The Americas Research Paper

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Diverse and isolated cultures developed during the 13,500 years of human habitation of the Americas before the European arrival in 1492. That encounter produced some tragic consequences but also integrated the Americas amongst themselves and with the rest of the world. Eventually, the resulting exchanges between Old World and New created opportunities for both, while the shock of the encounter initiated enduring reflections about human rights, liberty, and political legitimacy.

Before Europeans created the notion of “America” as a synonym for their concept of the New World they “discovered,” the Western Hemisphere was not a single and self-conscious world: it contained many worlds, each self-contained and unaware of the others. The story, then, of the Americas must follow the paths of their integration as well as their impact on an outside world that considered “America” a singular addition to the sorority of continents.

Origins and Isolation

The first human groups arrived in the Americas at some point as early as 15,000 years ago—at least in part—by following migrating herds on open tundra and crossing the land bridge that had formed, due to a drop in sea level, between what is now the Bering Strait and Alaska. They probably kept crossing in different waves throughout the Ice Age along alternative routes when the passage submerged again—glacier-hopping across the 80 kilometers (50 miles) separating Siberia from America on small craft and negotiating the narrow coastal paths left by ice-sheets. The culture that succeeded these early peoples, the Clovis hunter-gatherers, so-named for the town in New Mexico near the archaeological site where they were discovered, date to about 12,500 years ago. They multiplied and spread across America in perhaps as little as a thousand years at a pace that conforms to that of other hunter-gatherer groups.

Humans had an important impact on the biota of the Americas. Their proficiency at hunting contributed, along with the changeable climactic conditions, to the extinction of about thirty unique large mammal species that had evolved during the Pleistocene era since America’s separation from Pangaea. Similar extinctions had occurred in the isolated continents of Australia and New Zealand when humans first colonized them about 15,000 years earlier. After the end of the Ice Age America remained largely cut off from the rest of the world. The few exceptions included further migrations by sea from northeast Asia, the assumed Pacific voyage that took the sweet potato to Polynesia, or the fleeting Viking settlements in Newfoundland.

A profound consequence of the end of America’s isolation in 1492 CE was the spread of contagious diseases to which indigenous American populations had no immunity. Some Caribbean islands lost their entire native population to disease and exploitation, while the population density along the Amazon River basin has never recovered from Francisco de Orellana’s navigation of the river from Peru to the Atlantic in 1542 CE. Estimates agree that the population of the Americas collapsed by about 90 percent over the 150 years that followed the European arrival.

American populations before 1492, for all their divergences, shared with each other and with other populations that had not been in contact with Afro- Eurasians, a common immunological disadvantage. They suffered similar fates. On the other hand there was not a single contagious disease to which they alone had immunity but the Eurasians did not. The imbalance can be explained by the axes along which the landmasses of America and Eurasia extend and by the effects on the development of agriculture.

Agriculture and the Columbian Exchange

Agriculture may have arisen independently in many places. In the Americas, however, three or four nuclei had conspicuous roles in spreading techniques of domestication of plants and animals. Mesoamerica developed edible maize varieties by 5000 BCE and supplemented them with squash (8000–6000 BCE), beans (c. 4000 BCE), and turkeys (by c. 3500 BCE); independently, hundreds of different species of potatoes, were being farmed in the Andes by 5000 BCE, together with manioc, llamas, and guinea pigs. In the Amazon Basin, trees were cleared for the planting of squashes and tubers around 7000 to 6000 BCE, and some populations of the eastern United States were cultivating sunflower and goosefoot by about 2500 BCE. Areas where populations concentrated or microclimates created ecological diversity were propitious for the rise of agriculture. The fertile upland valleys to the rainforests of Mesoamerica, and the Andean high plateau and river valleys that slope down to the sea offered such conditions better than anywhere else in the continent.

