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Reading the book of Genesis in the New World: Jose de Acosta and Bernabe Cobo on the origins of the American population.

UPON his return to Spain from Peru, the Jesuit missionary Jose de Acosta published his acclaimed Historia natural y moral de las Indias (1590). The book, a reworking and expansion of a previous Latin work he had written in Peru, De Natura Novis Orbis (1588), quickly became one of the most influential sources of information regarding the nature and cultures of the New World, being translated into all major European languages and, ironically, back into Latin (O'Gorman 245-47). In his book, Acosta took up one of the most vexing problems posed by the American continent, namely, the origins of its native inhabitants. Since the early sixteenth century, Spanish and European intellectuals alike had proposed a number of different theories for the presence of human beings on a continent unknown to the Ancients and, more disturbingly, not referred to in the Bible. Peoples as disparate as the lost tribes of Israel, the ancient inhabitants of Atlantis, or even pre-Roman Iberians had been proposed as the original settlers of the New World. (1) Despite their variety, all these hypotheses shared a common concern to include the American peoples within the master narrative of European, and especially Biblical, chronology (Browne 10-12). Acosta's solution to this conundrum was not based on interpretations of Ancient texts, or on far-fetched etymologies such as those linking the Biblical kingdom of Ophir to Peru. Instead, Acosta proposed a reasonable, if highly speculative, hypothesis: that the peopling of America must have been the result of a migration from Asia, through either a land bridge or by a short navigation. Although influential, Acosta's theory did not go unchallenged in the seventeenth century, as Hugo Grotius's attack on the land-bridge theory, or Isaac La Peyrere's pre-Adamite hypothesis, confirm. (2) Acosta's speculations faced some skepticism even among some of his own confreres, such as the Chilean Jesuit Diego de Rosales, who was more partial to Oviedo's hypothesis of an early Iberian population of the continent (1: 12-17). But while Rosales merely selected an alternative explanation, the Spanish Jesuit working in Peru, Bernabe Cobo carefully examined Acosta's theory and line of reasoning in his Historia del Nuevo Mundo (ca. 1653), only to find it wanting. According to Cobo, although Acosta's hypothesis gave a plausible explanation for the presence of America's native inhabitants, it did not provide a satisfactory account for the equally problematic presence of an American fauna so different from that of the Old World (2: 37). Instead, as we shall see, Cobo adapted for his own hypothesis an idea that was the object of mockery and derision for Acosta.

Cobo's criticism of Acosta's theory is revealing of one of the most remarkable aspects of Jesuit natural histories written during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: its diversity of methods, topics, and underlying assumptions. This variety has led some scholars to describe Jesuit natural history "as a game to be played or to be watched and admired, but the outcome of which is irrelevant" (Ashworth 156). Such a judgment is possible only if we consider science as an end in itself, and its history as the history of a progressive accumulation of knowledge about the world. However, a different conclusion may be reached if we consider the Jesuit approach to natural history not as an end, but as means for different purposes, in particular for spiritual purposes. As Ignatius Loyola himself had noted, the study of philosophy and the research of the natural world were not only useful to help students better understand theology; if the study of philosophy and the natural sciences was done piously and "to the greater glory of God," then it could be considered equivalent to prayer and Divine contemplation (361). (3) Keeping this spiritual goal in mind, Cobo's theoretical differences with Acosta can provide an illustrative example of some of the reasons that account for the variety in method and content of Jesuit texts that dealt with American nature. In the following pages, I will closely examine the arguments both Jose de Acosta and Bernabe Cobo advanced to explain the original population of the New World. I will pay special attention to the underlying theological assumptions in each of these arguments, since the difference between Acosta's theological rationalism and Cobo's voluntaristic emphasis will reveal how a difference on theological presuppositions could produce divergent explanations for the same natural phenomenon in spite of the use of the same basic Aristotelian framework.


Modern commentators have hailed Acosta's solution to the enigma of the peopling of America as a remarkable achievement, given its undeniable similarity with our own solution to this problem (Beals 182-83; Jarcho 430-38; Ford 19-33; Shepherd 97, 232). Unlike modern scientists, however, for Acosta the origin of the American peoples was more a theological challenge than an anthropological mystery, since their mere presence was potentially unsettling for the belief in the Book of Genesis as a truthful account of the creation and early history of the human race (Historia Natural 97, 282). Acosta began his discussion of the problem of the population of America by referring to Augustine's denial of the existence of inhabited lands outside the known Greco-Roman world, since such an idea could not be reconciled with Scriptural teachings. Augustine's argument was that, since the Book of Genesis clearly states that all human beings descend from Adam, any hypothetical population on the other side of the world must have crossed from Europe, Asia, or Africa. Given that human beings lacked the capability of crossing "the boundless tracts of ocean," Augustine concluded that any mass of land that lay west of the known world must be uninhabited (16,9).

The Spanish experience in America, with their daily contact with indigenous populations, made it all the more urgent to answer the basic question posed by the argument of the African Bishop: how to explain the existence of native inhabitants of America without contradicting the Scriptures? The fundamental unity of the human species could not be doubted; all men and women must have descended from Adam. If it was impossible for the ancients to cross from the Old World to the New, then America must have been empty, as Augustine had argued. But since the Spaniards had found a flourishing native population upon their arrival, then the only logical conclusions were that either the American peoples were the product of a parallel act of creation, or that they simply were a different kind of humanity, one not included in Sacred History (Pagden 154). The first corollary was inadmissible from a Christian standpoint. The second one, however, was at the time one of the reasons given in Peru for what was perceived as the impossibility of achieving a true evangelization of the native Andean population, a problem with which Acosta had wrestled in his missionary treatise, De Procuranda Indorum Salute (1588). (4)

