Origin of the Name Anaconda

            The ancient Peruvian Incas called it huaca.Tribes living to the east of Cusco, the Antis, called it amaru. In the Guianas it was known as the commodie, and on the island of Trinidad the huila. The tribes of eastern Amazonia called it súcúriji. All of these names have been applied to the world’s largest snake, known to most in the 21st century as the giant anaconda or as it is known to science, Eunectes murinus.

So where and when did the name “anaconda” originate? It did not appear in English languagee publlications until 1768.

            “The moment the serpent had fixed his folds, he let go the back of the creature, and raising and twining round his head, opened his horrid mouth to its full extent, and seized the whole face of the tiger in it, biting and grinding him in a most horrid manner, and once choking him and tearing him to pieces. The tiger reared up again on this, and words are too poor to paint his seeming agony: he writhed and tossed about, but all in vain…his hollow roaring from within the destroyer’s mouth was dreadful beyond expression. I was for firing upon the creature in this state, but … they told me they knew its customs well … if they disturbed him in this condition, he would be so outrageous, that several of our lives would assuredly pay the forfeit.” R. Edwin, 1768

Edwin’s tall tale of an encounter between a giant snake and tiger on Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) first appeared in a London newspaper in August of 1768, but later that year appeared in Scots magazine. The fantastic story is of particular interest because it contains the first known use of the name “Anaconda” in an English language publication. Later in the story Edwin writes, “The Ceylonese seemed to know the creature well; they call it anaconda, and talked of eating its flesh…”

Today, herpetologists associate the name with four species of large aquatic boas in the genus Eunectes that inhabit South America.  But, if the name originated in Ceylon how did it become attached to a New World snake?  This story is complex and takes many twists and turns, is incomplete, and involves the explorers, naturalists, and zoologists of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Robert Knox (1691) described a large snake on Ceylon, but did not make any reference to the name anaconda. He wrote, “The Pimberah, the body whereof is as big as a man’s middle, and of a length proportionable.” Pimberah being the well established Sinhelese name for the species now known to science as Python molurus and the only species of large snake to inhabit Sri Lanka. Knox’s account suggests that the name anaconda was not applied to the Ceylonese giant snake at the date of this publication.

However, the 1796 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica had an entry on the “Anaconda” based entirely on Edwin’s account (Boyle, 2008). It seems likely that the encyclopedia account probably popularize the name in the English speaking world.

An investigation of the word “Anaconda” by Yule and Burnell (1886) traced the name to British naturalist John Ray’s Latin text Synopisi Methodica Animalium Quadrupedum et Serpentini Generis published in London in 1693. Ray is well known for his rejection of the plant and animal classification system established by Aristotle, and he laid the foundation for the development of modern biological systematics. Within Ray’s text is a checklist of South Asian snakes compiled by Dr. Tancred Robinson, a physician, naturalist, and friend of John Ray.  The South Asian list was apparently based upon museum specimens, including those in the Leiden Museum. Species No. 8 on Robinson’s list was the “Anacandaia of the Ceylonese that crushes the limbs of buffaloes and yoke beasts.” (page 332 of Ray work, translation from Boyle, 2008). Ray added a note to Robinson’s listing and refers to a story by “Cleyerus” (this is Dr. Andre Cleyer of the Dutch East Indies Company) and states that the Leiden specimen was 25 feet long. In the 65 years between the publication of Ray’s work and the account by Edwin there seems to be no mention of the name “anaconda”.

François-Marie Daudin, a French naturalist, made an early attempt to apply Linnean binomials to amphibians, reptiles, and birds. His eight volume work, Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière des Reptiles was published between 1801 and 1803. Within weeks after its publication was complete both Daudin, not yet 30 years old, and his wife, died of tuberculosis. Daudin’s 5th volume is of interest because it contains an account titled “Le Boa Anacondo.” Daudin knew the name Anaconda and was the first to apply it to the large boid snake from South America. Did he find the name in Robinson’s checklist? Or, in the Edwin account? Or, in the Encyclopedia Britannica? We cannot be certain. However, Daudin’s Anaconda account does make several references to François Le Valliant, his communications and collections which contained specimens of Eunectes.

Le Valliant was born in 1753 in Dutch Guyana (now Suriname), while is his father was the French counsel. Apparently, both his parents had a strong interest in collecting natural history material and his interest in natural history grew.  The family returned to Europe in 1765, bring with them the specimens they collected. Daudin references Le Valliant’s stories of large snakes in Dutch Guyana and describes examining its “eggs” (presumably embryos taken from a gravid female). Le Valliant had access to the Leiden collection as he was studying and living in Holland and France. He was most interested in birds, and much of his African collection made later in life ended up in the Leiden museum.  It seems possible that Le Valliant and possibly Daudin had not only seen Robinson’s list but also examined the snakes Leiden's collection and assumed that the Ceylonese specimen was similar, or the same, as the large snakes he had seen in Dutch Guyana. The unusual name was already associated with the specimen, thus Daudin may have transferred the name to the New World Eunectes.

Other authors of the 19th century lent support to the notion that the name Anaconda was in widespread circulation. Pridham (1849:750-751) reported that the “Pimbera or Anaconda is of the genus Python, Cuvier, and is known in English as the rock-snake.” Tennant (1860: vol. 1, page 196) writing about Ceylon says, “The great python (the boa as it is commonly designated by Europeans, the ‘anaconda’ of Eastern story)…” Additionally, these authors write about the snake crushing large animals such as oxen and elephants (yoked beasts) suggesting they had read Celyer’s account, Ray’s work, or the Encyclopedia account..

Thus, Yule and Burnell (1886:24) hypothesized that the term Anaconda is of Tamil origin, based upon the phrase “dnai-kondra” or “dnaikkonda” a moniker meaning, “which killed an elephant.”  Alternatively, they cite Ferguson (Notes & Quotes) who suggested that anaconda was derived from the Singhalese “henakandaya” (hena ‘lightning’ and kanda meaning ‘stem’ or ‘trunk’ and ‘ya’ being the masculine suffix); in other words the “lightning snake”. Ferguson examined the Leiden museum catalogs from 1697-98 and found, Hoenacandaja/Hanacandaja/ Henecandaja Zeeylonensibuis.” He wrote it is evident that the form Anaconda is due to an error. “With the restoration of the initial h, and the correction of hoena- and hana- to hena, the origin of the word is at once revealed. It is simply henakandaya, the Sinhalese name for the whip-snake…” The Sri Lankan henakandaya is now known to science as Ahaetulla pulverulenta, a snake that is unlike the Anaconda in most every respect. The Sri Lanka whipsnake is extreme slender, specialized for living in bushes and trees, and does not exceed 1.7 m in length. It is very unlike a python or boa and it is difficult to imagine how the two species could be confused other than through a clerical error.

Richard Boyle (2008) has followed up on this and suggests that Daudin made an error in identification or its source. He may be correct, but it seems likely the error lies with Robinson or someone who cataloged the snake prior to Robinson’s examination and made an error on paper that transferred the name henakandaya to a Sri Lankan specimen of Python molurus or to a specimen of the South American boid, now known as Eunectes murinus. Names are important, and Confucius may have stated it most succinctly. The following is from The Analects of Confucius, Book 13, Verse 3 (James R. Ware, translated in 1980.)

“If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.
“When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot.
 “Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.”
JCM Natural History © John C. Murphy