Have you ever wondered who the earliest people were to discover America and where they originated from? Because Christopher Columbus arrived on the Caribbean Islands in the fifteenth century, many history books focus on him as the first European founder. However, recent archaeological evidence reveals other stories seldom told.
In fact, the first explorers to inhabit North and South America were from Asia, not Europe. Scientific tests show that Asians and Native Americans share a large percentage of the same mitochondrial DNA. Therefore, most anthropologists believe that ancient people migrated from Asia and settled in the Americas thousands of years ago; these are the ancestors of today’s indigenous people. These first pioneers likely crossed over the frozen Bering Land Bridge—which connected modern-day Siberia to Alaska—during the last Ice Age.
As the Paleoamericans journeyed south throughout these vast continents, they adapted their survival skills and then opened up communication channels and established trade routes. Their innovative hunting and agricultural practices enabled a multitude of new societies to form and prosper. Advancements in science and architecture followed.
Here are just a few of these indigenous cultures and their significant accomplishments—long before the arrival of Europeans to the “New World” who would eventually change their way of life forever.
The Inuvialuit are the Inuit indigenous people of Western Canada, who currently live in the Arctic region. They are the descendants of the Thule culture who migrated eastward from the Bering Strait around 200 B.C.—then eventually settled in Alaska, Northern Canada, and as far away as Greenland by the thirteenth century. Archaeologists have found specialized tools for harvesting whales and other artifacts at early Inuvialuit villages near the Mackenzie River. The modern-day Inuvialuit still practice the same hunting and fishing techniques as their ancestors. They are considered the world’s best fishermen and big game hunters, and remain closely connected to animal migrations in one of the world’s most extreme environments.
The People of Cahokia
The great Native American city of Cahokia is considered one of the most advanced civilizations ever discovered in the United States. The founders—who were accomplished hunters, farmers, and builders—settled Cahokia close to the modern-day city of St. Louis. Like most Native Americans, they were expert hunters who employed sophisticated techniques such as wearing camouflage, setting traps, and utilizing bird calls to capture prey. They started growing beans, corn, and squash near the shores of the Mississippi River around the eighth century. They constructed elaborate pyramids that are still standing today. These mound builders created approximately 120 large pyramids—surrounded by fortified plazas—which housed temples, mortuaries, workshops, and elaborate works of art. At its height, the city supported 20,000 people. Eventually, the Cahokia ceremonial center was slowly abandoned in the fourteenth century. Most likely, the people of Cahokia exhausted a variety of natural resources and were no longer able to sustain their large population.
The Puebloan culture began to thrive at the Four Corners region of the United States around 1,500 B.C. At Mesa Verde, in southwest Colorado, they built elaborate structures carved from stone as early as the seventh century. There are hundreds of cliff dwellings containing long houses, storage units, and family spaces. The Pueblo farmed squash, beans, and corn using reservoirs and irrigation systems in a fragile environment that was susceptible to soil erosion and low rainfall. The Pueblo people of this region also raised turkeys and hunted rabbits to subsist. The Mesa Verdeans abandoned their homes around the thirteenth century most likely due to drought, then assimilated into other Native American cultures which included the Zuni and Hopi tribes. The Puebloan settlements still exist as a reminder of their advanced culture. Eventually, the Navajo tribe migrated into the Four Corners region around the fifteenth century and remain in the southwest today.
The Aztecs were an advanced civilization who ruled several ethnic groups in central Mexico, between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. These Nahuatl-speaking peoples were well educated and at its pinnacle the civilization was over one million strong. They constructed vast architectural complexes with plazas, pyramids, temples, markets, and irrigation canals. This Mesoamerican culture developed a complex writing system conveyed in artwork, such as calendars, which guided their cyclical rituals and government-controlled agriculture. To further consolidate power, the Aztecs conquered additional tribes and sacrificed prisoners of war to their god Huitzilopochtli.
The Aztecs continued their economic and territorial expansion until the Spaniards arrived, in 1519. The natives’ weapons were no match for the Europeans’ steel arms. Eventually, the Aztec ruler Motecuhzoma surrendered to the Conquistadors after he gifted them a substantial amount of gold treasure to go away. However, the tribute only encouraged the foreign invaders to continue their expedition. The king was imprisoned in the capital city of Tenochtitlán where he died soon after. By 1521, the conquest of the Aztecs and their great cities was nearly complete. Tenochtitlán was then rebuilt as Mexico City under Spanish rule.
As early as 2,000 B.C. the Maya civilization started to form permanent villages. Their complex society relied on agriculture, trade, and science. Through the ages they evolved into a highly sophisticated society, which at its peak spanned from southeastern Mexico to Central America. The Maya were accomplished artists, engineers, and astronomers who created great cities that served as religious and cultural centers throughout the region. Many of the Maya sites aligned with the astronomical constellations. This Mesoamerican culture is best known for its massive pyramids which functioned as observatories, religious edifices, royal tombs, and calendars.
