1 Setting the Scene

Chapter 1 sets the scene and describes the cultures of the three regions that would contribute to the population and history of the Americas: the Americas themselves, Europe, and Africa.




During the last ice age, between about 30,000 and about 12,000 years ago, a land now called Beringia existed between Asia and North America. Sea levels were about 360 feet lower than they are at present, so a landmass as wide as Alaska was exposed that connected what is now eastern Siberia with what is now western North America. The first inhabitants of the two continents that would be much later named the Americas lived in Beringia for thousands of years during the ice age, and then migrated into the Americas following the animals they hunted when glaciers began to retreat and rising sea levels cut them off from Asia.


Changes in Beringia from about 21,000 years ago when sea levels were over 360 feet lower than today, until the present.


Although some scholars have suggested that migrations from Africa or from the Pacific may also have taken place, the fact that Asians and Native Americans share genetic markers on their Y chromosomes supports the theory that the ancestors of Indians entered the Americas through Beringia. Moving southward, first along the coast and later through a corridor that opened as glaciers retreated, the settlers eventually populated both North and South America, creating unique cultures that ranged from the highly complex and urban Aztec civilization in what is now Mexico City to the woodland tribes of eastern North America. Recent discoveries along the west coast of South America and on California’s Channel Islands support the theory that migrant populations entered the Americas along the coast as well as overland through the center of North America. Travelers reached what is now southern Chile over 14,800 years ago, for example, before there was an ice-free overland route, suggesting some of the new native Americans already knew how to make canoes or kayaks.

Researchers have also discovered that over ten thousand years ago, humans all over the world  began domesticating  plants and animals, adding agriculture as a means of sustenance to the hunting and gathering techniques humans have used since our species’ origin in Africa. With this agricultural revolution and the more abundant and reliable food supplies it brought, populations grew and people were able to develop a more settled way of life, building permanent settlements and more complex social structures. Nowhere in the Americas was this more obvious than in Mesoamerica. 



Mesoamerica is the geographic area stretching from north of Panama up to the desert of central Mexico. Although marked by great topographic, linguistic, and cultural diversity, this region was the home of a number of civilizations with similar characteristics. Mesoamericans were polytheistic; their gods possessed both male and female traits and many demanded the blood of enemies taken in battle, from sacrificed citizens and through ritual bloodletting. Corn, or maize, domesticated between 9,000 and 7,000 years ago, formed the staple element of a varied diet. Mesoamericans developed a mathematical system, built aqueducts, temples, palaces and pyramids, and devised a calendar that accurately predicted eclipses and solstices and that priest-astronomers used to direct the planting and harvesting of crops. Most important for our knowledge of these peoples, they created the only known written language in the Western Hemisphere. Though Mesoamerica had no overarching political structure, trade over long distances helped spread culture. Weapons made of obsidian, jewelry crafted from jade, feathers woven into clothing and ornaments, and cacao beans that were whipped into a chocolate drink formed the basis of commerce. The first major Mesoamerican culture was the Olmec civilization.



This nearly six-foot high Olmec head statue was carved between 1200 and 900 BCE.


Flourishing along the hot Gulf Coast of Mexico from about 1200 to about 400 BCE, the Olmec produced sophisticated works of art, architecture, pottery, and sculpture. Most recognizable are their giant head sculptures and the pyramid in La Venta. The Olmec built aqueducts to transport water into their cities and irrigate their fields. They grew maize, squash, beans, and tomatoes. They also bred small domesticated dogs which, along with fish, provided their protein. Although no one knows exactly what happened to the Olmec after about 400 BCE, their culture was the foundation upon which both the Maya and the Aztec built. It was the Olmec who first worshipped a rain god, a maize god, and the feathered serpent so important in the future pantheons of the Aztecs (who called him Quetzalcoatl) and the Maya (to whom he was Kukulkan). The Olmec also developed a system of trade throughout Mesoamerica, giving rise to a wealthy merchant class.

