The Historia Naturae is an encyclopedic work that describes and categorizes the flora and fauna of North and South America, particularly of Mexico. The natural history of the New World had been described in earlier travel accounts and in manuals identifying and describing the medicinal value of indigenous plants, but Nieremberg’s Historia Naturae was the first attempt to systematically organize the information. Many species are described for the first time. The work was prized particularly because it included the indigenous names for the plants and animals and also provided extensive information on the customs and rites of native cultures.
Historia Naturae, Maxime Peregrinae. Johann Eusebius Nieremberg (1595–1658), Professor of Physiology in the Royal Academy of Madrid, Antuerpiae: Officina Plantiniana Moreti, 1635. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress.
Here I shall describe a wonderful (although pestilential) monster, of singular kindness, and combining great strength and a powerful venom in a small body, yet not harmful to all. The Spaniards call it the “Pine Rabbit,” while the Indians call it “Ocotochtli” (ocelot). It is the size of a greyhound, with a smooth, low, heavy-set body, small ears, and face like a lion’s or cat’s. Its eyes are lively, with a red iris. Its limbs are sturdy, with hooked nails. Its fur is tawny on the back, white on the belly, while the rest of the body is ashen, covered everywhere with black spots. It has a short snout and tail, a rough tongue, a weak howl, and is incredibly swift. It lives in the mountains of Tetzococam, where it hunts deer and other such creatures, even men on occasion. The power of the venom in its tongue is such that if it licks or even touches the eyes of its prey ever so slightly, it is immediately fatal. It covers the bodies of the slain with grass or straw and then climbs up nearby trees, where it wails.
The Indians call one species of these animals “Tlaquatzin,” but they go by various names. In Hamor’s Description of Virginia, one is called “Opossum.” Similar species are found in Brazil and the Moluccas, but the one we describe first is from Florida and the land called Darien. It resembles a small dog in shape and size and is about eighteen inches long. It has a long, slender, hairless snout, and a small head. Its ears are very thin and soft, almost translucent. Its fur is long and white, with dark or black tips. Its tail is smooth and eighteen inches long, almost like a snake in appearance, dark with a white tip.
It uses its tail to grip its prey. Its body and feet are like those of a badger. It bears four or five cubs at a time (sometimes up to seven or even more). The mother keeps them in a pouch on its belly near its teats; the pouch blends right into her own coat. Its eyes are small, black, bright and bulging. It climbs trees incredibly fast, and sometimes lurks in caves. It feeds on its neighbors, killing them as foxes and weasels do, then sucking their blood. Otherwise, it is a simple, harmless animal, although one of its tricks is to play dead when pursued by hunters. Once they have been fooled, it bites them.
Various species of these animals are found in the Indies, with different names… The most remarkable are called “armadillos” in Spanish. The Indians call them “Aiatochtli,” which means “gourd rabbit.” It is armored with a shell made up of movable plates that are linked together. About the size of a Maltese dog, it has small feet, and a short, squared-off snout. It has ears like a mouse’s, but longer. Its tail is long and smooth, jointed and also covered with hard plates. Its belly is white and covered with skin almost like a human's, with a few long, thin bristles. When hunting ants, it brings its tail to its mouth, and the ants march right up it and bring the armadillo food.
When it needs to make a speedy escape, it curls up into a ball and rolls away.
Its shell, powdered, is a cure for syphilis.
There are eight species of rabbits in New Spain:
They are all similar. As food, they are tougher and less agreeable than our rabbits.
Viscachas are a kind of rabbit that have a long tail, like a cat. They like the snow. Their fur is both valuable and useful.
The Indians call one kind of fox “Coyotl” (coyote). It is an animal unknown in the Old World, with a wolf-like head, big, bright, pale eyes, small, pointed ears and a dark, long snout. Its claws are thick and curved, and its tail long and thick. It resembles our foxes (to whom it may be related), and is about half-way between a wolf and a fox in size. It hunts pigs and deer, and has been known to kill humans. Its coat is long and dappled. It is a wily hunter. If another animal snatches its prey, it can recognize the thief days later and hunts it down.
It is found in many parts of New Spain, especially in colder climates.
The Indian name for this is unknown. It is shaggy, with a tail like a fox, dark, with a mane in old age, small ears, and a face like a human. It has a thick snout and its breath is lethal. It is clever and wily, preying on weaker animals, a fearsome predator.
The Indians of New Spain call the mountain weasel “quauhpecotli.” It is about eighteen inches long, with a long, thin snout, turned up at the end. It has a long tail. Its coat is white on the belly, but black elsewhere, with a dark stripe at the spine. Its feet are black with curved nails. It is easily tamed, and voracious: it will eat anything offered to it, although its own flesh is not edible. It is a calm and playful animal, but aggressive with strangers.
