- Imagining the Atacama Desert: A Five-Hundred-Year Journey of Discovery by Richard V. Francaviglia
Despite its well-known moniker as the driest place on earth, the Atacama has received surprisingly little attention from geographers or historians. In this comprehensive history of the exploration and imagining of the Atacama Desert, Richard Francaviglia makes a welcome and valiant attempt to rectify this situation. In a sprawling volume that moves between geographic description, historical narrative, cartographic analysis, travelogue and even poetic rumination, Francaviglia offers a synthesis of four sequential phases in the life of the Atacama from early Spanish colonialism to the present. [End Page 278] Generally accessible and engagingly written, and lavishly illustrated with 115 historical maps, photographs, and natural history illustrations, the book largely succeeds in its mission to reintroduce the Atacama and its representation to a contemporary audience.
Francaviglia frames his book as a phenomenological odyssey into the encounter with and discovery of the Atacama, both on personal and historical levels. He incorporates multiple perspectives, identified as "artistic expression, poetic interpretation, and scientific observation" (p. xv) in order to bridge the arbitrary divide between art and science. While the effect can be at times jarring – particularly during periodic asides to introduce a poem or to reflect upon his travels in the Atacama with his anthropologist son, Damien – the impact of these intrusions across the book is to remind the reader of the continuous pattern of redefinition of a landscape and, indeed, the subjectivity of such representations. As such, the concluding pages ruminate upon the concept not only of discovery but of rediscovery, which provides Francaviglia a lens with which to underscore the constructed – and historically contingent – nature of Atacama imagery.
In spite of the phenomenological approach, Francaviglia's book is organized according to a straightforward chronology. After an introductory description of the Atacama's geographical features, each of the four main body chapters concerns a specific era of Atacama imagery. The first, lasting from roughly 1530-1700, coincides with the onset of Spanish colonialism in which the region's relative lack of population limited its exploitation. European accounts from this period emphasize its empty spaces and the challenges of Atacama crossing, with periodic attention to Indigenous stone architecture. Francaviglia complements these accounts with observations drawn from contemporary archaeological studies that demonstrate the existence of sophisticated Indigenous populations already engaged in activities from mining to desert agriculture. The second period, beginning in 1700 and continuing through the mid-nineteenth century, coincided with imperial scientific mapping. Travelers' accounts and imperial reports, including those from such world-renowned figures as Charles Darwin and Rudolph Philippi, began to consider the Atacama within its scientifically defined desert aridness and to identify its uniquely rich mineral wealth. The third period, beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and continuing for about a hundred years, concerned the rise of nationalist cartographies – particularly in light of the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) fought between Chile and the allied forces of Peru and Bolivia, over control of the Atacama's rich nitrate fields. Redefined as a source of extractive wealth, the region also became implicated within global corporate mining efforts. Finally, Francaviglia touches upon the more recent past in which the Atacama's chief resource has begun to be linked to tourism celebrating both the desert's unique geology but also its character as "a repository for relics of the past, including ancient mummies and forlorn mining ghost towns" (p. xvi). This chapter largely operates as a contemporary travelogue interspersed with contextual material on postwar tourism, the Atacama's use as a disappearing grounds for victims of [End Page 279] the Pinochet dictatorship, and adventures in road mapping.
Besides providing a general overview of the history of encounter with the Atacama, Francaviglia's tome can also be seen as an vibrant engagement with the desert's cartography. From his early consideration of the geography of place names and travel routes, to the development of thematic cartography (especially of...