After the decline of the Olmec, a city rose in the fertile central highlands of Mesoamerica. One of the largest population centers in pre-Columbian America and home to more than 100,000 people at its height in about 500 CE, Teotihuacan was located about thirty miles northeast of modern Mexico City. The ethnicity of this settlement’s inhabitants is debated; some scholars believe it was a multiethnic city. Large-scale agriculture created an abundance of food that allowed time for people to develop special trades and skills other than farming. Teotihuacan’s builders constructed over twenty-two hundred apartment compounds for multiple families, as well as more than a hundred temples. Among these were the Pyramid of the Sun (which is two hundred feet high) and the Pyramid of the Moon (one hundred and fifty feet high). Near the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, graves have been discovered that suggest humans were sacrificed for religious purposes. The city was also the center for trade, which extended to settlements on Mesoamerica’s Gulf Coast.

The Maya were one Mesoamerican culture that had strong ties to Teotihuacan. The Maya’s architectural and mathematical contributions were significant. Flourishing from roughly 2000 BCE to 900 CE in what is now Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and Guatemala, the Maya perfected the calendar and written language the Olmec may have begun. They devised a written mathematical system to record crop yields and the size of their population, and to assist in trade. Taking advantage of their success in agriculture, the Maya built the city-states of Copan, Tikal, and Chichen Itza along major trade routes. Maya cities contained temples, statues of gods, pyramids, and astronomical observatories. However, because of a drought that lasted nearly two centuries, their civilization declined by about 900 CE and the Maya abandoned their large population centers.


El Castillo, located at Chichen Itza in the eastern Yucatán peninsula, served as a temple for the god Kukulkan. Each side contains ninety-one steps to the top. When counting the top platform, the total number of stairs is three hundred and sixty-five, the number of days in a year.


The Spanish encountered  little organized resistance from the weakened Maya upon their arrival in the 1520s. However, they did find extensive Mayan history in the form of glyphs, or pictures representing words, recorded in folding books called codices (the singular is codex). In 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa, who feared the converted natives might revert to their traditional religious practices, collected and burned every codex he could find. Today only a few survive.


FOR MORE INFO: Visit the University of Arizona Library Special Collections to view facsimiles and descriptions of two of the four surviving Mayan codices.


When the Spaniard Hernán Cortés arrived on the coast of Mexico in 1519 at the site of present-day Veracruz, he was told of a great city in the interior ruled by an emperor named Moctezuma. The city, known as Tenochtitlán, was tremendously wealthy—reportedly filled with gold—and took in tribute from surrounding tribes. The riches and complexity Cortés found when he arrived at Tenochtitlán were far beyond anything he or his men had ever seen.

According to legend, a warlike people called the Aztec (also known as the Mexica) had left a city called Aztlán and traveled south to the site of present-day Mexico City. In 1325, they began construction of Tenochtitlán on an island in Lake Texcoco. By 1519, when Cortés arrived, this settlement contained over 200,000 inhabitants and was not only the largest city in the Western Hemisphere at that time, but larger than any European city. One of Cortés’s soldiers, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, recorded his impressions upon first seeing it: “When we saw so many cities and villages built in the water and other great towns on dry land we were amazed and said it was like the enchantments . . . on account of the great towers and cues and buildings rising from the water, and all built of masonry. And some of our soldiers even asked whether the things that we saw were not a dream? . . . I do not know how to describe it, seeing things as we did that had never been heard of or seen before, not even dreamed about.” Other soldiers wrote about the immense and exceptionally clean public spaces and markets in the city, and about the causeways that connected Tenochtitlán to the mainland.


Mural showing Tenochtitlán, built on an island in Lake Texcoco, at the National Museum in Mexico City. Note the causeways connecting the island to the mainland and the central district called the Templo Mayor.


Unlike the dirty, fetid cities of Europe at the time, Tenochtitlán was well planned, clean, and orderly. The city had neighborhoods for specific occupations, a trash collection system, markets, two aqueducts bringing in fresh water, and public buildings and temples. Unlike the Spanish, Aztecs bathed daily, and wealthy homes might even contain a steam bath. A labor force of slaves from subjugated neighboring tribes had built the fabulous city and the three causeways that connected it to the mainland. To farm, the Aztec constructed barges made of reeds and filled them with fertile soil. Lake water constantly irrigated these chinampas, or “floating gardens,” which are still in use and can be seen today in Xochimilco, a district of Mexico City.


