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Humboldt’s Gifts and a Bountiful Harvest from the Tropical Lowlands of Western South America

Colin McEwan, Dumbarton Oaks

As a natural scientist and talented polymath, Alexander von Humboldt's acute field observations and astute recording were instrumental in forging a new spirit of interdisciplinary enquiry that embraced both the botany and cultural history of the "New World." His celebrated journey in the early 1800s through Mexico, the Caribbean, and northwestern South America bequeathed a rich pictorial legacy published as Vues des Cordillères—a kind of "PowerPoint" presentation of its day. One image of a large balsa sailing raft moored at Babahoyo on the banks of the River Daule in Ecuador was sketched by Humboldt and later painted by Marchais. This scene captures in rich detail a vessel laden with a bountiful harvest of tropical produce traded downstream from the upper reaches of the Guayas Basin. It offers a vivid snapshot of the intersection between emergent imperial economic interests and regional Pre-Columbian networks of exchange on the cusp of momentous change as they fell within the reach of an increasingly global economy. While the adoption of many of the principal native American domesticates ranging from corn, tobacco, avocados, and chocolate to tomatoes and potatoes is well known, this paper reveals another hidden layer of the botany of empire.


Colin McEwan is Director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. He specializes in the art and archaeology of the Pre-Columbian Americas and has carried out fieldwork in diverse settings ranging from the Peruvian Highlands, Upper Amazon, and coastal Ecuador to Patagonia. From 1979 to 1991 he directed the Agua Blanca Archaeological Project focused on a major Manteño settlement in the Machalilla National Park, coastal Ecuador. He was formerly Head of the Americas Section at the British Museum, London where he authored or co-edited exhibition publications including Ancient Mexico in the British Museum (1994); Patagonia: Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth (1997); Pre-Columbian Gold: Technology, Style and Iconography (2000); Unknown Amazon: Culture in Nature in Ancient Brazil (2001); Turquoise Mosaics from Mexico (2006); El Caribe Pre-Colombino (2008); Ancient American Art in Detail (2009); and Moctezuma: Aztec Ruler (2009). He is particularly interested in reconstructing and interpreting the roles that objects play in prehistoric cultural landscapes.

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