Oviedo Woodcut

Date: 1547
Owner: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale
Source Type: Images


The naturalist Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo (1478-1557) made this drawing of an American Indian while exploring Spain's new American territory in the 1520s. Oviedo was perhaps the first European to study America's flora and fauna with the benefits of empiricism, the hands on approach to knowledge formation that was popularized in Iberia by 15th century navigators and cosmologists. He thus tried to describe (with illustrations and words) unknown peoples, plants, and animals in the most accurate way possible: direct observation. According to historian Antonello Gerbi, Spanish observers prior to Oviedo had tried to make sense of American nature and American Indians through classical examples and comparison to European standards. Indians were therefore seen by many as examples of people living in a mythical golden age, where personal property, jealousy, and shame did not exist (Gerbi 1985).

With the help of humanistic training, Oviedo was able to bring observational techniques pioneered by Iberians at sea to bear on terrestrial nature, greatly facilitating the Spanish crown's avaricious appetite for gold and land. Also, naturalists like Oviedo were themselves involved directly in a form of imperial conquest because (re)naming native things was key to reshaping the landscape from a self-referentially American one to that of a European colony in the Americas. The legacy of the earliest scientific expeditions to the New World was the idea that Europeans could conquer and control the New World through knowing, naming, and understanding it.
CITATION: Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdez, Gonzalo. In La Historia General de las Indias. Courtesy of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University. Call number: Taylor 75.