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Assembling the dodo in early modern natural history

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 February 2015

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge, CB2 3RH, UK. Email:


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.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2015 

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14 After the VOC base at the Cape was established in 1652, trading ships en route to the Indies rarely stopped at Mauritius. Ships frequently remained in the Indies for some time, so that trading trips could take several years to return to Europe. Cheke and Hume, op. cit. (1) p. 75; Dániel Margócsy, op. cit. (5), p. 25.

15 See Parish, op. cit. (1), Chapter 5.

16 Findlen, op. cit. (6), p. 449.

17 Mason, op. cit. (7), pp. 127–130; see Egmond, op. cit. (4), especially Chapters 9 and 12, for a detailed discussion of the networks within which exotics were circulated and studied.

18 Mason, op. cit. (7), p. 128. There could also be close relationships and considerable collaboration in sourcing objects and information within natural-history networks, as Egmond, op. cit. (4), pp. 191–207, demonstrates.

19 Mason, op. cit. (7), p. 130.

20 See Wintroub, Michael, ‘The looking glass of facts: collecting, rhetoric and citing the self in the experimental natural philosophy of Robert Boyle’, History of Science (1997) 35, pp. 189217CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 189.

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24 Parish, op. cit. (1), p. 108; Harold Cook has described how L'Ecluse and his colleague Peter Pauw endeavoured to make arrangements with travellers to gain access to information from voyages, in Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine and Science in the Dutch Golden Age, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007, p. 129; Egmond, op. cit. (4), pp. 191–207, demonstrates how L'Ecluse's contacts endeavoured to source direct information for him on exotics.

25 Parish, op. cit. (1), p. 107; L'Ecluse, Charles, Exoticorum libri decem: quibus animalium, plantarum, aromaticum, aliorumque, peregrinorum fructum historiae describuntur, Leiden, 1605, p. 100Google Scholar.

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27 These stones are today termed gastroliths, swallowed to aid digestion of roughage. Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 107–108; L'Ecluse, op. cit. (25), pp. 100–101.

28 See Bann, Stephen, Under the Sign: John Bargrave as Collector, Traveller, and Witness, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994Google Scholar; Pearce, Susan M., On Collecting: An Investigation into Collecting in the European Tradition, Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 1995, p. 181Google Scholar. The social fashioning of experiential knowledge claims was described in Shapin, op. cit. (22).

29 Wintroub, op. cit. (20), p. 200, describes textual methods in developing the credibility of testimony, including ‘performative acts of self-citation’ and ‘correct display of copia’.

30 For example, see Paul Smith, ‘On toucans and hornbills: readings in early modern ornithology from Belon to Buffon’, in Enenkel and Smith, op. cit. (12), pp. 75–119; Schmidt, Benjamin, ‘Collecting global icons: the case of the exotic parasol’, in Bleichmar, Daniela and Mancall, Peter (eds.), Collecting across Cultures: Material Exchanges in the Early Modern Atlantic World, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, pp. 3157CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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32 Piso's De Indiae utriusque re naturali et medica … (1658) was an extended version of the earlier Historia Naturalis Brasiliae (1648). For a detailed history of the publication of this volume see Cook, op. cit. (24), pp. 218–224.

33 See Parish, op. cit. (1), Chapter 5; Winters, Ria and Hume, Julian P., ‘The dodo, the deer and a 1647 voyage to Japan’, Historical Biology: An International Journal of Paleobiology (2014) 27(2), pp. 258264CrossRefGoogle Scholar; MS Sherard 186 (1630), Sherard Collection, Plant Sciences Library, Oxford.

34 Harold J. Cook, ‘Global economies and local knowledge in the East Indies: Jacobus Bontius learns the facts of nature’, in Schiebinger and Swan, op. cit. (2), pp. 100–118, 112.

