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Lost Knowledge Revealed in New World Symposium

Beyond the accounts of European explorers, scholars know very little about the pre-colonial Americas. Indigenous societies changed forever following European contact as a result of both cultural exchange and cultural destruction, leaving few records of pre-colonial medical practices and knowledge.

Last summer, five student researchers scoured the globe for this lost knowledge, studying the period when Europeans were first exposed to alternative visions of the natural world.  Directed by Assistant Professor of History Mackenzie Cooley, Thomas Anderson ’20, Kayla Self ’21, Antton De Arbeloa ’21, Elizabeth Atherton ’22, and Kate Biederman ’22 conducted extensive archival research.

Each student presented their projects at the New World Nature Symposium panel on Sept. 5. “I’ve been absolutely floored by the academic integrity of Hamilton students, but most of all, their creativity and their willingness to go to places that regular students would not be willing to venture,” said Cooley as she introduced the panelists. 

The students cultivated a variety of different skills integral to studying history. From the logistics of travel to digital humanities visualizations, they ventured to various archives in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. Their findings will be published in forthcoming book appendices, edited volumes, monographs, co-authored articles, and digital venues over the next several years.

Kate Biederman ’22 presented “Crossroad of animality and humanity: race in Early Modern European discourse.” Accessing a large database of European languages, she researched the history of the term “race.” She discovered that the term appearedn breeders’ documents regarding the sale of domesticated animals and that its earliest usage was during the late Medieval period. After tracing the transition of race from animal to human descriptors prior to the Atlantic Slave Trade, Biederman found that the usage of the term never entirely deviated from the animalistic.

Elizabeth Atherton ’22 carried out research from indigenous language sources at Beinecke Special Collections in Burke Library. Her project, Indigenous Difference: Race and Colonialism in the Lesser Antilles, which reframed the importance of agency of indigenous guides, such as La Malinche, an indigenous woman who translated for Hernán Cortés.

Atherton recorded and cataloged more than 900 images of flora and fauna to study how ecology transcended Eurocentric perceptions. She also wrote an appendix on “Malintzin and the Taxcalan Alliance” for the critical edition of the Historia de Tlaxcala by Diego Muñoz Camargo.

Antton De Arbeloa ’21 and Kayla Self ’21 both conducted research that contributed to the Relaciones Geográficas database, which explores a series of questionnaires King Philip II distributed to the Spanish colonies.

De Arbeloa’s project, “Diversity Lost: In the Relaciones Geográficas 1570-1590,” presented how the disappearance of medical knowledge, flora, fauna, and diverse cultures characterized Spanish colonization in the Americas. Through his archival research in Spain, he uncovered lost truths about what he called the “goldilocks zone” of history, which took place between the late 1570s and 1580s.

“I chose to coin this term to highlight the critical time span of the Relaciones Geográficas,” he said. “These questionnaires are precious documents, as a mass of indigenous elders could shed light on life prior to European colonization, complete with descriptions of local flora, fauna, and history.”

Self conducted research for her project, “Precedents of Island Imperialism: Nature, Sex, and Race in the Spanish Caribbean,” in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. She learned how the Spanish used the Relaciones Geográficas questionnaires to construct a playbook for gaining control over the Americas. Her research in Puerto Rico was interrupted by protests calling for the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló, angered by his disregard for the victims of Hurricane Maria. Self described what she had witnessed, connecting it back to the island’s history of imperialism.

“The island is still crippled in [Hurricane Maria’s] aftermath while facing new hurricane threats. While the location of the island once made Puerto Rico the key to the Caribbean, the same geography threatens inhabitants today,” said Self.  

Thomas Anderson ’20 presented his project, “Toxicology of Empire: Medicine, Poisons, and Colonial Power, 1650-1850.” He introduced his topic by describing the agonizing experience of a Caribbean native poisoned by manchineel sap as part of a French medical experiment. Through archival research in the Canary Islands and France, Anderson pioneered a new method of historical study by examining the relationship between the history of science and science today.

He found that French colonizers used these illicit experiments with deadly manchineel sap conducted on indigenous people, slaves, and animals in the name of “scientific exploration.” Anderson connected his findings in the Caribbean to his archival research in Paris to explore how knowledge of colonial medicine influenced ideas in Europe.

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