Map showing the island of Tenochtitlán surrounded by chinampas as well as the city of Xochimilco, where they are still in use. Note the causeways and the levee barrier separating the fresh waters of the western lake from the brackish waters beyond.


Each god in the Aztec pantheon represented and ruled an aspect of the natural world, such as the heavens, farming, rain, fertility, sacrifice, and combat. A ruling class of warrior nobles and priests performed ritual human sacrifice daily to sustain the sun on its long journey across the sky, to appease or feed the gods, and to stimulate agricultural production. The sacrificial ceremony included cutting open the chest of a criminal or captured warrior with an obsidian knife and removing the still-beating heart. The Aztecs taught their children that the best fate a boy could hope for was to die in battle or as a sacrifice to the gods. Women and children were also sacrificed in seasonal ceremonies to insure fertility and good harvests.


FOR MORE INFO: Explore Aztec-History.com to learn more about the Aztec creation story.


In South America, the most highly developed and complex society was that of the Inca, whose name means “lord” or “ruler” in the Andean language called Quechua. At its height in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Inca Empire, located on the Pacific coast and straddling the Andes Mountains, extended some twenty-five hundred miles. It stretched from modern-day Colombia in the north to Chile in the south and included cities built at an altitude of 14,000 feet above sea level. The empire, called Tawantinsuyu or “four regions together” in Quechua, was a combination of four distinct political and ecological regions. The Inca Royal Road system, built and then regularly repaired by workers stationed at varying intervals, has been compared to the Roman roads that efficiently connected the sprawling European empire. Since there were no horses or oxen in the Americas to pull carts, the Inca, like all other American societies before European conquest, did not use axle-mounted wheels for transportation. They built stepped roads to ascend and descend the steep slopes of the Andes which would have been impractical for wheeled vehicles but worked well for pedestrians. These roads allowed traders to carry products on the backs of llamas and enabled the rapid movement of the well-trained Incan army. Also like the Romans, the Inca were effective administrators. Runners called chasquis traversed the roads in a continuous relay system, ensuring quick communication over long distances. The Inca had no system of writing, however. They communicated and kept records using oral traditions and a system of colored strings and knots called the quipu.



The Inca people followed a ruler who had absolute authority over every aspect of life. Much like feudal lords in Europe at the time, the ruling class lived off the labor of the peasants. Rulers collected vast wealth and like Egyptian pharaohs took some of it with them as they went, mummified, into the next life. The Inca farmed corn, beans, squash, quinoa, and the indigenous potato on terraced land they hacked from the steep mountains. Farmers in the Andes developed potatoes over 9,000 years ago and village markets of Peru and Bolivia are still crowded with varieties of potatoes the rest of the world has never seen. Peasants received only one-third of their crops for themselves. The Inca ruler required a third, and the final third was set aside in a kind of welfare system for those unable to work. Huge storehouses were filled with food for times of need. Each peasant also worked for the Inca society a number of days per month on public works projects, a requirement known as the mita. In return, the lord provided laws, protection, and relief in times of famine.

The Inca worshipped the sun god Inti and called gold the “sweat” of the sun. Unlike the Maya and the Aztecs, they rarely practiced human sacrifice and usually offered the gods food, clothing, and coca leaves. In times of dire emergency, however, such as in the aftermath of earthquakes, volcanoes, or crop failure, they resorted to sacrificing prisoners. The ultimate sacrifice was children, who were specially selected and well fed. The Inca believed these children would immediately go to a much better afterlife.


View of the Inca city Machu Picchu showing the agricultural terraces that surround the central residential buildings.


In 1911, the American historian Hiram Bingham uncovered the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu. Located about fifty miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, at an altitude of about 8,000 feet, the city had been built in 1450 as a royal estate and abandoned roughly a hundred years later, when the Inca Empire was conquered by the Spanish. The architectural beauty of this city is unrivaled. Using only the strength of human labor and no machines, the Inca constructed walls and buildings of polished stones, some weighing over fifty tons, that they fitted together perfectly without the use of mortar. In 1983, UNESCO designated the ruined city a World Heritage Site.


FOR MORE INFO: Browse the British Museum’s World Cultures collection to see more examples and descriptions of Incan (as well as Aztec, Mayan, and North American Indian) art.



