Why study Pre-Contact Americas?

  By pinguin, March 2007; Revised
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People study history because of some hidden motivations. Perhaps, the most important is to  better understand what role we play in the world. Of the three classical questions above, history has the potential to answer, partially, at least two of them: “what are we” and “where are we from”. That is why people look into ancient books for an endless search of its own roots. Nevertheless, that attitude is also distorting because the planet is a lot bigger than just the people from whom we descend.  Thinking that history is just the study of “our” people and forgetting “theirs” is not only an expression of egoism, but is also a lack of vision.  It is like those snobs that collect ancestors of their family tree as if they were stamps, believing only they have a past. That attitude places us apart from the richness of history. The tribes of humankind, from pole to pole, developed together and reinforced each other in more ways than meets the eye.

We tend to focus on our own ethnic group, believing that only we exist and that the rest of the people are just the background noise of the human comedy and tragedy. However, as any student of foreign languages realizes, knowing the “other” opens wider perspectives not only of different cultures, but also of us. Knowing the “others” is seeing us in the mirror. That is why Gaugin had to paint in Tahiti and not in Paris. There, he discovered himself and developed all his genius, in contact with an alien culture that changed his mind.

The pre-Contact Americas are a forgotten place for many people. However, if you live in the New World, you have the duty to study them.  I will not convince you, but encourage you to do it: you have no excuses.  On the other hand, if you come from the Old World, you should also study this topic because once you know it, you will discover who you are. I will explain why in this article.

Background ideas on the Americas

The Americas were one of the most isolated continents with respect to Eurasia. Only Australia could compare in isolation. In addition, that is precisely what makes it such an interesting place to study. First, let us pause a little bit on the issue of Americas’ isolation, because it is very difficult to convince people, continuously exposed to pseudo-scientific literature, that the Americas were isolated.

Man abandoned Africa circa 60.000 years ago in an epic search for new lands to conquer. In the process, it changed both the physical and cultural terms, creating all the new peoples that populate Eurasia, from Iberia to Japan.

Between 25.000 and 15.000 years ago, groups of peoples from Eastern Siberia started to cross into Alaska and into North America. The classical theory is that they entered the continent walking through a land bridge, called Beringia, which joined Asia and the Americas at that time, and then they followed inside an opening between the ice that covered most of the region in the glacial age. A new theory, though, says the hypothetical land bridge was not necessary, and that they followed the coastal border in boats and walking. However, no matter which one is correct, the fact is that man entered the Americas from Alaska and very quickly started to populate all the continental Americas. There are estimates that the Americas were conquered, from Alaska to Patagonia, in less than a thousand years.

It is not clear how many immigrants came to the Americas from Asia. Some believe there were two waves or more. What is clear, though, is that, after some millennia, the opening was closed once again and the Americas became isolated from the Old World. That isolation has been almost absolute, with the exception of two extraordinary peoples. Let us see who they were.

The Thule culture arrived in Alaska from Siberia around the year 500 AD. They are the ancestors of today’s Inuit, an amazing people whose culture had adapted to living in the coldest climate on the planet. These people started to populate arctic Canada and they reached Greenland by Viking times. The second people that arrived to the Americas after the Bering Bridge closed were the Norse. They founded a colony in Greenland in 984 AD, and, from there, they founded bases in Newfoundland and, perhaps, others places in North America.

With the exception of those documented cases, there was no contact between the people of the Old World and the Americas that resist a serious analysis. Many ignorant people insist on the fantasy theories of Phoenicians, Jews, Greeks, Romans, East Indians, Egyptians or Chinese coming to the Americas, but the sad truth is that no evidence of outsiders to the Americas, with the exception of the cases above, has ever been found.

For all practical terms, south of the Arctic, the Americas lived isolated from the rest of the world for a period of more than 15.000 years. That’s precisely what makes the Americas an interesting place to study, because that isolation makes the New World the perfect place to study the parallelisms in the evolution of societies.

How the past was preserved

To study the culture of the Americas we need a little bit of patience due of the complexity of the topic. The sources are many, but there is a big problem to overcome: the lack of writing in almost all people that lived in the Americas before contact.

