Jose de Acosta, S.J.

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Jose de Acosta, S.J.
(1540-1600)
Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences



Jose de Acosta, S.J.
  • Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences
  • and of Aeronautical Medical Research
  • Summary

    Jose de Acosta, S.J. (Spanish: 1540-1600) is called the Pliny of the New World because of his book Natural and Moral History of the Indies which provided the first detailed description of the geography and culture of Latin America, Aztec history and - of all things - the uses of coca. For his work on altitude sickness in the Andes he is listed as one of the pioneers of modern aeronautical medicine. Josť was far ahead of his time in the selection and description of his observations. Not satisfied, however, with mere descriptions, he tried to explain causes. Josť was one of the earliest geophysicists, having been among the first to observe, record and analyze earthquakes, volcanoes, tides, currents, magnetic declinations and meteorological phenomena. He denied the commonly held opinion that earthquakes and volcanoes originated from the same cause, and had an interesting explanation of the origin of the world's trade winds: he offered the earliest scientific explanation of the tropical trade winds. Josť traveled extensively through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Mexico; he was the first European to systematize the geography of the New World.

    Since Jose Acosta gave the first detailed description of the Mexican ideograms he can be legitimately called the first of the true Americanists. He learned enough of the indigenous cultures to write a trilingual catechism. Experts on American ethnology have praised Josť Acosta's insightful understanding of the origins of the Native Americans: that they came from Asia by way of a now-submerged land connection with Alaska, and the fact that they then switched from hunting to urban living and built the magnificent cities that the Spanish conquistadors found. A prominent ethnologist said: "It was an astonishing bit of scholarly deduction for the time, given the absence of knowledge about the existence of such a land bridge."

    The following material is taken from an article in EOS Trans. Am. Geophys. Union, p. 72 by Agustin Udias, S.J. who has his Ph.D. in Geophysics from St. Louis University, St. Louis, MO, in 1964. He has worked at the University of California, Berkeley; Frankfurt University in Frankfurt, Federal Republic of Germany; and the University of Barcelona in Barcelona, Spain. His research has its emphasis on seismology.


    One of the first books written about the American continent was by Father Josť de Acosta, entitled Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias (i.e., Natural and Moral History of the Indias), it was published in Seville, Spain, in 1590. The rapid printing of four editions in Spain in less than 20 years and the translation of the book into French, Italian, German, Dutch, and Latin less than 15 years after the first Spanish edition are signs of the rapid popularity that was achieved by this book in Europe.

    1985 Peruvian Commemorative stamp
  • of Jose de Acosta's book
  • The triliteral Peruvian Catechism:
  • the first book ever printed in South America
  • Jose de Acosta was born in 1539 in Medina del Campo, Spain. He joined the Jesuit Order in 1553 and traveled to America in 1572. He remained there for 15 years, travelling frequently and visiting the territories that today belong to Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and Mexico. During his journeys, he took note of his observations of natural phenomena, many of them related to the geophysical sciences, such as the aspect of the skies, distribution of temperature, rain, winds, volcanic activity, earthquakes, and a variety of new minerals, plants, and animals, as well as on the social behavior of the inhabitants of those lands.

    On his return to Spain in 1587, Acosta wrote the Historia, about his observations of America, and another, controversial book in which he strongly criticized the treatment given to the Indians by the Spaniards. His observations and discussions of natural phenomena, many of them described for the first time, made him worthy of the title of one of the "Founders of Physical Geography", as he was described by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who considered Acosta's work as the first attempt to systematize scientifically the geography and natural history of the New World.

    During the 16th century Spain founded the first university in the New World in Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola (now divided between Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1538. However, in terms of academic standards, the University of Mexico, which was modeled after the University of Salamanca, and the University of Lima, Peru, both founded in 1551, were more important.

    1965 Spanish Commemorative stamp
  • Jose de Acosta, S.J.
  • Acosta was aware of being the first to try to get at the causes of the natural phenomena of the new World and he writes: "Till now I do not know of any author who has tried to declare the causes and reasons of these novelties and peculiarities of Nature." Often, as Acosta noted, the new observations did not fit the accepted views of the natural philosophy predominant in Europe, "because they are natural things that are outside of the generally accepted philosophy." The problems that he encountered in trying to interpret the new observations according to the principles of Aristotelian philosophy of nature led him to contradict openly many of the established opinions of this philosopher, whose authority was only then beginning to be questioned in educated European circles. In direct violation of the Aristotelian approach, Acosta relied on experimental observation. For example, he described the temperate climate of the tropical regions on the basis of his own observations, when Aristotle had always taught that these areas were extremely hot and dry. He was not afraid to entitle chapter 4 of book 2 "That the tropics (torrida) have great abundance of water and vegetation in spite of Aristotle denying it." Even when he considered the Bible, he set himself apart from a literal interpretation, and when dealing with the subject of the sphericity of the heavens, he remarked that "in the divine Scriptures we must not follow the letter that kills but the spirit that gives life." His continuous confrontation with experience gave him considerable freedom with respect to many established scientific opinions.

