Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

BRASILIAE. Indigenous Knowledge in the Making of Science: Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648).

Investigating the intercultural connections that shaped practices of knowledge production in colonial Dutch Brazil.

2018  -   2022
Mariana De Campos Francozo
ERC Starting Grant ERC Starting Grant

One book, multiple histories

The BRASILIAE project is an interdisciplinary study of the role of indigenous knowledge in the making of science. We investigate how indigenous knowledge was appropriated and transformed into European science by focusing on ethnobotany, ethnozoology, and indigenous material culture. Situated at the intersection of history and anthropology, its central research objective is to understand the transmission and transformation of information, skills, and practices of South American indigenous peoples into a body of knowledge that later came to be assimilated as part of a distinctively Western scholarly canon.

Our project takes the book Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (HNB), originally published in 1648 (Piso and Marcgraf 1648), as its central focus. The HNB is one of the most comprehensive products of the encounter between early modern European scholarship and South American indigenous knowledge. In an encyclopaedic format, it brings together textual and visual information about the natural world, linguistics, and geography of colonial Brazil as understood and experienced by Luso-Brazilians, coastal Tupi indigenous populations, and enslaved Africans. Its method of construction embodies the intercultural connections that shaped practices of knowledge production in colonial settings across the globe.

Marcrave’s herbarium (p. 50), Mireia Alcantara Rodriguez showing the specimen of Crescentia cujete L. Andel (Botanical Museum of the university of Copenhagen, Denmark; July 2014). Photograph: Tinde Van Andel.

Material & Methods

The BRASILIAE team investigates the making of the HNB in historical perspective, exploring the material legacies of the intercultural and interdisciplinary context in which the HNB came into existence. While in Brazil, Piso and Marcgraf compiled a great volume of notes, records, drawings, and sketches of flora, fauna and local people, that would later be partially used to compose the book. A significant amount of these associated materials has survived in different European institutions, such as the National Museum of Denmark, the Natural History Museum in Denmark, and the Jagiellonian Library in Krakow, Poland. Likewise, European ethnographic museums hold thousands of indigenous objects related to knowledge-making practices. We seek to understand how such objects played a part in the transmission, from Colonial Brazil to Europe, of native knowledge regarding plants and animals.

Tinde van Andel, Isabela Pombo Geertsma and Mireia Alcantara Rodriguez collecting plants at the medicinal plant market of Ver-o-Peso (Belém, Pará, Brazil; August 2018). Photograph: Christiaan van der Hoeven.


Researcher M. Alcantara-Rodriguez and Professor T. van Andel

This research focuses on plant knowledge retentions and transformations in Brazil, from an ethnobotanical, historical and linguistic perspective. To this aim, we 1) identify the plant species described and depicted in the HNB, and the several flora paintings in the natural history images produced by Marcgraf, Eckhout, and others; 2) analyse how these plants are used, named and seen in present-day Brazil in contrast to the knowledge reported in 1648 by Marcgraf and Piso.

This diachronic analysis will allow us to understand which plants were considered important for European scholars in the seventeenth century as well as raise awareness to the non-European contributors to the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae. Finally, this project will shed light on the transmission of knowledge that has been preserved over time.


Researcher Dr Felipe Vander Velden

This subproject focuses on the zoological knowledge contained in the HNB and associated materials, and interrogates indigenous perceptions of human-animal interaction from an anthropological-historical perspective. It investigates the trajectory of introduced animals in Lowland South America, with special attention to the ways in which indigenous peoples in Northeastern Brazil have come to know and eventually incorporate these beings into their worldviews and practices. This scenario illuminates yet another unexplored facet of the colonial Atlantic world: if there was an intense traffic of knowledge and specimens from America to Europe, there was also an opposite flow which brought animals and the "technological packages" from Europe to the New World. This transit of animals had an enormous impact on the history of Brazil, including a significant relevance among native indigenous peoples.

Material Knowledges

Researcher Dr L.M. Cascon

This research investigates how Brazilian ethnographic artifacts now housed in European museums and collections simultaneously express aspects related to the historical context of Dutch and European colonialism in Brazil as well as regarding indigenous agency. By conducting a study of artifacts produced by indigenous groups of the Tupi linguistic stock (Tronco Tupi) and dialoguing with historical and ethnographical sources, the study seeks to understand how these objects played a part in the transmission, from Colonial Brazil to Europe, of Tupi Indigenous Knowledge regarding plants and animals.

Itineraries of Indigenous Knowledge

Researcher Dr M. De Campos Francozo

This project explores the itineraries of indigenous knowledge in the early modern world by looking at the biography of the HNB and its associated materials. It examines the agents, mechanisms and geographical itineraries through which indigenous knowledge was transmitted and collected as well as the processes of editing, illustrating, printing, distributing, reading, and collecting the book as a material object, taking inspiration from recent works in the field of book history. This subproject further broadens the geographical scope of the project by comparing the results to existing literature on the indigenous presence and role in the making of science and historiography in colonial Latin America.

Detail from map Brasilia qua parte paret Belgis, 1647.

African knowledge and agency

Researcher Carolina Monteiro

Despite its prevalent description of Brazilian natural history through the lens of indigenous knowledge, the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648) is also filled with valuable information regarding the knowledge introduced by the thousands of people enslaved in different parts of the African continent and deported to Brazil before and during the period of Dutch occupation. In order to shed light on the different modes of African resistance and their fundamental contribution to the social construction of Dutch Brazil, this investigation proposes the study of enslaved Africans (of ample backgrounds and origins) as agents and beholders of knowledge, instead of mere economic contributors to European nations. In an interdisciplinary approach conveying elements from the fields of history, anthropology and art history under the lens of postcolonial theories, the research is based on the analysis of seventeenth-century primary and secondary sources, such as the HNB, as well as the study of correlated objects and artworks.

Want to know more? Feel free to contact us!

Alternatively, here is a list of the conferences where you can find us:

Françozo M. (2018), "Venenum, un Monde Empoisonné, Musée des Confluences". In: Museum Worlds. Advances in Research 6(1), 2018, pp.158-159. [Exhibition Review].

Vander Velden, F. (2019), "A mulher Tapuya e seu cão – Notas sobre as relações entre indígenas e cachorros no Brasil Holandês", Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Images, mémoires et sons.

Alcantara-Rodriguez, M., Françozo, M. & van Andel, T. (2019). "Plant Knowledge in the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648): Retentions of Seventeenth-Century Plant Use in Brazil", Economic Botany 73(3).

M. Alcantara-Rodriguez, I.P. Geertsma, M. Françozo, and T. van Andel. (2020). 'Marcgrave and Piso's plants for sale: the presence of plant species and names from the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648) in contemporary Brazilian markets'. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 259.

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