Acosta took issue precisely with this problem. Although in De Procuranda he had adduced every possible piece of evidence from the Scriptures and the Church Fathers in favor of an all-inclusive divine plan of salvation and conducted a detailed analysis of the negative conditions in which evangelization had taken place in Peru as an explanation for its failure, in the Historia Acosta set out to create a plausible historical narrative that would include the Amerindians within God's plan. In order to do this, Augustine's underlying question needed to be met with rational and historical arguments that could link the Old and New World populations. "Certainly, we are not to think that there was a second Ark of Noah in which men could have arrived to the Indies, much less that some angel brought the first settlers carrying them by their hair, as they did with the prophet Habakkuk," Acosta noted rather humorously (Historia Natural 97). (5) In fact, he was not to discuss what God could or could not do. Any solution had to be "in accord to reason, and to the order and style of human affairs" (Historia Natural 97). Given this requirement, Acosta saw only very few possible answers: that the first inhabitants had arrived by sea, either in an organized transatlantic expedition, as the Spaniards had done, or accidentally, as the result of a sudden tempest; or that the first humans had arrived long ago by foot.

Acosta concurred with Augustine in that the idea of an organized maritime voyage from the Old World could be safely discarded, since the technological advances that allowed transoceanic navigation, such as the compass, were too recent to have been used by the original settlers. No evidence of its use could be found in any of the ancient writers, so it was implausible to think that any ancient nation could have accomplished such a feat (Historia Natural 99-100). An accidental landing due to a maritime storm that had pushed the helpless sailors away from African or European coasts, on the other hand, could hold as a working hypothesis, especially since modern examples of such wrecks could be documented (Historia Natural 104-6). However, on close examination this theory raised more questions than answers. An accidental arrival, Acosta observed, only explained the human population of the continent, but not the presence of animals on it. Since the universal deluge had to have flooded the whole world, including America, all its native animals should have perished, and the continent must had been repopulated by the offspring of those individuals saved by Noah. They must have followed, therefore, the same route used by the first men and women who settled on the continent. Acosta conceded that domestic animals could have been on board on a hypothetical wrecked ship, but it was unconceivable that the sailors could have willingly embarked such noxious animals as foxes, mountain lions or even skunks. They were, nonetheless, fairly abundant in America. Any theory that explained the arrival of the first human beings onto the continent had to explain, at the same time, its fauna (Historia Natural 107-8).

Acosta solved this difficulty by postulating the existence of a land bridge between Asia and America, located somewhere near the north or the south end of the continent. Both animals and humans could have then populated the empty lands simply by crossing it. Although Acosta admitted to the speculative nature of his solution, since nobody had by then explored either tip of America, he accepted it as an adequate explanation, at least until experience showed otherwise. In the meantime, Acosta remarked, there was no logical or empirical objection to his conclusion that the Old and the New World formed a continuous mass of land, or at least they were close enough to each other to allow human and animal migrations (Historia Natural 109). His theory satisfactorily explained the origins of the American peoples within the received frame of Sacred History. After the flood, humans and animals had gradually repopulated the whole world from a common center of distribution by ground travel, "some settling in the lands they found, others searching for new places, [so] in time they filled the land of the Indies with so many nations and tongues" (Historia Natural 110). (6)

At the same time, the land-bridge hypothesis allowed Acosta to give a historical, if conjectural, ground to the claim he had argued theologically in De Procuranda, that the apparent differences in the intellectual capabilities among different peoples were due to historical reasons, and not to any constitutional deficiency on the part of the American natives (De Procuranda 91). As human populations moved away from the original cultural centers--which Acosta located in the Mediterranean shores for historical and biblical reasons -, they gradually lost the main features that in the European view defined civilized cultures, such as the use of alphabetic writing, urban life, political organization, and the existence of organized religious cults. In De Procuranda, Acosta had in fact used these features to postulate a descendent classification in which every non-European society could be fit (46-8). In the first tier he located those nations that fulfilled all of the requisites described above, but had a non-alphabetic writing, such as the Chinese or the Japanese. In the intermediate level, Acosta placed those peoples that presented a political organization, but lacked writing. According to him, the Aztec and Inca empires belonged to this category. (7) Finally, the lowest tier was reserved for those groups with no discernible political organization, which usually led a nomadic way of life. From the idea of the Asian origins of the native peoples, Acosta could explain the different degrees of civilization he had identified in his missionary treatise simply as a consequence of the successive migratory waves from an original point. His three-tiered classification could indeed be now read spatially, as an Eastward move away from the limits of the Judeo-Christian ancient world. Chinese and Japanese cultures, being closer to the original center, retained more of those features than Amerindian civilizations did. The latter apparent incapacity to comprehend the truth of the Christian message was, for Acosta, a consequence of human history, a function of what he perceived as a cultural involution, resulting from a long migration and the Amerindians subsequent isolation from the Mediterranean centers of culture.


Acosta's explanation for the peopling of the continent was not original. He was simply repeating the argument advanced in 1574 by Juan Lopez de Velasco in his Geografia y descripcion universal de las Indias (Rubies 224-25). But Acosta's originality lays not so much in the thesis he advocated as on its integration within a coherent theological frame that viewed both nature and human activity as following a divinely pre-ordained plan, a plan that would eventually lead to the dissemination of the divine word to every corner of the Earth. In line with the pedagogical tendencies of the Society of Jesus, Acosta saw historical and philosophical research as preparatory steps leading towards a proper knowledge of God (Historia Natural 147). He considered that, unlike theologians, who were more concerned with the knowledge of God itself, and therefore could not be blamed if they occasionally erred in some fine point of natural sciences, the natural philosopher must transcend the mere knowledge of physical phenomena to discover God's imprint on His creation. For inasmuch as philosophers were looking for the causes that originate phenomena, they must "raise themselves with their minds to discover the sovereign author," the origin of everything created (Historia Natural 61). (8)

