Assembling the dodo in early modern natural history

Br J Hist Sci. 2015 Sep;48(3):387-408. doi: 10.1017/S0007087415000011.

Abstract

This paper explores the assimilation of the flightless dodo into early modern natural history. The dodo was first described by Dutch sailors landing on Mauritius in 1598, and became extinct in the 1680s or 1690s. Despite this brief period of encounter, the bird was a popular subject in natural-history works and a range of other genres. The dodo will be used here as a counterexample to the historical narratives of taxonomic crisis and abrupt shifts in natural history caused by exotic creatures coming to Europe. Though this bird had a bizarre form, early modern naturalists integrated the dodo and other flightless birds through several levels of conceptual categorization, including the geographical, morphological and symbolic. Naturalists such as Charles L'Ecluse produced a set of typical descriptive tropes that helped make up the European dodo. These long-lived images were used for a variety of symbolic purposes, demonstrated by the depiction of the Dutch East India enterprise in Willem Piso's 1658 publication. The case of the dodo shows that, far from there being a dramatic shift away from emblematics in the seventeenth century, the implicit symbolic roles attributed to exotic beasts by naturalists constructing them from scant information and specimens remained integral to natural history.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Columbiformes*
  • Commerce / history
  • Europe
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 17th Century
  • Mauritius
  • Natural History / history