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THE FIRST ETHNOLOGICAL TREATMENT OF THE INDIAN WORLD

ACOSTA, Joseph. The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies. Written in Spanish… and translated into English by E.G. London, Val Sims for Edward Blount and William Aspley, 1604.

4to., [17.5 x 13 cm], (3) ff., 590 pp., (7) ff. index & errata. Without first and final blanks. Bound in tan calf by Riviere preserving original spine. Title slightly soiled, with blank corner renewed. Some worming or small tears in K signature, with the reinforcement or mend obscuring or slightly affecting a partial letter but not legibility; same for Mm8; elsewhere some minor soiling or staining. Withal very good.

$18,500

First English edition of this eyewitness anthropological account of the Americas, chiefly Inca Peru and Aztec Mesoamerica, by the Jeusit father José de Acosta, “a more thoughtful and a more thorough account of the Indian world than anything then available” (Pagden).

Acosta’s crowning achievement in the present volume is his extensive history and ethnology of the Inca and Aztec peoples. He traces the history of the Aztecs from their estimated arrival in Mesoamerica to the defeat of Moctezuma II (c. 1466-1520) by Cortés, and he devotes over 200 pages to observations on Aztec and Inca religious beliefs, feasts and holidays, political and social hierarchies, marriages, funerals, and architecture, including three chapters on Aztec ceremonies of human sacrifice. “The idea of a “moral history,” a history, that is, of mores—of customs—was an unusual one in the sixteenth century. No one, as Acosta was at pains to point out, had ever attempted to write a true “history” of the Indians, though there had been accounts of the origin and growth of the Spanish colonies which included a (usually cursory) glance at the indigenes… Of all the vast literature on the Indies during this period Acosta’s Historia was perhaps the only work which contemporaries recognized as having broken new ground” (Pagden 149-157).

The work is also notable for Acosta’s theorizing—over 100 years before the discovery of the Bering Strait—that Indians migrated into New Spain from Asia, as well as for his description of the now-eponymous altitude sickness (Acosta’s disease) that he suffered from while crossing the Peruvian Andes.

The present English translation, by Edward Grimeston, was taken not from the 1590 Spanish but from the French edition of 1598 or 1600. It “made available much new information, both geographical and philosophical, to English readers [and] important and rational ideas concerning the origins of American Indians were revealed . . . . .His ideas [regarding the Bering migration] had a profound impact on later English writers on the subject such as Strachey, Brerewood and Purchas” (Steele p. 17).


* Church 328; STC 94; Alden 604/1; Cordier Japonica 120 (1590 Ed.); Morton 2244; Sabin 131; Sommervogel .I.35; Steele 1; Pagden, The fall of natural man: the American Indian and the origins of comparative ethnology, pp. 149-157.

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