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SETTLING THE NEW WORLD

BEFORE 1492

PRE-COLUMBIAN SOCIETIES

Let’s start with what we mean by Pre-Columbian. You might recognize the second word: Columbian refers to Christopher Columbus, the European explorer who sailed and first encountered North America. (If you thought about the country of Colombia, well, that’s named after him, too). Pre- means before. Put the two together and you get: “before Columbus.” Pre-Columbian societies refer to the groups of people that existed in parts of the world before Columbus set off on his voyages and “discovered” the Americas (what became known as the “New World”).

The First Americans

Historians estimate that the first people came to the Americas 22,000 years ago by traveling from Siberia (Russia) to Alaska. No, they didn't swim there; they didn't even have to take a boat. That's because, during the Ice Age, people could cross from Asia to Alaska on a land bridge called Beringia. A land bridge is actually what it sounds like: a bridge made of land. Because the sea levels were lower, the land connecting the two continents was walkable and groups of people could travel across it.


Over thousands of years, these people (called Native Americans) spread throughout North and South America. Eventually, as the climate grew warmer and the Ice Age ended, the sea flooded back over Beringia and people could no longer cross between Asia and Alaska. The warming of the Earth caused another problem: what Native Americans ate. Ancient hunters relied on large animals for food, clothing, and tools they made from bone. As the average temperature rose, these large animals began to disappear over time. So, instead, they hunted smaller animals, fished, and gathered vegetation like nuts, fruit, and grains.

Q: How did people first arrive in the Americas?

The Importance of Geography in the Americas

Geography refers to the physical features of an area and how those features affect how humans live and survive. Some examples would be mountains that humans had to cross or a river they fished from and lived off of.


The geography of the Americas influenced how these ancient people lived. Between 10,000 and 5,000 years ago, people in Mexico discovered a new way to get food using the land: farming. While it sounds simple to us now, the development of agriculture changed human civilization forever! Most Native American groups were nomadic, meaning they moved from place to place searching for food and water to survive. By growing food for themselves (like maize) using seeds, they no longer had to travel endlessly to hunt and search for food. Instead, they could stay in one place. 

This allowed these groups to develop and grow complex organized societies called civilizations.

 

Q: How did agriculture change the way Native Americans lived?

 

Examples of Ancient Civilizations in the Americas

Around 3,000 years ago, the first advanced Native American civilizations arose: the Olmecs, Maya, and Aztec in Central America, and the Inca in South America. These groups built huge cities and recorded their own histories using symbols to write.


In North America, groups like the Anasazi, Mississippian, and Iroquois used the diverse geography of the land to survive and create advanced civilizations. Natives who lived in colder regions (like the North) relied on hunting while groups who lived in warmer regions tended to depend more on farming (like the South). The animals they hunted and the foods they ate depended on their surroundings. Groups that lived near the ocean hunted for whales, seals, and salmon. Groups that lived in forests hunted birds, fished in streams, and used trees.


Think: Isn’t it true that geography still affects our food today? Maine and Florida on the Atlantic coast are known for their fish and shellfish while the Midwest and Southwest are home to the best barbeque meats in the country.

 

Q: How did the geography of the Americans impact how different Native Americans survived?

Native American Culture

Because less than 1% of the population in the United States today is Native American (compared to 100% in Pre-Columbian societies), few Americans have been exposed to Native American culture. Culture refers to the customs, traditions, and beliefs of a group. 

For example, most Native Americans believed in spirits and the power of the natural world. For example, they believed the dead existed as spirits in the afterlife to help the living and treated land as a sacred source of life. They valued family and deeply respected their elder family members. Groups organized themselves by family and common ancestors just as we do (aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.). 


When Native Americans encountered and traded with each other, they shared and exchanged those beliefs and traditions. 

 

Q: How did Native Americans view land?

West African Societies

But, wait… I thought we were talking about the United States? We are. For unfortunate and historically shameful reasons, West Africa plays an essential part in American history. 


Africa is the second-largest continent but is geographically separated from most of the world. It’s surrounded almost entirely by water and its only connection to land is the Middle East (the border of what is today Egypt and Israel). Before Columbus, Africa developed extensive trade routes between different regions on the continent. The city of Timbuktu in Mali became the center of African trade and its trade routes connected West Africa to the North African coast.

 
Trade not only enriched and empowered West African kingdoms (ex: Songhai, Benin, and Kongo), but it also spread new ideas, like Islam, a religious faith that started in 622. North African trades spread Islam through Africa and by the 1200s, Islam became the official religion of West African empires.


But, trade also led to tragic consequences. Because of its proximity to North Africa, Portugal became a popular trade partner of the African continent. In the 1400s, Portuguese traders arrived on the West African coast and claimed two islands. There, they used plantations (large farms) to grow sugarcane. By now, you might see where this is going… to work the islands’ plantations, the Portuguese purchased slaves from West Africa.


This marked the beginning of the European slave trade, one that would expand to the Americas and impact the United States still today.

 

Q: How did Portuguese sugarcane plantations in West Africa affect the course of history?

European Societies

The United States was founded by European settlers (people from the continent of Europe). Before Columbus’s voyages, Europeans lived in a hierarchical society. A hierarchy is an order or ranking. In this case: Europeans were “ranked” in society and some lived far better than others. Rulers and nobles were at the top of the hierarchy. They owned most of the land and held most of the wealth and power in Europe. At the bottom were peasants, who made up the majority of European society.

The Crusades Change Europe

You might remember this from World History. Religion was an important part of European life and a conflict with Islam led to a dramatic change in Europe. Most Europeans were Roman Catholic. The pope, who is the spiritual leader of Catholics, encouraged them to spread their faith and take back lands conquered by Muslims. Muslims are people who followed the religion of Islam. While this included Spain, the most intense fighting between Catholics and Muslims was during the Crusades. The Crusades were a series of wars to capture the “Holy Land” — an area of land in the Middle East that is today Israel and Palestine. Three different religious groups (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) believe the land is sacred to their religion, causing conflicts that continue to this day.


The Crusades had two major impacts: 

  1. After being exposed to goods in Asia, Europeans wanted to increase trade with the region.

  2. It weakened the power of the pope and Europeans at the top of the social hierarchy.

 

Q: What were the Crusades?

 

Chaos and Change in Europe 

Columbus set sail for the Americas in 1492. But, his voyage and those of other European explorers were a result of what happened a century earlier (a century is 100 years). 


In the 1300s, thousands died during the Great Famine when bad weather destroyed crops and disease killed most cattle and sheep. An even worse disease devastated Europe. In the 1340s, the Bubonic Plague killed millions of Europeans. Spread by fleas on rats, the plague caused the most fatal pandemic in human history: the Black Death.

 

These events, and the Crusades, caused Europeans to become critical of religious leaders and nobles who ruled over them. This made kings and queens more powerful and European societies started to form into the first nations based on common traits like language and location. By the 1400s, four major European nations emerged: Portugal, Spain, France, and England.


It was the people of England who would venture to the Americas and form the United States.
 

Q: What difficulties did Europe face in the 1300s and how did they change European society?

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TOPIC #2

EUROPEAN EXPLORATION

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Q: 

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TOPIC #3

THE COLUMBIAN EXCHANGE

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TOPIC #4

TRIANGULAR & ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE

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