At Chichén Itzá, in the Yucatán Peninsula, the 91 steps on each of the four sides of the pyramid are thought to represent the days of the four seasons. All sides total 364 steps, with the top platform representing the 365th step to complete the giant calendar. The steps are so accurately positioned that the shadow of what appears to be a serpent aligns with a stone sculpture exhibiting a reptile’s face at its base. This shadow snake rises from the ground then slithers back into the Earth during the spring and fall equinoxes. Despite the Maya’s superior abilities to master the Earth and sky, their culture started to collapse by the tenth century. Over the next several centuries they abandoned their cities due to overpopulation, drought, and depletion of natural resources.
The Inca Empire inhabited a large swathe of the South American west coast between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Incas were the largest civilization in that region during this time. They operated a highly organized central government that relocated diverse groups of people in order to unite the empire. The Incas were highly adaptable to the extreme elevations and landscapes of the Andean Mountain range and deserts. They established a vast trading network throughout these regions where they grew potatoes, corn, legumes, and grains on steep inclines.
Machu Picchu was an important agricultural center located on a 7,970-foot mountain ridge in Peru. It is where the Incas expertly engineered elaborate buildings, stone walls, and terraces. The Incas were able to successfully grow crops in the rugged terrain by optimizing their environment to avoid the threats of soil erosion, poor drainage, and landslides. Abandoned in the sixteenth century, after the Incas were defeated by European diseases and superior weaponry, it still stands as a testament to their exceptional civic and agricultural capabilities.
The Norse explorer Leif Erikson sailed to Canada from Greenland five centuries before Columbus arrived in America. His seafaring father, Erik the Red, previously founded an original Norse settlement in Greenland where Leif spent most of his youth. With the same pioneering spirit as his father, Leif embarked on a voyage to discover new lands in the late tenth century. His adventurous curiosity led him to become the first known European to make landfall and erect temporary shelters west of Greenland, on the mainland of North America. The land he discovered in northeastern Canada was referred to as “Vinland” by the Vikings because of the wild grapes they found there.
According to The Vineland Sagas, Thorfinn Karlsefni was inspired by Leif’s tales of new lands. With his permission, Thorfinn repurposed those same shelters Leif had established years earlier to build the first European settlement in America. Thorfinn constructed the small encampment made of timber and sod, which anthropologists strongly suggest might be the Norse settlement identified as L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of Newfoundland. The Viking settlers huddled into their completed longhouse for the winter, then had a violent encounter with indigenous people by spring. The Norse referred to them as Skrælingjar, who were most likely native Algonquian-speaking people. After skirmishes with them over trade negotiations gone wrong, the Viking settlers were attacked and driven out. Isolated and without reinforcements, the Norse abandoned their North American settlement then returned to Greenland. Thorfinn eventually moved back to his homeland of Iceland.
Christopher Columbus made four voyages to the New World from Spain, between 1492 and 1502. While he explored the Caribbean Islands extensively—and portions of Central and South America—he never ventured further afield to the U.S. mainland. Initially, Columbus believed he had found Asia, hence why he called the indigenous people he discovered “Indians.” Columbus’ second trip to the New World was more dangerous. Some of his men were killed and by his third voyage they had mutinied against him. This led to a formal inquiry by the monarchy that sent him back to Spain in chains. Columbus was freed eventually to make his fourth and final trip back to the New World. He died after his return to Europe, in 1506.
Long before Columbus sailed to America, the Arawaks were well established throughout South America and the Caribbean. This culture was among the first the mariner encountered after he landed in the Bahamas on October 12. Columbus’ ambitious pursuit of gold, spices, and other natural resources emboldened him to take advantage of the Arawak people, who he noted were gentle and bright, but ignorant in nature. He forcefully enslaved 500, but only 300 survived the trip to Spain.
On subsequent voyages back to the New World Columbus and his men raped, plundered, exploited, and killed their way through previously unexplored islands. When some of the Arawaks tried to defend themselves, the Spaniards overwhelmed them, burning some and hanging others. Those who remained took their own lives rather than be enslaved. As more Europeans immigrated over the next several centuries, this same model of conquest played out time and again. Most indigenous people who were not murdered by the Europeans or ravaged by their diseases, were permanently displaced throughout most of the Americas.
Since the first explorers migrated to the Americas, they have passed on a wealth of knowledge and resources to generations. Agricultural, hunting, warfare, and survival techniques have been shared. Today’s citizens are the beneficiaries of their diverse cultures. Many of the valuable commodities that they cultivated still exist, such as these exotic New World crops which all originated from America: corn, sunflowers, avocados, blueberries, cranberries, papayas, peppers, pineapples, tomatoes, pumpkins, beans, chestnuts, black walnuts, cashews, pecans, peanuts, potatoes, cotton, maple syrup, tobacco, chocolate, and vanilla. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a celebration of their rich culture and legacy.