Checking in From All Corners

Polynesia, Africa and the Americas – 400 > 1500



            By the year 1500, all the continents of the world were populated by humans.  But by that year all the continents were definitely not connected.  Sure, there was the Silk Road criss-crossing Asia.  There was the Indian Ocean trade network linking East Africa to East Asia.  There was even a Trans-Saharan caravan trail connecting the gold-producing regions of West Africa to the Middle East.  But still, about 75% of the planet sat isolated from the other continents.  The indigenous peoples of the Americas, Sub-Saharan Africa and Australoasia might have interacted with their neighboring tribes, but they definitely didn’t meet up with travelers from across the oceans.  They might not have seen themselves as isolated (living sometimes in cities far larger than the towns of Medieval Europe), but by today’s standards, they were on their own.

            We don’t know a ton about these early inhabitants of the “new worlds,” not because they didn’t have vibrant, complex, advanced civilizations, but because they failed to do one thing that makes history possible.  They didn’t write.  Yes, they drew pictures on their monuments and carved monoliths to illustrate their daily lives or to honor their gods, but that just doesn’t count.  So unfortunately, our knowledge of their early years is fairly negligible compared to the mountains of records we have of the Mediterranean and Asian civilizations of the ancient world.  Archaeologists have uncovered a ton of evidence (especially of the major civilizations of Mesoamerica – today’s Latin America), but still most of our accounts of their worlds come not from actual members of the civilization, but from the explorers that would run into them over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries.

            But let’s try to go back a few hundred years and try to make sense of what was going on in their worlds prior to the Age of Exploration that once and for all linked the world together.

            Over in the Americas, there was no one civilization that dominated the entire continent.  There was no singular group of Indians all following the same leader and glorifying the same gods.  By the time Columbus arrived in 1492, thousands of groups of Native Americans had already set up shop around the Western Hemisphere.  Some were small groups that stayed hunter-gatherers.  Others created efficient empires that boasted highly “civilized” methods of agriculture, government and human interaction.

            How many tribes do you think existed on the North American continent?  Take a guess.  Four?  Twenty?  260 million?  Well, not quite 260 million, but here are just a few: 

Abnaki Alabama Aleuts Algonquin Anasazi Apache Arapaho Arawak Arikara Assiniboin Aztec Beothuk Cabazon Caddo Catawba Cherokee Cheyenne Chickasaw Chinook Chippewa Choctaw Chumash Comanche Cree Creek Crow Delaware Erie  Eskimo Flathead Haida Hidatsa Hohokam Hopi Hupa Huron Ioway Innu Inuit Iroquois Kaw Kickapoo Kiowa Klamath Kootenai Kwakiutl Mahican Makah Maliseet Mandan Mayan Melungeon Menominee Metis Mississauga Modoc Mohave Mohawk Mohegan Montagnais Mound Builders Narragansett Navajo Nez Perce Nootka Olmec Osage Ottawa Oto Papago Passamaquoddy Pawnee Pennacook Penobscot Peoria Pequot Pima Ponca Potawatomi Pueblo Quanah Parker Quapaw Sauk Seminole Seneca Shawnee Shoshone Shuswap Sioux Squanto Tlingit Toltec Tonkawa Ute Washo Wampanoag Wichita Winnebago Wovoka Wyandotte Yakima Yuchi Yurok Zapotec Zuni

  As you can see, there was no one Native American nation, religion, language or government.  Not only were they not unified, but many of these tribes had conflicts with each other that the Europeans would later exploit to their advantage. 

            But I’m getting ahead of myself.

            To the south it was a bit different.  In the southern area of what we today call Mexico and along the western coast of South America, two civilizations flourished at a scale only matched by the Romans, the Mongols, the Muslims, the Indians and the Chinese.  These two civilizations were the Aztecs (the Mexicas) of Mexico and the Incas of modern day Chile.  Together these two regions made up what was later called Mesoamerica – or “middle America.”

            The Aztec civilization had built on the foundations established by first the Mayans and then the Toltecs.  Most people hadn’t heard of the Mayans until 2012 when some of the cognitively-challenged members of our species started pointing to this civilization’s calendar as a clue that the end of the world was coming at the end of the year.  Even though Hollywood made a film that proved otherwise (cleverly...