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Bone Tells Tale of Slain Serpent : Archeologist Links Columbus, Crocodile

October 25, 1987|JANE SUTTON | United Press International

MIAMI — The mysterious serpent Christopher Columbus slew during his first voyage to the New World was probably a crocodile--not a giant iguana as previously suggested, a zoological archeologist has determined.

The finding is based on the discovery last summer of a crocodile bone amid the ruins of a Bahamian village believed to be one that Columbus visited.

It is the first evidence that crocodiles ever lived in the Bahamas, said Bill Keegan, assistant curator at the Florida State Museum in Gainesville and a member of the expedition that found the bone.

Crocodiles Undocumented

"There are currently no crocodiles there and none documented prehistorically," Keegan said.

In the diary he kept for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain, Columbus described the strange new landscapes, plants and creatures he found as he made his way through the islands now known as the Bahamas.

In his entry for Oct. 21, 1492, Columbus described an animal he killed and skinned on his fourth stop, on the island he named Isabella.

"On thus going around one of these lakes, I saw a serpent, which we killed and I bring your highnesses the skin. When it saw us, it went into the lake and we followed it in, because it was not very deep, until we killed it with lances. It is 7 palms (57.75 inches) long. I believe that there are many of this same kind in these lakes," Columbus wrote.

A day later on the same island, at a lake where the explorers stopped to take on water, "Martin Alonso Pinzon, the captain of the Pinta, killed another serpent like the other one of yesterday, of 7 palms' length," the diary said.

Historians Puzzled

History does not record what Isabella and Ferdinand did with the skin Columbus brought them.

"Prior to our discovery of the crocodile bone, the best candidate for Columbus's 'serpent' was the giant iguana, which is reported to have reached six feet in length," Keegan said. "There are, however, several reasons why the giant iguana was not a good candidate."

Columbus wrote that the serpent went into the lake, which is an unlikely behavior for an iguana, Keegan said. There have never been any giant iguana bones recovered during archeological excavations.

It is also unlikely that the animal was either a lizard or a snake. In earlier diary passages, Columbus recorded seeing lizards, which he called lagartos , and a snake, which he called a culebra .

In describing the creature he slew and the one Pinzon killed, he used the word sierpe or "serpent," indicating that it was a different animal.

Crocodile Teeth

The crocodile bone is a left femur measuring about 3.5 inches. The size suggests that the crocodile was about four feet long. Crocodile teeth were also discovered during the excavation, and the waters surrounding Crooked Island would have suited crocodile needs quite well, Keegan said.

The bone and teeth were recovered at a site known as CK-14, on the far western tip of Crooked Island, a Bahamian island 260 miles south of Nassau.

The site, the length of six football fields, was determined to be the site of a large Lucayan Taino village that probably consisted of 10 to 15 houses, Keegan said. Imported pottery found at the site indicates that it was occupied after AD 1200 and may have been occupied in 1492.

The finding of the village at CK-14 also supports the theory that Crooked Island was the fourth island Columbus visited in the New World. The surrounding geographic features match those of the "Cape of the Small Island" where Columbus anchored his ship while visiting the island.

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