Writing developed in the Americas in the Olmec region and reached its peak in the Maya civilization. However, because of its complexity, Maya writing was a mystery for centuries. At the present time, linguists can read the Mayan stairs and stele like if they were an open book of history of that ancient civilization. The code was broken thanks to the comparison of today’s Maya tongue of living people with the ancient hieroglyphs, and now the mystery of that writing is gone, while new discoveries appear often. Aztecs also used a form of writing, but it was not of the Mayan quality and did not help to preserve much knowledge of the past. The rest of the people of the Americas, including the Inca civilization of Peru, did not develop writing, as far as we know today.  However, that is not a big problem if we want to study the history of the Americas from around the 12th century up to the 16th century, when the Spaniards invaded and changed the civilizations. The reason is that those same Spaniards were very careful in preserving the cultural heritage of the ancient civilization, recording everything they knew in writing. Native Americans, educated by the Spaniards in western letters, also recorded their past and cultural heritage, many times in their native tongues. The result is a very large number of texts of colonial times that helped us to know the past with a great degree of detail, with both the Spanish and the Indigenous points of view. In addition, today we can enjoy the reading of classic pieces of native literature, like the Popol Vu of the Maya and the poetry of Nezahualcoyotl written in Nahualt.

Nature has also been generous in preserving the material heritage of Native Americans since thousand of years ago. In the deserts of Peru and Chile, and in the frozen snows of the Andes, there are not only people and textiles of thousand of years ago, but also the bodies of people in perfectly preserved condition. All this has allowed scholars to reconstruct a clear picture of the pre-Columbian past.

Another thing which has helped is the presence of many ruins in all the Americas, from the Medicine Wheels of Western Canada, the civilizations of Cahokia and Anasazi in North America, to the Inca ruins in Southern South America, including certain ritual sites in the Caribbean as well. The discoveries of new ruins and cities have shown us a clear picture of what was going on in pre-Columbian Americas, and the picture gets clearer as time passes, with new discoveries being made almost daily.

Finally, the oral traditions of the surviving cultures of Amerindians is a rich heritage and source of information as well. However, like all oral traditions, one has to use a critical eye to select the information that is relevant from the symbolism that characterizes the mythical stories.

What is the order in space and time?

Something very difficult to understand for the beginner in the study of the Americas is the concept of horizon. When we study Europe, for instance, we usually focus on the large civilizations, which have a detailed chronology. The study of nomadic people, like the ancient Germans, Slaves or Celts, is more complex because little material evidence exists. In the Americas there are also zones, inhabited by nomadic peoples, were one is not certain at all of what happened in the past, as is the case of the Great Plains, Amazon or Patagonia. However, in the more advanced regions, the evidence of settlements and physical remains are plenty, but there is no writing to backup the sequence of events on solid ground.

There are other facts that confabulated to make definitions fuzzy. For instance, the scope of civilizations is not clearly delimitated, one is never certain where one begins and the other ends. To make sense of all the information and to organize the cultures and civilization, the archaeologists speak of horizons. These are networks of cultures and civilizations organized in spatial and temporal scales, which help to make sense of the sequence of events and distribution of the cultures. Archaeologists speak, for example, of the Chavín horizon, meaning the period and the region of influence of that culture.

Archaeologists had divided the Americas in regions, which have a common origin. Those regions are:

Arctic: (Northern Canada and Alaska) this region is mainly inhabited by the Inuit people, who have a very specialize lifestyle and technology and who are able to stand the coldest weather on earth.

North America: (Southern Canada and the U.S.) this region has the famous tribal peoples of Eastern North America and the Great Plains. Most of the people had a nomadic lifestyle, with an economy based on small scale farming, hunting and fishing in the coastal areas. Great civilizations are Cahokia, at the Mississippi river, and the Anazasi in the South West.

Mesoamerica (Mexico and Northern Central America.): is one of the most advanced region of the pre-contact Americas. Starting with the Olmecs, several civilizations developed, including Mayans, Toltecs and Aztecs. In certain aspects, Mesoamerican civilization was the most developed of the hemisphere.

Intermediate (Region between Mesoamerica and the Central Andes): Second order developed in this region for a long time, influenced by the Mesoamerica and the Central Andes areas. This region produced some of the best gold handcrafts.

Caribbean: (All the islands of the Caribbean) the Caribbean was colonized from the Northern Amazon by Arawak speaking people. They have a modest level of development.

Amazon: (All the cultures of the Amazon) Of particular importance is the family of people known as the Tupi-Guarani, who became famous after the Jesuits decided to found many missions in theirs territories.

