The explorer was amazed at the abundance of flora and fauna in the American territory, but he also denounced social inequality.
Considered the father of universal modern geography, Alexander von Humboldt contributed a new vision of nature from humanism, zoology, geology, volcanology, ethnography, climatology and botany.
After five years of traveling through South America, Central America, and Mexico, Alexander von Humboldt (Berlin, 1769) returned to Paris in 1804.
In the French capital an enthusiastic and captivated crowd of about 10,000 people was waiting for him, among whom was the then young Simón Bolívar who was fascinated by the wonders told by the Latin American explorer.
Venezuela, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Cuba were some of the countries that he crossed, together with the French naturalist and botanist Aimé Bonpland, traveling a total of ten thousand kilometers in three continental stages.
And he did it by looking at the nature of those places with an unusual scientific rigor for the time, with observations, measurements and novel calculations of what he saw in the Andes, the Negro River and the Orinoco, the Chimborazo volcano or the Cayambe that he himself ascended. .
“This way of looking was exercised in very diverse regions, which allowed him to make comparisons and find common patterns. It should be remembered that at that time measuring such basic variables as latitude, longitude and altitude was not easy at all ”, Juli G. Pausas, from the CSIC’s Desertification Research Center, explains to Sinc.
Humboldt stood out for his global conceptions of the Earth and its environment and for his constant interrelationships of various natural phenomena on a planetary scale .
During his stay in Peru, for example, the naturalist noticed that the temperature of the Pacific Ocean varied at certain times of the year, especially the colder waters coming from the south to the north of the continent. That ocean current ended up being called the Humboldt Current.
In the decades following their return, scientists published the data they collected on the climate, natural resources, orography, flora and fauna of those regions and compiled them in 30 volumes of the publication called the Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent .
Although many point to the beginning of their American journey in A Coruña, aboard the Spanish corvette Pizarro, Humboldt and Bonpland actually left Paris on October 20, 1798 .
They arrived in Barcelona in December of that year and skirted the Mediterranean coast on foot to Valencia.
On June 5, 1799, they set sail from Galicia, after passing through Madrid, heading for the Canary Islands, the first stop before reaching Cumaná in Venezuela. It was the interlude between the old and the new world.
They stayed in the Spanish archipelago for only six days –on June 19 and 25, 1799–, during which they collected a huge amount of information on the flora, fauna and volcanism, especially on the island of Tenerife.
220 years later, the Canaries still remember what Humboldt contributed, who had always dreamed of setting foot on Tenerife.
First time outside of Europe
Before his arrival on that island, little is known that the Prussian explorer spent a few hours on the islet of La Graciosa, off Lanzarote.
Although he barely had time to collect and detect some plants, fish and mollusks, and to notice certain minerals , this stop was important: it meant stepping on the ground outside the European continent for the first time.
There he faced strange species and novel rocks and landscapes.
“The landing in La Graciosa was, in fact, the first contact with a world alien to Europe, with the unknown, and the first step in a five-year journey that began, without intending to, on an uninhabited island next to Lanzarote”, Sinc tells Alberto Relancio, coordinator of Didactics and Dissemination of the Canarian Foundation Orotava for the History of Science in Tenerife.
In this territory so far from Europe, Humboldt and Bonpland encountered a subtropical physical and human landscape .
The prints that they admired of nature were unpublished for them, and Humboldt especially highlighted the variety and harmony of the vegetation of the north of Tenerife, which according to his Diaries , he would remember as something exceptional.
“That made the Canary Islands, in particular Tenerife, a privileged reference point for everything that he could later discover in America, Russia or wherever, and in his later writings he always recovers the Canary Island in his comparisons with other places in the world, he always returns to his primal admiration for the week he lived on the island at the beginning of his long American trip, ”says Relancio.
Already at the end of the 18th century, Humboldt, who also studied humanism and ethnography, was surprised to find social classes of Frenchified Canarian bourgeois in La Laguna or La Orotava , or with educated Anglo-Saxons settled by trade in Puerto de la Cruz. .
