Peter Wilhelm Lund bigraphy, stories - Zoologists

Peter Wilhelm Lund : biography

14 June 1801 - 25 May 1880

Peter Wilhelm Lund (14 June 1801 – 25 May 1880) was a Danish paleontologist, zoologist, archeologist and who spent most of his life working and living in Brazil. He is considered the father of Brazilian paleontology as well as archeology.

He was the first to describe dozens of species of pre-historic Pleistocene megafauna, including the fabled Saber-toothed cat Smilodon populator. He also made the then ground-breaking, discovery that humans co-existed with the long-extinct animal species, something which possibly prompted him to terminate his scientific work. His comprehensive collections are today found at the Danish Natural History Museum in Copenhagen.

Early life and education

Peter Wilhelm Lund was born into a wealthy family in Copenhagen. He showed an early interest in the natural science and was working towards a career in medicine but following the death of his father, his passion for natural history prompted him instead to opt for that study at the University of Copenhagen. Already as a student, he wrote two prize-winning dissertations. One of them, published in German, won him international recognition.

First trip to Brazil and return to Europe

Due to a beginning tuberculosis, he traveled to Brazil in 1825 and spend the following three and a half years collecting specimens of plants, birds and insects in the area around Rio de Janeiro, and writing about ants, snails and birds of the region.

Back in Europe in 1829, he achieved a doctoral degree at the University of Kiel, traveled to Italy and later established himself in Paris, where he came under the influence of Georges Cuvier, professor of comparative anatomy at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle and the most influential naturalist and zoologist of the time.

In his Discours sur les révolutions de la surface du globe (1825), Cuvier theorized that the extinction of species was caused by natural catastrophes in certain regions of the world. When that happens, the fauna from other regions migrate to populate the now uninhabited area. This became known as the catastrophic theory, and would become the motto of Lund's scientific career.

Early retirement and late life

Only a year after his ground-breaking finds of human remains, Lund suddenly stopped the work in the caves, alleging lack of resources to finance the excavations. He then donated his huge collection to the king and the people of Denmark. Alleging this time a fragile health condition, he decided to stay in Lagoa Santa, never to return to Europe. Whereas Lund possibly took badly to his own findings, Darwin embraced them with enthusiasm.

The next 35 years were spent exchanging letters with the curators of his collections in Copenhagen, as well as receiving the visits of young European naturalists. The complete study of his collections, E Museo Lundii, was published only in 1888.

While living in Lagoa Santa, he hosted several European naturalists, such as the Danish botanist Eugenius Warming. Lund never married and died in Lagoa Santa three weeks before completing the age of 79.

Cultural references

  • Danish writer Henrik Stangerup's novel The Road to Lagoa Santa is a fictional account of Lund's life, focussing on his early and sudden retirement which is thought to have been motivated by religious doubts caused by his scientific findings.


The journal Lundiana is named in his honour , as is a town in Lagoa Santa. Lund is considered the "Father of Brazilian paleontology and archeology." His voluminous correspondence with Brazilian scientists and institutions is still uncollected.

Return to Brazil and turn to paleontology

P. W. Lund at work in the Lappa do Mosquito near [[Lagoa Santa ]] In 1832 Lund returned to Brazil never to return to Europe. He spent the first two years collecting mainly botanical specimens in the provinces of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Charles Darwin also passed through Rio in 1832 but it is unknown whether the two naturalists met.

Then in 1835, Lund traveling inland through the province of Minas Gerais, and in Lagoa, an area characterised by a peculiar Karst geology, discovered several caves full of fossilized bones from extinct Ice Age megafauna species. He eventually settled in the small town of Lagoa Santa, and dedicated the next eight years to excavating, collecting, classifying and studying more than 20,000 bones of extinct species, including mastodons and ground sloths. With him was the Norwegian painter Peter Andreas Brandt who assisted him throughout his work as an illustrator. He was also assisted by the Danish botanist Eugen Warming from 1839 to 1859.

Lund seen copying rock paintings in a picture by P. A. Brandt Lund was the first to describe dozens of species, among them the world-famous Saber-toothed cat Smilodon populator. His exploration took place mainly in the region of Lagoa Santa, which is rich in caves and karst formations and nowadays comprises the northern part of Greater Belo Horizonte. He was also one of the first to recognize, appreciate and record prehistoric rock and cave paintings in South America.

Then in 1843, Lund made a remarkable discovery. During a severe drought, he discovered, deep in a flooded cave, fossilized skulls and bones of 30 human beings. Since these individuals were found among the remains of long-extinct species. This finding led him to realize that humans and the prehistoric animals had co-existed, something which was in frontal opposition to Cuvier's catastrophic theory.

Living octopus

Living octopus

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