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Humboldt image

Cross-section of the volcano Chimborazo, Alexander von Humboldt, ‘Geographie des Plantes Equinoxiales’

Alexander Von Humboldt’s travels with Aimé Bonpland through Spanish America remain one of the most fascinating scientific events of the nineteenth century. Traversing, from 1799 to 1804, a continent fuelled by the same political turmoil that would lead to the wars of independence, Von Humbolt found in America a place to test many of his scientific theories: not only those pertaining to the taxonomical classification of the continent’s fauna and flora, but also those related to a varied set of topics such as animal electricity, the nature of volcanic eruptions, the fertilizing properties of guano and the measurement of Earth’s magnetic field. The discoveries of Von Humboldt, trained in natural history, would mark a seminal event in the transatlantic history between Europe and America, and would help reinvent the image of America as the place of nature. Among their many accomplishments, Von Humboldt and Bonpland famously climbed the Chimborazo, then said to be the tallest mountain in the world. After his return to Europe in 1804, Von Humboldt would famously record the eventualities and observations of the whole trip within his book Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, during the Years 1799–1804. The above image traces a cross-section of the volcano, as well as the geography of plants around the Chimborazo. It depicts the scientific methods used on Von Humboldt’s journey through Spanish America. His fascinating journey has turned him into a favourite character in the works of many Latin American novelists including Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez and Cesar Aira.

 Text: Carlos Fonseca

Cross section of the volcano Chimborazo
Alexander von Humboldt
In ‘Geographie des Plantes Equinoxiales’, published in his volume Essai sur la Geographie des Plantes (A. von Humboldt & A. Bonpland, Paris, 1805)