This attitude is amply visible in his discussion of the Peruvian silver mines. Reflecting on the fact that God had accumulated so many mineral riches in America, where its native inhabitants did not base their economies in gold and silver as the Europeans did, Acosta concluded that the extraordinary riches found in Mexico, and above all in Peru, were necessary for the preaching of the Gospels among the Amerindians. To explain his point, Acosta likened America to an ugly girl. Just as her father would endow her with a large dowry in order to attract an otherwise elusive groom for his daughter, so God had endowed America with unheard-of quantities of precious metals, "so men would look for these lands, and would settle there, communicating in the process their religion and the cult of the true God to those who did not know Him" (Historia Natural 212). (9)

However, if all these riches were to play their part as the bite that would attract the settlers and priests needed for the diffusion of the Christian message in America, a secure maritime way between Europe and the New World was needed. As Acosta had observed while discussing the first hypothesis for the origins of the Amerindians, this could not be done until the discovery of the properties of magnetized iron and its use in the compass. Despite his claims at the beginning of the Historia natural y moral to have written a natural history that also strove to find the causes of the phenomena it described, Acosta refused to advance any single hypothesis to explain the properties of the loadstone or the perplexing fact that a magnetized needle would constantly point North: "Others may dispute and inquire into the causes of this marvel, and they may adduce as much as they want I don't care what sympathies; contemplating these marvels I find more pleasure in praising the Power and Providence of the Supreme Maker, and I enjoy myself pondering His marvelous works" (Historia Natural 101). (10) Instead, Acosta preferred to present the most practical application of magnetism, the compass, as an instrument of the divine plan for salvation: "Being ordered by the Heavens that the Indies must be discovered, since they had been occult for so long, and since this [Atlantic] route had to be frequently traveled in order to bring so many souls to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, a reliable guide was also given by the Heavens to those who had to make this travel, and that was the compass and the virtue of the loadstone" (Historia Natural 102). (11) Technological advances, such as the compass, were not the product of human agency, but happened because God had ordained it so (Historia Natural 106). They were part of God's plan for human salvation. (12)

Thus, in Acosta's view, America had been discovered not when the European technological advances had made transoceanic voyages possible, but when God had deemed appropriate for the New World inhabitants to be evangelized. This could not happen until certain conditions that would facilitate evangelization were met. The final four books of the Historia natural y moral, devoted as they were to a description of the religious, political, and military history of the Aztecs and the Incas, spelled out this conditions. In fact, their purpose was to show "how the Divine Providence ordained that the light of His word found a way into the farthest corners of the Earth" (Historia Natural 297). (13) Acosta drew a parallel between the moment in which Christ preached and the historical circumstances in which the Spanish conquistadors began settling in America. Just as Christ had lived and preached when Rome was at its apogee, so the Spaniards had entered America at the time when both the Aztec and Inca empires' rule spanned through a large portion of the continent. "And truly [this fact was allowed] by the Lord's supreme providence, because the fact that there was only one head and one worldly lord in the land (as the Church doctors observe) made easier the communication of the Gospels to so many peoples and nations" (Historia Natural 479-80). (14) All the conditions the Spaniards found in Mesoamerica and in the Andes, from the political organization to the use of Nahua and Quechua as the respective official languages, or even the succession war in the Inca Empire at the moment of Pizarro's arrival, were construed by Acosta, inasmuch as they facilitated the conquest and evangelization of the American peoples, as sure indicators that God had willed the arrival of the Spaniards as part of his plan for human salvation (Historia Natural 480-82). Without a doubt, this plan included the native peoples of the New World.

The theological underpinnings for this view of nature and human history come from the Nominalist school of thought usually referred to as rationalistic, and its emphasis on the Potentia Dei ordinata over the Potentia Dei absoluta, or God's ordained and absolute powers. (15) That is to say, rationalists put the stress on God's perfect intellect over his omnipotence. Although God created the world out of nothing by his absolute power, its functioning and regularity is guaranteed by his ordained power, by the laws the Divine Intelligence instituted at the moment of creation. To be sure, God's will is free, and given his omnipotence he could directly intervene on the world at any given time, breaking the natural laws (provided that he does not incur in contradiction), but he has freely chosen not to do so. on the contrary, voluntaristic theologians emphasized natural laws not as the staple of God's rational sovereignty over creation, but as dependant on his command, that is to say, on his will (Klaaren 37). The world, then, would be contingent upon God's will, who could intervene to change the course set by the natural laws at any time by virtue of his potentia absoluta, as is testified by the miracles recorded in Sacred History.

It must be noticed that the difference between rationalists and voluntarists is not a definite one, but rather one of emphasis. Everybody agreed that God possessed both an absolute and an ordained power. Furthermore, since God's acts ad extra are indivisible, he does not act sometimes in an ordinate and sometimes in an inordinate way. As the fifteenth-century theologian Gabriel Biel affirmed, the distinction between the ordinate and the absolute power of God is not a real distinction, but a distinctio rationis, that is, a purely intellectual construction made for the sake of definition. God has chosen a definite order for the universe, and to this we call his potentia ordinata. But that doesn't mean that God could not have chosen to do things differently, because he can do everything that does not imply contradiction; this is what we call his potentia absoluta (oberman 37).

It is in this sense that we can say that historical and natural research amounted for Acosta to the articulation of a rationalistic natural theology. Acosta insisted that we cannot fully understand the natural world by means of reason alone, since its final cause--that is to say, God's motives and reasons to make the world the way it is--was inaccessible to human beings. We must content ourselves with knowing nature's operations and effects, which can be interpreted only if our reason is guided by our faith (Historia Natural 151). To be sure, this is not to say that human beings cannot discern the way nature--or human history--operates. But the reasons that motivated God to, for instance, delay the preaching of the Gospels to the American natives for almost fifteen hundred years will always remain an inscrutable mystery (De Procuranda 57).

