Main content

Diversity in the Stacks: Ethnohistory of Latin America

Posted on by Joseph Holub

Diversity in the Stacks aims to build library collections that represent and reflect the University’s diverse population.

In 1994, Penn joined 30 other North American libraries to found the Latin Americanist Research Resources Project (LARRP). Participant institutions committed to devoting increased resources to particular countries or themes in order to better represent the “diversity of Latin American cultural and scholarly­ production.” While the founding of LARRP advanced both Penn’s dedication to interlibrary collaboration and its devotion to collecting Latin American materials, a pronounced emphasis on ethnohistory was already manifest in the Penn collections.

Though “ethnohistory” and variant terms date back to the 19th century, it entered standard academic discourse in the middle of the twentieth century and initially referred to research on the indigenous populations in the Americas, often by anthropologists or historians using ethnographic tools. Over time the field of ethnohistory evolved to become interdisciplinary and to encompass the stories of ethnic groups across the globe, both historical and contemporary. 

One of the first uses of the term “ethnohistory” in an academic title was by Penn Anthropology student Maurice Mook for his dissertation, Seventeenth-Century Southeastern Algonkian Ethno-History (1943). Penn Anthropology was, indeed, already at the forefront of Mesoamerican archaeology and ethnography, and the department had helped to develop the Museum Library’s collections, including the invaluable Berendt-Brinton. The Berendt-Brinton Collection is a repository of colonial-period Mayan language materials, religious and historical works, and ethnographic notes about Indian communities. The Collection also includes documents from central Mexico and North America.

Ethnohistory as a discipline continued to grow throughout the 1940s, and the journal Ethnohistory began publication in 1954. Ethnohistorical studies proliferated in various parts of the world; the related fields of ethnobotany, ethnopsychology, and ethnomusicology soon emerged. 

An early and impressive example of ethnohistorical interdisciplinarity was the postwar work of the “Berkeley School” of demographic history at the University of California. Historians, geographers, and epidemiologists combined to estimate the indigenous population of Central Mexico at the time of Cortes’ arrival and its cataclysmic decline over the next century [e.g., The Indian Population of Central Mexico, 1531-1610(1960); New Spain's Century of Depression (1951)].

One of the landmark works of ethnohistory is Penn Professor Emerita Nancy Farriss’ Maya Society Under Colonial Rule: The Collective Enterprise of Survival (1984). The work is notable for its scope, synthesis, its use of historical and anthropological tools, including native language documents (such as those found in the Berendt-Brinton), and its orientation from the viewpoint of the Maya, rather than from that of the Spanish.

Ethnohistory and ethnic studies are vibrant aspects of Penn’s research and study today. In Latin American history Penn professor Marcy Norton continues in the tradition of Nancy Farriss with her Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic world (2008) and with her ongoing work on the indigenous understanding of the natural world and the place of food and diet in the Columbian Exchange. 

Meanwhile, the Penn Libraries continues to acquire a broad array of ethnic studies for Latin America. For example, we add works as diverse as studies of the building of contemporary indigenous communitiesAfro-Brazilian religious practicesmodern Jewish communities of Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, the Inquisition’s investigation of colonial indigenous religious practices, and immigrant groups in various countries. We hope to extend our purview to include rare and manuscript materials, including cooperation with regional and national organizations seeking to make available documentation of their histories.

Related