P R O L O G U E T O T H E R E A D E R
m a n y a u t h o r s h a v e w r i t t e n sundry books and reports in
which they disclose the new and strange things that have been discovered in
the New World and the West Indies and the deeds and adventures of the
Spaniards who conquered and settled those lands. But hitherto I have seen
no author who deals with the causes and reasons for those new things and
natural wonders, nor has any made a discourse and investigation of these
matters; nor have I encountered any book whose matter consists of the deeds
and history of those same ancient Indians and natural inhabitants of the New
World.∞
Indeed, both of these things are of no small di≈culty. The first,
because it deals with natural phenomena that fall outside the philosophy
1. A summary of Acosta’s precursors in New World literature provides a mark by which to measure his partic-
ular contribution among the ‘‘sundry books and reports.’’ By the publication date of Acosta’s Historia natural y
moral de las Indias, numerous scholars had taken pen to paper in a quest to define some aspect of the New
World experience for a European audience. The first writings came from early explorations in the Caribbean,
namely, the letters and journals of Christopher Columbus; the first study of the native peoples by Fray Ramón
Pané, An Account of the Antiquities of the Indians; and Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas’s famous polemic The
Destruction of the Indies. Then came the heroic tales of conquest on the mainlands of Mexico and Peru from the
perspective of conquerors like Hernán Cortés and foot soldiers like Bernal Díaz del Castillo and Francisco
Jérez. By the mid–sixteenth century, when abuse and disease threatened the native population, a group of
missionaries in New Spain created a corpus of ethnographic and linguistic studies that preserved histories of
native Mexican culture. The most famous of these early Indies ethnohistorians is the Franciscan friar Bernar-
dino de Sahagún, who, along with native elites, compiled an encyclopedic study of Aztec culture entitled The
General History of the Things of New Spain, also known as The Florentine Codex. In Peru during the same period
some of the most detailed reports of native history and customs, including Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa’s
Historia Indica and Juan de Betanzos’s Narrative of the Incas, were written at the behest of the Crown.
Scholars who have examined indigenous influence on the production of history in this era include, for the
Andes, Sabine MacCormack, Religion in the Andes: Vision and Imagination in Early Colonial Peru (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1991); and Frank Salomon, ‘‘Chronicles of the Impossible: Notes on Three
Peruvian Indigenous Historians,’’ in From Oral to Written Expression: Native Andean Chronicles of the Early
Colonial Period, edited by Rolena Adorno (Syracuse: Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public A√airs,
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