era incorporates all period subdivisions
in the history and prehistory of the Americas
before the appearance of significant European
influences on the American
continents. While technically referring to the era before Christopher Columbus
, in practice the term usually includes the history of American indigenous cultures
until they were conquered or significantly influenced by Europeans, even if this happened decades or even centuries after Columbus' initial landing.
Pre-Columbian is used especially often in the context of the great indigenous civilizations of the Americas, such as those of Mesoamerica (the Olmec, the Toltec, the Teotihuacano, the Zapotec, the Mixtec, the Aztec and the Maya) and the Andes (Inca, Moche, Chibcha, Cañaris).
Many pre-Columbian civilizations established characteristics and hallmarks which included permanent or urban settlements, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture, and complex societal hierarchies. Some of these civilizations had long faded by the time of the first permanent European arrivals (c. late 15th - early 16th centuries), and are known only through archaeological investigations. Others were contemporary with this period, and are also known from historical accounts of the time. A few, such as the Maya, had their own written records. However, most Europeans of the time largely viewed such texts as heretical, and much was destroyed in Christian pyres. Only a few hidden documents remain today, leaving modern historians with glimpses of ancient culture and knowledge.
According to both indigenous American and European accounts and documents, American civilizations at the time of European encounter possessed many impressive accomplishments. For instance, the Aztecs built one of the most impressive cities in the world, Tenochtitlan, the ancient site of Mexico City, with an estimated population of 200,000. American civilizations also displayed impressive accomplishments in astronomy and mathematics.
Where they persist, the societies and cultures which are descended from these civilizations may now be substantively different in form from that of the original. However, many of these peoples and their descendants still uphold various traditions and practices which relate back to these earlier times, even if combined with those that were more recently adopted.
nomads are thought to have entered the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge
(Beringia), now the Bering Strait
and possibly along the Northwest coast. Genetic evidence found in Amerindians' maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA
(mtDNA) supports the theory of multiple genetic founding populations migrating from Asia, although it does not rule out a single migration. Over the course of millennia, people spread throughout North and South America. Exactly when the first group of people migrated into the Americas is the subject of much debate. One of the earliest identifiable cultures was the Clovis culture
, with sites dating from some 13,000 years ago. However, older sites dating back to 20,000 years ago have been claimed, and some genetic studies estimate the colonization of the Americas dates from between 40,000 to 13,000 years ago. Also, multiple waves of immigration have been suggested.
In any case, artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to at least 14,000 BP, and humans are thought to have reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time. Most scholars agree that the Inuit and related peoples arrived separately and at a much later date, probably during the first millennium CE, moving across the ice from Siberia into Alaska.
After the migration or migrations, it was several thousand years before the first complex civilizations arose, at the earliest emerging 5000 BCE. The inhabitants of the Americas were hunter-gatherers
, and even after the emergence of advanced civilizations, such societies covered most of the continents' area until the 18th century. Numerous archaeological cultures
can be identified with some of the classifications including Early Paleo-Indian Period
, Late Paleo-Indian Period
, Archaic Period
, Early Woodland Period
, Middle Woodland Period
and Late Woodland Period
Early inhabitants of the Americas developed agriculture, developing and breeding maize
(corn) from ears 2-5 cm in length to the current size we are familiar with today. Potatoes
(a husked green tomato), pumpkins
, chili peppers
, sweet potatoes
, the grains quinoa
, and avocados
were among other plants grown by natives. Over two-thirds of all food crops grown worldwide are native to the Americas.
The natives began using fire in a widespread manner. Intentional burning of vegetation was taken up to mimic the effects of natural fires that tended to clear forest understories, thereby making travel easier and facilitating the growth of herbs and berry-producing plants that were important for both food and medicines. This created the Pre-Columbian savannas of North America.
While not as widespread as in other areas of the world (Asia, Africa, Europe), native Americans did have livestock. In Mexico as well as Central America, natives had domesticated deer which was used for meat and possibly even milk. Andean societies had llamas and alpacas for the same reasons, as well as for beasts of burden. Guinea pigs were raised for meat in the Andes. Iguanas were another source of meat in Mexico, Central, and northern South America.