With few exceptions, North American native cultures were much more widely dispersed than the Mayan, Aztec, and Incan societies; with neither the population size and density, nor the organized social structures of the Central and South American cities. Although the cultivation of corn had made its way north, most North American Indians supplemented the crops produced by women farmers with hunting by men and gathering. Horses, first introduced by the Spanish, allowed the Plains Indians to more easily follow and hunt the huge herds of bison. A few societies evolved complex social structures, but North American city-states were in decline at the time of Christopher Columbus’s arrival. Most North Americans, it seems, preferred to live a less urban and hierarchical lifestyle. This does not mean their culture was less sophisticated than that of the city-dwellers to the south or the Europeans, although many Europeans would make this assumption.

In the southwestern part of today’s United States dwelled several groups we collectively call the Pueblo. The Spanish first gave them this name, which means “town” or “village,” because they lived in towns or villages of permanent stone-and-mud buildings with thatched roofs. Like present-day apartment houses, these buildings had many stories, each with multiple rooms. The three main groups of the Pueblo people were the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi.

The Mogollon thrived in the Mimbres Valley (New Mexico) from about 150 BCE to 1450 CE. They developed a distinctive artistic style for painting bowls with finely drawn geometric figures and wildlife, especially birds, in black on a white background. Beginning about 600 CE, the Hohokam built an extensive irrigation system of canals to irrigate the desert and grow fields of corn, beans, and squash. By 1300, their crop yields were supporting the largest, most densely-populated settlements in the southwest. The Hohokam decorated pottery with a red-on-buff design and made jewelry of turquoise. In the high desert of New Mexico, the Anasazi, whose name means “ancient ones,” carved homes from steep cliffs accessed by ladders or ropes that could be pulled in at night or in case of enemy attack. Roads extending some 180 miles connected the Pueblos’ smaller urban centers to each other and to Chaco Canyon, which by 1050 CE had become the administrative, religious, and cultural center of their civilization. A century later, however, probably because of drought, the Pueblo peoples abandoned their cities. Their present-day descendants include the Hopi and Zuni tribes.



Ruins of an Anasazi pueblo called the “White House” photographed in 1873 in Canyon de Chelly reveal blocky adobe structures, some of which are set atop a high, sheer cliff. To access their homes, the cliff-dwelling Anasazi used ropes or ladders that could be pulled in at night for safety.


The Indian groups who lived in the present-day Ohio River Valley and achieved their cultural apex from the first century CE to 400 CE are collectively known as the Hopewell culture. Their settlements, unlike those of the southwest, were small hamlets. They lived in wattle-and-daub houses made from woven lattice branches “daubed” with wet mud or clay, and supported themselves with agriculture, hunting, and fishing. Using the region’s many rivers, they developed trade routes stretching from Canada to Louisiana, where they exchanged goods with other tribes and negotiated in many different languages. From the coast they received shells; from Michigan, copper; and from the Rocky Mountains, obsidian. What remains of their culture today are huge burial mounds and earthworks. Many of the mounds that were opened by archaeologists contained artworks and other goods that indicate their society was socially stratified.

Perhaps the largest indigenous cultural and population center in North America was located along the Mississippi River near present-day St. Louis. At its height in about 1100 CE, this five-square-mile city, now called Cahokia, was home to more than ten thousand residents; tens of thousands more lived on farms surrounding the urban center. The city also contained one hundred and twenty earthen mounds or pyramids, each dominating a particular neighborhood and on each of which lived a leader who exercised authority over the surrounding area. The largest mound covered fifteen acres. Cahokia was the hub of political and trading activities along the Mississippi River. After 1300 CE, however, this civilization declined or people decided not to live in a highly stratified, organized society.   By the time Europeans arrived the region, although still densely populated, had no major city ruling the Mississippi.


Artist’s impression of Cahokia at its peak in the 12th century.