35 The Historiae naturalis was produced posthumously from de Bondt's unpublished manuscript material on East Indian animals as well as his previously published work on medicines, De Medicina Indorum (1642). Sometimes Piso's alterations led to his inaccuracies and conflations being unfairly blamed on the deceased contributors. Cook, op. cit. (24), pp. 218–221.

36 Cook, op. cit. (34), pp. 117–118.

37 Schmidt, Benjamin, ‘Accumulating the world: collecting and commodifying “globalism” in early modern Europe’, in Roberts, Lissa (ed.), Cycles and Centres of Accumulation in and around the Netherlands during the Early Modern Period, Berlin and Zurich: LIT, 2011, pp. 129–154, 130134Google Scholar; Julie Berger Hochstrasser, ‘The conquest of spice and the Dutch colonial imaginary: seen and unseen in the visual culture of trade’, in Schiebinger and Swan, op. cit. (2), pp. 169–186, 176–177.

38 de Bondt, Jacob, Historiae naturalis et medicae Indiae Orientalis libri sex, Amsterdam: Elzevir, 1658, pp. 7071Google Scholar.

39 Cheke and Hume, op. cit. (1), p. 76; Alette Fleischer, ‘The Company's garden and the (ex)change of nature and knowledge at Cape of Good Hope (1652–1700)’, in Roberts, op. cit. (37), pp. 101–128, 101.

40 De Bondt quoted in Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 114–115. Dronten means ‘swollen’ in Dutch, and is probably the source of this name, along with the other Dutch appellation, dodoaers. Ibid., p. 135.

41 Schmidt, op. cit. (37), p. 130; Hochstrasser, op. cit. (37), p. 171; Schmidt, Benjamin, ‘Inventing exoticism’, in Findlen, Paula and Smith, Pamela (eds.), Merchants and Marvels: Commerce, Science and Art in Early Modern Europe, New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 347369Google Scholar, 350.

42 Cook, op. cit. (34), p. 101.

43 Greenblatt, Stephen, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 67Google Scholar, describes mimetic capital as a ‘stock of images, along with the means of producing those images', circulating according to ‘prevailing market forces'; Schmidt, op. cit. (41), p. 362; Egmond, op. cit. (4), p. 155, cautions against characterizing the varied relationships between naturalia, social interaction and commerce too narrowly, however.

44 Findlen, op. cit. (6), pp. 464, 439.

45 Leonhard, op. cit. (13); Egmond, op. cit. (5), pp. 144–149.

46 For example, Schmidt, op. cit. (30), pp. 31–57; Mason, Peter, ‘From presentation to representation: Americana in Europe’, Journal of the History of Collections (1994) 6(1), pp. 120CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Collections were used to ‘draw a map of knowledge’. Collection catalogues, which developed significantly from plain texts to encompassing the ‘imaginative possibilities' of the collection, extended this structure of knowing. Findlen, op. cit. (21), pp. 32–47.

47 Petrus Plancius's Orbis terrarum … (1594) is a good example of this geographical imagery. For an example of ‘collecting the world’ in the colonial context see Rebecca P. Brienen, ‘From Brazil to Europe: the zoological drawings of Albert Eckhout and Georg Marcgraf’, in Enenkel and Smith, op. cit. (12), pp. 279–82; also Shelton, Anthony Alan, ‘Cabinets of transgressions: Renaissance collections and the incorporation of the New World’, in Elsner, John and Cardinal, Roger, The Cultures of Collecting (Critical Views), London: Reaktion Books, 2004, pp. 177203Google Scholar.

48 Findlen, op. cit. (6), p. 450.

49 This may have been gathered from the early published accounts like the Waraachtige Beschryving (anonymous, 1599) or other unpublished accounts. Parish, op. cit. (1), p. 108.

50 L'Ecluse, op. cit. (25), pp. 99–101.

51 Herbert, Thomas, A relation of some yeares trauaile begunne anno 1626. Into Afrique and the greater Asia …, London, 1634, pp. 211212Google Scholar.

