King's College London
Exhibitions & Conferences
Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Alexander von Humboldt

Engraving reproducing a fragment of a legal document in Aztec hieroglyphics, which depicts seven figures around a diagram.'A lawsuit in hieroglyphics'.The German explorer, geographer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) devoted five years of his life to a meticulous scientific study of Latin America.

Arriving in 1799 on an expedition facilitated by the Spanish government, Humboldt and his fellow geographer, Frenchman Aimé Bonpland, carried out extensive researches on the region's geology, climate, topography and plant and animal life, as well as on the lives of its human inhabitants, past and present. They explored Venezuelan caverns and Ecuadorian peaks, tracked the course of the Orinoco River, studied several hitherto unknown indigenous tribes and were the first to record the existence of the electric eel.

On his return to Europe in 1804, Humboldt set about writing up the results of his researches, a task which remained unfinished at his death, so vast was his collection of raw data. As a scientist, Humboldt believed that the universe could only be understood by a holistic and exhaustive observation of natural phenomena; by systematically recording data, using the most accurate instruments available, the scientist could seek to understand how different factors, such as climate and geology, combined to produce the conditions in which, for example, particular species of plants could flourish.

Among the many scientific advances for which Humboldt's Latin American expedition was responsible were his discovery that the earth's magnetic field decreased in intensity with increased distance from the poles and his realisation of the fertilising properties of guano (whose subsequent commercial exploitation was largely due to Humboldt‟s writings).

Humboldt also studied the archaeological remains of Central America‟s ancient civilisations, whose interest for the contemporary observer he described as largely 'psychological'. He believed that there was a close connexion between a people's natural surroundings and its artistic achievements and that this connexion was closest, the more isolated that community was from outside influences. In true Wordsworthian fashion, he noted that the 'only American tribes, among whom we find remarkable monuments, are the inhabitants of mountains.'

The plate on display shows a legal document in Aztec hieroglyphics.

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