Central Andes: (The region around the Andes Southern Colombia to Central Chile and Argentina) this zone is a second hub of advanced civilizations. The oldest is Caral, just a couple of centuries younger than Egypt. From there, a large chain of civilizations developed up to the Spanish conquest. Some of the most famous are Chavin, Moche, Tiahuanaco and the Inca Empire, which was the largest state ever built in the pre-Contact Americas.

Southern Andes: (Southern Argentina and Chile) in the north and central part of this region lived the Mapuche speaking tribes. They were hunters and agricultors with a modest lifestyle, similar to the Amerindians of North America. They were very organized in war. Down south, close to the Southern tip of Patagonia, lived a few number of people of some very basic cultures like the Onas, Kawashkar and Yamanas.

Each of these zones had different degrees of development. In Mesoamerica and the Central Andes, we found the most famous civilizations, followed by the Intermediate Region, North America and the Southern Andes region. The most basic lifestyles were in the Caribbean, the Amazon and Patagonia.
Arrival and development

One of the first lesson in studying the pre-Contact Americas is to clearly see how cultures and civilizations developed, given the right conditions.

Man arrived in the Americas somewhere between 25.000 and 15.000 years ago, across the Strait of Bering. They brought with them some rudimentary technology to survive in the arctic regions, and they certainly had some knowledge of weapons, tents building, making fire, as well as some sort of cosmology. Therefore, they did not start from zero, but from humble beginnings.

These waves of settlers quickly spread across the continents of the Americas because there were no physical barriers for walking from Alaska to the Land of Fire.  Therefore, some speculated that one thousand years was the time it took from the time the first man entered the Americas to the time they reached the Southern tip of South America. We are not certain of how many waves of immigrants entered the Americas through the Bering Strait, and scientists do not agree if it happened in one, two or several waves. The fact is that after a long time, the Bering corridor closed once again, and the people of the Americas became isolated from the Old World.

There is evidence of human activity in all the Americas since that time. They are known as “Paleo-Indian”, and they had a hunting and nomadic lifestyle, living in small bands that hunted mega-fauna. Many of the animals they used to hunt are already extinct, including mastodons and the American horse. The earliest remnants of human activity are, so far,  from Monteverde, Chile, and are believed to be 12.500 years old.

Around 9.000 years ago, perhaps seven millennia after they crossed the Bering Strait, the first evidence of advancements started to appear in the dry desert of Southern Peru and Northern Chile. One of the first people known is the Chinchorro culture. They were fishermen who survived mainly on seafoods. They were also the first people in the world that created mummies, and their remains have helped scientists to reconstruct their history.   In the time of Chinchorro people, they already knew how to cultivate cotton, as is evident in the textiles of the mummies themselves. From then on, we started to find evidence of agriculture, pottery and a society of increasing complexity.

The first advanced civilization on the Americas known so far is Caral in Peru, which existed between 3.000 BC  to 1.600 B.C., and which converted into one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. From there, the Peruvian region shows a string of cultures and civilizations that grew in complexity with the passing of time. Some of the better known are Chavin (900 B.C.), Moche (100 A.D. 700 A.D.), Tihuanaco (200 B.C.) and  ending with the Inca Empire (1300-1532). These are the most important developments of the Peruvian area, but there are hundreds more cultures which developed in parallel in those regions. Some of the more important developments in the Americas happened in Peru. It is not known to which extent the developments in this region influenced Mesoamerica, but what is clear is its widespread influence in the cultures of South America, from Colombia to the Patagonia.

Meanwhile, in Mesoamerica, developments followed a similar pattern. From 8.000 BC to 2.000 B.C., people started to develop the first forms of agriculture. Maize is native to Mexico, and, from there, it spread to the rest of the Americas. There are samples of precursors of Maize, in Guatemala and Mexico since 3.500 BC.  The development of civilizations in the Mesoamerican is still a matter of study, because there are several advanced cultures in the region that could wear the title of the “earliest” civilization, including the Tlatilco culture (1250 B.C -200 B.C.). What is clear today is that the Olmec civilization is the product of the development of previous Mesoamerican cultures during a period of thousands of years; the details are not complete yet, though. The famous Olmecs (1200 B.C. -200 B.C.) was an advanced civilization on which we find the common cultural patterns of all the following regions. After the Olmecs, the Maya (250 B.C.-900 A.D.) reached its peak of development in the Americas, with achievements like the only fully developed written language in the Americas, the development of arithmetic, including zero, and advanced architecture and technologies. After them, other civilizations followed, like the Toltecs (900 A.D.-1100 A.D). Finally, the Aztec Empire (1.248 A.D. 1521 A.D.) was the most powerful state ever developed in Mesoamerica, with large civil engineering works, poetry and advanced achievements.