In this sense, it is telling that whenever Acosta identified either a natural phenomenon such as the magnetized needle pointing north, or a historical event, such as the Spanish discovery and subsequent colonization of America, as part of God's unfolding plan for human salvation, he consistently referred not to God's will, but to God's Providence as its final cause. This attribution can only be done in hindsight from the vantage point of the revealed Christian doctrine, that is to say, only if one subjects one's reason to one's faith. More importantly here, in Acosta's usage Providence does not seem to imply a direct intervention by God in human or natural affairs. As its etymology implies (Latin providentia, from providere, "to foresee"), Providence refers to an act of God derived from his perfect knowledge of the past, present, and future. God's Providence manifests itself in contingent events, but it is prior to the event itself. It does not signal the irruption of the Divine Will in the contingent world, but rather the unfolding of what God has planned from the beginning, according to the rules set by God at the moment of creation by virtue of his omniscience. or, as Acosta put it, what God "ordained after careful consideration" (Historia Natural 106). It is in this context that we must understand Acosta's rejection for any preternatural explanation of the origins of the New World's peoples and animals. The basic requisite he demanded from any such theory, that it should conform not to what God could do, but rather to the way things are in nature, limits the exploration to the way God had ordained the world. If Acosta can in fact see evidence of God's Providence in the natural world and in the unfolding of human history, it is precisely because both domains follow regular, immutable laws. As Acosta summarized it while paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 1, 9: "what it was, that is, and what will be is what it is" (Historia Natural 419). (16)


The difference of emphasis between rationalism and voluntarism can account for the objections presented by Bernabe Cobo to Acosta's land-bridge theory as a valid explanation for the animal population of America. Cobo's Historia del Nuevo Mundo was the product of over forty years of research both in Peru and in Mexico. (17) His goal was to correct what he considered the numerous errors and misconceptions that plagued the current accounts on the history and nature of the continent (1: 3). The work was finished circa 1653, but it remained in manuscript until Marcos Jimenez de la Espada published it in four volumes between 1890 and 1893. (18) Unfortunately, only the first half of the Historia del Nuevo Mundo is extant. It comprises Cobo's discussion of American nature and his account of Inca religion, politics and customs. The missing parts would have included the history of the Spanish conquest and settlement of Mexico and Peru (Cobo 1: 6-7).

Cobo's natural history follows the same basic scheme Acosta had used in his Historia natural y moral, discussing first the general cosmography of America, to then organize his material on natural history according to the traditional arrangement that went from the simplest things--the minerals--to the more complex organisms. Furthermore, as in Acosta's case, what remains of Cobo's book ends with a moral history, a discussion of the political, religious, and military history of the Andean peoples. However, here is where their similarities end. Unlike Acosta, who clearly distinguished his discussion of American nature from his study of indigenous cultures, Cobo seems to have considered native civilizations as an integral part of American nature. Civil and political history proper would only begin with the Spanish conquest and subsequent colonization of the continent. (19) While Acosta had explicitly refused to discuss Spanish actions in America, for Cobo one of the main goals of his historiographical enterprise was to set the record of Spanish American history straight, since all previous histories were flawed in this respect, either because they were written by European historians, with virtually no access to local records and archives in America, or because they were based on letters and reports written by colonial officers who had a vested interest in depicting a certain captain or governor in a positive light (1: 3).

Cobo's Historia, then, was considerably different both in goals and scope from Acosta's book. Although Cobo did accept from time to time some of Acosta's explanation--for example, his argument that the abundance of precious metals in the New World responded to a godly design to attract European settlers (Cobo 1: 136-37)--, a rationalist reading of American nature and history that revealed God's unfolding plan cannot be deduced from Cobo's extant text. To be sure, Acosta's and Cobo's treatment of American nature do have several points in common, but a thorough comparison between both texts is not feasible given the fact that little over half of Cobo's Historia has survived up to our time. (20) In any case, Cobo did not follow Acosta's lead slavishly in his treatment of American nature. As his main stated goal was to correct the errors and fallacies in which previous writers had incurred, Cobo's reading of Acosta was done critically. This is plainly evident in his discussion of the land-bridge theory as a probable explanation for the animal population of the American continent.

Cobo began his discussion by affirming the literal truth of the Book of Genesis; from where it became clear to him that the original settlers of the continent had come from the old World. Furthermore, Cobo ruled out any preternatural explanation for the origins of the Amerindians: "The second presupposition is that we should not invoke miracles if we can do without them, because we are not investigating here what God could have done to populate the whole world, but what is in accord with the style of human affairs" (2: 32). (21) This appears to be an almost verbatim quotation from Acosta's Historia, albeit with one caveat: the cautionary statement about miracles would mark one of the fundamental discrepancies between Cobo and Acosta, as we shall see. After dismissing the most implausible theories, as Acosta had done, such as the navigational hypothesis, or those that identified the original settlers of America with the lost tribes of Israel, the mythic inhabitants of the Atlantis, or Phoenician sailors, Cobo stated that the only probable answer was, precisely, the land-bridge theory enunciated by Juan Lopez de Velasco and popularized by Jose de Acosta (2: 32-33). Unlike Acosta, however, Cobo did not postulate a land passage between Asia and America as the result of a logical need, nor he had any doubts whether it could be in the southern or northern tip of the continent, for during his stay in Mexico he had befriended Jose de Moura Lobo, a Portuguese explorer and "cosmographer," as he called himself, who assured Cobo of the existence of such a passage between Tartary and the northern part of America (1: 41-43). "And thus I believe that from that last region of Asia where are China, Tartary, and the Archipielago of Saint Lazarus, in which the Philippines are located, came to this land its first settlers" (2: 35). (22) A brief comparison of the physical and moral features of the Amerindians with those of the Asian peoples further convinced Cobo of the truth of this theory (2: 35).

