Early Colonial Science (1492-1700)

By a combination of imported disease, steel, horses, good fortune, and a willingness to resort to brutal violence, the conquistadores took over the major empires of the Americas. Yet Spain realized that it could not exploit the abundant natural resources--like plants, precious metals, and human labor-- if it did not understand the New World as well as possible. Much of their effort in this regard was goal oriented: they wanted to learn where gold could be found and learn enough about indigenous peoples to make them mine the gold. They conducted territorial surveys and sent out empire-wide questionnaires (the relaciones geograficas) that collected cultural and ethnographic data on the various Indian groups. As imperial officials and entrepreneurs began to look closer at American nature and describe what they saw, they helped to create and legitimize a new manner of conducting science: empiricism.

Empiricism, the scientific method based on first hand observation and experimentation, had an immediate impact within the Spanish American colonies. To cite just a few examples: experiments were conducted to learn which crops worked best in various American climates, a process that reshaped American ecology and social systems by making cash-crop plantation slavery a profitable industry. Native herbal science combined with empirical testing to study and cultivate medicinal plants that treated various diseases (including malaria and syphilis) and could be exported for profit. Mining techniques, such as the use of mercury to extract silver, also fueled European greed by promising huge rewards from mineral deposits.

Despite traditional historiography which relegates Spain and Latin America to the margins in the development of modern science, recent research has shown that the experience of the Spanish American empire was critically intertwined with European experimental practice. Historian Antonio Barrera-Osorio argues, for example, that the necessity of hands-on knowledge to the New World venture influenced the path of the scientific revolution in Europe (Barrera-Osorio 2006).

Spanish naturalists like Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo began cataloging the thousands of new plants and animals they encountered in America with detailed descriptions, illustrations, and, when possible, live or preserved specimens. The seeds and botanical varieties would be cultivated and studied further in Spain's botanical gardens while preserved animals and ethnographic artifacts (like Indian clothes, weapons, and art) would be exhibited in Europe's new cabinets of curiosity, like Imperato's Museum. The direct observation of these imports was central to understanding American nature as well as catapulting European scientific methods into the modern era.

This new manner of doing science also facilitated Spain's ethnographic studies of the Indians they encountered and ruled over and created images of the New World that proved influential to Europeans and Americans alike (see the 1505 source on the Tupinamba Indians for an early example of this). Scholars like Bernardino de Sahagun, with the help of Indian intellectuals, learned indigenous languages and wrote much on their social and political practices, religious beliefs, science, medicine, and history that may otherwise have been lost. It is also significant that creole intellectuals living in the New World created one the earliest intellectual conceptions that Indians and Europeans were inherently distinct races. According to Jorge Canizares-Esguerra, creoles in parts of Latin America tried to oppose prevalent European notions of environmental determinism by claiming that although American stars and climate might cause degeneration among Indians, it was actually good for people of Spanish origin (Canizares-Esguerra 1999).

Empirical science proved to be an effective way to learn about the New World, and it was key to expanding and exploiting Spain's American empire. The fact that this scientific method quickly spread to the rest of Europe and proved foundational to the scientific revolution attests to its efficacy. Even today, empirical observation and experimentation remain the underlying premise of scientific practice.

Questions for further exploration:

1.    Look at the source "European Cosmographer." How does this image embody the contrast between scholarly knowledge and empirically derived knowledge?

2. Consider the things on display in the image of Ole Worm's Museum and identify ethnographic artifacts and/or animal specimens that might be from the New World. How do you think that learned Europeans observing these materials would interpret them? Which knowledge systems informed their approach?

3. Compare and contrast the three images in this topic's sources that depict American Indians. How had Europeans' perception of them changed and stayed the same between the early sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century?

4. Empirical science was one of many important new scientific paradigms to develop in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Does it tie-in to other scientific revolutions, like the Copernican revolution, or is it an independent phenomenon with a separate development?

5. The sources "Eden in Peru" and "Sky chart with southern hemisphere" each explore some of the stranger manifestations of empirical science in the Spanish American colonies. What are some other examples of scientific practices in the New World that were aberrant from the standard narrative of "scientific progress" often associated with the scientific revolution? Feel free to explore other topics for examples.

Further Reading:

Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Bleichmar, Daniela. Science in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, 1500-1800. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. "New Worlds, New Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Invention of Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish America, 1600-1650." The American Historical Review. 104: 1 (February 1999): 33-68.

