The term pre-Columbian refers to the time before Columbus first set foot in the Americas. He sailed to find alternative routes to the East, as Asian imports had become very expensive in Europe after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. Yet pre-Columbian peoples had flourishing civilizations long before the arrival of Columbus. Each society had prescribed laws and unique religions, and far from the savage cultures that history painted them to be, several societies were highly sophisticated.
Some scholars have postulated that around the time that the Israelites chose David as their king, a tribe of Asians crossed the land bridge that became the Bering Strait in search of new game. These people, called the Nadene, closely resembled modern Mongolians. About two thousand years ago, the group split into two factions—the Tlingit and Haida tribes, which went to the northwestern coast of North America—and the Athabascans, who stayed in Alaska around Lake Athabasca. But the Athabascans continued to move southward to form tribes in the Southwest.
Although this scenario is speculation, many similarities exist between the Asian peoples and Native American tribes. For instance, the mandala of the Hindus and Buddhists closely resembles the sand paintings of southwestern tribes. Early Asian calendars were also similar to those of the Aztecs. Special significance was often placed on the number four. Although no physical proof of this migration exists, signs point to its possibility. Asian tribes may have migrated as far south as the tip of South America.
One of the oldest tribes on record lived in the Four Corners area of the southwestern United States. They were called the Pueblos, and their ancestors were the Anasazi, a tribe that existed two thousand years ago. The Anasazi are known for their elaborate apartment buildings, built on the sides of cliffs. Later, the Pueblos used adobe and wood to build their homes. Their hunter-gatherer status changed around the year 1000 BCE, when they began to plant corn, squash, and beans, and to craft fine pottery.
The people who lived in Cahokia, in what is now southwestern Illinois, are known popularly as the “mound builders” because they built large structures for underground burial, governmental, or ceremonial purposes. The society is thought to have been territorial, led by a chieftain, and possessed the most elaborate hierarchial system in its time.
In Mesoamerica, as each new culture appeared, it adapted, and often improved upon, significant elements of the civilization that had come before. The Olmecs, the original civilization, lived in wood and thatch huts in a humid area on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. They raised corn, beans, and squash, worked with fine stones, and made pottery. It is theorized that the Olmecs traveled and traded throughout the area and thereby spread their culture throughout the region.
The Zapotec capital, Monte Alban, began to flourish at about the same time as the Olmec society fell into decline. The Zapotecs may have built the first observatory, and their system of glyph writing was the first writing of any type to be used in Mesoamerica. They recorded the first calendar, although the Olmecs may have begun to develop a similar system of counting the days before them.
The Mixtecs seem to have taken over sites where Zapotecan society was failing. The Mixtecs were exquisite goldsmiths, but their most significant contribution is the written record of their history, which covered a period of almost 600 years beginning around 940 CE.
Thriving at roughly the same time was another people, whose true name is still unknown. The name Teotihuacanos comes from their city—Teotihuacán, named by the Aztecs long after the civilization fell. Although few written records exist, a glimpse of their culture survives in colorful frescoes, which adorn palace walls. It appears that the Teotihuacanos traded goods widely, had a class-based society with specialized jobs, and worshipped a number of gods. They were also weavers and potters and jewelers who worked in semiprecious stones. Their civilization sharply declined around 700 CE, when the city was sacked and burned, probably by barbarian tribes from the north.
The Mayan society, which first appeared around 1000 BCE, was prevalent in parts of Mexico and farther south into Central America. They refined the art of writing and the calendar to their highest forms up until that time. Mayan art developed between about 200 and 900 and is considered to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the region. The Mayans are known for their mathematical prowess and traded in salt, cacao, and obsidian.
No society in ancient Mesoamerica was as revered as the Toltecs. Later societies credited the Toltecs with inventing astronomy, the calendar, and the arts because of the finely crafted items found in the ruined Toltec capital of Tolan; however, historical fact disproved these claims. Toltec civilization fell into decline after Tolan was burned and sacked around the year 1150, and after the city vanished, an even more sophisticated and powerful people came to revere them. They adopted Toltec music, called their artists “Totecatls,” and copied Toltec artistry in sculpture, architecture, and featherwork. They even proudly claimed Toltec lineage. These people called themselves the Mexica (me-SHI-ca), but history knows them as the Aztecs.
The Aztecs were arguably the most advanced culture to have arisen in pre-Columbian times, although they are more often remembered for their ritual practice of human sacrifice. Yet the Aztecs had a well-developed military, and they enlarged their capital of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City, through the construction of floating farm plots known as chiampas. The Aztecan pantheon was elaborate, their educational system substantial, and they held great esteem for the arts.
Farther into South America were the Incas, whose society developed only shortly before the arrival of Columbus in the New World. Still, they managed to expand their influence throughout western South America by the time of their demise in 1533. The Incas are most remembered for their architectural construction, such as that at the site of Machu Pichu.
In the Bahamas and the Greater Antilles Islands, which include Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, the Taino culture was the dominant society before the time of Columbus, although Ciboney and Guanahatabey (western Cuba), Macorix and/or Ciguayo (Bohio), and even Carib (Lesser Antilles) were also present. They were united by Arawak, the common language. As they were island cultures, they were adept sailors, and fishing was their main occupation, but the islands also provided abundant edible fruits and they used the fauna of the land to fulfill their needs. In 1492, the Taino had a thriving civilization. As the Mesoamerican cultures had, they constructed ceremonial ballparks, and they had an elaborate hierarchy of gods. They lived in five predominant kingdoms on Hispaniola, which were led by chieftains to whom tribute was paid. They raised crops of casaba melons, garlic, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables, with yucca being their staple food. They had no system of writing nor a calendar, and could count only up to twenty using their hands and feet. But the Taino made exquisite handcrafted works, with pottery being the most remarkable.
Other less political societies also existed in North America before the arrival of Columbus. They were independent city-states, thriving in small groups. Their less-centralized chiefdom polities were also evident and included a central community surrounded by bordering neighbor villages. Each community had a central ruler, with a subservient underclass. When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he was the first European to encounter the Taino. He called them “Indians” because he thought he had landed in India, and the appellation became the common term to describe all Native American peoples in the Americas.
Population estimates of pre-Columbian peoples in North American range from 8 million to more than 100 million, centered mainly in Mesoamerica and South America. However, because of incomplete evidence, the true population is difficult to determine.
SEE ALSO Archaeology; Architecture; Columbus, Christopher; Geography; Incas; Indigenous Rights; Monarchy; Olmecs
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Patricia Cronin Marcello