But if the land-bridge theory proved valid to explain the human population of the continent, it could not possibly explain the presence of a native fauna in America. In fact, for Cobo, unlike for Acosta, there was no logical link between the two problems, since the enigma of the animal population was not limited only to the American continent; any explanation must also account for the presence of a distinctive native fauna in the different regions of the world, be it Old or New (Cobo 2: 36). It was precisely this condition what made Cobo doubt the validity of Acosta's account for the distribution of the animal species after the flood. For both Jesuits, the problem was not the presence of characteristic animal species in America, but rather the complete absence of American animals in the old World. Take the case of the most conspicuous and economically significant Andean mammal, the llama. After the flood, the llamas had to have reached the Andes traveling from mount Ararat. If such a long migration had actually happened, how to account for the fact that there were no remaining llamas at all in the Old World? How to explain that no trace of them whatsoever could be found in Asia? (Acosta, Historia Natural 282; Cobo 2: 40). Acosta had postulated that, following their natural instinct and guided by the Divine Providence, animals probably migrated from mount Ararat to the different regions of the world, settling wherever they found conditions suitable to their respective natures; populations living outside these favored areas probably simply died out, leaving no extant individuals behind to attest their migrations (Historia Natural 283).

Although the animal capacity for migration as a logical explanation for the post-deluge distribution of the world fauna was widely accepted in the seventeenth century (Browne 10-13), in Cobo's view this explanation had two fundamental problems. First, if some climates and lands were more suitable to the nature of certain animal species and inconvenient for others, how could one then presuppose a migration from a common center? That would be tantamount to affirm that all animal species must have crossed through lands inadequate to their survival before reaching their final destinations. Since there is no climate or land suitable to all animal species, such a migration would have been impossible (Cobo 2: 39). The second problem was the modern behavior of animals. Even if we admit that the animals, driven by their natural instinct, set out from the Ark to search for other lands, "how, being still the same, have they become tired so many centuries ago and now are not as fond of walking as they used to be, but each species, being content with the province and region where they are born and raised, do not dare to trespass its limits?" (2: 39). (23) In short, for Cobo the proposed migration of the American fauna through the land bridge was "an intolerable absurdity," since it implied a contradiction between the observed facts and a hypothetical, and highly dubious, previous state of affairs.

Given this well-reasoned criticism, Cobo's solution was rather startling: "once the flood was over, God was careful to command the same Angels to return [the animals] to the land and places from where they had brought them [to Noah's Ark]" (2: 38). (24) This explanation is all the more surprising if one remembers that just a few pages earlier Cobo had stated, following Acosta, that one should not recur to miracles in order to explain natural phenomena if one can do without them. In fact, Cobo seems to have been well aware of the tensions raised by his solution to the animal population of America in the face of his own pre-requisite. He claimed that he was not unnecessarily multiplying miracles, since the carrying of the animals by the angels from Noah's Ark to America was nothing but the continuation of a much earlier miracle: it was not only the logical conclusion of the miracle by which, according to the Church Doctors, all animal species reached the Ark on time before the flooding; it was, moreover, the same mechanism used by God to present all the animals before Adam so he could name them (2: 38-39). In any case, he claimed, if we are not to resort to a miracle, "I do not know what solution could be given to the many difficulties that this solution [Acosta's theory] presents" (2: 40).

Thus, Cobo's reading of Acosta's land-bridge theory led him to reject it as a plausible explanation for the animal population of America. Although Cobo quoted Acosta's ruling out of preternatural explanations in favor of rational theories, since it was preferable to discuss not what God could do, but rather the way things are, he had nonetheless allowed himself some room to invoke a miracle, a loophole he had to use to address the problems raised by Acosta's speculations. That this loophole was there at all can be explained by the fact that the pre-requisites set out by Cobo came not only from Acosta's Historia natural y moral, but also from a rather disparate source, the Commentariorum et Disputationum in Genesim published in 1589 by the Jesuit theologian Benedictus Pererius. In this work, one of the most successful and influential expositions of the Genesis during the seventeenth century (Williams 22-24, 33), Pererius laid down the basic rules needed for a proper interpretation of Genesis. (25) The first rule was that Moses' narrative of the creation of the world is plainly historical, not allegorical or figurative (Pererius 1: 7). (26) Pererius' second rule was that one must not adduce unnecessary miracles, nor invoke the absolute power of God in exposing and explaining the Book of Genesis (1: 8). (27) His other two rules, that one should not treat separately related problems, and that the Scriptural truth could not contradict what is evident in nature, also seem to have been operative in Cobo's critical reading of Acosta (1: 8).

Pererius influence in the Historia del Nuevo Mundo was not limited to the interpretative rules by which Cobo sought to validate any explanation of the original settlement of America. Cobo in fact began his description of the American natural world with an exposition of the first six days of the creation as recounted by the Bible that in several points followed Pererius' Commentariorum, such as in his discussion of the creation of the angels, or his final acceptance of the Summer equinox as the time of the year in which God created the world, even in spite of his own well-founded reservations. (28) Cobo justified this rather odd choice of topic by claiming that it would cast light on the numerous problems and difficulties that would arise later on in his natural history (1: 13).