52 Piso, Willem, De Indiae utriusque re naturali et medica, libri quatuordecim, Amsterdam: Elzeviros, 1658Google Scholar, Frontispiece.

53 Daniel Fröschl, p. 114 of 1609 entry of 1607–11 inventory, cited in Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 179–180.

54 Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 178–179; the collector Bernardus Paludanus also referred to ‘strange large beaks of Indian birds', amongst which there may have been a dodo; in ibid., pp. 192, 378. Eventually, the beak of the Prague dodo was all that was left of the original stuffed specimen, and was discovered in the nineteenth century. Ibid., pp. 180–186.

55 Scholars hypothesized about the effects of the extreme conditions in other regions of the globe on living things. See Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge, Nature, Empire & Nation: Explorations of the History of Science in the Iberian World, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 7375CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Natalie Lawrence, ‘Exotic origins: the emblematic biogeographies of early modern scaly mammals’, Itinerario, forthcoming; Smith, op. cit. (30), p. 77: note that Smith links kalkoen to the town of Calcutta, but this is possibly mistaken; de Bondt, op. cit. (38), p. 70.

57 Ogilvie, op. cit. (3); Mason, op. cit. (7), p. 112.

58 Pliny the Younger, Des wijdt-vermaerden Natur-kondigers vijf Boecken (c.1650, Book 3), cited in Parish, op. cit. (1); Nieuhof, Johan, Voyages and Travels to the East Indies 1653–1670 (Oxford in Asia Historical Reprints), Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1988Google Scholar; L'Ecluse op. cit. (25), pp. 100–101.

59 Mason, op. cit. (7), p. 113.

60 Herbert, op. cit. (51), pp. 211–212.

61 Grafton, op. cit. (4), Chapter 4.

62 Aristotle, De Partibus Animalium, Book IV, Chapters 12, 14.

63 Ritvo, op. cit. (3), pp. 10–13

64 Kolb, Arianne Faber, Jan Brueghel the Elder, the Entry of the Animals into Noah's Ark, Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2005, p. 31Google Scholar.

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68 Holme, Randle, The Academy of Armory, or, A storehouse of armory and blazon containing the several variety of created beings…, London, 1688, pp. 308309Google Scholar.

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71 Mason, op. cit. (7), p. 112.

72 Wilson, Dudley, Signs and Portents: Monstrous Births from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment, London: Routledge, 1993, p. 6Google Scholar.

73 Mason, op. cit. (7), p. 103.

74 Bacon argued that monsters were valuable ‘deviating instances' with which to investigate nature. In Wilson, op. cit. (72), p. 73.

75 See Mason, op. cit. (7), Chapter 3.

76 Ritvo, op. cit. (3), pp. 131–144

77 Nieuhof, op. cit. (58), p. 313.

78 Mason, op. cit. (7), Chapter 3; de Bondt, op. cit. (38), pp. 70–71; Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 114–115.

79 Greenblatt, op. cit. (43), pp. 73–81.

80 Faber Kolb, op. cit. (64), pp. 26–31.

81 The connections between natural history and art were manifold in this period, as demonstrated for the birds of paradise in Marcaida, José Ramón, ‘Rubens and the bird of paradise: painting natural knowledge in the early seventeenth century’, Renaissance Studies (2014) 28(1), pp. 112127CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Several historians have described how artists included an encyclopedic array of novel exotica in their paintings, where they played both symbolic and allegorical functions. For example, see Leonhard, op. cit. (13), pp. 177–214.

82 Currently at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister der Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Parish, op. cit. (1), p. 79.

83 Lovejoy, Arthur Oncken, The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936Google Scholar. He describes the two principles of plenitude and continuity in the conceptual framework of the Chain of Being, the latter of which is demonstrated in the role of the dodo described here.

