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A single land

Eighty-five years ago, Reinhard Maack, a German, found evidence of the origin of continents in Brazil

Alessandro Casagrande collection /Photos of Reinhard MaackMaack reading a map during the 1934 Ivaí River expedition, while material driesAlessandro Casagrande collection /Photos of Reinhard Maack

The theory that all continents used to be joined and formed a single stretch of land some 250 million years ago was put forth scientifically by the German geologist and meteorologist Alfred Lothar Wegener in 1912. His book The Origin of Continents and Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane), published in 1915, brought together morphological evidence (the “fit” of South America and Africa), paleoclimate evidence (vestiges of glaciers in tropical lands) and paleontological evidence (fossils of tropical plants in the Arctic) to create his hypothesis. The theory was debated during subsequent decades and rejected by most scientists because there was no good explanation for continental movement. A few years later, in Brazil, another German, Reinhard Maack (1892-1969), found geological evidence that was in line with Wegener’s work, in western Minas Gerais state.

Alessandro Casagrande collection /Photos of Reinhard MaackMaack with the insignia of the German government (1969)Alessandro Casagrande collection /Photos of Reinhard Maack

Maack had spent 11 years in the German colony of Southwest Africa (present day Namibia) working as a geodesic technician. In his first years in Brazil, he conducted research in the Minas Gerais cerrado (savanna), where he found geological formations identical to those in Namibia. In the same year in which he discovered this (1926), he described it in the article Eine Forschungsreise über das Hochland von Minas Gerais zum Paranhyba [A research expedition from the Minas Gerais plateau to the Paranaiba], published in the journal of the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin [Berlin Geographical Society]. “It was Maack’s first research work in Brazil and it had several shortcomings, but its observations came to be proven years later,” says the agronomist Alessandro Casagrande, from the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR), coordinator of the Brazilian Environmental History Network – RBHA and author of chapter on the German scientist in the book Histórias 
de uma ciência regional, edited by Fabiano Ardigó (Contexto, 2011).

Maack went to Namibia in 1911, where he performed topography services for the government and the farmers of the colony, while also conducting memorable expeditions, such as that of 1917, which determined the height of Brandberg, the country’s highest mountain, 2,585 meters high. In the same region, he discovered cave paintings that he copied in the form of drawings and that later became important for students of pre-history. The cave painting known as the White Lady, for instance, became very well known.

In 1923, having been hired by the Companhia de Mineração and Colonização Paranaense, mining and colonization company, he moved to Brazil. He established himself in the city of Curitiba, but continued to take part in expeditions around the world, due to his interest in the geological history of the Earth. He returned to Germany on several occasions to study. In 1949, at the age of 57, he earned the title of Dr. Rer. Nat. (doctor of Rerum naturalium) with his work on Gondwanic glaciations of the Upper Carboniferous period, presented at the University of Bonn.

Alessandro Casagrande collection /Photos of Reinhard MaackThe researcher at the Tibagi River, in 1930: a taste for adventureAlessandro Casagrande collection /Photos of Reinhard Maack

In Paraná, Maack’s work was significant. He explored rivers such as the Tibagi and the Ivaí, determined the height of the Paraná peak (which he named and climbed), published the geological and phyto-geographic map of the state and was one of the earliest critics of the destruction of forests. He also faced a number of setbacks: as he was German, he was incarcerated at the Ilha Grande prison, in Rio de Janeiro state, during the Second World War. In 1946, he became a professor at the University of Paraná, now UFPR. His best-known work is A geografia física do estado do Paraná [The physical geography of the state of Paraná].

“Maack defended Wegener’s theory and travelled a lot to prove it,” says João José Bigarella, a senior professor at UFPR who worked with the German researcher. “The Americans always doubted it, but they changed their mind in the 1950s as a result of new discoveries that were made then.” Wegener’s central idea, namely, that all continents had been joined together in the distant past, would only become widely accepted from the 1960s onward.