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Indigenous Knowledge in the Making of Science: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648)

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - BRASILIAE (Indigenous Knowledge in the Making of Science: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648))

Reporting period: 2021-01-01 to 2022-06-30

The BRASILIAE project focuses on the place and role of indigenous knowledge in the creation of science during the early modern period, specifically by looking at the way in which the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Piso and Marcgraf, 1648) was created and how relevant it can bea today. In an encyclopaedic format, this book brings together textual and visual information about the natural world, linguistics, and geography of Brazil as understood and experienced by coastal Tupi indigenous populations, Dutch and Portuguese colonizers, and freed and enslaved Africans and Afro-Brazilians. The botanical and zoological sections of the HNB in particular present hundreds of encyclopedic entries that name, describe, and classify plants and animals based on (among others) indigenous Tupi knowledge, and explain their function and uses by Luso-Braziliand, indigenous, and/or African societies. This knowledge was subsequently re-interpreted by the authors and editor of the book, and presented in textual and visual format to a European early modern (scholarly) audience in the form of a book – the HNB.

In the BRASILIAE project, we want to identify these pieces of indigenous, local, and Afro-Brazilian knowledges in their different forms: names, images, practices, objects, and in doing so understand how this book came about. By looking at the production of this book, we can understand more about how indigenous peoples were part of the work done by scientists in that time period and context, and what kind of interactions were taking place between diverse segments of society in Dutch Brazil. Furthermore, we try to examine the impact of this book in the formation of the scientific canon in the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries, thereby learning how intercultural knowledge becomes part of scholarly traditions. Objects are also part of knowledge and science, and for that reason, next to the book itself, our project also studies historic indigenous objects in museums that can be connected to the time and context of the HNB. Finally, we attempt to situate this book and these objects in the present: how can the indigenous, local, and Afro-Brazilian knowledge therein be relevant today? To whom and in what forms? In trying to answer these questions, our BRASILIAE project delivers a new point of view about the fundamentally intercultural processes through which scientific knowledge was created in a colonial context, and the role that the material legacies of this colonial process can play today.
During the first half of the BRASILIAE project, we have done research in libraries, museums, botanical gardens, and markets. We have been able to identify which useful plant species are described and depicted in the HNB, and correlate them to present-day plants sold and used in Brazil. This knowledge about plants allows us to understand how the use of plants has transformed (or not) through time, and how their original indigenous names have been kept in use. Likewise, it allows us to discover when certain foreign plants (from Africa or Asia) were first introduced and started to be used in the Brazil. We have also identified a number of indigenous objects kept at European museums that were possibly collected in Brazil during the colonial period (sixteenth- to eighteenth-centuries). By studying these objects, we can learn more not only about the objects themselves but also about the lives of the indigenous peoples who made them, as well as about the way these indigenous men and women participated in and engaged with the different sectors of colonial society in Brazil. Finally, we have studied documentation from the Dutch colonial administration in Brazil, now kept at the Dutch National Archive, focusing specifically on the slave-trade.
The BRASILIAE project has been able to create new knowledge about the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. We discovered for the first time that this book contains knowledge about plants that are native to all of the Brazilian biomes and not only the northeast, as previously thought. This means that this book can be used as a good example of the types of plants that were used by people everywhere in Brazil in the seventeenth century. We have also shown for the first time how Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen was deeply involved in the slave-trade and slave smuggling while he was governor of Dutch Brazil. While this had been more or less known by scholars for a long time, there were still some scholars and some sectors of Dutch society that denied it. In revealing the direct connection between Johan Maurits and the slave-trade, we have contributed to the public debate about (de)colonization and colonial responsibility of the former colonial metropoles such as the Netherlands. Finally, we have compiled a list of historic indigenous objects in European museums and expect, by the end of the project, to be able to confirm whether or not some of these objects were made and collected in colonial Brazil, providing more information about colonial collections and helping to foster the debate about what should be done with material legacies of colonialism.
Team member C. Monteiro analysing a copy of the HNB at the National Library in Brazil.
Team member M. Alcantara-Rodriguez studying the Marcgraf herbarium in Denmark
Team members L. Matthews Cascon and F. Vander Velden studying an axe at the Weltmuseum Vienna.
PI Mariana Francozo studying a historic indigenous object at the Pigorini Museum.
Team member L. Matthews Cascon studying wooden clubs at the National Museum of Ethnology (NL) depot.
Frontspiece of the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (Piso and Marcgraf 1648)