Sections: What Came To Be Called “America” | Mediterranean World | Christopher Columbus | Inventing America | Europe Claims America | Epilogue

By 1492 people had lived in the Western Hemisphere for tens of thousands of years. For much of this time it is believed that they experienced virtually no recorded, sustained contact with other parts of the world—Europe, Africa, or Asia.

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Millions of people lived in an area some five times the size of Europe. In strikingly diverse habitats and climates they developed possibly the most varied and productive agriculture in the world. Their lifestyles and belief systems differed widely and they spoke hundreds of distinct languages.

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Throughout the hemisphere, states and centers of high civilization had risen and fallen. The dynamic Mexica (Aztec) and Inca empires were still expanding at this time and internal migration and warfare were common. The peoples did not see themselves as part of an entity. Only later would this area be given a unifying name—America—and the people labeled “Indians” by Europe.

We have focused on five geographical areas of the region to represent the variety and complexity of peoples and cultures before 1492: the Caribbean, Middle America, the Andean region, the South Atlantic, and North America. In order to understand what came to be called America we are often dependent on European observations.


The Caribbean—Island Society

The largest group of people living in the islands of the Caribbean were the Taínos. Their villages were governed by chieftains, or caciques, who enjoyed some distinctions of rank but received tribute in times of crisis only. Related families lived together in large houses built of poles, mats, and thatch.

The Taínos were known for their fine wood carving and hammocks woven from cotton. Not a particularly warlike people, they played ceremonial ball games, possibly as a substitute for warfare and as an outlet for competition between villages and chiefdoms.

The other major group living in the Caribbean were the more mobile and aggressive Caribs, who took to the sea in huge dugout canoes. By the late 15th century, the Caribs had expanded into the smaller islands of the eastern Caribbean from the mainland, displacing or intermingling with the Taínos.


Oviedo came to America in 1514, where for over thirty years he compiled detailed ethnographic descriptions of the goods, products, peoples and customs of the Caribbean and Central America. He introduced Europe to a wide variety of previously unheard of New World “exotica” such as the pineapple, the canoe, the smoking of tobacco, and the hammock.

The indians sleep in a bed they call an "hamaca" which looks like a piece of cloth with both an open and tight weave, like a network ... made of noodle ... about 2.5 or 3 yards long, with many henequen twine strings at either end which can be hung at any height. They are good beds, and clean ... and since the weather is warm they require no covers at all ... and they are portable so a child can carry it over the arm.

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The hammock was perfected in the Caribbean and Brazil and was first introduced to Europeans during Columbus" first voyage of 1492.


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Relacííon de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobierno de los indios de la provincia de Mechoacán compiled by Fray Jeronimo de Alcala (?). <19th century manuscript facsimile of the ca. 1540 original>. Peter Force Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
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The Andes—Life in the Highlands

Organized states and advanced cultures had long flourished in the Andean mountain region. The semi-arid highlands were the center of the far-flung Inca empire, Tahuantinsuyu, that extended from today"s Chile to Colombia. Cuzco, the capital, was les-grizzlys-catalans.orgated at 10,000 feet above sea level.

Impressive adaptations to this unique environment allowed civilizations to thrive at higher altitudes than anywhere else in the world. The Andean peoples had learned to freeze-dry foods by taking advantage of the daily extremes of temperature at high altitudes. They kept herds of llamas and alpacas in the altiplano, weaving textiles from the wool. Using irrigation and terracing, they developed varieties of potatoes at high altitudes; grew corn and coca at lower levels; and raised cotton in the lowlands. They were knowledgeable miners, fine metalworkers, and great builders.

A rotating system of labor for public works that was traditional among Andean peoples was used to construct thousands of miles of roads. These roads greatly facilitated the movement of troops, peoples, and goods.



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South Atlantic Peoples

The coastal areas of eastern South America and the interior of the Amazon basin were home to several million people at the end of the 15th century. This enormous area, bordering the Andes mountains on the west and the Atlantic Ocean on the east, extends from present-day Argentina to the Guianas.

Socio-political structures were usually not highly developed in this area. The Tupí-speaking groups lived in villages in which related families resided together in large houses. They practiced slash-and-burn agriculture, and hunted and fished using blow guns and poison-tipped arrows. Manioc, a tuber, was their staple crop. They engaged in warfare and some groups practiced ritual cannibalism. Tupí groups eventually overcame the Tapuyas, mobile hunters and gatherers.




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Sections: What Came To Be Called “America” | Mediterranean World | Christopher Columbus | Inventing America | Europe Claims America | Epilogue

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