Gerbi, Antonello. Nature and the New World: From Christopher Columbus to Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo. Trans. Jeremy Moyle. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985.

Pimentel, Juan. "The Iberian Vision: Science and Empire in the Framework of a Universal Monarchy, 1500-1800." Osiris, 2nd Series. 15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise (2000): 17-30.

Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.


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.



European Cosmographer

Date: 1550
Owner: New York Public Library
Source Type: Images


This seventeenth century engraving, Lapis polaris, magnes, depicts a scholar comparing textual knowledge with empirically gathered navigation information. Due to the growth of empiricism that came with Iberian navigation and the exploration of the New World, the knowledge contained in the scholar's books was no longer legitimate merely on the basis of antiquity--it now had to be proven by observation. Although empiricism did much to replace classical learning, there was (and is) a great wealth of still-useful information in antique texts, and scholars such as this one worked to reconcile these two forms of knowledge.

As is apparent from the quantity of instruments in his study, empirical studies required far greater technological resources than textual knowledge, which was self-contained in books. This scholar's tools include an armillary sphere, a quadrant, an hourglass, an astrolabe, and a large water compass. Most of these instruments were used specifically for navigation, and the model ship and harbor scene outside the window emphasize that empirical learning in the early colonial period was inextricably linked with oceanic navigation, itself key to exploiting the riches of the New World.
The new technologies developed in Seville and elsewhere to facilitate American empire eventually became instrumental to modern science on the whole. By the time of the Enlightenment, scientific observations (such as those conducted by Humboldt) were not considered legitimate without verifiable data, information usually gathered with sophisticated instruments. Although fifteenth through seventeenth century Iberian cosmographers developed increasingly precise instruments for very practical purposes (like finding gold and shipping it to Spain), their devices--which enabled accurate measurements--did much to set the foundation for the scientific revolution.

CITATION: Theodore Galle after Johannes Stradanus, Lapis polaris, magnes. From The New York Public Library, Print Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Divison of Art, Prints and Photographs



Imperato's Museum

Date: 1599
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


Ferrante Imperato's museum was one of the many early cabinets of curiosity that sprang up throughout Europe (many of the first were in Italy) concurrently with the discovery and exploration of the New World. Although the vast majority of Europeans could not travel to the Americas, they were able to experience the utter strangeness of the new continents through the flora, fauna, and ethnographic artifacts collected in these institutions. Just as naturalists (like Oviedo and Acosta) who visited the New World used empirical learning to make sense of what they saw, the display of American things in European wonder cabinets did much to encourage the spread of empiricism throughout Europe.

The highest ambition of early cabinets of curiosity was universality: collectors sought to encompass all of creation in one building, room, or cabinet of drawers. Yet these chaotic collections eventually needed to be organized, and the scientific systems of classification developed to make sense of New World items helped inspire the complex taxonomies of the Age of Reason. Originally there were only two categories, "natural" (plants, animals, shells, etc.) and "artificial" (art, tools, weapons, etc.), but as collections grew, the means of identifying them did as well.

Although these cabinets were created largely for scientific value, the proper reaction of both casual observers and professional collectors was wonder, the sheer delight in the novelty of an object. Foreign plants and animals were the most sought after items, but the ornamental objects of alien cultures were also highly prized. In fact, materials produced by "primitive" peoples, like American Indians, was actually considered to be natural history, the same category as minerals and plants. By denying that native items were the result of intelligent manufacturing, collectors contributed to the de-humanizing of indigenous peoples in European eyes.

CITATION: Imperato, Ferrante. Ritratto del Museo di Ferrante Imperato. Napoli: C. Vitale, 1599. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: S16 O40.



Indian Cannibals, Brazil

Date: 1505
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images

This 1505 broadside by Johann Froschauer depicts the Tupinamba Indians of Brazil engaging in cannibalism. The image, if controversial, is considered the earliest depiction of American Indians to be at least somewhat ethnographically accurate. Nevertheless, this image and its caption demonstrate how the earliest ethnographers, like other naturalists to visit the New World, struggled to comprehend the wonders they encountered. Like most other early sixteenth century observers, Froschauer fell back on pre-existing European scientific and literary tropes to describe the utter strangeness of America. Whereas naturalists usually compared new plants and animals to known European ones, ethnographers drew upon medieval and classical travel narratives, like those of Pliny and Mandeville, which often described people living beyond the known world as having bizarre and even monstrous features. The descriptive caption of this broadside reads:

No one has anything of his own, but all things are common. And the men who have wives are pleased to make no distinction whether it is their mother or sister or friend...They also eat one another and they hang and smoke the flesh of those killed. They live to 150 and have no government.

