Of the animal that the Spanish in Castilla del Oro[1] call perico-ligero or swift-moving perico, and is known in other places as la pereza or the sloth.[2]

Translated by Isabel Schneck ’19

Perico-ligero or swift-moving-perico is what those in the Spanish Main call the most awkward animal ever seen in the world. It is so very slow-moving and lumbering in its movements that it takes it an entire day to move across a space that would normally take fifty steps. After they seized the Gulf of Darien in the province of Cueva, the first Christians on the Main, seeing this animal and recalling that in Spain they often refer to a black man as Johan Blanco or Johan White (as to be understood backwards), gave it a name very different from its nature, and since it was so very slow they named it swift, and in the province of Venezuela they call it la pereza [the sloth]. This animal is one of the strange ones, which can be clearly seen from its lack of similarity to other animals. It is as long as two spans, once it has grown to its full size, and could grow just slightly longer as it gets older. One can find many smaller ones, but these would be young ones. Their girth, measured around their body, is about three spans. They have four thin feet, and on each hand or foot they have four long claws or nails, like those of a bird, joined together. But neither the nails nor the hands are of the sort that could support its weight, and because of this, and of the leanness of the arms and legs and heaviness of the body, it carries its belly almost dragging across the ground. Its neck is long and straight and uniform, like a pestle that is the same width from top to bottom, or the long stem of a squash that does not change its proportions to incorporate the head. At the top of the neck it has an almost round face, similar to that of an owl, with its own facial hair. The hair shapes its profile into a round face, somewhat longer than it is wide, its eyes are small and round, its nose is like that of a small monkey, and its mouth is very small; and when it moves its neck around, his entire body moves because the head and the neck are one conjoined thing, and it cannot move without moving all together, and it looks slightly dazed. Its goal, or what it seems to seek or want, is to cling to a tree or whatever helps him climb up high; most often people find these animals in the trees, climbing very slowly, hanging down by clinging on with their long nails, which are more fit for this purpose than for walking on the ground. The hair is between a dull brown and almost white (like the hair of a badger), and it does not have a tail. Its voice is very different from that of other animals around the world (and one only hears them at night), all through the night, repeating from time to time, with measured pauses, its six notes, each one higher than the next one, always descending, so that the highest note is the first one and from there it descends, lowering the voice or sounding quieter, as though someone were to say la… sol… fa… mi… re… ut…⁠; but in a similar way this animal says ha… ha… ha… ha… ha… It takes it some time to sing these six notes, then it pauses and stops, and then it goes back to sing in the same tone and measure again and then goes quiet, and in this way it spends the whole night making its music. It certainly seems to me that, just as I noted in the previous chapter on the armadillo that those animals may be the origin or the inspiration for making armor for horses, then, hearing this animal, the first inventor of music could have found no better foundation in the world, nothing more to the purpose, to give music its beginning.

Josephus[3] attributes the invention of music to Tubal Cain, son of Lamech, and others say that the peoples of Arcadia, using long, thin reeds, were the ones who first discovered song. Laërtius[4] says that Pythagoras, the philosopher, discovered it. But I would rather call this perico-ligero perico-músico, because of what it teaches us with its six notes la… sol… fa… mi… re… ut…; even though the pronunciation for all those six notes is ha… ha… ha… ha… ha… ha…, the tone is different, and it is just one note lower for each of its notes. And as I have said, it makes its music at night and never during the day; given that it cannot see well and is bothered by light, it seems to me that this is a nocturnal animal and a friend of darkness or shadows (see fig. 3 below).

Sometimes when they take this animal home, it wanders about at its own pace, and it doesn’t respond to any threat or blow or sting by moving any faster than it would normally move without fatiguing itself; and if it comes across a tree, it moves towards it and climbs to the highest branches, and it remains there some eight, ten, or twenty days, and one cannot know or understand what it eats. I have had one in my house, and what I came to understand about this animal is that it must feed on air; and many others share this opinion, because they have never seen it eat anything, but we have observed it turning its mouth towards the wind more often than in any other direction, from which one knows that it quite enjoys the air. And this opinion of mine proceeds from a time when one of these animals I kept got loose and climbed a tree in the courtyard with a rope still tied to its leg, and the rope got so tangled in the branches that the animal was stuck there for 25 to 30 days, without eating anything or drinking a drop of water (its mouth is so small it can hardly eat). And I let it stay there, to see where my theory would lead, and at the end of thirty or more days I had it brought down, and it was not any thinner or more in need than when it climbed up the tree; once down it showed no urge to eat, and neither before nor after was it seen to eat anything. It does not bite, nor can it bite, because its mouth is so small, nor is it venomous, nor have I seen yet an animal as ugly or as useless looking as this one.

[1] Castilla del Oro or del Oro was the name given by 16th-century Spanish settlers to the Central American territories from the Gulf of Urabá, near today’s border between Colombia and Panamá, and the Belén River.

[2] The chapter describes the brown-throated sloth or Bradypus variegatus, a three-toed herbivore sloth found in the new world tropical forests of Central and South America. The vocalizations described in the text are performed by female sloths to attract males when they’re ready to mate.

[3] Titus Flavius Josephus (born Yosef ben Matityahu) was a first-century Romano-Jewish historian from whose twenty-one volume Antiquities of the Jews Fernández de Oviedo draws Tubal Caim’s claim to having invented music. Tubal Caim or Tubalcain, son of Lamech and a descendant of Cain, appears in Genesis 4:22, as “instructor of every artificer in brass and iron” (KJV).

[4] Diogenes Laërtius was a 3rd-century biographer of Greek philosophers, known for his Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.