Contributions of the Americas to the world

The knowledge of the pre-Colombian Americas allows us to understand the origin of many things of common use worldwide. The Americas' main contributions are in the fields of foods and medicines. It is believed that around 60% of the vegetables we consume today were domesticated and cultivated in the Americas. These are some of them:

1. Maize(Mexican): in foods from tortillas to pop-corn.
2. Potato(Peruvian): one of the most consumed foods worldwide. Also used in vodka production
3. Tomato(Mexican): consumed directly and in salsas like ketchup.
4. Beans(Mexican/Peruvian): several varieties consumed worldwide today.
5. Squash(North American):
6. Quinoa(Peruvian): similar to rice. Is not very popular as yet.
7. Chili pepper(Mexico): widespread consumption.
8. Sunflowers(North American): used to produce oil and margarines.
9. Pineapple(Paraguay): of widespread consumption.
10. Peanuts(Peru): there are Moche necklaces with golden peanuts. Today its consumption is worldwide.
11. Maple syrup(Canada): favorite in American cuisine.
12. Avocado(Mexico): Another widespread plant.
13. Vanilla(Mexico): Commonly used for flavoring in ice-creams and drinks.
14. Strawberry(Chilean): today’s strawberry is a hybrid between the European plant and the Chilean. The size and flavoring comes from the Chilean plant.
15. Chocolate(Mexican): Another unique plant of worldwide consumption.
16. Chewing gum (Mexican): Known since old times, it spread to the U.S. during the Mexican American war, and spread through the world by the Americans.

Animal foods are not as common, but one must remember that turkey was domesticated in Mexico and North America.

In medicine, we find thousanda of plants that have practical use. Perhaps the most famous are:
1. Curare: a poison used by natives to kill animals and people. Curare commonly found in anesthesia as a muscle relaxant.
2. Coca: clinical cocaine is of common use to alleviate pain.
3. Quinine: is a medicine to treat malaria. We can find it as well as a flavoring for tonic water.

Other American plants developed by Native Americans affected the world. One is the American cotton, a fiber used today worldwide, which is different from the Asian plant. In the industrial field, rubber has had, perhaps, the biggest impact of all. It is hard to imagine a world without rubber, present in every single tire of cars, planes and subways, besides other applications.


Native Americans were very ingenious people who developed lot of techniques. However, people do not usually know them because a simple fact: most of the Amerindian inventions also were present in the Old World, invented independently, in parallel.

There are thousands of Amerindian inventions.  Here's a sample of them:

1. Hanging bridges (Incas): Incas used hanging bridges of cabling, supported by a stone structure. These inventions were also known in the Old World.
2. Writing (Mayas): The ancient Maya civilization developed a complete system of writing, used to record their history in paper and stone. They were similar in scope to Chinese ideograms and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
3. Paper (Mesoamerican Amate paper): Paper was also invented in China.
4. Hydraulic toys (Peru): In ancient perú, hydraulic toys that whistle were well known. In the west, the inventor of those toys was Heron of Alexandria.
5. Highways (Incas): Inca roads were an intensive system of highways that spread in a surface around half the size of the Roman Empire.
6. Apartments buildings (Anasazi): Apartment buildings of the Anasazi are unique in the Americas.
7. Inflatable boats (Changos): The Chango natives of Chile used inflatable boats to fish, hunt whales and transport loads.
8. Calendars (Mesoamerica): Mayan and Aztec calendars are a sophisticated method to record dates.
9. Mathematics and Zero (Mayas): The Mayas discovered Zero, perhaps earlier than in India.
10. Caravans (Incas): The Peruvians only have llamas as a load animal. Llamas only stand 50 kilograms of weight. Although not as practical like a camel caravan, the llama facilitated the spreading of civilization in South America.
11. Quipus (Peru): accounting strings of ancient Peruvians.
12. Syringe (North America)
13. Lacquer (Mexico): the Mexicans discovered a form of lacquer based in maque, a bug juice. Chinese developed lacquer based in a plant called sumac.
14. Patolli (Mexico): a game board dice game, similar to backgammon.
15. Convex mirrors for starting fires (Inca): Greeks also invented them in ancient times.
16. Ships and sails (Colombia): Native Americans developed sea-going ships able to carry up to 30 tons of loads. They were large balsa rafts that carried a single sail, as the famous Kon-Tiki raft of Thor Heyyerdhal. 