By the 15th century, maize had been transmitted from Mexico and was being farmed in the Mississippi embayment and as far as the East Coast of the United States and as far north as southern Canada. Potatoes were utilized by the Inca, and chocolate was used by the Aztec.
When the Europeans arrived, many natives of North America
were semi-nomadic tribes of hunter-gatherers; others were sedentary and agricultural civilizations. Many formed new tribes
or confederations in response to European colonization. Well-known groups included the Huron
(which included Mohawk
and later the Tuscarora
tribe, and Inuit
. Although not as technologically advanced as the Mesoamerican civilizations further south, there were extensive pre-Columbian sedentary societies in what is now the United States of America. The Iroquois League of Nations
or "People of the Long House" was a politically advanced and unique social structure that was at the very least inspirational if not directly influential on the later development of the democratic United States government, a departure from the strong monarchies from which the Europeans came.
The Mississippian culture dominated much of the area along the Mississippi River
in Pre-Columbian history. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of large earthen mounds, leading to the nickname the Moundbuilders
. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network, and had a complex stratified society. The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 CE, following and developing out of the less agriculturally intensive and less centralized Woodland period. The culture reached its peak in c.
1200-1400, and in most places it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of the Europeans.
The largest site of this people, Cahokia — located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois — may have reached a population of over 20,000. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America, although far larger cities were constructed in Mesoamerica and South America. Monk's Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric New World.
Mesoamerica is the region extending from central Mexico south to the northwestern border of Costa Rica that gave rise to a group of stratified, culturally related agrarian civilizations spanning an approximately 3,000-year period before the European discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus. Mesoamerican is the adjective generally used to refer to that group of pre-Columbian cultures. This refers to an environmental area occupied by an assortment of ancient cultures that shared religious beliefs, art, architecture, and technology in the Americas for more than three thousand years.
Between 1800 and 300 BCE, complex cultures began to form in Mesoamerica. Some matured into advanced pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations such as the: Olmec, Teotihuacan, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, Huastec, Purepecha, Toltec and Mexica (Aztecs), which flourished for nearly 4,000 years before first contact with Europeans.
These indigenous civilizations are credited with many inventions in: building pyramid-temples, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, writing, highly accurate calendars, fine arts, intensive agriculture, engineering, an abacus calculator, a complex theology, and the wheel. However, without any draft animals, the wheel was used only as a toy. They also used native copper and gold for metalworking.
Archaic inscriptions on rocks and rock walls all over northern Mexico (especially in the state of Nuevo León) demonstrate an early propensity for counting in Mexico. The counting system was one of the most complex in the world, with a base 20 number system. These very early and ancient count-markings were associated with astronomical events and underscore the influence that astronomical activities had upon Mexican natives before the arrival of Europeans. In fact, many of the later Mexican based civilizations carefully built their cities and ceremonial centers according to specific astronomical events.
The biggest Mesoamerican cities such as Teotihuacan, Tenochtitlan, and Cholula were among the largest in the world. These cities grew as centers of commerce, ideas, ceremonies, and theology, and they radiated influence outwards onto neighboring cultures in central Mexico.
While many city-states, kingdoms, and empires competed with one another for power and prestige, Mesoamerica can be said to have had five major civilizations: The Olmec, Teotihuacan, the Toltec, the Mexica and the Maya. These civilizations (with the exception of the politically fragmented Maya) extended their reach across Mexico — and beyond — like no others. They consolidated power and distributed influence in matters of trade, art, politics, technology, and theology. Other regional power players made economic and political alliances with these four civilizations over the span of 4,000 years. Many made war with them, but almost all peoples found themselves within these five spheres of influence.
The earliest known civilization is the Olmec. This civilization established the cultural blueprint by which all succeeding indigenous civilizations would follow in Mexico. Olmec civilization began with the production of pottery in abundance, around 2300 BCE. Between 1800 and 1500 BCE, the Olmec consolidated power into chiefdoms
which established their capital at a site today known as San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán
, near the coast in southeast Veracruz
. The Olmec influence extended across Mexico, into Central America
, and along the Gulf of Mexico
. They transformed many peoples' thinking toward a new way of government, pyramid-temples, writing, astronomy, art, mathematics, economics, and religion. Their achievements paved the way for the later greatness of the Maya civilization in the east and the civilizations to the west in central Mexico.
