Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490 c. 1559) was an early Spanish explorer of the New World and is remembered as a protoanthropological author.
Cabeza means "head"; de vaca, "of the cow" and this surname was granted to his family in the 13th century, when his ancestor aided a Christian army attacking Moors by pointing out a secret pass through the mountains by leaving the head of a cow there. In the prologue to his great story relating his shipwreck and wanderings in North America, he refers to his forefather's service to the King, and regrets that his own deeds could not be as great, due to forces beyond his control.
As treasurer, and hence one of the chief officers, of the Narváez expedition, he, Moorish former slave Estevanico, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado were the only survivors of the party of 600 men. The four were enslaved by various Native American tribes of the upper Gulf coast (including the Han and the Capoques of Galveston Island, which the explorers termed Malhado, or Island of Doom) but later escaped and eventually reached Mexico City.
Traveling mostly in this small group, Cabeza de Vaca explored what are now the U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona on foot from coastal Louisiana to Sinaloa, Mexico, over a period of roughly six years, during which time he lived in conditions of abject poverty and, occasionally, in slavery. During his travels he developed sympathies for the indigenous population. Among the natives, he lived as a slave, passing from tribe to tribe. He eventually became a trader, which allowed him freedom from his enslavement and to travel among the tribes. Eventually, after returning to the colonized reaches of New Spain and encountering a group of fellow Spaniards in the vicinity of modern-day Culiacán, he went on to Mexico City and returned to Europe in 1537. Cabeza de Vaca wrote about his experiences in a report for Emperor Charles V. It was later...