First “Americans”

Who: Peoples from NE Asia

When: According to many scholars, they crossed the Bering Strait about 12,000 years ago (though scattered signs of human life predate that).

Where: By 9000 years ago, distinct groups were spread from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. Examples of those before or at the time of Columbus: the Carib (Caribbean islands and Central America), the Nasca and Moche (Peru), the Araucanians (Chile), Guarani (Brazil and Paraguay), and the Toltecs (Mesoamerica).


Where: Mesoamerica (Central Mexico to Nicaragua)

When: Dominant for hundreds of years; golden era ended around A.D. 900.

Culture: Agricultural experts; life centered on corn as both staff of life and god. Skilled in astronomy, the arts, warfare, and math (they used the concept of zero 1,000 years before Europe). Complex writing system.

Religion: Highly important; rituals involved blood sacrifice.

Encounter: Already weakened, could not significantly oppose Spanish.


Where: Mesoamerica

When: Zenith by the 1300s.

Culture: Capital, Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), much larger than London in 1519. Violent and highly organized. The “Romans” of the New World.

Religion: Highest offering to gods (corn god was central) was human heart. Motecuhzoma II’s (Montezuma II’s) crowning in 1502 required sacrifice of 5,000 people; dedication of great temple 20,000 people.

Encounter: Spaniards’ smallpox and numerous wars with Cortés and native allies decimated them.


Where: Empire stretched 2,500 miles from Ecuador to Chile, larger than Roman Empire. 12 million people. Capital in Cuzco— “the center of the universe”—with secondary capital in Quito.

When: 1400s and early 1500s.

Culture: 18,000 miles of paved roads. City of Machu Picchu boasted 100 acres of temples, plazas, ...

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