Interest in the natural world of the Americas began at the very moment when Europeans set foot on the continent. The natural abundance unfolding before their eyes held the promise of inexhaustible sources of capital, all of which would need to be documented. Francisco Hernández, Bernardino de Sahagún, José de Acosta, León Pinelo, and Bernabé Cobo are only a few of the names among an extensive number of chroniclers, explorers, and naturalists who dedicated themselves to investigate, categorize, and characterize the vegetable, animal, and mineral species of the New World between 1500 and 1700. Their written reports and artistically rendered illustrations of natural phenomena greatly broadened Spain’s appreciation of the potential wealth of the American colonies and motivated the Crown and its servants to invest more of its resources in the New World.

Thanks in no small part to the Enlightenment, which viewed scientific progress as a tool for the...

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