Encouraged by the wealth discovered by the Spanish in the settled civilizations to the south, fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English, Dutch, and French explorers expected to find the same in North America. What they found instead were small, disparate communities, many already ravaged by European diseases brought by the Spanish and transmitted among the natives. Rather than gold and silver, there was an abundance of land, and the timber and fur that land could produce. The Indians living east of the Mississippi did not construct the large and complex societies of those to the west. Because they lived in small autonomous clans or tribal units, each group adapted to the specific environment in which it lived. Although often connected through trade and intermarriage, these groups were not  unified and warfare among tribes was common as they sought to increase their hunting and fishing areas. Eastern tribes shared many  common traits. A chief or group of tribal elders made decisions, and although the chief was male, usually the women selected and counseled him. Men hunted but women farmed and controlled a larger portion of the tribes’ food supplies. Gender roles were not as fixed as they were in the patriarchal societies of Europe, Mesoamerica, and South America.


This map indicates the locations of the three Pueblo cultures the major Eastern Woodland Indian tribes, and the tribes of the Southeast, as well as the location of the ancient city of Cahokia.


Women typically cultivated corn, beans, and squash and harvested nuts and berries, while men hunted, fished, and provided protection. Both parents shared responsibility for raising children and most Indian societies in the east were matriarchal. In tribes such as the Iroquois, Lenape, Muscogee, and Cherokee, women had both power and influence. They counseled the chief and passed on the traditions of the tribe. This matriarchy changed dramatically with the coming of the Europeans who introduced, sometimes forcibly, their own customs and traditions to the natives. Trade with Europeans also decreased the importance of women’s agricultural contribution to the tribes’ subsistence, which decreased their status in Indian society and influence on decision-making.

Clashing beliefs about land ownership and use of the environment would be the greatest area of conflict with Europeans. Although Europeans often claimed the Indians did not practice, or in general even have the concept of, private ownership of land, Eastern tribes regularly entered into contracts to sell lands to white settlers. Since the tribes shifted their hunting and farming as seasons and environmental conditions changed, early land contracts usually specified that the Indians would retain the right to use the land in a variety of ways. As the balance of power between Indian tribes and white communities began to shift in favor of the Europeans, these contracts were typically breached and Indians were prevented from hunting or setting up their camps on the lands they had sold. These breaches of contract and the rapidly-increasing number of white settlers in the colonies became a source of conflict. A series of wars between Indians and Europeans occasionally threatened the survival of colonial communities, but in general went badly for the Indians.



Northeastern natives burned the forest understory to encourage new growth preferred by game animals.


The European Christian worldview viewed land as the source of wealth. According to the Christian Bible, God created humanity in his own image with the command to use and subdue the rest of creation, which included not only land, but also all animal life. European history had also included famines when agriculture failed to produce enough food to support the population, so there was great social pressure to use the land as productively as possible.  Unfortunately, European ideas of effective land use were based on the colonists’ experiences in Europe, while Indian land use practices were based on the different conditions of the Americas. Northeastern Indians shifted their farms from place to place to allow soil fertility to regenerate, and they moved their camps seasonally to take advantage of hunting opportunities and spring fish runs.  Upon their arrival in North America, Europeans found no fences, no signs designating ownership. Land, and the game that populated it, they believed, were there for the taking. Europeans failed to notice that the Indians had altered the landscape by burning the understory of the forests to open forest floors and provide more young greenery to attract game animals. Colonists wrote extensively about the parklike forests they found filled with abundant game, but never noticed that the Indians had been actively managing those forests to encourage the wildlife they hunted until it was too late. Generations later, when the Indians were mostly gone from New England, descendants of the first colonists wrote wistfully of a past when hunting and travel through the woodlands had been pleasant and easy. But they still didn’t understand that it had been the people they had despised as lazy and unproductive, and driven off the land, who had been responsible for its productivity.




The fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century and the beginning of the European Renaissance in the late fourteenth century roughly bookend the period we call the Middle Ages. Without a dominant centralized power or overarching cultural hub, European culture became organized around village farming and small communities. In some places peasants worked common lands; in others they worked for feudal lords who offered protection from other lords in exchange for taxes.  Few people traveled more than ten miles from the place they were born.

