Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Galápagos Islands were thought to have been out of reach of the prehistoric coastal peoples of the continental mainland. In 1947, explorer and archeologist Thor Heyerdahl proved otherwise with his famous voyage from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa raft, the Kon-Tiki; in 1953 his excavations on the islands revealed over 130 shards of pre-Columbian pottery from coastal Peru and Ecuador, but no signs of permanent settlements, leading him to theorize the islands were used as a seasonal fishing base. Other early visitors could have included the great Inca Tupac Yupanqui, grandfather of Atahualpa; according to the early Spanish chronicler Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, Yupanqui may have journeyed to the islands in about 1485 following reports that they held gold, returning almost a year later with “some black men, much gold, a chair made of brass and the skin and jawbone of a horse”. This unlikely plunder casts doubts on the story’s veracity, handing the prize of first documented visitor to Tomás de Berlanga, Bishop of Panama, whose ship ended up here after being swept off course en route to Peru in 1535. He and his men spent a desperate week on the islands, having to chew cactus pads for their water, before the winds picked up so they could set sail again. He later wrote about how water from a well they had dug “came out saltier than that of the sea” and remarked the earth was “like dross, worthless” and the birds “so silly that they do not know how to flee”. He also noted the islands’ “many seals, turtles, iguanas, tortoises”, references picked up by a Flemish cartographer, Abraham Ortelius, who named the islands “Galápagos” (Spanish for “tortoises”) on his 1574 map, Orbis Terrarum. The islands’ other name at that time, Las Encantadas (“enchanted” or “bewitched”), came from the strong currents and swaths of deep mist that made landing here so difficult, as if the shore itself was being moved by unearthly powers.

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