The decline of the Olmec resulted in a power vacuum in Mexico. Emerging from that vacuum was Teotihuacan, first settled in 300 BCE. By 150 CE, Teotihuacan had risen to become the first true metropolis
of what is now called North America. Teotihuacan established a new economic and political order never before seen in Mexico. Its influence stretched across Mexico into Central America, founding new dynasties in the Maya cities of Tikal
, and Kaminaljuyú
. Teotihuacan's influence over the Maya civilization cannot be understated: it transformed political power, artistic depictions, and the nature of economics. Within the city of Teotihuacan was a diverse and cosmopolitan population. Most of the regional ethnicities of Mexico were represented in the city, such as Zapotecs
from the Oaxaca region. They lived in apartment communities where they worked their trades and contributed to the city's economic and cultural prowess. By 500 CE, Teotihuacan had become the largest city in the world. Teotihuacan's economic pull impacted areas in northern Mexico as well. It was a city whose monumental architecture reflected a monumental new era in Mexican civilization, declining in political power about 650 CE—but lasting in cultural influence for the better part of a millennium, to around 950 CE.
Contemporary with Teotihuacan's greatness was the greatness of the Maya civilization. The period between 250 CE and 650 CE was a time of intense flourishing of Maya civilized accomplishments. While the many Maya city-states never achieved political unity on the order of the central Mexican civilizations, they exerted a tremendous intellectual influence upon Mexico and Central America. The Maya built some of the most elaborate cities on the continent, and made innovations in mathematics, astronomy, and calendrics. The Mayans also evolved the only true written system native to the Americas using pictographs and syllabic elements in the form of texts
inscribed on stone, pottery, wood, or highly perishable books made from bark paper.
With the decline of the Toltec civilization came political fragmentation in the Valley of Mexico
. Into this new political game of contenders to the Toltec throne stepped outsiders: the Mexica. They were also a proud desert people, one of seven groups who formerly called themselves "Azteca", in memory of Aztlán
, but they changed their name after years of migrating. Since they were not from the Valley of Mexico, they were initially seen as crude and unrefined in the ways of Nahua civilization. Through cunning political maneuvers and ferocious fighting skills, they managed to become the rulers of Mexico as the head of the 'Triple Alliance' (which included two other "Aztec" cities, Texcoco and Tlacopan).
Latecomers to Mexico's central plateau, the Mexica thought of themselves as heirs of the civilizations that had preceded them. For them, highly-civilized arts, sculpture, architecture, engraving, feather-mosiac work, and the invention of the calendar were because of the former inhabitants of Tula, the Toltecs.
The Mexica-Aztecs were the rulers of much of central Mexico by about 1400 (while Yaquis, Coras and Apaches commanded sizable regions of northern desert), having subjugated most of the other regional states by the 1470s. At their peak, 300,000 Mexica presided over a wealthy tribute-empire comprising about 10 million people (almost half of Mexico's 24 million people). The modern name "Mexico" comes from their name.
Their capital, Tenochtitlan, is the site of modern-day Mexico City. At its peak, it was one of the largest cities in the world with population estimates of 300,000. The market established there was the largest ever seen by the conquistadors when they arrived.
By the first millennium, South America’s vast rainforests, mountains, plains and coasts were the home of tens of millions of people.
Some groups formed permanent settlements. Among those groups were the Chibchas (or "Muiscas" or "Muyscas"), Valdivia and the Tairona. The Chibchas
, the Quechuas
and the Aymara
were the 4 most important sedentary Amerindian groups in South America. In the last two thousand years, there may have been contact with Polynesians
across the South Pacific Ocean
, as shown by the spread of the sweet potato
through some areas of the Pacific, but there is no genetic legacy of human contact.