The Christian Church remained intact, however, and emerged from the period as a unified and powerful institution. Priests provided leadership for peasant communities and monks kept knowledge alive by collecting and copying religious and secular manuscripts, often adding beautiful drawings or artwork. While monasteries generally focused on preserving Christian documents, Muslim scholars in the expanding Islamic empires preserved and continued the work of classical philosophy, science, medicine, and mathematics. Social and economic devastation arrived in 1340s, however, when Genoese merchants returning from the Black Sea unwittingly brought with them a highly contagious disease known as the bubonic plague.  Within a decade the Black Death had killed nearly a hundred million people, about one-third of Europe’s population. The loss of so many workers made labor much more valuable and may have awakened some workers to the fact that the ruling class badly needed the food and goods they produced. A high birth rate coupled with bountiful harvests helped the European population rebound  during the next century. By 1450, a newly rejuvenated European society was on the brink of tremendous change.


The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio’s Decameron.


FOR MORE INFO: Visit EyeWitness to History to learn more about the Black Death.



During the Middle Ages, most Europeans lived in small villages that consisted of a manor house or castle for the lord, a church, and simple homes for the peasants or serfs, who made up about 60 percent of western Europe’s population. Hundreds of these castles and walled cities remain all over Europe. Feudal society was a hierarchical, dominated by leaders who proclaimed a divine right to rule but maintained their power by force. The lords owned the land; knights gave military service to a lord and carried out his justice; serfs worked the land in return for the protection offered by the lord’s castle or the walls of his city, into which they fled in times of danger from invaders. Much of Europe’s land was communally farmed in the early Middle Ages, but as lords became more powerful they claimed  ownership of land surrounding their fortresses and rented land to their subjects. Thus, although they were technically free, peasants became serfs who were effectively bound to the land they worked. They supported themselves and their families as well as the lord and all the troops (knights) who depended on him. The  Church also owned vast tracts of land and became very wealthy by collecting not only tithes (taxes consisting of 10 percent of annual earnings) but also rents on its lands.

A serf’s life was difficult. Women often died in childbirth and one-third of children died before the age of five. Without sanitation or medicine, many people perished from diseases we consider inconsequential today; few lived to be older than forty-five. Entire families, usually including grandparents, lived in small homes of one or two rooms. A fire was kept lit and was always a danger to the thatched roofs, while its constant smoke affected the inhabitants’ health and eyesight. Most individuals owned no more than two sets of clothing, consisting of a woolen jacket or tunic and linen undergarments, and bathed only when the waters melted in spring.

After the fall of Rome, the Christian Church continued to grow in Europe, centered on the two cities that had been the capitals of the empire, Rome and Constantinople. In 1054 the eastern branch of Christianity, led by the Patriarch of Constantinople, adopted the Greek language for its services. The Roman Catholic Church, under the pope, remained in Rome and continued to use Latin. The Vatican oversaw a huge bureaucracy led by cardinals, known as “princes of the church,” who were followed by archbishops, bishops, and then priests. During this period, the Roman Church became the most powerful international organization in western Europe.


Illustration from an illuminated text, of a monk, a knight, and a peasant, the foundations of medieval society.



Just as agrarian life depended on the seasons, village and family life revolved around the Church. The sacraments, or special ceremonies of the Church, marked every stage of life, from birth to maturation, marriage, and burial, and brought people into the church on a regular basis. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it replaced pagan views, explaining supernatural events and forces of nature in its own terms. All events had a spiritual connotation. Penitents confessed their sins to the priest, who absolved them and assigned them penance to atone for their acts and save themselves from eternal damnation, giving the parish priest enormous power over the lives of his parishioners. The pope decided all matters of theology, interpreting the will of God to the people, but he also had authority over temporal matters. Because the Church had the ability to excommunicate people, or condemn a soul to hell forever, even monarchs feared to challenge its power. It was also the seat of all knowledge. Latin, the language adopted by the Church, served as a unifying factor for a continent of isolated regions, each with its own dialect. The mostly illiterate serfs depended on literate priests to read and interpret the Bible, the word of God, for them.

The year 622 brought a new challenge to Christendom. Near Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula a prophet named Muhammad wrote the Koran, the cornerstone of the Islamic faith affirming monotheism but identifying Christ not as God but as a prophet like Moses, Abraham, David, and Muhammad. Following Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam spread by both conversion and military conquest across the Middle East and Asia Minor to India and northern Africa, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain in the year 711. The Islamic conquest of Europe continued until 732 when Muslim armies were prevented from entering France at the Battle of Tours. Muslims, however, retained control of much of Spain, where Córdoba and Granada became centers of learning and trade. By the eleventh century, a Christian holy war called the Reconquista (reconquest) began to gradually push the Muslims from Spain. This war was actually an extension of the earlier conflict between Christians and Muslims for domination of Palestine, known as the Crusades.


