Why mountains should not be named after people

I’m not aware of any controversy surrounding the many Swiss mountains named after their gleaming peaks or dark summits.

This content was published on July 17, 2020 - 10:11

They are either black or white, sometimes red, or their names reflect their shape, like a spearhead or tower, or known as the peak where the sun reaches the summit at midday. Often the only difference in the name is the language used in the region where they’re located, as these black and white monikers: Schwarzhorn, Tête Noir, Sasso Nero, Wysshorn, Dent Blanche, Pizzo Bianco. 

Problems start when we name mountains – or lakes or rivers or any other part of a natural landscape for that matter – after people. 

The world’s mountains are millions of years old. The dubious practice of linking them to individuals goes back only a couple of centuries.

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Like the Agassizhorn. Its name is the only reason this peak has come to our attention. The mountain falls a tad shy of the 4,000 metres (13,123ft) required for membership of the exclusive group of four-thousanders that climbers have on their bucket lists. And it sits in the shadow of its taller, darker neighbour, the Finsteraarhorn (“finster” = dark). This greater peak is such a dominant feature on the landscape that locals also know it by another name: not surprisingly, the Schwarz (black) horn. 

But it is the Agassizhorn which has been in the spotlight of late. Why? Because the people who have the power to name or rename mountains refuse to remove “Agassiz” from its horn. The councils in the three towns on whose land the mountain sits said no when first asked a decade ago and said no again just last week. 

Louis Agassiz was a 19th-century Swiss scientist who developed an ice age theory while camped on a glacier near the peak that now bears his name. He migrated to the United States, where he wrote important works on natural history. But he also publicly claimed that blacks were a separate species, referring to them as a “degraded and degenerate race”.

We’ve written a lot about the controversy surrounding Agassiz, and I highly recommend the following reading list if you have time for a deeper dive: 

Our news story on the councils’ decision

The current debate in Switzerland about removing controversial memorials

An excellent article by our former science reporter, Celia Luterbacher, in which she seeks answers to the question: Can contributions to society of people like Agassiz be judged separately from their prejudices?

An opinion piece by historian Hans Fässler, who has led the campaign for the removal of Agassiz’s name

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I’m in favour of deleting Agassiz’s name, but for different reasons than Fässler. We should erase people’s names from all peaks. The world’s mountains are millions of years old. The dubious practice of linking them to individuals goes back only a couple of centuries. The reputations of these people quickly fade or are sullied.

Nineteenth-century mapmakers needed names for the mountains, which – thanks to advances in cartography at the time – they were able to draw more precisely. The problem was that only the most prominent peaks had been given names, and then usually based on their appearance: dark or light, jagged or pointy. Why not name them after the influencers of the day?

The practice wasn’t limited to the Swiss Alps. The world’s highest mountain is named after a 19th-century British surveyor despite the timeless, spiritual connection the people of India, Tibet and China have always had with the great peak, referring to it as the “Holy Mother”, “Holy Mountain” or similar term.

The mountains have staying power, people don’t. Let’s not pretend the names we’ve given them are written in stone – pun firmly intended. Agassiz should still have a place in our history books, where his groundbreaking theories are described along with his repugnant ideas on race. But he should have no claim to a mountain.

Fässler would like to see the Agassizhorn renamed “Rentyhorn” after a Congolese slave whom Agassiz photographed to prove the inferiority of blacks. But this would be expedient and again short-sighted, a flagrant disregard of the importance of mountains as part of the world’s natural heritage.  

But it’s likely the councils’ decision not to change the name of the Agassizhorn will stand for some time. A mountain is more difficult to topple than a statue.

Here’s what else I’ve been reading

Using satellite imagery to create 3D models of glaciers, German researchers reported recently that the Alps have lost 17% of their total volume since 2000. The study found that ice thickness decreased by 72 centimetres each year on average.

More people are living in Swiss mountain regions. Between 2010 and 2018 this part of the Swiss population grew by about 130,000 to 2.1 million, accounting for around 25% of the total number of inhabitants in Switzerland. However, the Swiss Group for Mountain Regions said the growth was far from uniform, with it stagnating or declining in parts of Switzerland’s central and southern Alps. More worrying is how fast populations of mountain regions are ageing. A third of residents are 64 or over. By 2050, the Federal Statistical Office forecasts that this will grow to two-thirds in some parts, including cantons Graubünden and Ticino.

And some good news: a young bearded vulture has been spotted flying in the Bernese Alps. The local gamekeeper confirmed it was the first time in more than 100 years that a vulture pair had successfully hatched and raised offspring in this part of the Alps. I wrote last year about how the population of this species was beginning to rebound thanks to a reintroduction programme launched 30 years ago.

Thanks for reading! If you have a story about the Alps you'd like me to follow up, I'd like to hear from you dale.bechtel@swissinfo.ch

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