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Locating indigenous knowledge in the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648)

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The Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648) is the earliest published treatise on the natural history of Brazil. Edited by Johannes de Laet from the notes made by Willem Piso and Georg Marcgraf in colonial Dutch Brazil (1637–41), it remained the authoritative source on South American flora and fauna well into the nineteenth century. The names, descriptions and definitions in this encyclopaedic work are mainly based on Piso’s and Marcgraf’s contact with local populations and indigenous groups in northeastern Brazil, who provided them with botanical and zoological specimens as well as information about their characteristics and uses. However, while the HNB has been subject of numerous studies, its reliance on indigenous knowledge about the natural world it describes has yet to be properly studied. In this presentation, by discussing the botanical sections of the HNB , I will argue that the book is a comparative ethno-botanical catalogue of plant names and plant uses that compares Brazilian species to plants existing in or imported from West Africa, New Spain, and the Caribbean. Additionally, I will consider the material culture associated with the indigenous knowledge-practices described in the book in order to connect the HNB with collections presently kept in European museums.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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