Cultivation and domestication spread along the longitudes of America more slowly than they did along the more environmentally uniform horizontal axis of Eurasia. Even maize, the most adaptable and successful American crop, which penetrated north to the modern United States and south to Peru, as well as across the sea to the Caribbean islands (where the name maize comes from) before Columbus arrived, traveled and adapted at a slow pace compared to the exchanges taking place in Eurasia. The problems of transmission across climatic zones inhibited the transfer of crops and other biota from one region to the next: potatoes and llamas never reached the dense population centers of Mesoamerica from Peru, while Mexican turkeys never reached the United States or Peru until Europeans took them there. On the other hand, in Eurasia, humans from Portugal to China knew the whole gamut of crops and domesticated animals by 1492. Agriculture was more widespread and the human population was much greater as a result.

The so-called Columbian exchange that followed the European colonization of the Americas began to integrate the biota of the Americas with those of the rest of the world, reversing the trend that had occurred since the separation of Pangaea. While new ingredients, such as chocolate and tomatoes from Mesoamerica, enriched Old World cuisines, and tobacco fumes enveloped the globe, ecological exchange opened new areas to sustainable and increased human habitation. North European dependence on the nutritious potato is well known. American products soon reached as far as China, where maize and sweet potatoes supplemented the traditional diet and allowed the cultivation of the previously uninhabited forested uplands of the Yangzi Basin in the eighteenth century. China is now the world’s largest producer of potatoes and the second largest producer of maize. In the same vein, Eurasian sugar became a profitable cash crop that facilitated the commercial viability of colonizing Brazil and much of the Caribbean with the labor of African slaves. The vast and unvarying expanses of the North American plains or Argentine Pampa became viable for agricultural exploitation when nineteenth-century technological innovations combined with the introduction of Afro-Eurasian manpower, crops, and cattle to unlock their potential, turning them into the granaries of the world.

Empires, Imperialism, and Colonization

Pre-Columbian agriculture turned the areas of greatest biodiversity, where it flourished most easily, into the richest, most densely populated and influential regions of the hemisphere, a balance that favored the Andes and Mesoamerica until the early nineteenth century. The Andes saw the first experiments in large human settlements. In central Peru, from late in the second millennium BCE, under the cultural influence of cities like Chavin de Huantar, a continuous tradition of large cities and powerful states emerged. The seminal civilization of Mesoamerica was the Olmec, (1200 BCE declining and eventually disappearing after 400 BCE) whose influence fanned out from southeastern Mexico to all of Mesoamerica, and indirectly to the north beyond. The great urban center of Cahokia on the Mississippi (at its height in the early thirteenth century CE), depended on outlying communities that engaged in intensive agriculture to support the population of city dwellers, including religious leaders and government officials, trade workers, astronomers, and artisans. But it never attained the density of population or the longevity and influence of cultural traditions that the Andeans and Mesoamericans achieved.

Andean culture flourished along a corridor of fertile mountain valleys, highland plains, and irrigable deserts, flanked by the Amazonian lowlands and the Pacific Ocean, with an intractable desert to the south and untamed tropical rainforests to the north— limits still recalled after the conquest in the map drawn by the Quechua Indian Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1535(?)–c. 1620)—Mapa Mundi del reino de las Indias (within his Nueva Cronica y Buen Gobierno c. 1615). Mesoamerican civilization spanned the diverse ecosystems ranging from the rainforests of Guatemala that were colonized by the Maya to the intractable frontier of seminomadic populations living in arid northern Mexico, whom the settled populations regarded as barbarians, much as the Chinese saw the Mongols or the ancient Romans deemed the Germans. Within both culture regions there developed very diverse ethnocultural and linguistic communities of small polities akin to city-states supported and often defined by the ecological context of their hinterland. Despite their interactions and similar sociopolitical organizations (like princely government and stratified societies), religious rites (like various degrees of human sacrifice) and mythologies (interchangeable deities), there was still such diversity that even seemingly important cultural traits like the expressive classical Mayan (c. 200–900 CE) writing system failed to be adopted elsewhere in the Mesoamerican culture zone. Even the unifying embrace of empires implied little more than a tributary relationship, without the formal imposition of any cultural uniformity.

