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NMSU professor awarded NEH grant to explore how Europeans thought America was Asia

In elementary school most of us learned that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to discover America in 1492. A New Mexico State University history professor says there is evidence that Europeans didn’t believe Columbus discovered a New World until more than 100 years later.


head and shoulders of woman standing next to a map
Elizabeth Horodowich, NMSU professor of history, was awarded a $290,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (NMSU photo by Andres Leighton)

Elizabeth Horodowich, professor of history in NMSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Alexander Nagel, professor of fine arts at New York University, were awarded a $290,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to research the various ways that Europeans depicted America as Asia.

“Our research demonstrates the many ways that European painters, cosmographers, printmakers and writers continued to represent to the New World as Asia up to 1600 and beyond,” Horodowich said.

“As just one example, in 1632, a French explorer named Nicolet sailed from one side of Lake Michigan to the other. He told his crew to put on silk robes to prepare to meet the Khan of China when they got to the other side, revealing just how long it took for the idea of Amerasia to change into America.”

Horodowich and Nagel will be traveling to libraries and archives in the U.S. and Europe in cities such as London, Paris and Rome to examine maps and other historical documents. They will share information via an online database and meet periodically to discuss their book in progress.

“Professor Nagel will look more at paintings and prints, I will focus my research on texts and travelogues, and we will both examine a variety of maps, ” Horodowich said.

“The first couple of years of our grant will involve data collection and information gathering, and later on, we will turn to writing book chapters together and building an interactive website that demonstrates what Amerasia looked like to early modern Europeans.”

The grant will also allow the two to meet several times a year to collaborate on the book that will be published as a result of their research.

“Our hope is that the book becomes a foundational text in the study of global history,” Horodowich said. “We hope to write a text that is readable for general audiences and specialists alike, and one that challenges the ways that we’ve understood early modern globalization and the ‘discovery’ of America.”

Horodowich completed two other books in January: “The Venetian Discovery of America: Geographic Imagination and Print Culture in the Age of Encounters” and “Virtual Encounters: Interpreting the New World in Early Modern Italy,” both of which will be published by Cambridge University Press.