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PinkMonkey Study Guide - American History

1. 3 The Indians

Since both Christopher Columbus and Amerigo were in the service of Spain, the first settlements in America were under the Spanish flag. In fact, Columbus was appointed the first governor of these early settlements. These settlements were not permanent. They lasted as long as the exploration of the continent was on. The settlements prospered by raising cattle and growing sugar. The Indians (Red Indians) were used as slave labor on these sugar plantations.

Who were the Indians? Where did they come from. How long had they been living in the ’new’ world, when Columbus discovered it? These are questions that need to be answered. There has a lot of controversy over the origins of the Indians in America. The existence of Indians in the American continent, the various tribes, languages, customs and occupations reveal that much before the Europeans set foot in the ’new’ world, an entire civilization existed in the Americas. Historians claim that the archaeological history of the Indians goes back to more than 30,000 years. As Betty and Ian Ballantine put it: "By the time Columbus landed in the ’New World’, it was a very old world that already had seen entire civilizations rise and fall through the centuries. These linked continents were, by then populated by some 75,000,000 people who spoke 2,000 distinct languages..."

Conflicting theories exist on the origin of the Indians in America. But the credit for the most scientific explanation for the origin of Indians goes to a Jesuit missionary called Josi de Acosta. As far back as 1589, de Acosta stated that small groups of hunters might have migrated from Asia to America, a million years before the Spaniards set foot the American coast. These Indians might have left their Siberian homeland either in search of food or due to war between the tribes. These migrating tribes might have followed animals (extinct now) to reach America, via the landmass that bridged Siberia and Alaska. This theory is supported by the following facts:

(1) Geographers say that there was indeed a thousand-mile long land bridge stretching between Siberia and Alaska.

(2) Fossil bones from human ancestors - like the Neanderthals have not been found in America. This is evidence enough that physiologically, modern humans first arrived in America.

(3) Archaeologists in Asia claim that humans did not appear in Siberia until 35,000 years ago. Though no definite date for the arrival of Indians in America has been established, one can safely conclude that they arrived there some time after the first humans made an appearance in Asia.

(4) Also climatic conditions favored migration. About 20,000 years ago, as the last ice Age made its appearance on Earth, huge glaciers covered the entire regions of Canada. Due to these glaciers a lot of water was concentrated and the water levels in the oceans went down, revealing a 1,000-mile landmass between Siberia and Alaska. Geographers have called this landmass the Bering Land Bridge or Beringia. Further, due to the glaciation much of the natural vegetation shifted southwards. The animals that are today found in cold regions followed them. For instance, the reindeer, lemmings etc. then lived in places that are extremely warm for them today. Archaeological evidence shows that the walrus existed in parts of Virginia during that age.

The first American Indians were hunters and gatherers who stayed in bands of twenty to fifty people. Through the centuries, these Indians (called ’Clovis’ by archaeologists) lived and adapted themselves to the new geographical conditions after the Ice Age. And about eleven thousand years ago, these tribes died. But the others who separated from the ’Clovis’, to exploit the resources of the grassland survived and continued to adapt. Before the first Indians disappeared, hundreds of tribes spread out in the continent, and developed their own language and culture. Many American Indian tribes today attribute their ancestry to the ’Clovis’ Indians.

Then some of these tribes settled due to various objective and subjective factors. And from these settled villages, rose great civilizations in about 1500 BC. These civilizations emerged in the South American Continent, where environmental conditions were best suited. The earliest of these civilizations was that of the ’Olmecs.’ The Olmec was not just a separate culture entity that arose in the Gulf of Mexico; it was also a religion that spread to most of the civilized parts of South America. This religion consisted of symbols, rituals and spirits. The main god of the Olmec religion was the Rain God, a figure with both human and jaguar-like features. This Rain God was worshipped by later civilizations like the Aztecs, the Mayans etc.

Map of Cortez’s route

Exhibit 1.3

Civilizations like the Olmec, the Zapotec and the Mayans shared many things in common. Chief among them was their calendar system. American civilizations had a calendar system that consisted of 2 calendars: a solar year of 365 days and the ritual cycle of 260-days. The two calendars worked in such a way that they converged once every fifty-two years. For the native Americans this convergence every 52 years was very auspicious, thus celebrated through public ceremonies to mark the event.

Another important civilization was at Teotihuacan, with its majestic pyramids. Not very far from modern day Mexico City, this civilization flourished in 150 BC and lasted for a millennium. Teotihuacan was a well planned city, neatly divided into neighborhoods knows as ’barrios.’ Besides pyramids (over 600 in total), the town also had beautifully carved temples, along with a huge market place. The civilization grew due to its vast stretches of irrigated fields. The power of Teotihuacan declined sometime before 750 AD. By AD 800, the people from the city migrated towards the east and the South and soon the city was abandoned. The reasons for the decline of this ancient city could be rebellion or because their fields had been overused thus lowering the production.

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Table of Contents

1.0 - Chronology of Major Events in this Period
1.1 - The Discovery of America
1.2 - Voyages of exploration
1.3 - The Indians
1.4 - Points to Remember

Chapter 2


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