The Aztec (c. 1427–1521) and Inca (c. 1400–1532) empires were the latest manifestation of long imperial traditions in both Mesoamerica and the Andean cultural regions. Like the concept of a unified China, the American imperial traditions were resilient and survived the overthrow of past empires. Also like China they tended toward encompassing the majority of their acknowledged world: for the few weeks after defeating his brother in a civil war to unify their father’s empire, Atahualpa Yupanqui, the last Inca emperor (1525–1532), had a much greater subjective claim to have pacified and united his world than Alexander the Great or Chinggis (Genghis) Khan. The Amerindian empires were unusual in world history for controlling enormously diverse ecological zones in their search for ever more varied products to consume. In pre-industrial times populations grew slowly, wealth and resources hardly increased, a zero-sum game assumption of the world predominated: predatory imperial capitals like Teotihuacan (first century BCE to eighth CE) or Mexico-Tenochtitlan (mid-fourteenth century CE–present) grew to be the largest cities in the hemisphere and amongst the most populous on a global scale from the tribute of their far-flung dependencies. They were tolerated because tribute bought the empire’s peace, protection, a degree of autonomy, internal mediation of disputes, and new commercial opportunities for subject polities.

The endurance of these imperial traditions helps to explain why so few Spaniards were able to dominate the two richest culture zones of the Americas so quickly (the Aztec Empire 1519–1521 and the Inca heartlands 1532–1533) after replacing their respective imperial elites, while the more fractured and less densely populated zones in the Araucania of Chile or the seminomadic peoples of North America proved so intractable. Mexico City’s imperial role to some extent survived the Spanish conquest. Spanish viceroys, often still referred to as tlatoani by native speakers in sixteenth-century texts, were able to muster repeatedly the considerable manpower of Mesoamerica and direct it toward the extension of what can be seen as the city’s sub-empire. New Spain upheld preconquest commercial and strategic interests as well as initiating specifically European quests for silver, European crops and animals, and access to Atlantic and Pacific trade. New Mexico, Honduras, Florida and the Philippines were conquered for the Spanish kings with Mesoamerican manpower directed from Mexico City and then governed, in the first instance, by viceroys.

Spanish dominion over the richest portions of the Americas was an unlikely feat with a profound impact on world history. The Spanish Empire pioneered the cultural and commercial integration of the Americas as well as its commerce with the rest of the world. Spain’s creation of a territorial, rather than a merely commercial, empire like the Portuguese or Dutch—in a populous continent rich in silver, gold and other valuable resources—began to equalize and then reverse the world’s economic balance in favor of Europe, until then a “poor promontory of Eurasia,” and away from Asia. The process culminated with the rise of the contemporary world’s only superpower, the United States, in the traditional northern backwaters of the Americas, populated primarily by Eurasians and Africans.

In the long run the integration of the Americas with the rest of the world reversed the historically predominant balance of wealth, power, and cultural influence from the center-south of the hemisphere to the north. Like other traditionally potent pre-industrial centres like China or India, Mesoamerica and the Andean region fell behind during the century that elevated most of Europe and the United States to global economic hegemony through industrialization. Debt and militarization were the legacy of Iberian-America’s wars of independence (1810–1821 CE). As in Spain and Portugal, Latin America’s inability to achieve satisfactory political stability for most of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century slowed their investment in industrial and technological advances, despite their plentiful natural resources. After independence Mexico was unable to exploit or control 2 million square kilometers of its northern frontier that were absorbed by the industrialised north in 1848 CE. Despite impressive economic strides and political stability through most of the twentieth century, Mexico has failed to meet its potential. The southern territorial giants, Brazil and Argentina, whose potential has at times in their history attracted comparisons to the United States, have so far failed to exploit their hinterland or their natural bounties as effectively as the United States, while resource-rich countries like Venezuela have not capitalized their assets to create sustainable alternative sources of economic growth. Internal divisions of race in a context of nationalist rather than multiethnic imperial organizations, along with extreme economic inequality and until recently social instability have continued to plague the less successful center and south of the hemisphere, which some see as the “backyard” of the richer more influential United States.

