Anthropological Quarterly 76.3 (2003) 545-548
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Imagine what would happen to Western epistemologies and worldviews (e.g. science, various religious traditions, the arts) if a NASA probe revealed complex organisms including human-like "creatures" on a distant planet. Such a discovery (what more likely would be a whole series of discoveries) would usher in a period of profound re-thinking of all that is currently privileged as truth. Everything from the Bible to Evolution to Van Gogh's Starry Night would need re-visiting.
Columbus' fateful "discovery" in 1492 set in motion a comparable revolution, which was still going strong in 1590, owing to the near-continuous revelation of yet new lands, animals, plants, and what appeared to be human beings. For two thousand years prior to 1492 many of the great thinkers of Western civilization had theorized about what if anything might exist on the other side of the world. Some argued that nothing would be found; others anticipated human-like creatures who were the opposite of Christian rational man (e.g. cannibals, amazons, idolaters).
In his Natural and Moral History of the Indies, a Jesuit intellectual (not your "average" Jesuit missionary), José de Acosta acknowledged some of the more striking discoveries in the New World (people, places and things) and set out to make sense of them, vis a vis the Bible and works by Plato, Pliny, Augustine, and [End Page 545] other respected Western philosophers. To read the Natural and Moral History of the Indies is to engage the mind of a European intellectual—the kind of elite who defined in significant ways the colonial period in America, both as lived experience and in terms of the texts that we now rely on to constitute the past.
This English-language edition of Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies has an introduction and commentary by Walter Mignolo; sandwiched between is Acosta's text, which includes various front matter (e.g. letters of approval from representatives of the Church and Crown; dedication; prologue to the reader) and seven "Books." The first four Books (roughly the first half of the entire text) deal with "natural history," which is to say the climate, topography, minerals, and flora and fauna of the New World. Acosta's discussion is fascinating in part for his reliance on reason (inference from observation) and scholasticism, which privileged first and final causes (God and God's plan). Thus one reads: "The reason why there is so much mineral wealth in the Indies (especially in the West Indies of Peru), is, as I have said, the will of the Creator, who distributed the gifts as he pleased" (p. 165).
In the last three Books Acosta discusses "morale history," meaning the behaviors and beliefs of Amerindians and how, prior to European contact, the exercise of free will coupled with Satanic deception lead to the development of complex yet thoroughly idolatrous nations (e.g. Mexica and Inca). Like so many of the "first" New World Jesuits (prior to say, 1650), Acosta tended to blame Satan and his Indian "familiars" (Indian shamans and priests), rather than Indians in general for their idolatry and "barbaric customs" (e.g. human sacrifice). The presupposition that Indians were fully human and had enjoyed some measure of God's grace prior to 1492 enabled Acosta to see and acknowledge dimensions of Indian life and history that were not otherwise apparent to fellow Europeans. Thus Acosta noted how the Nahua and Inca, despite a lack of writing, had highly effective and complex systems of communication, record keeping (e.g. quipis), and recollection.
Acosta's history evidences many moments of cultural relativism. Still Acosta was less an ethnographer and more an "arm-chair" anthropologist, relying on other New World authors and missionaries for much of his knowledge of native peoples and cultures. Acosta further anticipated late 19th-century anthropology by comparing and contrasting customs and institutions in not only Europe and America, but between America and Asia, particularly China...