There are plentiful species of monkeys in the Indies, differing in size, habit and color. The Mexicans call them “Ocumatli” (“Ozomahtli” in standard Náhuatl). They come in all shapes, sizes and colors imaginable. They are fussy creatures. They feed on fruit and birds’ eggs. Many eat their own urine and excrement. Often, if they see a human alone, they will come down to play with him. They leap from branch to branch in the trees, and will cross rivers hanging from them and holding onto one another by the tail.
These are found in Peru. Some think they were described by Aristotle and Pliny, but I disagree, because the ones they discuss are said to have horns, while vicunas have none. They enjoy the mountains, especially cold and deserted regions where there is snow and ice. They live in herds.
The natives band together in groups of up to three thousand men to hunt them. They surround the mountain and gradually drive the animals into a single spot.
At other times, they trap them with lines weighted by lead, which snag them as they run. Vicuna fur is fine and delicate as silk. Its color is lasting, and does not need to be dyed.
Their flesh is not exactly tasty, but the Indians eat it. A piece of flesh from a newly slaughtered vicuna is supposed to be good for eye pain.
This bird notable for its enormous beak is called “Xochitenacatl” (toucan). It is native to lakes and the shore of the North Sea. Its body is about a palm and a half in length (about a modern foot), and its beak is eight inches long and three wide, almost as long, that is, as its whole body. It is bluish-white, but bright red at the end. At times, though, it changes color. Its neck is dark above and light below, marked with bands of color. The tail is black, with white and red feathers at the tip. Its feet and legs are gray with blue spots. Its eyes are black, the iris pink with a blue circle around it. This bird is domestic and eats anything. It can survive no matter where it is transported.
Another kind is the size of a dove, with a huge beak compared to its body, yellow on top and purplish on the bottom. Its eyes are black with a reddish iris. The body is sky blue. It lives on the shores of the Southern Ocean and lives on the fish it catches.
The name means “Bird of Paradise” or “of God.”
This bird has no feet and hangs in the sky, constantly in flight. Authorities differ on whether they exist, but voyages to the Moluccas have revealed that there are such creatures, known in ancient times but long lost. Instead of feet, they have golden feathers twenty inches long growing out of their bodies. If they ever stop flying, they use these feathers to hang from trees, and to embrace each other in mating.
This is a marine bird, about the size of the domestic goose. It has a flat, black beak, and webbed feet toward the tail end of the body. . . . It is densely feathered all over, white on the chest and lower parts, black on the upper. . . . One specimen was caught near the Faroe Islands, between Norway and Iceland. . . . It raises its offspring on the water and rarely goes ashore except during stormy weather. . . . It can neither fly nor walk.
The emu is found on Banda Island, one of the Moluccas. It is a little more than four feet tall when walking upright.
It is covered with feathers, or plumes, that hang down to its thighs:
from a distance they look like a bearís fur. Although it appears to be wingless, it has wings hidden at its sides. However, it cannot fly.
Its legs and feet are scaly and end in three sturdy toes, with long, horny nails.
The head is small relative to the body, bald, shading from blue to black. . . .
On top is a horny yellow crest.
Two red wattles hang on the neck below the beak.
This bird has some things in common with the ostrich, but the latter has only two toes.
Two specimens that were being brought by ship from the Moluccas to Holland in 1630 perished on the way; their skins however were preserved.
I am told that these birds are not peculiar to the Moluccas, but are also to be found on Sumatra and the neighboring mainland.
The tail of this bird is split in two, and it can open and close like a tailor’s scissors, hence its name.
The manatee is a sea creature, although it is also caught in the rivers of the island of Hispaniola.
It is larger than a shark. When full grown, it is very ugly, and resembles the large skins in which new wine is transported. Its head is the size of a cow’s, or even bigger. It has small eyes in relation to its body and two feet or fins near its head, which it uses to swim with. It is covered with skin, not scales. It is gentle and feeds on grasses along riverbanks, never leaving the water.
This description is from Clusius, who saw a dried specimen...
It was about three feet long, with a spine six inches long rising from its neck.
When he saw it, it was gray, but he was told that it was silver when captured.
It has two rows of teeth in each jaw... From the neck down, the body tapers gradually, ending in a tail like a mouse... It has two fins for swimming near the spine, and another fin runs along the back all the way to the tail.
One kind of this fish is called “Tlateconimichin” (sawfish) by the locals.
There are various kinds, and although they can grow to a considerable size, I think they are more closely related to sharks than to whales.
I saw a dried specimen in Amsterdam, in shape and color like a shark. It had six fins along its sides. The head ends in a long beak, with twenty or more teeth or spines extending from either side, like a saw. The whole fish was about two feet long.
These fish are found in the western Ocean.
