Pre-Columbian Peoples Research Paper

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The  term  pre-Columbian refers to  the  time  before Columbus first set foot in the Americas. He sailed to find alternative routes  to  the  East,  as  Asian imports  had become very expensive in Europe after the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453. Yet pre-Columbian peoples had flourishing civilizations long before the arrival of Columbus. Each society had prescribed laws and unique religions, and far from the savage cultures that  history painted them to be, several societies were highly sophisticated.

Some scholars have postulated that around the time that the Israelites chose David as their king, a tribe of Asians crossed the land bridge that  became the Bering Strait in search of new game. These people, called the Nadene, closely resembled modern Mongolians. About two thousand years ago, the group split into two factions—the Tlingit and Haida tribes, which went to the northwestern coast  of  North   America—and  the  Athabascans, who stayed  in  Alaska around  Lake  Athabasca. But  the Athabascans continued to move southward to form tribes in the Southwest.

Although this scenario is speculation, many similarities exist between the Asian peoples and Native American tribes.  For  instance, the  mandala  of  the  Hindus  and Buddhists closely resembles the sand paintings of southwestern tribes. Early Asian calendars were also similar to those of the Aztecs. Special significance was often placed on the number four. Although no physical proof of this migration exists, signs point to its possibility. Asian tribes may  have migrated  as far south  as the  tip  of  South America.

One of the oldest tribes on record lived in the Four Corners  area of the  southwestern United  States. They were called the  Pueblos, and  their  ancestors were the Anasazi, a tribe that existed two thousand years ago. The Anasazi are known for their elaborate apartment buildings, built on the sides of cliffs. Later, the Pueblos used adobe and wood to build their homes. Their hunter-gatherer status changed around the year 1000 BCE, when they began to plant corn, squash, and beans, and to craft fine pottery.

The people who lived in Cahokia, in what is now southwestern Illinois, are known popularly as the “mound builders” because they built large structures for underground  burial,  governmental, or  ceremonial purposes. The society is thought to have been territorial, led by a chieftain, and possessed the most elaborate hierarchial system in its time.

In  Mesoamerica, as each new culture appeared, it adapted, and often improved upon, significant elements of the civilization that had come before. The Olmecs, the original civilization, lived in wood and thatch huts in a humid  area on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. They raised corn, beans, and squash, worked with fine stones, and made pottery. It is theorized that the Olmecs traveled and traded throughout the area and thereby spread their culture throughout the region.

The Zapotec capital, Monte Alban, began to flourish at about the same time as the Olmec society fell into decline. The Zapotecs may have built the first observatory, and their system of glyph writing was the first writing of any type to be used in Mesoamerica. They recorded the first calendar, although the Olmecs may have begun to develop a similar system of counting the days before them.

The  Mixtecs seem to  have taken over sites where Zapotecan society was failing. The Mixtecs were exquisite goldsmiths, but their most significant contribution is the written record of their history, which covered a period of almost 600 years beginning around 940 CE.

Thriving at roughly the same time was another people, whose true name is still unknown. The name Teotihuacanos comes  from  their  city—Teotihuacán, named  by  the  Aztecs long  after  the  civilization fell. Although few written records exist, a glimpse of their culture  survives in  colorful frescoes, which  adorn  palace walls. It  appears that  the  Teotihuacanos traded  goods widely, had a class-based society with specialized jobs, and worshipped a number of gods. They were also weavers and potters and jewelers who worked in semiprecious stones. Their civilization sharply declined around 700 CE, when the city was sacked and burned, probably by barbarian tribes from the north.

The  Mayan  society, which  first  appeared  around 1000 BCE, was prevalent in parts of Mexico and farther south into Central America. They refined the art of writing and the calendar to their highest forms up until that time. Mayan art developed between about 200 and 900 and is considered to be the most sophisticated and beautiful of the region. The Mayans are known for their mathematical prowess and traded in salt, cacao, and obsidian.