Reflections, Myths, and Notions of Liberty

The European encounter with the Americas brought about the integration of the hemisphere and a greater cultural homogenisation than at any point before. With few exceptions, the vast majority of the continent’s physiologically diverse population communicates in European languages and practices varieties of Christianity which Europeans introduced and natives and Africans modified, along with other cultural manifestations first associated with Europe. The Americas are not merely an extension of Europe, however, though both might be classified as forming part of “the West.” Rather, the Americas reflected back Europe’s transforming gaze.

The myths that surrounded the achievements of European adventurers over populous and exotic empires bolstered Europeans’ confidence in their imperial rights and supposed abilities, dormant or frustrated since the classical age and now revived and surpassed. In Spain’s American possessions, European political theories of modern statute-based bureaucratic government were first attempted from the sixteenth century, before they were tried in tradition-bound Europe. Slavery also enjoyed a renaissance and was practiced in various degrees over much of the hemisphere at a time when it was disappearing in Europe, creating a profound effect on the development of American societies and perhaps an even more pernicious one on the African peoples that supplied the slaves. The tragedies of conquest and epidemics initiated pained and enduring humanitarian reflections: Bartolome de las Casas (1484–1566) proclaimed the then-revolutionary doctrine that “all the peoples of mankind are human,” a view endorsed by Pope Paul III’s papal bull of 1533 embracing the humanity of Amerindians. The Spanish crown responded, and motivated by conscience and an interest in maintaining their labor-force, proclaimed legislation like the “New Laws” (1542) that sought to protect Amerindian subjects. Both the Hispanic notions of mestizaje (cultural and racial mixing) and the U.S. or Brazilian self-conceptions as melting-pots or plural societies were born of the more positive traditions of American and European interaction. There is a clear continuity between these ideas, and our contemporary acceptance of universal human rights, which in turn enjoys global influence because of “the West’s” power.

The Americas became linked with the liberating feeling of newness. Utopians like Vasco de Quiroga experimented with “ideal” communities in sixteenth-century Mexico, and Puritan “cities on a hill” were founded in New England. The inherent goodness of man was identified in the “noble savages” of uncivilized corners of the continent, while Romantics learned their rapturous awe of nature in the spectacular untamed landscapes of North America. An impoverished sixteenth-century Spanish adventurer could hope to improve himself by being recognized as a nobleman for his achievements in the Americas and enjoy his notion of liberty to participate within his empire’s “political nation,” while an eighteenth-century Virginian landlord could see himself as a new Roman republican hero, complete with slaves, and create a constitution fit for an “empire of liberty” that with some modifications has defined the modern world’s ideals of political legitimacy.


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  2. Coe, M., Snow, D., & Benson, E. (1986). Atlas of ancient America. Amsterdam: Time-Life Books.
  3. Crosby, A. W. (1972) The Columbian exchange: biological and cultural consequences of 1492. Westport: Greenwood Press.
  4. Diamond, J. (1997). Guns germs and steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. London: Chatto & Windus.
  5. Elliott, J. (2006). Empires of the Atlantic world: Britain and Spain in America 1492–1830. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  6. Elliott, J. (1970). The old world and the new, 1492–1650. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Fernandez-Armesto, F. (2003). The Americas: The history of a hemisphere. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  8. Mann, C. (2006). 1491: The Americas before Columbus. London: Granta.
  9. Matthew, L. & Oudijk, R. (2007). Indian conquistadors: Indigenous allies in the conquest of Mesoamerica. Norman: Oklahoma University Press.

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