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Letter from the Galapagos Islands

Transforming the Enchanted Isles

Archaeologists uncover the remote archipelago’s forgotten human history

January/February 2022

Galapagos Plantation WorkersThere is perhaps no place on Earth that better symbolizes the majesty of a world unmarred by human encroachment than the Galapagos Islands. The remote archipelago lies along the equator in the eastern Pacific Ocean, more than 600 miles off South America. The islands are relatively recent volcanic formations, the youngest of which, Fernandina, emerged from the seafloor only 700,000 years ago. As a result of an exceptional set of environmental, biological, and geological conditions, the Galapagos are home to a unique ecosystem of flora and fauna, including swimming iguanas, flightless cormorants, and giant tortoises. And, of course, it was a visit to the Galapagos in 1835 by the young British geologist and naturalist Charles Darwin that inspired his groundbreaking book On the Origin of Species, which forever changed not only the scientific world, but the way that humans think about themselves.


Galapagos MapAlthough the popular perception of the Galapagos is that the islands are one of the world’s last remaining wildlife refuges and have remained free from human interference, the truth is that they have an extensive human history that is often overlooked. They may have been one of the last places on Earth to be colonized by humans, but sailors, whalers, buccaneers, and adventurers have been stopping there for at least the past five centuries. Their impressions have not always been positive. After visiting in the 1840s, novelist Herman Melville wrote that nowhere on the planet was as desolate and uninhabitable as the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles, as they were known in his day. To him, they were a cursed, godforsaken place located at the edge of the known world, afflicted by never-ending drought and unfit for all except the lizards, snakes, and spiders that scurried along their rocks. Among nineteenth-century sailors, legend held that when wicked sea captains died, they were transformed into giant tortoises and forced to wander the islands’ arid shores as punishment for their sins.


Yet over the past century and a half, humans have at times managed to tame the harsh environment and even thrive. The largest, most ambitious, and most successful early attempt at colonization occurred on the island of San Cristóbal during the late nineteenth century at a place known as Hacienda El Progreso.


Today, El Progreso is a sleepy village nestled in the highlands of San Cristóbal, the Galapagos’ easternmost and fifth-largest island. The small town consists of a few dozen houses, a church, a school, and a community soccer field. It is a place that is both physically and ideologically distant from the crowds of tourists who flock to the Galapagos each year to experience their natural wonders. El Progreso does not get many foreign visitors. It has neither swimming iguanas nor giant tortoises.



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