Some modern commentators have made too much of this declaration, claiming that Cobo's natural history depended on the hermeneutics developed by the hexaemeral tradition (Millones-Figueroa 85-87). Cobo's account of the first six days, however, can also be read as a voluntaristic effort to emphasize at the outset of his work God's creative and contingent action in the world as the proper framework for a discussion of American nature. Cobo's account follows the traditional interpretation that the order in which God created the world mirrors the hierarchical order of nature (Cobo 1: 14; Millones-Figueroa 86-87). Nature was, therefore, pre-ordained in a particular way by God from the very beginning, following the blueprint that was already designed by the Divine Intelligence. Despite this recognition, Cobo did not put the emphasis in God's potentia ordinata. Instead, Cobo seems to have been more interested in stressing the creative action of the divinity, that is to say, God's direct intervention on the world. For Cobo, the order of the world depended not as much on God's intelligence, which had laid down once and for all the laws of nature, as on God's will and command: "His Highness gave this wonderful work or universe to light, a work that was already drawn in His Divine Mind, when and how it pleased His infinite goodness" (Cobo 1: 13). (29) As Cobo clearly stated at the end of the chapters devoted to creation, they were written to remind us that the universe exists solely by the will of God, who created everything that is out of sheer nothingness: "This is the beginning and origin of the universe, which was created out of nothing by the Almighty, as it is contained in the first book of Genesis, and the way in which all of its parts were created and perfected" (1: 20).

Cobo did not deny God's ordained power; for him the world does have a definite order that can be rationally understood by human beings. But the voluntaristic approach meant that there was no necessity on natural laws, since ultimately the workings of nature were contingent on God's will (Hooykaas 32-34). This fact marks an important difference between Cobo's understanding of the natural world and that of Acosta. Take the case of the movement of heavens and of celestial bodies. For Acosta, in good rationalistic fashion, there was no need to presuppose a particular category of angels charged by God with the task of moving the stars across the skies. In fact, Acosta denied that the stars moved through the heavens at all. Rather, as anyone could see, it was the heavens that moved, and the stars, being fixed on the sky, moved along with them (Historia Natural 63-64). Cobo also acknowledged the fact that the stars were immobile, and that their movement was only apparent, due to the rotation of the heavens in which they were located. But for him each of the ten heavens was "assisted and moved by an Angel, which were called by the ancient philosopher Intelligences" (1: 27). This explanation made no sense to Acosta, who considered that such a dependence on an external will would preclude any rational explanation of the movement of the stars and planets. For Acosta, the regularity of nature forbids us to use "whatever imagination we may fancy" as a causal explanation (Historia Natural 63). (30) For Cobo, on the other hand, only the agency of angels, the conveyors of God's will, could explain the regularity observed in the movements of heavens.

Acosta's rationalism prevented him to recur to preternatural explanations, such as the angels carrying the first settlers by their hairs from the old World to America, as he mockingly remarked. For him, in fact, only through a rational consideration of the way nature and human history operate can we appreciate the unfolding of God's plan for human salvation, a plan whose different stages were pre-ordained by the Divine Providence as is revealed in the contingencies of natural and human history. Bernabe Cobo's voluntarism, on the other hand, not only emphasized the constant action of God's will in history. It also allowed him to consider as a valid explanation for the animal population of the continent after the deluge precisely that kind of hypothesis that Acosta presented merely as an example of irrational absurdity. For Cobo, the complexity of the creation and the challenges presented by nature to human reason were such that to rule out divine intervention was tantamount to lose oneself in a dark maze of intricate and false reasons. These problems, Cobo asserted, "cannot be morally solved without special divine help" (2: 38). (31)

By way of conclusion, let us briefly consider once again the modern reception of Acosta's and Cobo's theories about the population of America. Although in terms of traditional narratives of the history of science Cobo, the voluntarist, was ultimately wrong, and Acosta, the theological rationalist, most closely approximated modern scientific ideas, such judgments blind us to the motivations and perceived utility that the arguments advanced by each Jesuit actually possessed. As I have tried to show through the analysis of both writers' efforts to solve the problem presented by the original population of the American continent, the variety of contents, topics, methods, and the divergent explanations offered by seventeenth-century Jesuit natural historians, instead of springing from some supposedly Baroque penchant for playfulness, reflected some fundamental differences between the members of the order. These differences went beyond mere theological subtleties to include such basic issues as the role of God in the workings of nature and in the unfolding of human history. Far from being a monolithic entity, Jesuit early modern natural history was as varied as the political, theological, and missionary approaches adopted by the order's individual members.


Acosta, Jose de. Historia natural y moral de las Indias. 1590. Ed. Jose Alcina Franch. Madrid: Dastin, 2002.

--. De Procuranda Indorum Salute. Trans. Francisco Mateos. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Misiones, 1952.

Aristotle. The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941.

Ashworth Jr., William. "Catholicism and Early Modern Science." God and Nature. Historical Essays on the Encounter Between Christianity and Science. Ed. David Lindberg and Ronald Numbers. Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1986. 136-66.

Augustine. The City of God Against the Pagans. Trans. Eva Matthews Sanford and William McAllen Green. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1965.

Beals, Ralph. "Father Acosta on the First Peopling of the New World." American Antiquity 23.2 (1957): 182-83.

Browne, Janet. The Secular Ark. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1983.

Clark, David. "Voluntarism and Rationalism in the Ethics of Ockham." Franciscan Studies 31 (1971): 72-87.

Cobo, Bernabe. Obras del Padre Bernabe Cobo. ca. 1653. Ed. Francisco Mateos. 2 vols. Madrid: Atlas, 1956.

Davies, Edward B. "Rationalism, Voluntarism and Seventeenth-Century Science." Facets of Faith and Science. Ed. Jiste M. van der Meer. Vol. 3. Lanham, New York, and London: University Press of America, 1996. 135-54.

Duran, Diego. Historia de las Indias de la Nueva Espana e islas de Tierra Firme. Ed. Angel M. Garibay. Mexico: Porrua, 1984.