The naturalist was shocked by “that contrast between a shared European culture in the middle of a remote subtropical environment,” adds the Canarian expert.
A never seen landscape
Humboldt, who had dreamed of reaching other continents after his first trips to Holland and England, focused during his scientific expeditions on measuring environmental variables: altitude, pressure, temperature, radiation, color of the sky, etc., and relating them to species and communities .
“This is how he discovered the altitudinal and latitudinal gradients,” says Pausas.
In Tenerife he was able to verify these variables in the vegetation, one of the aspects that most attracted him to the island.
It is there that the first idea of a theory about vegetation floors arose, as the foundation of geobotany: the different plants that coexist in a given area based on altitude and correlated variables: temperature, hours of sunlight, atmospheric pressure , etc., against the species of a higher or lower zone.
“It is something that he would refine throughout his journey and that he would publish from 1803 on,” Relancio emphasizes. He had already had this hypothesis in mind for years, but it was in Tenerife where, given its altitude, he was able to verify, classify and measure it.
“This classification of botanical geography areas in Tenerife was later rectified by his friend Leopold von Buch (based on Christen Smith), then by Sabino Berthelot and, later, by other naturalists, but the theoretical-practical foundation is in Humboldt”, says the expert.
Humboldt’s vision was focused on how environmental parameters determine plant species and communities.
“Today we know that the environment determines many ecological processes, but also that environmental characteristics do not explain everything. Much of the diversity of our ecosystems is explained by the interaction relationships between species , or by disturbance regimes, such as fires ”, points out the researcher at the CSIC center, who this year has published a study on the naturalist and reinvention of the nature.
The importance of mountains
In Tenerife, the geographer also made one of the first approaches to Las Cañadas, the gigantic caldera of about 17 km in diameter on which the Pico del Teide sits, at 3,718 meters, the third highest volcano in the world from its base in the ocean floor (about 7,500 meters).
Humboldt ascended what would be his first active volcano, which was captivated by its majesty upon arrival in Santa Cruz .
“The peak was only visible to us for a few minutes, when we were already in front of the Santa Cruz dock. But those few minutes gave me a grandiose and overwhelming vision […] The morning was gray and damp […], when suddenly the cloud cover was torn; a lovely blue sky appeared through the opening. “
“And in the midst of that blue, as if it were not part of the earth, as if the perspective to a strange world was opened […], the Teide peak appeared to us in all its majesty,” wrote the naturalist.
In his ascent he himself became a measuring instrument with his findings. Marie-Noëlle Bourguet, Emeritus Professor of Modern History at the Paris-Diderot University (France), explains in a publication on Humboldt’s trip to Mount Teide that the scientist does not place the novelty of his journey in the itinerary followed or in the compilation of scattered samples, “but in the systematically performed measurement operations .”
The explorer studied volcanic phenomena in the conformation of the earth’s crust.
Before arriving in the Canary Islands, Humboldt attributed a marine origin to the formation of the earth’s crust (neptunism theory), but he began to change his mind in Tenerife: the earth’s crust would be formed by the action of fire, in this case the effect of the volcanoes (plutonism).
The data collected was compared with the other volcanoes that rose in America, such as Chimborazo –which with an altitude of 6263.47 meters is the furthest point from the center of the Earth–, Cayambe, Pichincha and Cotopaxi, all in Ecuador, and in Mexico the Popocatépetl, the Iztaccíhuatl, the Nauhcampatépetl in Veracruz, the Pico de Orizaba and the Jorullo in Michoacán, which emerged on September 29, 1759, and was in eruption for 15 years.
The mountains become a priority throughout your entire itinerary. “Hence the review of the measurements on the height of Teide that had been made up to then, and his verdict that the first exact measurement was that of the knight Borda, as it is considered today,” says Relancio.
Given the importance of mountains, which cover 25% of the earth’s surface, in Humboldt’s expeditions and in his scientific legacy, Science magazine published this week especially on the 250th anniversary of the German naturalist’s birth.
The articles analyze how the ideas of the explorer, which inextricably intertwined nature and humanity , could help societies better face the social and environmental challenges of the so-called Anthropocene.