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Caveat lector; or, the Linnean origin of the myth of Tournefort as a precursor of von Humboldt


Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) is frequently mentioned in biogeography and ecology among those who, before von Humboldt, paralleled the elevational organization of vegetation to its latitudinal zonation on the basis of observations made on Mount Ararat and presented in his Relation d'un voyage du Levant (1717). However, as already noticed in overlooked notes by Hooker (1881) and Hemsley (1896), there is no hint to this correspondence in Tournefort’s description of his ascent of Mount Ararat. Linnaeus (1744) was the first author who, without any plausible reason, attributed the idea of this parallelism to Tournefort. Based on Linnaeus’ work, Mirbel (1815), von Humboldt (1816), Schouw (1823) and Forbes (1846) repeated this wrong credit. Works by these early authors have in turn generated an intricate pathway of repetition of original Linnaeus’ error until nowadays. Along with Tournefort, Linnaeus cited Cesalpino (1583), as one who found floral similarities between northern lowlands (Sweden) and southern mountains (Tuscany). However, there is no passage in Cesalpino that might suggest that he made any comparison between the Italian and Swedish floras, although it is possible that Linnaeus used Cesalpino’s observations on the Italian flora to make a parallelism with the Swedish one. Cesalpino’s recognition of the existence of allied species placed at different elevations may suggest that he has anticipated, by centuries, the concept of vicariance.


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