Although elements of this description are absurd, such as the idea that Indians live to be 150, there is much evidence that various Indian groups did engage in some form of cannibalism, a fact that Europeans used to justify their (largely pre-existing) assumptions about Native American savagery. Ethnographies of Indians finally began to reach a more mature form with the works of Bartolome de las Casas and Jose de Acosta, scholars who used empiricism to present the most accurate early portrayals of American peoples.

Reference: Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 76.

CITATION: Brazil: Cannibalism. German Woodcut: 1505. The Granger Collection, New York. 0009540



Indians Mining Precious Metals

Date: 1601
Owner: Houghton Mifflin Company
Source Type: Images


This 1601 source shows Indians mining precious metals in Potosi, a city located in present-day Bolivia. Mining and exporting gold, silver, and copper was a fundamental part of Spain's American empire, one that made Spain the richest and most powerful state in early modern Europe. On the other hand, ore mines demanded vast amounts of labor to dig and carry the metal, a burden that fell almost entirely on imported African slaves and America's native population. The brutal conditions of mining communities helped give rise to the Black Legend, the theory that the once vast Indian populations of Mexico and Peru were decimated exclusively by Spanish cruelty.

Despite the many evils of slavery and the mita that accompanied Spanish and Portuguese mines in America, the pursuit of precious metals did foster the improvement of the science of mineralogy. The constant demand to find new mines and extract as much ore as possible from them encouraged ambitious entrepreneurs who used empiricism to determine the best techniques for mining and processing ores. The most famous of these was Bartolome de Medina, a tailor who moved to New Spain and developed an advanced method of refining silver. Drawing on recent alchemical innovations in Germany, he used mercury (quicksilver) to draw silver away from natural impurities and then chemically removed the mercury to expose pure Ag.

The Spanish crown was eager to support entrepreneurs like Medina by granting them production licenses and many material benefits, a circumstance that fostered an unprecedented era of research and development that, in turn, strengthened and enriched the monarchy.

Reference: Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

CITATION: Winsor, Justin, editor. "Mining" in The Later History, or British, Spanish, and Portuguese America: Narrative and Critical History of America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889. p. 193.



Native Americans Hunting Crocodiles

Date: 1591
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This scene of the Timucua Indians of eastern Florida hunting crocodiles, one of the many famous 1591 engravings by Theodore De Bry, combines the European interests in both the ethnographic and zoological elements of the New World. The text describes how an Indian would keep watch in a windowed hut (on the left of this picture) in the Everglades in order to spot crocodiles when they emerged from the swamp to hunt. Upon the lookout's signal, a group of hunters would attack the crocodile by ramming a small tree down its throat, an action that protected them from the animal's deadly teeth and allowed them to flip it onto its back, where the hunters would then kill it with repeated blows to its soft underbelly.

For Europeans, Crocodiles and Indians were both fascinating New World denizens that differed markedly from anything that they knew in Europe. Although De Bry is recognized today for portraying Indians in an apparently realistic manner, the crocodile pictured here is enormous and colored like a mythical European dragon. Crocodiles, armadillos, buffalo, iguanas, rheas, jaguars, and the many tropical birds were consistent sources of wonder for Europeans, both those who encountered them in America and those who saw them preserved in European museums. The very sense of wonder they engendered served as an impetus for studying them empirically, a development that would eventually lead to the creation of a modern system of taxonomy.
CITATION: de Bry, Theodore. CROCODILES, 1591. Florida Indians killing crocodiles (alligators): engraving, 1591, by Theodor de Bry after a now lost drawing by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Courtesy of the Granger Collection, NY.  ID: 0009679.




Date: 1594
Owner: Granger Collection, The
Source Type: Images


This 1594 engraving shows ships departing for the Americas from the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda, the main harbor in Seville, Spain. Apart from being the major port that connected Spain to its vast overseas empire, Seville was also the hub of scientific learning that made voyages to the New World (and its exploitation) a reality. The most important center of learning in Seville (and, perhaps, all of Europe) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the Casa de Contratacion, an institution created in 1503 to collate information about the New World and to teach modern navigational methods.