Fernandez de Oviedo, Gonzalo. Historia general y natural de las Indias. Madrid: BAE 117, 1959.

Ford, Thayne. "Stranger in a Foreign Land: Jose de Acosta's Scientific Realizations in Sixteenth-Century Peru." Sixteenth Century Journal 29.1 (1988): 19-33.

Funkenstein, Amos. Theology and the Scientific Imagination. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1986.

Grafton, Anthony. Defenders of the Text. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1991.

Hooykaas, Reijier. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Co., 1972.

Jarcho, Saul. "Origin of the American Indians as Suggested by Fray Joseph de Acosta (1589)." Isis 50.4 (1959): 430-38.

Klaaren, Eugene. Religious Origins of Modern Science. Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerd mans Publishing Co., 1977.

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Lopetegui, Leon. El padre Jose de Acosta y las misiones. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1942.

Loyola, Ignatius. The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Trans. George Ganss. Saint Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1970.

MacCormack, Sabine. On the Wings of Time. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton UP, 2007.

--. Religion in the Andes. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991.

Mateos, Francisco. "El padre Bernabe Cobo (1657-1957)." Razon y Fe 156 (1957): 439-52.

Millones-Figueroa, Luis. "La historia natural del padre Bernabe Cobo. Algunas claves para su lectura." Colonial Latin American Review 12.1 (2003): 85-97.

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Osler, Margaret J. "Eternal Truths and the Laws of Nature: The Theological Foundations of Descartes' Philosophy of Nature." Journal of the History of Ideas 46.3 (1985): 349-62.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man. Cambridge, London, and New York: Cambridge UP, 1982.

Pererius, Benedictus. Commentariorum et Disputationum in Genesim, Tomi Quatuor. Cologne: Antonium Hierat, 1601.

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Rubies, Joan-Pau. "Hugo Grotius's Dissertation on the Origin of the American Peoples and the Use of Comparative Methods." Journal of the History of Ideas 52.2 (1991): 221-44.

Shepherd, Gregory. An Exposition of Jose de Acosta 's Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias (1590). Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter: The Edwin Meller Press, 2002.

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by Andres I. Prieto

University of Colorado at Boulder


(1) In his 1535 Historia general y natural de las Indias, Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo affirmed that America was in fact an old possession of a mythical Spanish king, Hespero. Its native inhabitants had, therefore, come from the Iberian Peninsula (BAE 117: 17-20). In the late 1570s, the Dominican Friar Diego Duran asserted that, given the strong resemblance between Jewish and Aztec rites, the latter must be the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel (2: 14). Even as late as 1604, Justus Lipsius still favored Atlantis as the Amerindians' place of origin (4/2: 949-50).

(2) On Hugo Grotius's De origine Gentium Americanarum dissertatio (1642), see Joan-Pau Rubies; on Isaac La Peyrere, see Grafton 204-13.

(3) "For their devoting themselves to learning, which they acquire with a pure intention of serving God and which in a certain way requires the whole man, will be not less but rather more pleasing to God our Lord [than mortifications and prayers] during this time of study" (Loyola 340).

(4) For the common opinion among Peruvian clergymen and missionaries about the purported absence of grace as the cause of Andean relapses on their traditional beliefs in spite of decades of Christian indoctrination, see Acosta, De Procuranda 54-57, 73-84.

(5) "Cierto no es de pensar que hubo otra Arca de Noe en que aportasen hombres a Indias, ni mucho menos que algun Angel trajese colgados por el cabello, como al profeta Abacuch, a los primeros pobladores de este mundo. Porque no se trata que es lo que pudo hacer Dios, sino que es conforme a razon y al orden y estilo de las cosas humanas." All translations are mine.

(6) "[S]e ha de decir que pasaron no tanto navegando por mar como caminando por tierra. Y ese camino lo hicieron muy sin pensar, mudando sitios y tierras su poco a poco, y unos poblando las ya halladas, otros buscando otras de Nuevo, vinieron por discurso de tiempo a henchir las tierras de Indias de tantas naciones de gentes y lenguas."

(7) In the Historia natural y moral, Acosta further explained the differences between the Chinese and Japanese civilizations, on the one hand, and the Aztecs and Incas, on the other, by comparing their writing systems. Although Asian and Mesoamerican systems did not amount to true writing, according to the Jesuit, since they were not meant to represent speech, but rather concepts or things, he considered the Chinese and Japanese systems as slightly superior, because in some cases their characters could adopt phonetic values, 378-81.

(8) Acosta's conception of the search for the causes of change and coming to be as the natural philosopher's proper subject comes, of course, from Aristotle's Physics. For the relevant passage, see 240. Edmundo o'Gorman's study on the Historia natural is still a useful introduction to Acosta's Aristotelianism (165-236). See also Shepherd 62-75.

(9) "para con esto convidar a los hombres a buscar aquellas tierras y tenellas, y de camino comunicar su religion y culto del verdadero Dios a los que no le conocian." Acosta advanced the same opinion in De Procuranda, when discussing the morality of the native forced labor in the mines, concluding that it was licit to demand this labor from the natives, since profit was the only way to retain a sizable Spanish population in America, an essential condition for evangelization (288-89).

(10) "Disputen otros e inquieran la causa de esta maravilla, y afirmen cuanto quisieren no se que simpatia; a mi mas gusto me da mirando estas grandezas, alabar aquel poder y providencia del Sumo Hacedor, y gozarme de considerar sus obras maravillosas."

(11) "Siendo determinacion del cielo que se descubriesen las naciones de Indias, que tanto tiempo estuvieron encubiertas, habiendose de frecuentar esta carrera para que tantas almas viniesen en conocimiento de Jesucristo y alcanzasen su eterna salud, proveyose tambien del cielo de guia segura para los que andan este camino, y fue la guia el aguja de marear y la virtud de la piedra iman."

