This project utilizes European botanical and medical treatises, ethnographic literature including travelogues, and correspondences about Indian food and agriculture from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to examine their hybrid characters as epistemic genres. Such epistemic genres, “texts that are directly related to the transmission of knowledge,” which “develop in tandem with scientific practices,” regularly contained ethnographic information on the handling of foods by Indian people. The Indian population in these texts became concurrently subject to and the objects of inquiry; subjects as informants for scientific studies on the Indian crops; and objects as being studied on their use of these crops within the Indian cultural context.
In the eighteenth century, European discourses increasingly racialized Indian food and agriculture, claiming that the choice of food crops and their consumption defined the Indian physique and mind. Such allegations were based on Enlightenment scientific theories about the digestive system, which assumed that diets permanently altered populations and justified oppression and rule. Such justifications are inherently linked to ethnographic patterns of othering, as they are not founded on supposedly objective and empirical observations on agriculture and food but on forms of cultural stereotyping. To understand this development, the project scrutinizes the interrelation of ethnography and naturalist knowledge about food and agriculture in the preceding centuries of intense Indian-European contact. It thus contributes to our understanding of the entanglement of cultural and scientific knowledge in racialized conceptions of Indian food and agriculture.