The first Americans came from Asia, beginning as early as thirty thousand years ago, over a land bridge that formed at the Bering Strait during the Ice Age. The new immigrants were hunters and gatherers, and over a period of fifteen thousand years various groups spread over the American continents. By the time of the European “discovery” of the New World, there were perhaps as many as 100 million native Americans, the vast majority living in Central and South America.
The development of agriculture by Native Americans more than five thousand years ago sparked new cultures and innovations. Hunters who previously roamed the land like nomads established permanent villages. Corn, sun, and water became focal points for many societies and played strong roles in religious ceremonies. In some cultures, control of the corn surplus was directly linked to power and authority.
Some of the first sedentary societies of North America were created by groups known as the Mound Builders, believed to be the ancestors of the Creeks, Choctaws, and Natchez. The mound building societies formed enormous earthworks into various shapes and sizes. Some mounds featured multiple terrace levels on which hundreds of houses were built. The largest known mound had a base that covered nearly fifteen acres and rose to a height of one hundred feet. While circles, squares, and octagons were the most common mound shapes, some patterns resembled creatures such as hawks, panthers, or snakes. Many believe that the different shapes were religious signs or territorial markers for different tribes.
The Mississippian culture flourished after the Mound Builders and expanded their settlements and trading network. They also built massive mounds that served as burial and ceremonial sites. As these peoples became more proficient at farming and fishing, they remained longer in one location and developed substantial dwellings. Clusters of mound builders settled in the Ohio Valley, along the Mississippi River, and as far west as present-day Oklahoma.
In the Rio Grande valley, the Pueblo people created complex irrigation systems to water their cornfields. The Anasazi, or “Ancient Ones” in the Navajo language, carved into the sandstone cliffs complete cities with baked mud structures that towered four or five stories high. They developed row upon row of terraced gardens that they used for planting crops.
In what is now the northeastern United States, the Iroquois Confederacy—comprised of five Indian nations, the Seneca, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Mohawk—also relied on agriculture to multiply and prosper. Farming allowed the people to accumulate large quantities of food that could be stored for long periods. This helped to decrease the threat of starvation, especially during the winter, and ultimately led to population growth since more food was available and more hands were needed to cultivate and harvest the crops.
Many Native American groups developed sophisticated planting techniques that allowed them to take full advantage of the land and make the most out of the time and effort they put into their agricultural work. One of the more unique procedures, called “three-sister” farming, involved a high-yielding strain of bean that grew on the corn stalks while squash grew at the base of the plant to help retain moisture in the soil. This procedure allowed farmers, who were usually the females of the tribe, to harvest three different crops from the same field. These crops became an important commodity as farmers traded portions of their harvest to hunters for animal furs, bones, and meat.
The Iroquois League of Five Nations was the largest political and military organization east of the Mississippi River. However, even as North American civilizations grew in population, sophistication, and power, they did not compare to the complex societies of the Aztecs and Incas in Central and South America. These vast empires included paved roadways and canals that linked smaller cities, aqueducts that carried fresh water to urban pools and fountains, and giant pyramids that rivaled in grandeur those found in Egypt.
The Aztecs settled on the site of present-day Mexico City in the early 14th century. Although they might be considered latecomers to the area, their political skills and military strength enabled them to expand beyond their capital city of Tenochtitlan very quickly. While they used their military might to conquer several regions, Aztec leaders also formed alliances with many groups already established in the area. They convinced them to serve the empire rather than risk bloodshed and war. Food, baskets, household goods, precious metals, and even prisoners for human sacrifices were given to the rulers in Tenochtitlan. The empire grew rapidly as more and more subjects paid tribute to the Aztecs.
In South America, where the climate varies from cold mountain peaks to steamy rain forests, the Incas ruled much of the western coast. Perhaps more than 12 million people contributed to the creation of sprawling cities, terraced farmlands, extended roadways, and golden palaces. The Inca empire covered nearly 2,500 miles and included regions of present-day Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina. Although, like other native peoples throughout the Americas, they did not have their own written language or the use of the wheel, the Incas were extremely intelligent engineers. They built huge stone structures without mortar and designed suspension bridges that crossed deep mountain valleys.
Their well organized political structure and close-knit hierarchical society enabled the Incas to become the largest civilization in South America by 1500. Like that of the Aztec empire, the Inca empire was essentially a coalition of tribes. However, unlike the strong-handed rule of the Central American culture, the Incas allowed local groups to govern regions independently. Each tribe gave its allegiance to the ruler, the Sapa Inca, whom they believed was the descendent of the sun-god. In return for their cooperation, the people were treated well and accepted into the paternalistic Incan society.
The majority of the Native Americans that inhabited South and North America respected their land and often paid tribute to gods to bring them bountiful harvests and protection. However, little did they know that their way of life would change drastically once European explorers set foot on the American continents.
During the Middle Ages, Europeans knew little, if anything, about the existence of the Americas. Scandinavian voyagers explored present-day Newfoundland around 1000 A.D., and made several attempts at colonization. Without dependable backing from strong nation-states, and in the face of a determined and violent opposition from native inhabitants, however, their fragile villages were ultimately abandoned and forgotten.
In Europe, territorial battles between Christians and Muslims dominated much of the period between the 11th and 14th centuries. By the middle of the 15th century, Europeans had grown accustomed to a variety of exotic Asian goods including silk, drugs, perfume, and spices. However, Muslim forces controlled key passageways to the east and forced European tradesmen to pay huge sums for their ways. European consumers tired of the increasing prices and demanded faster, less expensive routes to Asia. During this era, as city-states and emerging nations fostered a new-found enthusiasm for expansion and exploration, Christopher Columbus was born in the Italian port of Genoa. The son of a wool-comber, Columbus spent his youth learning his father’s trade. By his teenage years, he became a seaman and took part in voyages to England and Ireland with Portuguese mariners.
