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Agriculture and Science (1000-2000)

Latin American ecosystems have produced some of the most rich and varied crops in modern memory, the production of which has, since the mid-sixteenth century, both tied Latin America to the global economy and resulted in extraordinary ecological change. Growing sugar, coffee, bananas, and other crops has combined with large scale natural resource extraction (oil, copper, timber) and the process of urbanization to transform Latin America in dramatic fashion, with significant consequences for humans, flora, and fauna. Agricultural science has been a key component to advancing the rate of...

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Botany (1500+)

Sugar, rainforests, cacao, bananas, rubber, palm trees, peyote, and the environment in general are all things that readily come to mind when considering the study of plant life of Latin America and the Caribbean. But what about medicine, empire, gender, art, nationalism, economics, slavery, and culture? Plants and the science of botany have proven capable of shaping societies in dramatic ways, and perhaps no region has felt the impact of botany more than Latin America and the Caribbean. This is due in part to the amazing variety of plant life found in the region's fields, forests,...

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Brazil and Nuclear Power (1960+)

Since its independence in 1822, elite Brazilians have considered their nation to be destined for greatness (grandeza) and to rank among the world's modern powers. Yet according to Lincoln Gordon, a scholar of Brazilian trade and energy policy, this nationalistic aspiration has been continually upset by the shortcomings of Brazil's uneven economy, which has relied largely on the exchange of its raw materials for goods manufactured abroad. Such a trade relationship allows little room for long-term growth. As part of the effort to launch itself into a first world economy while...

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Columbian Exchange (1492-1800)

Picture a burrito. Its delicious interior, filled with pinto beans, beef, lettuce, tomatoes, chili peppers, avocado, cheese, corn, and rice, is wrapped up in an oversized tortilla made of wheat flour. This filling and easily portable meal can be considered the quintessential dish of the Columbian exchange, the transfer of biota between the Old and New Worlds that began in 1492 and continues to the present day. The beans, tomatoes, peppers, avocado, and corn all hail from the Americas; the beef, cheese, and lettuce have their provenance in Europe; and rice culture was brought by African...

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Criminology (1880-1940)

Cuban scientists in the early 1900s published books on how to use hair to distinguish the degree of racial mixing because determining skin color could indicate degrees of criminality. Writings in Mexico averred that men with thick lips were likely to be rapists while men with thin lips had a propensity for murder. Brazilian law enforcement made permanent records for any woman wandering the streets because she was assumed to be either a thief or a prostitute. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, scientists throughout much of the Western world believed that physical and...

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Cuban Medicine and Biotechnology (1881+)

Working fourteen hour days for the equivalent of about twenty USD a month, Cuban scientists are producing a diverse array of genetically engineered drugs, vaccines, and agricultural products that are becoming increasingly popular in international markets. Since the early 1980s, when Cuba sent scientists to Helsinki to acquire the knowledge and equipment to found its own biotechnology industry focused on the new wonder drug interferon, the major thrust of all Cuban science research and development (and funding for science) has been towards this one field. Cuba's perpetual shortages of...

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Darwin and Latin America (1831-1900)

In 1835, after nearly four years of botanical, ethnological, paleontological, zoological, and geological observation throughout South America, a little-known twenty-six year old British naturalist named Charles Darwin began to explore and collect samples from the Galapagos Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Ecuador (see source 'Map of tortoise distribution'). He found it interesting that the species of these isles were similar to those of the continent, yet the biota of each island were unique in their details. Odd species such as the flightless cormorant and giant tortoises, as in...

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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-...

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Eugenics (1900-1960)

Race, like gender or class, is a socially contingent construct that means different things to different societies at different times. Yet in the early part of the twentieth century, countries throughout the world turned to science in order to rationalize and legitimize their particular understanding of ethnic and racial difference. Eugenics, the science of using heredity to improve racial characteristics, became prevalent in many of the most scientifically advanced countries, including the U.S., Britain, and France in the early twentieth century. The term was coined by Sir Francis Galton...

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Healers & Indigenous Medicine (2000 BCE+)

Picture this: you live in a rural area of Ecuador and you have come down with a significant illness, developing a large rash on your lower leg and a fever. Your first trip is to the local curandero, a professional herbalist. After you relate your symptoms and a history of your illness, you are sent away until the next day while the healer sleeps and dreams about the exact combination of herbs that will cure your ailment. Although the curandero has treated many of your afflictions in the past, this time his herbal concoction proves to be of no use, and the healer refers you to the nearest...

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Humboldt and Latin America (1799-1804)

With every foot of available space in his dugout canoe filled with caged exotic birds, botanical specimens, and monkeys (often left to roam about at will), Alexander von Humboldt made his way up Venezuela's Orinoco River in 1800 (see the source 'Map of Casiquiare Canal'). Despite the chaos of rapids, mosquitoes, jaguars, and alligators, Humboldt rarely failed to make and record measurements of barometric pressure, the magnetic field, and the air and water temperature with his many state-of-the-art apparata. All the while, he was mapping the river system, collecting rocks and fossils, and...

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Inca Weaving (2000 BCE+)

The year is 1450 CE. A messenger chewing coca leaves for energy is hurrying down a well-paved road in the Andes, delivering tribute and records from a distant corner of the Incan Empire to officials at the capital. Both the tribute and records are made of woven cloth. The tribute--a symbol of a provincial potentate's fealty to the emperor--consists of several intricate textiles that represent the cosmology of the Incas and the central role of the emperor with geometric patterns, colors, and animal symbols. Some of these cloths will adorn civil and military elites, others may be burnt as...

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Mesoamerican Math and Calendars (300-1600)

For those of us raised in the scientific traditions of Europe, mathematics may seem to be the epitome of rationality, the intellectual opposite to religion and spirituality. Yet for many Mesoamerican groups, computation, arithmetic and accurate astronomical measurement were practiced as part of the religion because time itself was the omnipresent manifestation of the divine. To solve the mathematical problems that made time comprehensible within the Mayan cosmology was not only a pursuit of knowledge, but a pursuit of wisdom and cosmic truth.

The mathematics of the Mayan world...

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Museums and Collections (1500-2000)

Museums hold a special place in the world of science as sites that prioritize both research and public education. Of course (and increasingly so in recent years), museums are also meant to entertain the general public. Yet the average museum-goer rarely ponders the multiple roles that these institutions have played in generating wealth, promulgating nationalism, and furthering science on the whole. Likewise, concerns about why and how a science museum is funded and the consequent effects on what kind of knowledge it creates and presents are not often at the forefront of one's mind when...

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