Universiteit Leiden

nl en

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
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.

In the video below, filmed for the American Friends of the Mauritshuis, PhD candidate Carolina Monteiro and curator Lea van der Vinde talk about some of the artworks from the museum’s collection in light of their colonial legacy. Carolina often collaborates with the institution as her research intersects with this colonial legacy of the Mauritshuis and its ties to slavery and Dutch Brazil.

Due to the selected cookie settings, we cannot show this video here.

Watch the video on the original website or






Alcantara-Rodríguez M., Francozo M. & Andel T.R. van (2021), “Looking into the flora of Dutch Brazil: botanical identifications of seventeenth century plant illustrations in the Libri Picturati”, Scientific Reports 11, article nr 19736.

Geertsma, I.P., Françozo, M., van Andel, T. and Alcantara-Rodriguez, M. (2021) "What’s in a name? Revisiting medicinal and religious plants at an Amazonian market". Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 17, 9. 

Françozo, M. and Vander Velden, F. (2020). Special issue of the journal INDIANA, 37 (2). 
Françozo, M. and Vander Velden, F. (2020). "
Never quite abandoned, never sufficiently studied: Brazilian indigenous objects in European museums". INDIANA 37 (2): 9-24.

Matthews Cascon, L. and Fernandes Caromano, C. (2020). "Swaying on feather roses and Imperial crests: Brazilian feather-decorated hammocks, nation-building, and indigenous agency." INDIANA 37 (2): 71-95.

Vander Velden, F. (2020). "Exotic materials, native artefacts.Exploring objects in the encounter between Amerindian Peoples and Old World animals."  INDIANA 37 (2): 97-120.

Vander Velden, F. (2020). "O Que Anunciam os Chifres dos Bois? Artefatos multiespecíficos na expansão da pecuária no Brasil." ANTHROPOLÓGICAS Ano 24, 31(1): 67-104.

Monteiro, C. and Odegard, E. (2020). “Slavery at the Court of the ‘Humanist Prince’: Reexamining Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen and his role in slavery, slave trade, and slave smuggling in Dutch Brazil”. Journal of Early American History 10 (1): 3-32.

Françozo, M. and Berger, M. (2020). "Entrevista com Joe Horse Capture". Espaço Ameríndio 14(1): 29-48. [Interview]

Vander Velden, F. (2020). "A Tapuya "Equestrian Nation"? Horses and Native Peoples in the Backlands of Colonial Brazil." In: Bibby, M. A. and Scott, B.G. (eds). The Materiality of the Horse. Budapest: Trivent, pp. 71-106. 

Françozo, M. and Stek, T. D. (2020) "Mater Amazonia: The Vatican Returns to the Tropics", Material Religion 16(3): 397-399. [Exhibition Review]  

Alcantara-Rodriguez, M., Geertsma, I.P., Françozo, M. and van Andel, T. (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.

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).

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.

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

Students' Theses

MA thesis by Berber van der Oord. “India, Japan, Mexico and Brazil have filled this Museum with their intriguing gifts... Brazilian objects in the collection of Athanasius Kircher (1602 - 1680)”, 2021. Open Access at Leiden Repository.

MA thesis by Colette Ward. “The Weltmuseum Wien’s Brazilian Collection: Exploring Exhibition Histories and Curatorial Practices”, 2021. Open access at Leiden Repository.

  • Video and audio tour point by C. Monteiro “Een Blik op Brazilië [First Glimpse of Dutch Brazil]” for the Mauritshuis Picture Gallery, Story: Johan Maurits. 2021.
  • Audio tour point by C. Monteiro “Appropriation of Cultures, and People” for the Mauritshuis Picture Gallery, Story: Johan Maurits. 2021.
  • M. Alcantara Rodriguez, guest lecturer MSc Ethnobotany, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, 2021.
  • MA thesis by Colette Ward. “The Weltmuseum Wien’s Brazilian Collection: Exploring Exhibition Histories and Curatorial Practices”, 2021. Open access at Leiden Repository.
  • Magazine article by M. Alcantara-Rodriguez “Geheimen van een rammelaar,” in Wonderkamer 1: Wetenschap & de Koloniën, Magazine voor Wetenschapsgeschiedenis, June 2020.
  • M. Alcantara Rodriguez, guest lecturer MSc Ethnobotany, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, 2020.
  • Participation in the Mauritshuis Museum exhibition Shifting Images: Johan Maurits, 2019. Label and catalogue texts by M. Françozo, M.Alcantara-Rodriguez, C. Monteiro and F. Vander Velden.
  • Leiden Archaeology Blog text by C. Monteiro: “Colonial legacies and art museums: Combining museum research and practice”, 2019.
  • ERC/FAPESP dissemination event in São Paulo, Brazil, May 2019.
  • Noite dos Pesquisadores in São Paulo, Brazil, May 2019.
  • M. Alcantara Rodriguez, guest lecturer MSc Ethnobotany, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, 2019.
  • Interview M. Françozo for NRC and National Geographic about the fire at Museu Nacional, 2018
  • PhD Debate and Text by M. Alcantara Rodriguez “How Much Nature Can Be Embedded in a Book?”, Leiden University, 2018
  • Discussion by M. Alcantara Rodriguez with Laura N.K. van Broekhoven (Director Pitt Rivers Museum, London) about her publication Calibrating Relevant at the Pitt Rivers Museum (eds Pellew & Goldman 2018), 2018
  • M. Alcantara Rodriguez, guest lecturer MSc Ethnobotany, Wageningen University & Research, Wageningen, 2018.
  • Interview M. Françozo for EURAXESS, 2018
  • Series of BRASILIAE public discussions with students and affiliated researchers, 2018:
    • Felipe Vander Velden: “Animais exóticos de origem europeia ou africana entre povos indígenas nas terras baixas da América do Sul”.
    • Carolina Monteiro: “Colonial representations of Brazil and their current display in Western museums: the Mauritshuis case and the Dutch gaze”.
    • Raphaela Nawa: “Protection of Local Communities’ Traditional Knowledge in Brazil”.
    • Isabela Pombo Geertsma: “Medicinal Plants Sold and Used in current Belém (Pará, Brazil) compared to the Historia Naturalis Brasiliae
This website uses cookies.  More information.