Humboldt's Plant Geography

Alexander von Humboldt: "Everything is interconnected."

"Alles ist Wechselwirkung."  Alexander von Humboldt, Reise auf dem Rio Magdalena, durch die Anden und Mexico. Margot Faak (ed.), vol. 1, p. 358.

Humboldt's Travels
In the first half of the nineteenth century, people believed that the Ecuadoran Chimborazo volcano was the tallest mountain in the world. Accompanied by Aimé Bonpland and Carlos Montúfar, Alexander von Humboldt almost reached the summit of the mountain in 1802. Because no one had ever climbed so high before, reports of this accomplishment made Humboldt a celebrity in Europe.
The Chimborazo and Plant Geography

Humboldt's cross-section of the Chimborazo was his most daring experiment in the visual presentation of scientific data. With its great variety and richness of information, the image displays Humboldt's conception of plant geography and reflects his effort to show the unity, diversity, and interconnectedness of nature.

    The cross-section shows Latin plant names at various altitudes. In columns to the right and left of the cross-section, Humboldt presents relevant climatic conditions such as temperature, barometric pressure, etc.
    Computer technology offers an opportunity to overcome the limitations of the print medium. By expanding and magnifying the concentrated form of the data, the digital library can guide the user to Humboldt's vast store of botanical and geographical information.

Accessing Humboldt's Discoveries

   During their exploration of the Americas, Humboldt and Bonpland observed thousands of plants unknown in Europe. They described them in detail and supervised the preparation of colored lithographs. Although the digital library will eventually accommodate the entire range of descriptions and images, at the present time the Chimborazo figure illustrates how it is possible to access information about the plants that Humboldt considered the most important.

    The user can ascertain when and where Humboldt and Bonpland located the 700 plants of the Nova Genera et Species Plantarum. The digital library provides all relevant data to recreate the geographical context of these plants.

    On the basis of Humboldt's precise information, it is possible to determine how plant life and the environment have changed in the last 200 years. 


Humboldt and Aime Bonpland at the Foot of the Chimborazo. Painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810)
Source: Wikipedia