The invention of the printing press around this time made information sharing much easier. Journals described the experiences of many explorers, including the travels of Marco Polo to Asia almost three hundred years earlier. Europeans were captivated by his descriptions of incredible wealth and golden pagodas.
Columbus, too, became caught up in the excitement and read many books on navigation and geography. He eventually devised a plan to find a westward route to Asia. In 1484, he presented his plan to King John II of Portugal but was denied financial support. He spent years asking the rulers of various countries, including France and England, for assistance before Spain’s Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand finally agreed to help. The monarchs wanted desperately to spread Christianity throughout the world and increase the Spanish presence over that of Portugal. Of course, the opportunity to acquire gold and riches greatly influenced their decision as well.
Once Columbus received the support he had been seeking so long, he surprised many by making a series of demands. Should he succeed on his voyage, he wanted to be knighted, appointed Admiral of the Ocean Sea and viceroy (governor) of any new lands he discovered, and awarded ten percent of any profits generated by his expedition. The Spanish monarchs reluctantly agreed to his stipulations and provided Columbus with three small ships and a crew of about ninety sailors.
On August 3, 1492, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria set sail from Palos in southern Spain. The fleet spent almost a month in the Canary Islands to make repairs and gather supplies. With the maintenance chores complete, Columbus continued his voyage west. Much like many sailors of the 15th century, Columbus’s men were superstitious and wary of venturing too far from land. The weather remained fair for most of the journey but crew members often pleaded with their leader to turn around and return home. Columbus refused. Then, on October 12, 1492, as the exhausted sailors grew closer to mutiny, lookout Roderigo de Triana spied land from his perch atop the mast of the Pinta. His cries of “Tierra! Tierra!” echoed across the water to the crews on the other ships.
Columbus led a party ashore, drove a flag into the ground, and called the new land San Salvador (Holy Savior). Although he was standing on an island in the Bahamas, Columbus was so positive that he had found the East Indies that he named the natives “Indians.” He then ventured on to Cuba, which he thought was China, and mistook Haiti (Hispaniola) for Japan. Thinking that he had retraced Marco Polo’s footsteps, Columbus took what gold and natural resources he could carry aboard his ships back to Spain. The king and queen were impressed with his findings and agreed to fund more excursions to the New World. Although Columbus repeated his journey three more times, he refused to accept the evidence that the people, animals, and plants of the New World were nothing like those found in Europe or Asia. He remained convinced that he had discovered a new westward route to the Indies.
Christopher Columbus’s initial voyage to America whetted the appetites of many European countries. Power-hungry leaders sponsored many expeditions to the New World in the hopes that they would get a share of the riches. As travel between Europe and America became more frequent, small settlements and trading posts were established along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, including present-day Florida through Central America. Explorers discovered great amounts of precious metals and natural resources, but it was not enough the quench their growing thirst for more wealth.
In 1519, Hernan Cortés was commissioned by the governor of Cuba to expand the Spanish empire into Mexico. Cortés, an aspiring conquistador (conqueror), gathered an army of about six hundred soldiers who shared his dreams of military glory and riches.
During his journey to Mexico, Cortés encountered an Indian slave named Malinche. She was fluent in several languages, including Nahuatl, the language spoken by the Aztecs. Through Malinche’s conversations with many people ruled by the Aztecs, Cortés learned that the capital, Tenochtitlan, was overflowing with gold and silver and other riches. He also discovered that the empire was riddled with conflict and turmoil, and he formed military alliances with local people who resented the Aztecs for their human sacrifices and forced tribute.
As Cortés approached Tenochtitlan, emperor Montezuma II sent diplomats to meet the Spaniards with gifts. Cortés accepted the small tokens but boldly told the Aztec ruler that he and his men had a disease of the heart that only gold could cure. Though apprehensive, Montezuma welcomed Cortés into the capital because he believed that he was the legendary god Quetzalcoatl, whose return was predicted to signal final days of Tenochtitlan. Cortés and his men held Montezuma as a virtual prisoner, and plundered the vast wealth of the region. Cortés, for example, forced Montezuma to provide Indian laborers to mine more gold. Although Cortés and his small army were greatly outnumbered, they could do most anything they desired because they ruled the empire through Montezuma. They also continued to enjoy the allegiance of non-Aztecs and controlled the more powerful military weapons. Guns, swords, knives, and even horses amazed and frightened the Aztecs.
In 1520, the Aztec people, weary of their servile status and angry at Montezuma for his failure to protect them, attacked the Spaniards and drove them out of the city. Montezuma was killed, probably by his own people, during this uprising. Cortés, however, eventually regrouped and staged a bloody assault on the capital that lasted through much of 1521. The violent battles, combined with a smallpox epidemic that same year, killed many Aztec warriors and caused the once powerful Aztec empire to crumble. The great temples in Tenochtitlan were destroyed and Christian churches were constructed in their places.
The Spanish empire grew rapidly after the fall of the Aztecs. Between 1522 and 1528, Spanish forces overpowered groups in Yucatan and Guatemala. In the 1530s, Francisco Pizarro led a group of Spanish soldiers through Panama and into Peru where they battled the Incas. The conquistador decimated the Incan Empire quickly and with relatively little effort because he and his warriors focused their fighting on the heart of the empire, the ruling family. Once the people realized that the Inca, to whom they pledged their allegiance, was no longer in control, they retreated and the empire collapsed. The Spaniards successfully carried out their plan to rule much of the New World. However, their greed and shortsightedness regarding the future of the Americas eventually took its toll.