Primary Source Images: The New World


Europeans called the Americas “The New World.” But for the millions of Native Americans they encountered, it was anything but. Human beings have lived here for over ten millennia. American history begins with them, the first Americans. But where does their story begin? Native Americans passed stories through the millennia that tell of their creation and values. The arrival of Europeans and resulting Columbian Exchange united two worlds and ten-thousand years of history. Both sides of the world transformed. And neither would ever again be the same. These sources explore the contours of Native American life and the conflicts that resulted from the arrival of Europeans.

Cliff Palace

Photograph of Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, showing rooms built into the rocks and caves.

Figure 1.

Native peoples in the Southwest began constructing these highly defensible cliff dwellings in 1190 CE and continued expanding and refurbishing them until 1260 CE before abandoning them around 1300 CE. Changing climatic conditions resulted in an increased competition for resources that led some groups to ally with their neighbors for both protection and subsistence. The circular rooms in the foreground were called kivas and had ceremonial and religious importance for the inhabitants. Cliff Palace had 23 kivas and 150 rooms housing a population of approximately 100 people; the number of rooms and large population has led scholars to believe that this complex may have been the center of a larger polity that included surrounding communities. 

Casta painting 

Painting depicting different castes of people identified in the New World.

Figure 2.

The elaborate Sistema de Castas painting reveals one of the less-discussed effects of Spanish conquest: sexual liaisons and their progeny. Casta paintings illustrated the varying degrees of intermixture between colonial subjects, defining them for Spanish officials. Race was less fixed in the Spanish colonies, as some individuals, through legal action or colonial service, “changed” their race in the colonial records. Though this particular image does not, some casta paintings attributed particular behaviors to different groups, demonstrating how class and race were intertwined.