    From the geophysical point of view, the first four books of the first part of his work are the most interesting. Their contents are
    Book I. General questions about the sphericity of the earth and the characteristics of the southern and western hemispheres;
    Book II. Climate, temperature, and rain in the tropical zone;
    Book III. Properties of winds, oceans, and lands;
    Book IV. Minerals, plants, and animals found in the new continent.
    In respect to geophysical phenomena, we may single out his treatment of magnetic declination, motions of the oceans, earthquakes, volcanic activity, different climates, and the types and causes of winds.
    Acosta treated magnetic declination in relation to the problem of the origin of the native inhabitants of America. Travel by ship was ruled out on the basis of the ignorance of the use of the magnetic compass for navigation in antiquity. He described the use of the compass, the angle of declination, and the difference between magnetic and geographic north. Declination was already known to 15th century Spanish and Portuguese sailors, and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) is sometimes credited with the discovery of its variation. Acosta described the variation of declination from one point to another. With special reference to the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, he identified the places of zero declination, one of these being in the Azores Islands, where the declination changes from east to west.

    In the discussion of the distribution of lands and oceans, Acosta dealt with the problem of tides. He discussed the question of whether the tides are a local or a general phenomenon and whether they have the same or opposite motion at opposite sides of the same sea. On the basis of observations at the Strait of Magellan, where the tides at either end of the strait have same sense of motion, he established that the tides are general phenomena, affecting the whole ocean. It must be remembered that prior to the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the origin of the tides had not been explained. Acosta described the periodicity of this phenomena and their relationship to the phases of the moon.

    His observations about volcanoes and earthquakes caused him to deny the common opinion that both phenomena have the same cause, since in America there are large earthquakes in regions where there are no volcanoes. However, he maintained that the cause was analogous and had to do with the presence of hot gases in the interior of the earth (the common opinion since classical antiquity). He briefly described the effects of the large earthquakes in Valdivia, Chile, in 1575; Arequipa, Peru, in 1582; Lima, Peru, in 1586; and Quito, Ecuadora in 1587. The sequence of these shocks made him propose a migration of large earthquakes in this region, from south to north, along the coast. This question is still debated among modern seismologists. He described the propagation of the motion in the Chile earthquake of 1575 along the coast for 300 leagues (about 1500 km) and in the Lima earthquake of 1586 for 170 leagues (~ 800 km) along the coast and 50 leagues (~ 250 km) toward the interior. Both of these earthquakes produced tsunamis that Acosta described, stating that in the Lima earthquake the water rose approximately 25 m and penetrated inland 10 km.

    Meteorological observations are given a large exposure in books II and III and are without doubt the most important part of this work. The first question that Acosta treated is the general climate in the tropical regions. According to Aristotle, this should be an extremely hot and dry region, which openly contradicts the observations. Acosta described the variety of climate found in tropical regions, which varied according to its location near the coast or in the highlands. According to Acosta, different climates are found in the same latitude because of the proximity of the ocean, the regime of rains and winds, and the properties of the land. He dedicated considerable space to the classification and properties of the winds. Their cause was attributed to the influence of the sun, a theory that went against the commonly held Aristotelian doctrine. Especially interesting is his explanation of the origin of the trade winds. This was probably the first time that these east winds, which have fairly constant direction inside tropical latitudes, had been described in detail. The regularity of the trade winds was explained by their origin, which according to Acosta was the east to west rotation of the celestial spheres with respect to the earth. This is the closest that he could get to the modern answer while holding to the geocentric theory. Copernican views at that time were not yet widely accepted. The west winds outside the tropics were also described, and their origin was explained by the reaction of the air to the east winds of the tropics.

    This short note allows only a very cursory view of some of the many aspects of Acosta's work. Careful reading of his book reveals that he was a very keen observer of the natural phenomena in the recently discovered American continents. He systematized his observations and searched for plausible explanations, often rejecting the commonly held Aristotelian dogmas on the basis of his own experience. In some cases, Acosta even came remarkably close to a modern viewpoint of the natural phenomena. The extent to which he discussed meteorological phenomena, volcanoes, earthquakes, ocean tides and currents, magnetic declination, etc. shows that he truly deserves the title
    Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences.




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