No society in ancient Mesoamerica was as revered as the  Toltecs.  Later  societies credited  the  Toltecs  with inventing astronomy, the calendar, and the arts because of the finely crafted items found in the ruined Toltec capital of Tolan; however, historical fact disproved these claims. Toltec civilization fell into decline after Tolan was burned and sacked around the year 1150, and after the city vanished, an even more sophisticated and powerful people came to revere them. They adopted Toltec music, called their  artists “Totecatls,” and  copied Toltec  artistry in sculpture,  architecture,  and  featherwork. They  even proudly claimed Toltec lineage. These people called themselves the Mexica (me-SHI-ca), but history knows them as the Aztecs.

The Aztecs were arguably the most advanced culture to have arisen in pre-Columbian times, although they are more often remembered for their ritual practice of human sacrifice. Yet the Aztecs had a well-developed military, and they enlarged their capital of Tenochtitlán, now Mexico City,  through  the  construction  of  floating farm  plots known as chiampas. The Aztecan pantheon was elaborate, their educational system substantial, and they held great esteem for the arts.

Farther into South America were the Incas, whose society developed only  shortly  before  the  arrival of Columbus  in  the  New World.  Still, they managed to expand their influence throughout western South America by the time of their demise in 1533. The Incas are most remembered for their architectural construction, such as that at the site of Machu Pichu.

In  the  Bahamas and  the  Greater  Antilles Islands, which include Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica, the Taino culture was the dominant  society before the  time  of  Columbus,  although Ciboney  and  Guanahatabey  (western Cuba),  Macorix and/or Ciguayo (Bohio), and even Carib (Lesser Antilles) were also present. They were united by Arawak, the common language. As they were island cultures, they were adept sailors, and fishing was their main occupation, but the islands also provided abundant edible fruits and they used the fauna of the land to fulfill their needs. In 1492, the Taino had a thriving civilization.  As the Mesoamerican cultures had, they constructed ceremonial ballparks, and they had an elaborate hierarchy of gods. They lived in five predominant kingdoms on Hispaniola, which were led by chieftains to whom tribute was paid. They raised crops of casaba melons, garlic, potatoes, and other fruits and vegetables, with yucca being their staple food. They had no system of writing nor a calendar, and could count only up to twenty using their hands and feet. But the Taino made exquisite handcrafted works, with pottery being the most remarkable.

Other  less political societies also existed in  North America before the arrival of Columbus. They were independent city-states, thriving in small groups. Their lesscentralized chiefdom  polities  were  also  evident  and included a central community surrounded by bordering neighbor villages. Each community had a central ruler, with a subservient underclass. When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he was the first European to encounter the Taino. He called them “Indians” because he thought he had landed in India, and the appellation became the common term to describe all Native American peoples in the Americas.

Population  estimates of pre-Columbian  peoples in North American range from 8 million to more than 100 million,  centered  mainly  in  Mesoamerica and  South America. However, because of incomplete evidence, the true population is difficult to determine.


  1. Brundage, Burr Cartwright. 1963. Empire of the Inca. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  2. Carrasco, David. 1998. Daily Life of the Aztecs, People of the Sun and Earth. Westport, CT: Greenwood.
  3. Coe, Michael D. 1996. Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs. New York: Thames and Hudson.
  4. Driver, Harold E., and William C. Massey. 1957. Comparative Studies of North American Indians. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.
  5. Henderson, John S. 1997. The World of the Ancient Maya. 2nd ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  6. Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C., and Jeremy A. Sabloff. 1979. Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
  7. Lemonick, Michael D. 1998. Before Columbus: Destroyed Almost Overnight by Spanish Invaders, the Culture of the Gentle Taino Is Finally Coming to Light. Time (October 19): 76(2).
  8. Longhena, Maria. 1998. Ancient Mexico, The History and Culture of the Maya, Aztec, and Other Pre-Columbian Peoples. New York: Stewart, Tabori and Chang.

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