The Casa served as an institution for centralizing, standardizing, and improving all aspects of science that were necessary to conquering, understanding, and exploiting the New World. Supported by royal patronage, it employed a chief pilot (to lecture on navigation and to compile empirically drawn maps), a ship inspector, a chief cosmographer, and several mapmakers and instrument designers. To ensure standardization among all of Spain's pilots, the Casa was the only licensed manufacturer of navigational devices and compiled the empire's authoritative navigational chart, the Padron Real. According to historian Antonio Barrera-Osorio, the Casa de Contratacion was most important because it was an institution that supported and encouraged empirical observation, and thus gave credibility to hands-on knowledge gathering that had previously been reserved for textual scholarship. Seville, the lynchpin of the Spanish Empire, can also be considered the nursery of the West's scientific revolution.

Reference: Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

CITATION: De Bry, Theodore. "Seville: Departure." 1594. The Granger Collection, New York. 0010550.



Source References

Web Sites

International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

Guaman Poma's Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno (Royal Library of Denmark)


Barrera-Osorio, Antonio. Experiencing Nature: The Spanish American Empire and the Early Scientific Revolution. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. "New Worlds, New Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Invention of Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish America, 1600-1650." The American Historical Review. 104: 1 (February 1999): 33-68.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. Nature, Empire, and Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World. Stanford: University of California Press, 2006.

Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism: the Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Foster, George. "Hippocrates' Latin American legacy: Humoral Medicine in the New World. Langhorne, PA: Gordon and Breach, 1994.

Grafton, Anthony. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1992.

Guerra, Francisco. "Medical Colonization of the New World." Medical History. 7 (1963): 147-154.

Lafuente, Antonio y Jose Sala Catala. "Ciencia Colonial y Roles Profesionales en la America Espanola del Siglo XVIII." Quipu. 6 (1989): 387-403.

Ogilvie, Brian W. The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Olarte, Mauricio Nieto. Remedios para el Imperio: Historia natural y la apropiacion del nuevo mundo. Bogota: ICANH, 2000.

Pimentel, Juan. "The Iberian Vision: Science and Empire in the Framework of a Universal Monarchy, 1500-1800." Osiris, 2nd Series.15, Nature and Empire: Science and the Colonial Enterprise. (2000): 17-30.

Rodriguez, Martha Eugenia. Contaminacion e insalubridad en la ciudad de Mexico en el siglo XVII. Mexico: Facultad de Medicina, UNAM, 2000.

Southern Stars

Date: 1672
Owner: John Carter Brown Library, Brown University
Source Type: Images


This 1672 map includes sky charts of several constellations only visible in the Southern hemisphere. The new (to Europeans) stars of the south presented navigators and astrologers alike with new challenges. Astrology was still considered by many in the seventeenth century to be a legitimate science and the stars and planets, like other aspects of nature, were believed to have a very real influence on the inherent capacities of the peoples of various parts of the earth (see the topics on Eugenics and Tropical Medicine for more recent manifestations of environmental determinism).

Following the tenets of environmental determinism, Europeans denigrated all inhabitants of the Americas (especially the tropics) as degenerates because everyone in America was subject to the same natural conditions. Europeans considered American humidity the source of the Indians' supposed "effeminacy," which was apparent in their beardlessness, cowardice, and even stupidity. The southern hemisphere's constellations were also understood to cause premature aging and general physical degeneration.

Early seventeenth century creoles, however, resented such disparagements (ones they typically reserved for Indians and blacks) and thus created an early form of racism, one that advocated essential differences between the bodies of Indians, blacks, and Europeans. Yet this fairly modern style of racism was firmly entrenched in the prevailing environmentalism of the period, thus America's stars and climate were considered beneficial to Europeans while emasculating Indians. As races that were inherently different, they each had a unique reaction to the same environment. Creoles were thus able to defend America's natural virtues while concurrently making the case that its environment turned Indians into slow-minded brutes fit only to do hard labor for European/creole rulers. Although this form of racism was short lived, it represents an early manifestation of the ideology of essential difference, one that was highly influential to the more "scientific" racists of the nineteenth and twentieth century.

Canizares-Esguerra, Jorge. "New Worlds, New Stars: Patriotic Astrology and the Invention of Indian and Creole Bodies in Colonial Spanish America, 1600-1650." In The American Historical Review, vol. 104, no. 1 (Feb., 1999), 33-68.

CITATION: Seller, John. Novissima totius terrarum orbis tabula in Atlas maritimus, or A book of charts. London, 1672. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. JCB call number: *Z S467 1672 / 3-SIZE. Record number: 9772-3.