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When European explorers first caught sight of the land they would soon call the New World, they thought they had glimpsed the Garden of Eden. A breathless Christopher Columbus claimed in 1493 to have seen from his ship a river on South America’s mainland that, in its abundance and teeming wildlife, could only have been flowing from the earthly paradise.

A 17th century judge and historian born in Tucumán, Argentina, went out of his way to prove that the biblical garden was watered by the Amazon, Orinoco, Plata, and Magdalena rivers. Close to a century later, a Portuguese priest was executed for declaring that paradise was located in the highlands of Minas Gerais in southeastern Brazil. An American philosopher traveling through Brazil in the 19th century claimed to have discovered “the original seat of the Garden of Eden.”

The myth...

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