84 See Parish, op. cit. (1), Chapter 3, for a full account of these images.

85 My thanks to Dániel Margócsy for bringing these paintings to my attention.

86 Possible models for Savery's paintings are the stuffed specimen in Amsterdam, Rudolf II's specimen at Prague, Maurits of Nassau's menagerie bird, and a number of other birds speculated to have been imported. Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 76–77, suggests that the Amsterdam bird was probably the model.

87 Jorink, op. cit. (12), pp. 147–176; Sleigh, op. cit. (11). This persistence is demonstrated by the enduring popularity of emblem books through this period (John Manning, The Emblem, London: Reaktion Books, 2002, p. 14; Praz, Mario, Studies in Seventeenth-Century Imagery, 2nd edn, Rome: Storia e Letteratura, 2001Google Scholar, pp. 15, 199, 201), as well as by work on the use of the ‘poison’ upas tree as a malleable symbol of colonial interactions (Dove, Michael and Carpenter, Carol, ‘The “poison tree” and the changing vision of the Indo-Malay realm’, in Wadley, Reed L. (ed.), Histories of the Borneo Environment: Economic, Political and Social Dimensions of Change and Continuity, Leiden: KITLV Press, 2005, pp. 183212CrossRefGoogle Scholar).

88 Jan Den Hengst reviews edibility accounts thoroughly in his article The dodo and scientific fantasies: durable myths of a tough bird’, Archives of Natural History (2009) 36(1), pp. 136145CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

89 Neck, op. cit. (23).

90 Admiral Cornelis Matelief, Historische Verhael Vande treffelijcke Reyse … (1646), Chapter 15, fol. 22v, quoted in Parish, op. cit. (1), p. 27; Van der Hagen, quoted in ibid., p. 28.

91 Anon., Waarachtig Beschryving (1599), quoted in Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 8–10; Herbert, op. cit. (51), pp. 211–212; Nieuhof, op. cit. (58), p. 312.

92 Parish op. cit. (1), pp. 114–115; anon., quoted in ibid., pp. 8–10; Herbert, op. cit. (51), p. 212.

93 W. van West-Zanen, Derde voornaemste Zee-getogt (Der verbondene vrye Nederlanderen) Na de Oost-Indien … Wolfert Harmansz, Amsterdam: H. Soete-boom, 1648, quoted in Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 24–25.

94 De Bondt, op. cit. (38), p. 70; Clarke, op. cit. (66), p. 217; Bontekoe quoted in Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 122–123; Nieuhof, op. cit. (58), p. 312.

95 Herbert, op. cit. (51), pp. 211–212; de Bondt, op. cit. (38), pp. 70–71; de Bondt in Parish, op. cit. (1), pp. 114–115.

96 Willughby and Ray, op. cit. (65), p. 152; de Bondt, op. cit. (38), p. 71; Nieuhof, op. cit. (58), p. 312; Clarke, op. cit. (66), p. 217

97 Luiken, Jan, De Bykorf Des Gemoeds, Honing zaamelende uit allerly Bloemen: Vervattende over de Honderd konstige Figuuren …, Amsterdam, 1711, p. 106Google Scholar.

98 Pliny, Natural History, X, 1, pp. 292–293.

99 See Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (reissue), New York: Harper Perennial, 2004Google Scholar.

100 Johan de Jhong, ‘Drawing ships and spices', in Roberts, op. cit. (37), pp. 177–204, 177.

101 Schama, op. cit. (99).

102 Hochstrasser, op. cit. (37), pp. 171–176.

103 Schmidt, op. cit. (37), pp. 129–131.

104 Lovejoy, op. cit. (83)

105 Roberts, D.L. and Solow, A.R., ‘Dutch diaries and the demise of the dodo’, Nature (2003) 426, p. 245Google Scholar. The exact date is unknown, but the dodo's extinction was precipitated by anthropogenic habitat destruction, overhunting and the ravages of introduced ground mammals. This unprofitability was obscured for a long time as a result of the complex accounting system that was used. Hochstrasser, op. cit. (37), p. 181.