Putting It Together: Indigenous America and Early European Exploration

Pre-Columbian North America was home to a numerous and diverse array of peoples, languages, religions, and cultures. Scientific origin theories suggest that the ancestors of these groups arrived in the Western hemisphere at least 14,000 years ago and current estimates hold that 43-65 million people inhabited the Western hemisphere at contact. From the Olmec and the Maya, to the Aztec and the Inca, to the Indigenous tribes of North America, there was a great deal of cultural diversity amongst this population, including languages, social and political structures, religious rituals, and deity worship.

At least ten million Africans were enslaved and forced to make the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to the New World. On the eve of the sixteenth century, Africa was a continent of tremendous diversity and home to hundreds of cultures, languages, and political states. However, Western and Central Africa were greatly influenced by the slave trade. African groups were influenced by and participated in both the Age of Discovery and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. While slavery has a long history, the European settlement of the Americas marked the beginning of not only racial slavery but slavery practices in which the enslaved person and their offspring were enslaved for life.

Competition to find a more expedient trade route to Asia and a desire to spread religious beliefs were a few driving forces behind the European’s initial exploration of the New World. Voyages of exploration captured the immensity of the earth in maps and images and created webs of connection between regions and peoples, bringing the world closer together. For the first time, we see the emergence of a world that bears great similarity to ours of the twenty-first century, a world interconnected through trade, politics, culture, and religion.

While many Eurocentric perspectives on the colonization of the New World view European contact with Indigenous populations as bringing civilization to previously underdeveloped societies, it’s imperative to remember that the Native American world that Europeans contacted after 1492 was complex, highly developed, and rich in oral history. The period of contact between Europeans and hundreds of native groups played an important role in shaping American colonies and nations, the United States among them. From the very beginning, Indigenous peoples played a pivotal role in shaping the future of the nation.