If M. d'Orbigny had been aware of the many long parallel lines of sand-hillocks, with infinitely numerous shells of the Mactra and Venus, at a low level near the Uruguay; if he had seen at Bahia Blanca the immense sand-dunes, with water-worn pebbles of pumice, ranging in parallel lines, one behind the other, up a height of at least 120 feet; if he had seen the sand-dunes, with the countless Paludestrinas, on the low plain near the Fort at this place, and that long line on the edge of the cliff, sixty feet higher up; if he had crossed that long and great belt of parallel sand-dunes, eight miles in width, standing at the height of from forty to fifty feet above the Colorado, where sand could not now collect,--I cannot believe he would have thought that the elevation of this great district had been sudden. Certainly the sand-dunes (especially when abounding with shells), which stand in ranges at so many different levels, must all have required long time for their accumulation; and hence I do not doubt that the last 100 feet of elevation of La Plata and Northern Patagonia has been exceedingly slow.

If we extend this conclusion to Central and Southern Patagonia, the inclination of the successively rising gravel-capped plains can be explained quite as well, as by the more obvious view already given of a few comparatively great and sudden elevations; in either case we must admit long periods of rest, during which the sea ate deeply into the land. Let us suppose the present coast to rise at a nearly equable, slow rate, yet sufficiently quick to prevent the waves quite removing each part as soon as brought up; in this case every portion of the present bed of the sea will successively form a beach-line, and from being exposed to a like action will be similarly affected. It cannot matter to what height the tides rise, even if to forty feet as at Santa Cruz, for they will act with equal force and in like manner on each successive line. Hence there is no difficulty in the fact of the 355 feet plain at Santa Cruz sloping up 108 feet to the foot of the next highest escarpment, and yet having no marks of any one particular beach-line on it; for the whole surface on this view has been a beach. I cannot pretend to follow out the precise action of the tidal-waves during a rise of the land, slow, yet sufficiently quick to prevent or check denudation: but if it be analogous to what takes place on protected parts of the present coast, where gravel is now accumulating in large quantities, an inclined surface, thickly capped by well-rounded pebbles of about the same size, would be ultimately left. (On the eastern side of Chiloe, which island we shall see in the next chapter is now rising, I observed that all the beaches and extensive tidal-flats were formed of shingle.) On the gravel now accumulating, the waves, aided by the wind, sometimes throw up a thin covering of sand, together with the common coast-shells. Shells thus cast up by gales, would, during an elevatory period, never again be touched by the sea. Hence, on this view of a slow and gradual rising of the land, interrupted by periods of rest and denudation, we can understand the pebbles being of about the same size over the entire width of the step-like plains,--the occasional thin covering of sandy earth,--and the presence of broken, unrolled fragments of those shells, which now live exclusively near the coast.


It may be concluded that the coast on this side of the continent, for a space of at least 1,180 miles, has been elevated to a height of 100 feet in La Plata, and of 400 feet in Southern Patagonia, within the period of existing shells, but not of existing mammifers. That in La Plata the elevation has been very slowly effected: that in Patagonia the movement may have been by considerable starts, but much more probably slow and quiet. In either case, there have been long intervening periods of comparative rest, during which the sea corroded deeply, as it is still corroding, into the land. (I say COMPARATIVE and not ABSOLUTE rest, because the sea acts, as we have seen, with great denuding power on this whole line of coast; and therefore, during an elevation of the land, if excessively slow (and of course during a subsidence of the land), it is quite possible that lines of cliff might be formed.) That the periods of denudation and elevation were contemporaneous and equable over great spaces of coast, as shown by the equable heights of the plains; that there have been at least eight periods of denudation, and that the land, up to a height of from 950 to 1,200 feet, has been similarly modelled and affected: that the area elevated, in the southernmost part of the continent, extended in breadth to the Cordillera, and probably seaward to the Falkland Islands; that northward, in La Plata, the breadth is unknown, there having been probably more than one axis of elevation; and finally, that, anterior to the elevation attested by these upraised shells, the land was divided by a Strait where the River Santa Cruz now flows, and that further southward there were other sea-straits, since closed.

South American Geology Page 21

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Charles Darwin

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Charles Darwin

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