The Natural History of Colonial Science: Joseph-François Lafitau’s Discovery of Ginseng and Its Afterlives
- The William and Mary Quarterly
- Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
- Volume 73, Number 1, January 2016, 3rd series
- pp. 37-72
- Additional Information
The Jesuit Joseph-François Lafitau announced his 1716 discovery of ginseng outside Montreal as the product of his encounter with Mohawk women. While Lafitau’s efforts to foreground the participation of indigenous peoples have often been lauded, the manner in which he laid claim to the discovery was integral to the subsequent rise of an ecologically unsustainable and culturally disruptive trade in ginseng. When Parisian naturalists argued that he had found an unrelated plant, Lafitau produced a detailed examination of indigenous ecological and medical knowledge. His insistence on the existence of an Asian plant in North America emerged from his larger ambitions to demonstrate the Old World origins of indigenous peoples. While he succeeded in winning over his detractors, he disseminated a body of knowledge about indigenous plant collection that most actively interested merchants. These merchants translated Lafitau’s insights regarding indigenous cultures into a global trade that was economically profitable but locally devastating. The consequences of Lafitau’s discovery therefore suggest a need for both attention to the material impacts of intellectual endeavors and caution as today’s Native Americans are again being asked to collaborate with academics to better know and protect American environments.