Date: 1558
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This woodcut of a bison was made for Andre Thevet, France's royal cosmographer who, after traveling to the New World, compiled two books of his observations. Yet this illustration was not done by Thevet or any other eyewitness, but was the work of a professional artist who based the images on secondhand descriptions that compared bison to existing European examples. Thevet thus described bison as having humps like a camel, hair the color of dark mules, and tails like lions. This method of using European examples to make sense of bizarre American animals like bison, armadillos, and iguanas began with the earliest commentators on the New World, such as Christopher Columbus. For them, it only made sense to describe the unknown with reference to the known, an approach to knowledge collection and dissemination that remains common today. Around 1530, however, some travelers to the New World began to apply the principles of empiricism--first learned while mastering the challenges of trans-oceanic navigation-- to studying American nature. Naturalists like Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo sought to describe with words and drawings the animals, plants, and natives of America as they experienced them, not as they expected them to be. This conceptual breakthrough by Iberians in the New World was integral to Europe's scientific revolution.

Reference: Dickenson, Victoria. Drawn From Life: Science and Art in the Portrayal of the New World. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

CITATION: Thevet, Andre. Toureau Sauvage. In: Les singularitiz de la France Antarctique autrement nommee Amerique. Paris: 1558. Accession no. 0656. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.