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A close-up view of a map, showing the intricate detail of the illustration

New Library Acquisition: "Azara’s Voyages dans l'Amérique méridionale" (1809)

Posted On May 31, 2023 | 11:41 am | by briggsm01 | Permalink

The Pre-Columbian Studies (PCS) program at Dumbarton Oaks has long focused on the Indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica and the central Andes, reflecting their traditional valuation as the loci of New World civilization. As Robert Bliss recognized in the 1940s and 1950s, there is great value in studying other areas, such as the region previously known as the 'Intermediate Area' which included Central America, Colombia, and Ecuador. Such regions were both deeply connected to wider historical processes across the Americas and followed their own trajectories of cultural transformation. Such a perspective was foregrounded in the April PCS roundtable that considered new research in the eastern Andes and Amazonia that is beginning to reshape our understanding of the continent’s deep history.

This orientation toward lowland South America provides the context for the Library’s recent acquisition of a beautifully illustrated set of volumes by Félix de Azara. A Spanish military official and naturalist, Azara spent the 1780s and 1790s demarcating the contested border between Spanish and Portuguese claims in the Río de la Plata basin (modern-day Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay). The five-volume Voyages dans l'Amérique méridionale documents the peoples and fauna of the region and includes over two dozen fold-out maps and engravings. Published in Paris in 1809, this French first edition was translated from an earlier (but no longer extant) Spanish edition. Among its many admirers were naturalists Alcide D’Orbigny and Charles Darwin.  

While Voyages dans l'Amérique méridionale is best known for its careful descriptions and plates of the birds and animals of the Río de la Plata basin (aimed at rebutting the French naturalist the Comte de Buffon), Azara also provided significant descriptions of the region’s Indigenous groups (notably the Charrúa, the Minuane, and the Guaraní). Written during a period of considerable societal flux following the expulsion of the Jesuit order and the abandonment of the famous mission system, such descriptions provide vital insights for archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists connecting the deep histories of the South American lowlands with the ethnographic present. More broadly, Azara’s work fits within the Rare Book Collection’s constellation of other eighteenth-century travelers—Antonio de Ulloa (1748), Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón (1798–1802), José Celestino Mutis (1783–1816), Amédée François Frézier (1717), Francisco Javier Eder (1791), and Alexander von Humboldt (1810)—all of whom created a rich archive of South America’s geography, biodiversity, ethnology, and archaeology.

An overhead shot of the map described in the article, with the title and label in French.