University of Cambridge > > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > From rustics to savants: the uses of indigenous materia medica in colonial New Spain

From rustics to savants: the uses of indigenous materia medica in colonial New Spain

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This talk explores the ways indigenous knowledge about plant and animal remedies was gathered, classified, ‘translated’, tested and circulated across wide networks of exchange for natural knowledge between Europe and the Americas. There has been much recent interest in the ‘bioprospecting’ of local natural resources – medical and otherwise – by Europeans in the early modern world. However, some opacity continues to surround the description of how knowledge travelled. While the strategies employed by European travellers, missionaries or naturalists have been well documented, there has been less written on the role played by indigenous and creole intermediaries in this process. And yet, the transmission of knowledge between indigenous communities and the European cabinet was neither transparent nor natural, and often involved epistemological, linguistic and religious obstacles. Drawing on a number of printed and manuscript sources, collections of indigenous remedies, written in places as diverse as Guatemala, the Yucatán, Chiapas and Mexico City, in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, I am interested in exploring how local intermediaries, like creoles scholars, sought to overcome such obstacles by observing indigenous uses of remedies, by studying indigenous languages and by producing natural histories and pharmacopeias in indigenous languages (Nahuatl and Maya Quiché, for instance). Ultimately, behind the creole participation in the transmission of indigenous remedies, one can point to more inclusive definitions of knowledge, which cut across oppositions between science and superstition, cabinet and field, centre and periphery.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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