupinambá lived among spirits of the woods, rocks, waters, and ‘sufficiently strange beasts’ like the three-toed sloth (Bradypus crinitus). Thevet recognised the Tupinambá's humanity, yet to him they were a far cry from civilisation, more attuned perhaps with nature. He even wrote that their language could be spoken by Brazil's parrots.

Thevet described the sloth in his Singularitez as ‘sufficiently strange’: acknowledging the singularity of its nature as enough to delineate it from anything he had yet seen on the eastern shores of the Atlantic or heard of in Africa or Asia. He called the animal a haüt, adopting the Tupi name in a nod to their expertise.

Thevet's sloth was captured in the forests near Fort Coligny by two French soldiers who brought it back to the fort for the resident cosmographer to observe. Over the following twenty-six days, Thevet kept the sloth in his hut and remarked that ‘it has never been seen to eat by a living human’. This placed the sloth outside the natural order that said each living thing must have reasons for being in relation to those that surround it. Sloths countered this Aristotelian vision of the Cosmos by its very existence and apparent lifelong fast.

Thevet compared the sloth to the only other animal he knew that could live outside the laws of nature: the chameleon. He wrote of one which he had seen caged in Constantinople ‘who makes one perceive that they are seeing only the air’. This relationship between air and animal, between the unseen element that allows all life to exist and the creatures who can change their appearance, demonstrates the singularity of the chameleon as a creature sufficiently strange enough for Thevet to consider worthy of embodying its own world. The sloth too fills this role as a holotype for the strangeness and unfamiliarity of the Americas in Thevet's cosmography.

Thevet's sloth account made the true diversity of life in the Americas, and other worlds still then unknown to Europeans, far more real and probable. After all, if an animal that lives only on air dwelt in the verdant forests of Brazil, what else might be found in the dark boreal forests of Canada or the rocky austral plains of Patagonia? What still might exist in the wide expanse of the Pacific?

Thevet was familiar with Antonio Pigafetta's account of the Magellan Expedition: he owned a 1526 French translation of Pigafetta's Le voyage et nauigation faict par les Espaignolz es Isles de Mollucques. Pigafetta's account of Patagonian giants in particular caught Thevet's attention. Giants were yet another sufficiently strange being which could exist in a world as mysterious as the Americas. Next to Pigafetta's account of his expedition's hostile encounter with the Patagonians, Thevet scribbled his comment ‘folye’ to mark his disagreement with this sentiment. Thevet wrote that these giants were ‘most bellicose and of great stature, yet’ unlike the Tupinambá, ‘hardly live on human flesh.’ This made the Patagonian giants more tempered in their desires and manners, owing in part to their existence in a more temperate part of South America than the Tupinambá who dwelt in the torrid zone. While bellicose, in Thevet's cosmography, these Patagonian giants were more akin to the mostly harmless sloth than they were to the fearsome cannibalistic Tupinambá.

When Thevet left Brazil on his return voyage to France on the morning of 31 January 1556, he took with him enough notes and specimens to begin crafting a cosmography of the Americas, the first written by a Frenchman from his own eyewitness testimony. Thevet's sloth persisted as the dominant image of the species in European natural history until Carolus Clusius (1526–1609) acquired a living sloth specimen, the first recorded to survive an Atlantic crossing, at which time the modern name sloth overtook Thevet's own appellation haüt as the animal's common name.

The sloth, more than any other animal, challenged established learning in Europe by demonstrating that Aristotelian biology was truly outdated. After all, in Thevet’s words, Aristotle’s testimony was not adequate to describe the Americas ‘because they had not discovered it by then’. In this respect, Thevet echoed the sentiments of the Spanish naturalist Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo (1478-1557), whose natural history of the Spanish American colonies introduced the Americas as a living world to European readers.

While both Oviedo and Thevet used classical parallels and terminology to describe American animals, they found this approach was limited by the great oceanic barrier which kept Aristotle and his fellows from knowing about the Americas in classical antiquity. Thevet wrote that the naming of things allowed the object named to be subjugated by those who named it, as was the case with the name of ‘France Antarctique’ which, Thevet wrote, was given to ‘the country for we discovered it.’ As a result, all subsequent French studies into American animals derived some of their historiography from Thevet's own accounts of the sloth first in his Singularitez and later in his Cosmographie Universelle.

The sloth helped reveal the Americas to French naturalists seeking to understand this sufficiently strange world which could, on the one hand, be seen as a mirror of their own antiquity and, on the other, as a truly alien world. Still then (at the end of January 1555) largely unknown to the European cosmos, this alien world was to be unbound by swiftly amending laws of nature and redefined by the navigators and explorers who pushed those laws to their breaking point in worlds to which they were not suited.

Thevet's sloth epitomises the role played by American animals in the invention of an American natural world in the sixteenth century. His decision to use the Tupi name for the sloth, haüt, demonstrated his reliance on indigenous knowledge to understand Brazil in particular, and the Americas as a whole, at a time when these places were only just beginning to be assimilated into the European cosmos. The sufficient strangeness of the sloth proved to be a valuable symbol of the Americas. It was one of Thevet's great contributions to the dramatic transformation of Renaissance natural history by making its strange and unfamiliar American nature understandable to European readers.

Drawing of Thevet's depiction of a haüt
Thevet's depiction of a haüt in his Cosmographie Universelle, (Paris: Guillaume Chaudière, 1575). Public Domain.

Further Reading:

  • Miguel de Asúa and Roger French, A New World of Animals: Early Modern Europeans on the Creatures of Iberian America, (London: Routledge, 2016).

  • Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

  • Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

  • Elizabeth Gansen, Natural Designs: Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo and the Invention of New World Nature, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2024).

  • Antonio Pigafetta. The First Voyage Around the World, by Magellan, Translated from the Accounts of Antonio Pigafetta and Other Contemporary Writers. Translated by Lord Stanley of Alderley. London: The Hakluyt Society, 1874. Available at []

  • Dal Prete, Ivano. On the Edge of Eternity: The Antiquity of the Earth in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

  • Roger Schlesinger and Arthur Stabler, André Thevet’s North America: A Sixteenth-Century View, (Montréal: McGill University Press, 1986).

Seán Thomas Kane is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Binghamton University writing his dissertation ‘André Thevet's Brazil in Sixteenth-Century French Natural History’ under the supervision of Professor Richard Mackenney, Ph.D., FRHistS. Kane studies the introduction of American fauna through Thevet's cosmography into European natural history from the middle of the sixteenth century. He is editing his translation of Thevet's 1557 book Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique which when published will be the first full English translation of that work since 1568. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri, United States.


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