(12) "Las mas de las yerbas saludables, las mas de las piedras, las plantas, los metales, las perlas, el oro, el iman, el ambar, el diamante y las demas cosas semejantes, asi como sus propiedades y provechos, cierto mas se han venido a saber por casuales acontecimientos, que no por arte e industrias de hombres, para que se vea que el loor y gloria de tales maravillas se debe a la providencia del Creador y no al ingenio de los hombres. Porque lo que a nuestro parecer sucede acaso, eso mismo lo ordena Dios muy sobre pensado."

(13) "Que cierto es cosa digna de gran consideracion ver en que modo ordeno la Divina Providencia que la luz de su palabra hallase entrada en los ultimos terminos de la tierra."

(14) "Y verdaderamente fue la suma providencia del Senor; porque el haber en el orbe una cabeza y un senor temporal (como notan los sagrados doctores), hizo que el Evangelio se pudiese comunicar con facilidad a tantas gentes y naciones."

(15) The literature on Nominalist rationalism and voluntarism is extensive. At a minimum, see oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology; Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination; Clark, "Voluntarism and Rationalism in the Ethics of ockham." For the influence of this distinction in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century science, see Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science; Davies, "Rationalism, Voluntarism and Seventeenth-Century Science"; and Osler, "Eternal Truths and the Laws of Nature: The Theological Foundations of Descartes' Philosophy of Nature."

(16) "[L]o que fue, eso es, y lo que sera, es lo que fue."

(17) Bernabe Cobo was born in 1580 in Jaen, Spain, and traveled to America at around the age of sixteen. In Peru, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1599, receiving the priestly orders in 1609. After that date, he occupied different teaching positions in the schools and colleges maintained by the Jesuits in Peru and Mexico. The closest thing to a biography of Bernabe Cobo yet written is Francisco Mateos' "El padre Bernabe Cobo (1657-1957)."

(18) For the bibliographic history of the Historia del Nuevo Mundo, see Francisco Mateos, "Personalidad y escritos del P. Bernabe Cobo," in Obras, 1: xxxix-xli.

(19) Cobo divided his book in three sections: "La primera trata de la naturaleza y cualidades deste Nuevo Mundo, con todas las cosas que de suyo cria y produce y hallaron en el nuestros espanoles, la cual contiene catorce libros [...] Los cuatro libros ultimos contienen lo que a la naturaleza, condicion y costumbres de los indios" (1: 5-6). The second part dealt with the discovery of America and the conquest and settlement of Peru, with a focus on "como se ha plantado y establecido en estas Indias la republica de los espanoles y de los indios, despues de que estos se hicieron cristianos, y el modo de gobierno que se guarda en ellas" (1: 6). The third and final part comprised the conquest of Mexico, and a description of North America and of the Philippines and the Molucca Islands (1: 6-7).

(20) For a comparison between Acosta's Historia and Cobo's natural history, see MacCormack, On the Wings of Time, 161-63.

(21) "El segundo presupuesto sea que no nos habemos de acoger a Milagros donde se puedan excusar, pues no investigamos agora lo que Dios pudo hacer para poblar todo el mundo, sino lo que es mas conforme al curso de las cosas humanas."

(22) "[S]iento que de aquella region de Asia en que cae la China, la Tartaria y el archipielago de San Lazaro, en que se incluyen las Filipinas, pasaron a esta tierra sus primeros pobladores."

(23) " Como, no habiendo mudado de condicion, se han cansado tantos siglos ha y no son tan andariegos ahora como antes, sino que, contentos los de cada genero con la provincia y comarca en que nacen y se crian, no traspasan los limites della y entran y discurren por otras?"

(24) "[T]uvo tambien cuidado, en acabando de pasar el Diluvio, de mandar a los mismos Angeles los volviesen a las tierras y lugares de donde los habian traido."

(25) Despite their common rejection of preternatural explanations, Pererius was not a source for Acosta. Acosta articulated this pre-requisite first in his De Natura Novis Orbis, whose manuscript he sent to Rome for preliminary approval on 1583. In fact, Pererius was one of the two reviewers that granted approval for the book to be printed (Lopetegui 220-223).

(26) "Doctrina Mosis, quae de creatione mundi tradintur, est plane historica."

(27) "In haec Mosis doctrina tractanda & explicanda, non est sine causa recurrendum ad miracula, & ad potentiam Dei absolutam."

(28) As Pererius, Cobo considered that the angels had been created at the same time than the heavens (Cobo 1: 14; Pererius 1: 85). Despite noting that, given the different seasons in both hemispheres, no conclusive argument could be advanced for choosing one equinox over the other, Cobo finally conceded to Pererius opinion that gave March as the probable month in which the world was created since Christ had died and resurrected on that month (Cobo 1: 19; Pererius 1: 55).

(29) "Saco el Altisimo Dios a luz esta obra tan maravillosa del universo, que en su divina mente el Eterno tenia dibujada, cuando y como plugo a su infinita bondad."

(30) "como haya licencia de fingir lo que se nos antoje." For the fundamental role ascribed by Acosta to rationality in the investigation of the natural world, see Historia natural, 75-76; Sabine MacCormack offers a fine discussion of Acosta's analysis of human cognitive faculties, Religion in the Andes, 277-78.

(31) "se meten y enredan en un laberinto tan intrincado y ciego de nuevas tinieblas y dificultades, que por mas que se desvelan y fatigan en atinar a salir del, al cabo se ven forzados a conceder efectos que van muy fuera del estilo y curso que comunmente llevan las cosas, y que moralmente no se pueden salvar sin el especial auxilio divino."
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