By Gary W. Gallagher, PhD, University of Virginia; Patrick N. Allitt, Ph.D., Emory University; Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Too often in textbooks, American history begins in 1492 with Christopher Columbus “sailing the ocean blue.” But the Americas that Columbus discovered were not, of course, a new world. Although scholars continue to debate who first came to America and how they got here, one thing is certain: A vibrant history of American culture and society existed well before Columbus.
The first challenge in examining the origins of people in America before Columbus is weighing the evidence. The less evidence you have, the more dispute there is over it. Estimates about human habitation in North America run from as much as 40,000 years ago to 12,000 years ago as the starting point. Even the best estimates involve more speculation than science.
Pinpointing the Source of Early Americans
It’s also not clear just where these first Americans came from. The conventional wisdom has long been that North America was populated by three successive waves of immigrants from Western Asia. Those immigrants used a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska that was created by a fall in sea levels when the last Ice Age locked up water in the polar ice caps. However, this land bridge no longer exists because, with the passing of the last Ice Age, water levels rose and washed over it. This conventional wisdom has been fortified by DNA analyses and cross-cultural comparisons between ancient Americans and their Eastern Asian kin.
This is a transcript from the video series The History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
But many modern Indian tribes in North America are very resistant to the notion of having emigrated from some other place than the American earth they now occupy. The discovery in 1996 of the skeletal remains of what the forensic anthropologists call Kennewick Man tossed something of a wild card into the anthropological hat. Carbon dating of Kennewick Man’s remains put him at about 8,000 years old, but Kennewick Man’s physiological characteristics and DNA patterns were inconsistent with the surrounding Indian tribes of the Northwest, and, for that matter, with Eastern Asia. Where did Kennewick Man come from? Was he earlier than the Eastern Asian immigrants? In that case, the conventional dating of early Asian migration would have to be severely revised. If he came later, where did he come from?
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The Development of Complex Societies
Wherever and whenever the populating of North America began, one thing seems reasonably certain: populating occurred very quickly. The mildness of the North American climate and the richness of the plant and animal life encouraged the growth and spread of the ancient North American populations.
By 1500, it’s estimated that their numbers may have stood at something like 10 to 15 million; they had diversified so greatly in terms of culture that these ancient North Americans probably spoke over 300 different languages in at least 12 entirely different language systems or language stems. They had also developed over 600 autonomous social systems that were as radically different from each other as the pueblo builders of the Southwest, the fortified towns of the Mississippi Valley, and the woodland villagers of the Northeast.
Elsewhere, in Central and South America, these ancient Americans constructed even more complex societies. The Aztecs of Mexico and the Inca of Peru created aristocracies, emperors, farmers, and artisans. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, with a population of 200,000 people, may have been the single largest city in the world.
Comparisons to Old Europe
If it were possible to take take a snapshot of this American world, about the year 1200, and set it beside a similar snapshot of the European world of that same year, you would be surprised by their similarities.
Once upon a time, southern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea were home to several great civilizations: the Greeks; the Phoenicians; the Carthaginians; and, lastly, the Romans. From the end of the 400s, however, the Roman Empire was in serious trouble. It underwent a vicious civil war that split the empire into two uneasy halves. It dumped the old Roman gods in favor of the new religion of Christianity. Then, waves of immigrants out of Asia pushed against the populations of northern Europe. Those populations, like dominoes, spilled over the boundaries of Rome and triggered a massive cultural and political collapse within the Roman Empire.
After about the year 900, a new threat emerged from the underbelly of the Mediterranean world in the form of a new religion, Islam, which overran the old Roman provinces of Asia, Palestine, Egypt, and northern Africa, and lapped up to the borders of modern-day France.
Under these pressures, Europe lapsed into being a backwater, culturally and economically. It was politically disorganized and divided, as the provinces of the former empire set up their own small-scale political shops on their own. Its internal economy was reduced to the most primitive levels of barter and reciprocity. It appeared that things were going to stay this way for a long while because ancient cultures are rarely able to revive themselves. The internal resources of these cultures were already exhausted, and the possibility of importing outside influences and new ideas to revive a culture was expensive.
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The European Crusades
Europeans were sliding further and further from the cultural high points they had enjoyed in the days of the Roman Empire. The Europeans, however, turned out to be the exception to the rule that says that ancient cultures have difficulty reviving themselves.
In the year 1096, the chief of Europe’s Christian church, Pope Urban II, called for a mighty effort to recover the sacred city of Jerusalem, where Christianity was born, from the hands of Islam. Since Islam was not about to surrender Jerusalem nor anything else without a fight, the Pope’s call became a military crusade. Thousands of Europeans who had never strayed more than a few miles from the place of their births took up shield and sword, entrusted themselves to fleets of leaky boats, and proceeded—to the amazement of all onlookers—to recapture both Jerusalem and a good deal of Palestine for Christianity.
However, they didn’t hold onto it for long. By 1200, the Christian beachheads in Palestine had all been shoved back into the Mediterranean. The last of the Crusades, in 1270, was a fiasco that ended up not in Palestine, but Tunisia. The Crusades, however, educated Europeans about two important things: first, how to organize and support large-scale expeditions and explorations of previously unknown territory and, second, how to enrich themselves from trade and cultural exchange with Palestine and the Islamic world.
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The World Beyond Europe
Islam might be, for Western Christians, still a foreign and a hostile religion. However, the peoples who professed Islam also possessed enormously attractive material resources that the Crusaders learned to trade for. They possessed art, ideas, and above all, technology that Europeans could have a fine time tinkering with.
Beyond Palestine, there were rumors of even greater wealth to be found in the Orient. The lure of these possibilities encouraged Europeans and European governments to undertake an ambitious series of explorations aimed at opening new markets in the Middle East and possibly in the Orient. In 1271, the Venetian Marco Polo, whose family had established business interests in Asia in the 1250s, set off with his two uncles on an expedition, which took them—over three years—to the heart of the Chinese Empire. There, Marco Polo stayed for 17 years, where he not only took care of the family’s business but also even managed to fill several government posts for the Chinese.
Polo returned to Europe in 1295, and there published a rollicking account of his adventures, which demonstrated what fortunes could be made with the application of a little perseverance and ingenuity. But Polo was not alone. By 1300, Venice and several impoverished Italian cities were making themselves suddenly wealthy again by opening up trading shops and colonies all through the Middle East and along the shores of the Black Sea.
These early voyages into the world would soon inspire a generation of European merchants and sailors to find a shorter route to the Far East. They eventually looked west, where they found what was to them a new world in the making.
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Common Questions About America Before Columbus
There are estimated to have been over 112 million American inhabitants in 1492.
Columbus reportedly died of congestive heart failure.