Few pre-Columbian inventions were unknown in the Old World, so we do not find much influence in that field. Immediately after the conquest, most of the Amerindian techniques were replaced by the European variety: Latin writing replaced local writing, llama caravans were upgraded by mule caravans, quipu accounting strings became obsolete with East Indian numerals, etc. However, certain inventions spread to the world, such as Kayaks, snow rackets, sport canoe, and, in medicine, the use of enemas. Finally, at least one chemical discovery of importance comes from the Americas: platinum.

It is also quite revealing that natives never invented certain things considered basic in the Old World. For example, Amerindians never invented string musical instruments. However, the worst case is the lack of wheels. In the past, scholars believed wheels were unknown in the Americas, but that is not true because we know of wheeled toys found in Mexican tombs. However, they never applied wheels to transport or machinery. Not even the pottery wheel was invented. The fact that the natives did not know of the wheeled machinery was perhaps the main reason of the relative technological backwardness of the Americans with respect to Eurasia.

Searching the origins of ecology

The Amerindian concept of “Mother Land” is widespread in the Americas. The cosmology of many Native American people started with the concept that we are the child of the land, which is a living being that is the womb where we are born and the tomb were we will rest after death. Nurturing the lands with rituals, and sometimes the offering of human sacrifices, was part of the religious practices of ancient Americans.  The rationale behind that was that we have to respect and nurture Mother Nature in order to preserve the cosmic balance.

In the West, the idea was the opposite. Human beings are seen as the most important creature on the planet, and all the animals and plants are servants at his service. One can read, in Genesis, that God created the world for Man. Many people believed that was the reason why, with the economical expansion of the West, Nature was considered just a source of raw materials to exploit for development. It was only after man started to consider the possibility of becoming extinct because of ecological problems that the paradigm changed.

The ecological conscience arises naturally in the context of the Native American concept of “Mother Earth”, and its influence was great in the origins of the ecological movement. One of the earliest ecologists, Grey Owl, was one of the first to introduce the Western masses to Native Americans' love for nature. Since then, this ecological conscience has spread around the world.

Perhaps, in that sense, the concept of “Mother Earth” is one of the most powerful influences from the Native American mind to our global society.

Discover the Americas at last

It is false that Columbus discovered the Americas. Yes, the Admiral reached the Americas and gave the news to the Europeans that there was a New World beyond the horizon. However, he did not discover it, not only because people were already living in the Americas for tens of thousands of years, but also because the Americas are still unknown!  Even after five hundred years since the first contact, the Old World still does not know what really happened in the New World in the beginning. Pseudo-science and prejudice blur the reality of these lands that cover 40% of the land surface of the world.

When people study the ancient Americas, they get a new vision of world development. They have the opportunity of compare the development in Eurasia and the Americas side-by-side, learning in the process how human societies evolved with time, following natural patterns. We learn that humankind has many things in common and that, far from being different, we share the same raw materials and have the same potentials. Studying history considering the Americas brings us to the possibility of seeing the development of man with a stereoscopic vision. We see the past in three dimensions, instead of the flat concept of a history monopolized by Eurasia, and we have the chance to understand human development better.

We still ignore many things about the Americas. We are not sure if Caral was the first civilization or if there were some previous developments. We do not know the degree of contact between Mesoamerica and the Peruvian regions, or about the lines of communications between both regions. Archaeologists suspect that the Amazon could have had interesting cultures hidden in the background waiting for discovery, and they think cultures like Chavin had its origin with Amazonian people. Very few things are known of the ships used by ancient Arawaks in the conquest of the Caribbean from the Amazon. However, in general, the history of the Americas is no longer a mystery for those who take the time to study it.

Finally, there are many things we can learn from studying the Americas, because there is where we find the development of human beings who rose from modest cultures to the highest forms of civilization. In a deeper sense, as human beings, they are we and we are they. If you keep that in mind, you will learn about yourselves, reflected in a mirror.