The Pampas: a cow-eyed view

Without the Pampas, there would be no asado argentino, and that would be sad, indeed. Here is a very short long-history of the cow’s promised land.

Said the cow to the sky: “Give me a home, where no buffalo roam, where no deer nor antelope play, nor any other competitor. And while you’re at it, hold the predators, and give me a side of lots and lots of the food I am perfectly adapted to eat, flourishing all year long in a climate that perfectly abides, and if it’s not too much to ask, make it gigantic, say the size of Texas and West Virginia combined.”

And the sky said: “Cow, meet the Pampas, one of the most fertile regions on earth, that, because of its unique history, is virtually devoid of large grazers and relevant predators, supporting vast grasslands in a perfect climate stretching between the two biggest oceans on the planet to encompass roughly 750,000 square kilometers. Enjoy.”

It becomes less clear what the cow thought after this, but if what happened to the modest population of cattle Spanish settlers deposited, circa 1535, in what is now Argentina and Bolivia, they must have thought their end of the bargain obliged them to go forth and multiply. Fifty million cows now graze the enormous Patagonian prairie, and in the process helped create an economy based largely on cattle ranching which, by the nineteenth century, supported a cattle-dependent gentry and an economy that could claim a standard of living rivaling any region in the world.

What gave rise and characterized the Gauchos, those settler ranchers who, with cows, helped launch a magnificent society and culture (which I’m going to restrict just to Argentina here), will be the concern of a future post. The peculiar set of circumstances that led to the surprising promised land for cows, which enabled the Gauchos, must be dealt with first. That story is much older, and its agenda much, much more severe. It involves massive shifts in climate and subsequent, repeated ecological effects, serial big-mammal extinctions, and human interventions, sometimes speeding these extinctions along, long before the Spaniards thought the world might be round enough to launch their fleets.

In the millennia before the last Ice Age, 50,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Pampas (which, by the way is the Spanish version of a word in Quechuan, the language spoken by the native Quechua peoples), were rich in mega fauna, grazing and browsing too on what higher vegetation existed, in the company of a compliment of predators that had co-evolved in response to the enormous and robust populations of dozens of species. Individuals were best measured in tonnage, and their relationship to the Pampas was dynamic. These species, some resembling elephants, some like rhinoceros, some camelids, some of the various lines of horses, some gigantic grazing sloths, were specifically adapted to eating specific plants  and evading specific predators. Their effect on their environment perpetuated it, preserved it, enhanced it, and allowed them to further specialize to exist within it.

Pampas climate is generally temperate, but the north is drier than the south. Here is dry pampa, from the Government of Argentina photo library.

The benefits of specialization in such a richly providing environment abound: as they, the grazers and browsers, were preyed upon by co-adapting predators, surviving examples over time became more widespread, succeeding because of their intimidating size, their speed, their effectiveness in obtaining, eating and digesting their food, their defensive weaponry, their capacity to reproduce, concomitant to so many calories within easy reach. Add to this the preserving effect of their vast numbers in their own right, allowing predators to cull the old, the infirm and the unfit, while guarding the most able within the perimeters of enormous herds, likely measuring in the many thousands per individual herd, and in the tens of millions in amalgam. (I’m drawing this conclusion based on pre-contact buffalo numbers in the United States, which was roughly 70 million).

There have been some completely fascinating studies on the chronology of the appearance and disappearance of these large grazers—see for instance, Megafauna extinction in South America: a new chronology for the Argentine Pampas, from which this post draws rather heavily for its inspiration, and to a good degree for its claims, too—pointing for the most part to the large-scale changes to this particular region due to radical and relatively abrupt changes in climate. This led to a series of very large increases and decreases in available land for these grazers, and often severe changes in the type of vegetation available to them. As the land bridge formed connecting South to North America, competing grazers moved south in what is generally referred to as the Great American Interchange, roughly three million years ago. This may have added to the region’s biodiversity, but it also may have disrupted longstanding populations of native beasts.

Having honed their skills on the advantages of a tremendous and reliable food source for millennia, marginalizing more generalized and smaller would-be competitors to their lives at the perimeters of their domain, these big changes to their sustaining environment over thousands of years did eventually tip the balance in the favour of the generalists, who were able to eat what new climates and new spaces offered them more effectively than their ruling predecessors.

To make it a perfect storm, human hunters arrived on the scene in this part of world as glaciers from the Ice Age began to retreat. There is archaeological evidence of co-existence with humans and big Late-Pleistocene grazers, but humans seem unlikely to be the sole cause of the grazers’ demise. They are like summer dragonflies who, as the numbers of their black-fly prey had been steadily declining all spring, burst onto the scene to finish them off.

As for the grazers’ food, a virtual ocean of grass, the prevailing winds, frequent wildfires and just the right amount of rain preserved it as such. Healthy grasses in prairie environments have very deep roots and otherwise grow very quickly, enabling them to fully regenerate after fire. There are low bush species and one major tree species, the ombú, sparsely distributed and equipped with strong toxins, to be off the grazers’ menu. Native grasses in the wet pampas, the smaller region of grassland in the southeast, surrounding Buenos Aires, grow to heights of 10 feet.

The iconic species of pampas grass, Cortaderia selloana, compliments of Boston Botanical Gardens.

When modern cattle (Bos taurus) arrived it was as if the table had been set for them, the only guests at the most exclusive grazing restaurant in the world.










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