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BIG IDEA: Native American societies were enormously varied, ranging from small nomadic bands to elaborate societies with enormous cities. Generally, cultures derived their characteristics from the surrounding natural environment.

The very first humans to live in North and South America arrived during the Ice Ages when sea levels were lower and the land between Asia and Alaska was exposed.  They were nomads following game animals.  Over the centuries, descendants of these first inhabitants spread throughout the rest of the Americas.  

Their societies evolved into a myriad of distinct cultures with unique languages, religions and folkways, often influenced by the particular geography and climate where they lived.

In Central and South America, as well as in Mexico, large, powerful, complex societies developed that featured massive cities and written language. The Maya in southern Mexico and Central America built pyramids and a complex calendar system. However, their culture had disappeared before the arrival of the Europeans.

In South America, the Inca developed a complex system of roads to connect distant regions of their empire. They were excellent builders and cut stones so precisely that their cities, such as Machu Picchu, have lasted for centuries without mortar to hold them together.

In central Mexico the Aztec Empire built the massive city of Tenochtitlan that stood at the site of modern Mexico City. The Aztec religion included the practice of human sacrifice, which horrified Spanish conquistadors who met them.

In North America, societies varied greatly. Two regions show the differences: In the Southwest people grew corn, built homes from adobe or carved homes out of cliffs. In the Northeast, people hunted, fished and farmed, and built permanent homes out of wood. These included the people that English settlers first met when they arrived in New England and Jamestown. Some of their cultures had well developed political systems, such as the Iroquois League.


BIG IDEA: Europeans began exploring in the 1400s in search of new routes to Asia and the goods they wanted to buy.  Both Spain and Portugal were leaders in the early years, sending their ships around Africa and across the Atlantic.

Exploration of the Americas by Europeans in the 1400s and 1500s was a result of historical trends that had begun long before. Spices and products from the Far East had been novelties in Europe and highly sought after, however, due to the disruptions of trade caused by wars in the Middle East, Europeans began searching for alternative routes to find these products.

The Portuguese began exploring the coast of Africa in an attempt to find a way to sail around that continent.  This is why there are numerous nations in Africa that speak Portuguese and Portuguese-speaking ports in India and China.  Portuguese sailors were swept across the Atlantic in storms and landed in Brazil, which later became a Portuguese colony as well, and the only Portuguese-speaking country in the Americas.

Spain as a nation did not exist as we know it today until the 1480s when two kingdoms were united by the marriage of their king and queen. Ferdinand and Isabella not only merged their two kingdoms, but also evicted the last of the Muslims from the Iberian Peninsula and funded an expedition by Italian sailor Columbus to find a way across the Atlantic Ocean to China.

Columbus and most Europeans understood that the world was round, he was just wrong about how big it was. When he landed on an island in what is now the Bahamas, he was convinced that he had arrived in China. Altogether, Columbus made four trips to America on behalf of Spain. Although he is remembered as the “discoverer” of America, Native Americans had been living there for thousands of years. He was also not a particularly good governor and lost his job as leader of the Spanish colonies in the New World.

Spain and Portugal were both Catholic nations, and to prevent conflicts they asked the Pope to divide the world between them. The resulting Treaty of Tordesillas split the world when the Pope drew a line north to south. The Americas, except Brazil, fell to the west of the line and were given to Spain. Africa was on the east of the line. This is why most of Central and South America speak Spanish, whereas few places in Africa speak Spanish.


BIG IDEA: Spain developed its American empire through military conquest and because Native Americans died in large numbers from Old World diseases. They focused on extracting precious metals. Alternatively, the French engaged in the beaver trade which led them to develop scattered settlements and cultivate good relationships with Native Americans.

Spanish conquistadors were able to conquer the great empires of Mexico and South America relatively easily in the early 1500s.

Hernán Cortés led an expedition of Spanish troops into the heart of Mexico.  They were joined by native groups who had been conquered by the Aztec.  Cortés was helped by La Malinche, a native woman who helped him by translating and providing insight into native cultural beliefs.  Because of her relationship with Cortés, she is viewed as both the first Mexican, and as a traitor.  The Aztecs may have believed Cortés was a god and treated him well.  However, when it became clear that the Spanish were obsessed with Aztec gold, fighting ensued.  Montezuma, the Aztec emperor was killed and the Spanish replaced the Aztec leadership as the rulers of the kingdom.

Francisco Pizarro repeated Cortés’s success against the Aztec when he led an expedition into South America. Pizarro captured and executed Atahualpa, the Inca emperor and expanded the Spanish Empire into much of South America.

Spanish attempts to find wealth in North America did not go as well. There were not great societies to conquer. Hernando de Soto explored Florida and much of the American South. Coronado explored the American Southwest.

Wherever the Spanish went, they left behind Old World diseases that devastated the local populations. Where they stayed, they implemented the encomienda system. Spanish conquistadors were given land as a reward for their service. They used the local Native American population as slave labor. Some Spanish, such as the priest Bartolomé de Las Casas protested this brutal system, however it ended mostly because Native Americans died from disease and were replaced by African slaves rather than because the Spanish decided to treat their new subjects better.

Great wealth based on gold and silver from America dramatically changed Spain. A golden age of culture in Spain resulted as the royal family patronized artists. Don Quixote of La Mancha was written. The wealth ultimately destroyed Spain because of runaway inflation.

The French also decided to explore America. Their colonies began in what is now Canada where they created the settlements of Quebec and Montreal. They also built the town of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River, and claimed the vast inland region between Louisiana, the Great Lakes and Canada. The French engaged in fur trapping and did not build large farms or populate large areas. Instead, they worked with the Native population to trade for furs.

The various islands of the Caribbean were divided between various European nations.


BIG IDEA: The conquest of the Americans led to a major change in world history as plants, animals, microbes, people and ideas were exchanged.

The Columbian Exchange is the name historians give to all the plants, animals, diseases, people and ideas shared between the Old World of Europe, Asia and Africa and the New World of the Americas after first contact was made by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Since this exchange was enormously influential, 1492 is an important turning point in world history.

Sugar and rice were brought from the Old World to the New. Tobacco, potatoes, tomatoes and chocolate were New World crops brought to the Old World.

Domesticated animals such as horses, pigs, cows, sheep, goats and chickens were brought to America. Europeans also brought earthworms, which transformed the forests and fields of the Americas.

Most significantly for Native Americans was the exchange of diseases. Smallpox came from Europe and devastated Native American populations. It is estimated that 90% of Native Americans died from introduced diseases.

People were also part of the Columbian Exchange. Some came by choice, such as the Spanish, French and eventually the British colonists. Others did not come by choice, such as the African slaves. Once in America, some remained racially segregated whereas in other colonies they intermarried. The Spanish developed a caste system based on the purity of one’s heritage, with those of pure Spanish ancestry at the top, and those of pure African ancestry at the bottom.