On the northern coast of present-day Peru, Norte Chico was a cluster of large-scale urban settlements which emerged around 3000 BCE (contemporary with urbanism's rise in Mesopotamia
) and declined around 1800 BCE. Caral
, in the Supe valley, is one of the largest and best studied sites. It is the oldest known civilization
in the Americas
The Valdivia culture was concentrated on the coast of Ecuador. Their existence was recently discovered by Archeological findings. Their culture is the oldest in the Americas, spanning from 3500 to 1800 BCE. The Valdivia lived in a community that built its houses in a circle or oval around a central plaza, and were sedentary people that lived off farming and fishing, though occasionally they went hunting for deer. From the remains that have been found, it has been determined that Valdivians cultivated maize, kidney beans, squash, cassava, hot peppers and cotton plants, the latter of which was used to make clothing. Valdivian pottery initially was rough and practical, but it became splendid, delicate and large over time. They generally used red and gray colors; and the polished dark red pottery is characteristic of the Valdivia period. In their ceramics and stone works, the Valdivia culture shows a progression from the most simple to much more complicated works.
The Cañaris were the indigenous natives of today's Ecuadorian province of Cañar, and Azuay. They were an elaborate civilization with advanced architecture, and religious belief. Most of their remains were burned, and destroyed by attacks from the Inca. Their old city was replaced twice, first by the Incan city of Tomipamba, and later by the Colonial city of Cuenca
. The city was also believed to be the site of El Dorado, the city of gold from the mythology of Colombia. (see Cuenca) The Cañaris were most notable to have repelled the Incan invasion with fierce resistance for many years until they fell to Tupac Yupanqui. Many of their descendents are still present in Cañar with the majority not having mixed, and reserved from becoming Mestizos.
The Chavín, a South American preliterate civilization, established a trade network and developed agriculture by 900 BCE, according to some estimates and archeological finds. Artifacts were found at a site called Chavín in modern Peru at an elevation of 3,177 meters. The Chavín civilization spanned from 900 to 300 BCE.
The Chibcha linguistic communities were the most numerous, the most territorially extended and the most socio-economically developed of the pre-Hispanic Colombians. By the 3rd century, the Chibchas had established their civilization in the northern Andes
. At one point, the Chibchas occupied part of what is now Panama
, and the high plains of the Eastern Sierra of Colombia. The areas that they occupied were the Departments of Santander (North and South), Boyacá and Cundinamarca, which were also the areas where the first farms and first industries were developed, and where the independence movement originated. They are currently the richest areas in Colombia. They represented the most populous zone between the Mayan and Inca empires. Next to the Quechua of Peru and the Aymara in Bolivia, the Chibchas of the eastern and north-eastern Highlands of Colombia were the most striking of the sedentary
indigenous peoples in South America.
In the Oriental Andes, the Chibchas were composed of several tribes who spoke the same language (Chibchan). Among them: Muiscas, Guanes, Laches, Cofan
The Moche thrived on the north coast of Peru 1,500–2,000 years ago. The heritage of the Moche comes down to us through their elaborate burials, recently excavated by UCLA
's Christopher Donnan in association with the National Geographic Society
As skilled artisans, the Moche were a technologically advanced people who traded with faraway peoples, like the Maya. Almost everything we know about the Moche comes from their ceramic pottery with carvings of their daily lives. The Larco Museum of Lima, Peru has an extensive collection of these ceramics. We know from these records that they practiced human sacrifice, had blood-drinking rituals, and that their religion incorporated non-procreative sexual practices (such as fellatio).
Holding their capital at the great cougar-shaped city of Cuzco, the Inca civilization dominated the Andes region from 1438 to 1533. Known as Tawantin suyu, or "the land of the four regions," in Quechua, the Inca civilization was highly distinct and developed. Inca rule extended to nearly a hundred linguistic or ethnic communities, some 9 to 14 million people connected by a 25,000 kilometer road system. Cities were built with precise, unmatched stonework, constructed over many levels of mountain terrain. Terrace farming was a useful form of agriculture. There is evidence of excellent metalwork and even successful brain surgery in Inca civilization.
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