This calls for daring. Two Indians board a canoe when they see one of these monsters. One dives into the water, armed with two or three wedges and a mallet. He sneaks up behind the whale and plugs the blowhole with a wedge. Unable to breathe, the beast surfaces. Then the Indian hammers more wedges into the whale’s breathing passages, and it dies. Then they lash it to the canoe and tow it away.
The Old World also has its wonders. Among them is the whale described by Luis of Granada, which washed up dead near Lisbon in 1575. Nothing so marvelous had ever been seen before. The whale was ninety cubits long. It was so big that two men standing on either side of it could not see each other.
Book Twelve of Nieremberg's Natural History
The Indians call this “Teuhtlacocauhqui,” or “Mistress of Snakes.” The Spanish call it a viper from the similarity in the shape of its head. It is four feet or more in length and as thick as a human body. Its belly is white, its sides scaly, and its back dark, with light lines crossing over the spine.
When they strike, the bite is fatal unless treated promptly.
It has a tail with rattles, one for each year of its life. It has medium size black eyes. It has two curved fangs in its upper jaw to inject its venom.
It moves in a slithering fashion. Indians hunt and capture them and hang them around their necks.
Those who raise them at home say they can live for up to a year without eating anything.
When wounded and angry, it whips around, shaking its rattles, and raises its neck to frighten those nearby. However, it does not bite unless provoked.
This snake lives near ant nests and hunts them when they emerge at certain times of the year. It is the most beautiful snake of all, and harmless. Thinner than a finger, it is sixteen inches long. It is striped alternately red and white and lives only around ants in warm climates. Used as a medicine ground up and applied as a plaster, this snake is said to shrink tumors.
The coconut tree looks like a palm, but bears a very different fruit. It produces twelve stalks or more at once, with grape-like clusters of fruit on each, covered in a thick coat. Once the covering is removed, the fruit is like a melon, but with a hard shell. These are called “coconuts.” They yield both food and drink. They are filled with a sweet liquid. The flesh, on the inner side of the shell, and two inches thick, is like butter, but sweeter. From it, oil can be prepared, like olive oil. It is good for invalids.
This grows in the mountains of Peru. The Spaniards gave it this name since it is like our pomegranate. Its fruit is about the same size and color, a little bigger than a pear, with small bumps. The flesh is white and flavorless. The plant resembles ivy and climbs in the same way. . . .
It has a white flower like a rose; its petals bear an image of Christ’s passion. When the fruit is ripe, it is full of a tart liquid. Both Spaniards and Indians drink it with pleasure: no matter how much you drink, it doesn’t fill you up, but soothes the stomach.
This tree is found throughout the Indies, especially in Malabar. It is the size of a plum tree, with many slender branches. The leaves grow opposite each other, and are fuzzy on the back, like sage leaves.
Clusters of five flowers grow from the bases of the leaves, like apple flowers, but more fragrant—indeed, the most fragrant I have ever smelled. They are reddish and used by the natives to dye food, as we use saffron.
A remarkable fact is that this tree flowers most abundantly at night. Once the sun strikes it, the flowers fall off, and the tree looks parched and withered.
This plant is about three feet high and grows leaning against neighboring trees or walls. It has thin stems with bright green foliage and small sharp thorns.
Its name, mimosa, comes from the fact that when it is touched, it shrinks away. When you remove your hand, it springs back. Its nature is opposite to the Grim Tree since it shrinks and dries up at night, but revives when the sun rises again, growing stronger as the sun shines, and following it in the sky. It tastes like liquorish, and the natives chew the leaves for coughs, to decongest the chest, and to make voices clearer.
The story is told of a woman who worked in 1562 as a servant for a Spanish nobleman [the Count of Nieva] in Peru. Her husband was seriously ill. Seeing her sorrow, an Indian asked if she wished to know if he would die, or recover. The Indian said that he would bring a plant to the man and place it in his left hand. If he were going to recover, the longer he held it, the more lively the plant would appear. If he was dying, it would shrivel. When the plant was brought to the man, as soon as he grasped it, it became so sickly that his wife feared he would die immediately and took it from him and cast it on the ground. The man died a few days later.
These grow on vines like grapes. They have white blossoms shaped like long goblets.
There are many varieties:
There are other varieties such as the Atecomatl that are not edible. The Indians use them to transport water.
This tree is irregular in form. It is prickly all over: on its paddles, fruit, and trunk. The Haitians call it Tuna, the Mexicans Nochtli. The leaves are abundant and grow out of one another. If a leaf falls on the ground, it sends out roots and another tree is born. The fruit is pleasant tasting, red, and bristles with thorns, which women use as needles.
It was recently introduced to the Old World, where it has become common, but it only bears fruit in the Indies.
The different varieties are distinguished by the color of their flowers, which range from white, to yellow, to orange and to red. Some have thick leaves, others thin ones. Mostly they vary in the shape and color of their fruit.
Those found in Mexico include:
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