Doctoral Dissertation Research: Volcanoes and Lakes in the Science and Culture of the Spanish Empire

Project: Research project

Project Details


General Audience Summary

This award is a doctoral dissertation improvement grant. It supports a study of the production, circulation, and use of knowledge about volcanoes and lakes in Guatemala and Mexico during the early modern period (sixteenth through eighteenth centuries). The focus of the study is two indigenous groups that inhabited both volcano and lake regions: the Nahua in Central Mexico and the Kaqchikel Maya in highland Guatemala. The investigator will use ethno-historical methods to evaluate archival documents, travel accounts, natural historical treatises, and Spanish chronicles, as well as visual materials including indigenous codices, cartographies and maps, and engravings. An analysis of these materials will facilitate a reconstruction of the variety and circulation of interpretations regarding volcanoes and lakes, and thereby situate nascent volcanology and the methods of empirical observation among indigenous groups and Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century and beyond. The results of this project will be shared at conferences on environmental history and published in professional journals. Transcriptions and translations of certain documents will also be published. More broadly, the results of this project may provide useful information for contemporary volcanology, a 'slow science,' meaning one that draws from extended periods of observations and historical information to understand the present. The investigator plans to engage with volcanologists in Mexico and Guatemala to help strengthen exchanges between volcanologists and historians. Capturing the efficacy of indigenous knowledge may also contribute to indigenous revitalization efforts.

Technical Summary

This project is significant for several reasons. It focuses on volcanoes and lakes in Mexico and Guatemala, which represent an understudied area in environmental history and history of science/STS studies. It grapples with the problem of historical erasure of indigenous epistemologies in the early modern period by emphasizing indigenous knowledge and cosmology in the study of lakes and volcanoes. In doing so, it contributes to STS debates about tensions between 'western' science and localized indigenous knowledge. This project also evaluates the implications of hybridity and translation in cultural exchanges to push beyond the indigenous/western dichotomy in scientific development. The project will also serve to increase our understanding of how people engaged with volcanic and lacustrine terrain and lived in potentially unstable landscapes.

Effective start/end date7/1/173/31/19


  • National Science Foundation: $11,957.00


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