This chapter explores three cultures—Native American, African, and European—and the events that brought the cultures of Europe and Africa to the Americas.
Section 1 introduces the early civilizations of Mesoamerica and North America.
Using DNA, radiocarbon dating, and other evidence, researchers believe that the
earliest Americans came from Asia 15,000 to 30,000 years ago. When early Americans
learned how to raise crops, they abandoned their nomadic ways and began establishing
communities. In Mesoamerica the Olmec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec developed sophisticated
cities and trade networks. Early North American societies included the Hohokam
and Anasazi of the Southwest, the Adena and Hopewell cultures of the Eastern Woodlands,
and the Mississippians of the Mississippi River valley. Other Native Americans
in North America lived in smaller groups to suit their particular environments.
Section 2 reviews early Europe and the West African civilizations. Technological improvements revived trade and the growth of cities. At the same time, the Crusades sparked a trade revolution, increased western Europeans' demand for Eastern goods, and motivated Europe to develop a money-based economy. With increased wealth and power, unified and strong central governments emerged. By the mid-1400s, Portugal, Spain, England, and France sought ways to expand their trade and national power. The Renaissance promoted advances in technology that made lengthy explorations possible. In West Africa, trade of gold and salt had long been a central feature. The West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai on the expansive savannah prospered because of gold trade with Muslim states, and Timbuktu became a major city in the region. In the forests of West Africa's southern coast, smaller kingdoms such as Benin developed. While slavery existed in African society before Arabs or Europeans began purchasing enslaved Africans, the introduction of Islam, the gold trade, and European sugar plantations profoundly affected the African slave trade.
Section 3 describes early European encounters in America. While the Vikings probably were the first Europeans to explore the Americas, Christopher Columbus ushered in the era of Spanish exploration and colonization of the Americas. A treaty with Portugal confirmed Spain's claim to the Americas. Amerigo Vespucci's explorations along the coast of South America proved that the land mass was not Asia. Other explorers, such as Ponce De Leon, Vasco de Balboa, and Ferdinand Magellan, headed to the newly-named continent. European colonists in the Americas impacted the world's ecosystems and altered cultures worldwide. These interactions, called the Columbian Exchange, would prove to be both beneficial and catastrophic.
Section 4 explains how the Spanish and French built their American empires. During the early 1500s, Spanish explorers ventured into the area that is now Mexico and Peru. On their quest for gold and enslaved labor, they gained allies, spread disease, and conquered two Native American civilizations. Later Spanish expeditions explored North America's southern and southwestern areas. By the 1600s, the Spanish Catholic Church led the way in settling the Southwest. The people of Spain influenced the colonies' governing system, structured societies, and impact on Native Americans. The French took a different approach to colonization. French merchants, attracted by the lucrative fur market, established New France with the trading post of Quebec. French fur traders and Jesuit missionaries commonly lived among the Native Americans and learned their culture. When France's king grew unhappy with the colony's slow growth, he took actions to expand its population and borders. As a result of one expedition, France gained a vast territory named Louisiana.