Columbus and Anthropology and the Unknown

By Paine, Robert | Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, March 1995 | Go to article overview

Columbus and Anthropology and the Unknown


Paine, Robert, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute


The paradox of knowing the unknown (Klein 1965; Macedo 1992) has probably engaged humanity at all times and in all places, if in different ways. It is also at the heart of the anthropological enterprise of figuring out how humanity looks at itself across - as we can say today, but there was a time when we could not - cultural differences. This article, germinated in the year of the Columbus quincentenary, attempts to debate what is, for me, the most intriguing question for anthropology coming out of the scholarly literature of that occasion, namely how, in the West, the unknown is apprehended, then and now: in the Age of Discovery and by anthropology, yesterday and today.

The known and the unknown at the time of Columbus

The 'unknown' shore that Columbus reached was not unknown to him: he 'knew' it before he left the European shore. Indeed, he 'knew' it better then than he did three months later when sailing along the coast of today's Cuba. So Columbus's voyage which 'discovered' America for us took him not to America, which was not imaginable for him, but to Cathay: it was a voyage of the mind whose bearings were read a priori.

One key to this is the notion of sacred cosmography. It is vividly illustrated in the mappae mundi of that time whose purpose 'was not to take a Euclidian snapshot of the size and the shape of the earth or its regions, but rather to convey a moral truth of sacred or political history' (Russell 1991: 18). Accordingly, Jerusalem is set at the centre of many of the maps as 'the moral and spiritual - the real - center of the world' (1991: 18). Paradise is in the East but 'uphill' at the top of the maps; the habitable world is divided into three continents (Europe, Asia and Africa) and peopled by the descendants of Noah's three sons; the ten tribes of Israel are found banished to the East, etc. (Flint 1992: 6 sqq.; see Genesis 2: 8; 9: 18-19; 2 Kings 17: 6).

Valerie Flint stresses how, in addition to Biblical conformity, the maps were intended to buttress 'wondering amazement' over God's work of creation:

Real discoveries have touched these mappae mundi very little; indeed, it almost seems as though the further back the boundaries of geographical knowledge are driven, the more zealous are makers of such maps to preserve the sense of the marvelous (Flint 1992: 23).

Flint also notes Columbus's 'extreme' attachment to these maps - might we call them 'icons'? - and suggests that this helps to account for a number of his 'apparently innocent observations, as well as for some of his more extraordinary deductions' (Flint 1992: 25-6). On the other hand, the maps are not to be read as evidence of medieval ignorance of the true shape of the earth: 'drawn schematically, in the full knowledge that the scheme did not represent the physical world ... they were symbolic representations of an intellectual world' (Phillips & Phillips 1992: 13).(1)

Another key to 'Columbus's 'knowing' the unknown shore is the notion of canonical knowledge. The overall picture is one of processes for the filtering and control of knowledge and perception in a period of unprecedented transoceanic discoveries. Along with discovery went the exercise of an authoritative canon of theological doctrine: 'all that could be known had to be made compatible with [the] recognized canon of sacred and ancient authors' (Pagden 1993: 12). The theory of knowledge 'claimed that the external world and all human life was legible, secundum scriptura' (Pagden 1993: 12). Specifically,

Understanding the world ... was dependent upon the interpretation of a determined canon of texts: the Bible, the Church Fathers, and a regularly contested although in practice restricted corpus of ancient writers (Pagden 1993: 52).

Thus, ideally, the unknown is translated into the known, and the boundaries of the known are foreclosed: authority (the canon) rules over experience:

When experience directly contradicted the text, it was the experience . …

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