Cultural Touchstones: Mining, Refining, and the Languages of Empire in the Early Americas


ACLS Fellowship Program


Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese


“Cultural Touchstones” applies literary methods to texts that fall between history and literature, showing how indigenous and European empires understood the raw materials of scientific inquiry in different ways in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Each chapter focuses on a different metal—gold, silver, copper, and iron—and on a discursive question that emerges in writers’ responses to them: space, translation, form, and genre. This new attention to languages reveals how indigenous miners shaped metallurgical technologies in the colonial Americas and how their knowledge was translated out of the scientific record in Europe. By tracing these mistranslations, this project shows how indigenous classifications like “intermediary ores” were replaced by colonial racial categories like “metales mulatos.” In this way, the project shows how the recovery of indigenous natural and technical knowledge can also shed new light on the history of racial ideologies and category-making in the early Americas.