History of the Americas Before Columbus

About the Americas before Christopher Columbus arrived, history of the Native Americans, Aztec, and Incas groups in the New World.



The New World was a fabulous and varied human landscape, boasting 22 cultural groups whose people spoke 2,000 languages. Several magnificent civilizations had already risen and waned, yet in places some Stone Age natives still lived simple lives. For example:

* In the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), with its canals which served as streets, its floating gardens, and its treasure-filled palaces, there was an awe-inspiring temple dedicated to the war god Huitzilopochtli. Near a rack filled with 136,000 skulls, mute evidence of past sacrifices, priests ripped out the hearts of living victims and the long, 114-step temple stairway ran red with blood.

* The Iroquois of North America practiced group therapy and belonged to a politically sophisticated federation known as the Five Nations (later the Six Nations), which influenced the makers of the U.S. Constitution.

* The Incas of Peru built suspension bridges, roads up to 3,000 mi. long, intricate irrigation systems, and, in the capital city of Cuzco, a gold-sheathed Temple of the Sun. Their royal brother-sister marriages resembled those of Egypt's pharaohs. Elaborately knotted strings, quipus, formed the basis of their advanced accounting and information systems. However, they were no strangers to barbaric practices; one member of the royal family made a drumhead of the skin of a murdered relative.

* The pueblo-dwelling natives of what is now New Mexico and Arizona, builders of adobe houses, some of which were many stories high, frowned on ambition and had developed an intricate and harmonious religion based on oneness with the universe.

* The Mayas of Yucatan and Guatemala built libraries containing thousands of bark-paper, full-color books written in an as yet undeciphered language. All but three of these were burned in the 1500s by Spanish missionary Diego de Landa because they "contained nothing in which there were not to be seen superstition and lies of the devil." The Mayas' base-20 number system, which included zero, had been developed a thousand years in advance of its use elsewhere, and their astronomers were capable of astonishing precision in charting the heavens. By the late fifteenth century, when the Europeans came, the Mayas, who had begun to flourish about 350 A.D., were already in decline.

* The gentle Arawaks of the West Indies grew corn and yams, spun and wove cotton. Of them Columbus said, "They invite you to share anything that they possess, and show as much love as if their hearts went with it."

* According to the chronicles of Columbus's second voyage, the Caribs, also indigenous to the West Indies, kept emasculated boy slaves whom they fattened up for feasts at which the babies of female slaves served as appetizers.

* The Chichimecs of northeast Mexico, nomads who played games not only with rubber balls but with arm and leg bones ripped from the bodies of living victims, were so fierce that it took the Spanish 200 years to subdue them.

These and others were the descendants of the Asians who had moved across Siberia and down through Alaska into an unknown continent. The first wave of emigration took place at least 20,000 years ago, and maybe as long as 35,000 years ago. The earliest inhabitants were joined by later waves of Asians coming overland and perhaps by a few boatloads of seafarers from ancient Phoenicia, Africa, and other lands, who had found sailing to the west fairly easy because of the trade winds, but who had learned that getting back home was close to impossible.

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