19th-century etching imagining a battle between European Christian and Muslims during the Crusades.


FOR MORE INFO: Visit EyeWitness to History to read a personal account of the Crusades.


One effect of the Crusades was that a larger portion of western Europe became familiar with the goods of the East. A lively trade subsequently developed along a variety of routes known collectively as the Silk Road to supply the demand for these products. As Crusaders experienced the feel of silk, the taste of spices, and the utility of porcelain, desire for these products created new markets for merchants. In particular, the Adriatic port city of Venice prospered enormously from trade with Islamic merchants. Ships brought Europeans valuable goods, traveling between the port cities of western Europe and the East from the tenth century on, along the Silk Road. From the days of the early adventurer Marco Polo, Venetian sailors had traveled to ports on the Black Sea and established their own colonies along the Mediterranean Coast. However, transporting goods along the old Silk Road was costly, slow, and unprofitable. After Mehmed the Conqueror captured Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul in 1453, Muslim middlemen controlled the eastern Mediterranean and collected taxes as the goods changed hands. Robbers also waited to ambush treasure-laden caravans. A direct water route to the East, cutting out the land portion of the trip, had to be found. As well as seeking a water passage to the wealthy cities in the East, sailors wanted to find a route to the exotic and wealthy Spice Islands in modern-day Indonesia, whose location was kept secret by Muslim rulers. Longtime rivals of Venice, the merchants of Genoa and Florence also looked west.


19th-century Norwegian painting called “Summer on the Greenland Coast circa year 1000”


Although Norse explorers such as Leif Ericsson, the son of Eric the Red who led the Norse territory of Greenland, had reached and established a colony in northern Canada roughly five hundred years prior to Christopher Columbus’s voyage, it was explorers sailing for Portugal and Spain who traversed the Atlantic throughout the fifteenth century and ushered in an unprecedented age of exploration and permanent contact with North America. Located on the extreme western edge of Europe, Portugal, with its port city of Lisbon, became a center for merchants desiring to undercut the Venetians’ hold on trade. With a population of about one million and supported by its ruler Prince Henry, whom historians call “the Navigator”, this independent kingdom fostered exploration and trade along the west coast of Africa. Skilled shipbuilders and navigators who took advantage of maps from all over Europe, Portuguese sailors used triangular sails and built lighter vessels called caravels that could sail down the African coast.

Just to the east of Portugal, King Ferdinand of Aragon married Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469, uniting two of the most powerful independent kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula and laying the foundation for the modern nation of Spain. Isabella, motivated by strong religious zeal, was instrumental in beginning the Spanish Inquisition in 1480, a brutal campaign to root out Jews and Muslims who had been forced to convert to Christianity but were suspected of secretly continuing to practice their faith. This powerful couple ruled for the next twenty-five years, centralizing authority and funding exploration and trade with the East. One of their daughters, Catherine of Aragon, became the first wife of King Henry VIII of England.


Nineteenth-century painting of the 1492 surrender of the Muslim kingdom of Granada to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.


The year 1492 witnessed some of the most significant events of Ferdinand and Isabella’s reign. The couple oversaw the final expulsion of North African Muslims, calledMoors, from the Kingdom of Granada, bringing the nearly eight-hundred-year Reconquista to an end. In this same year, they also ordered all unconverted Jews to leave Spain.Also in 1492, after six years of lobbying, a Genoese sailor named Christopher Columbus persuaded the monarchs to fund his expedition to the Far East. Columbus had already pitched his plan to the rulers of Genoa and Venice without success and the Portuguese had already discovered and controlled a route to Asia around the bottom of Africa.Columbus’s proposal to cross the Atlantic was the Spanish monarchy’s  last hope of controlling a route to Asia. Christian zeal was the prime motivating factor for Isabella, as she imagined her faith spreading to the East. Ferdinand hoped to acquire wealth from trade.

Most educated individuals at the time knew the earth was round, so Columbus’s plan to reach the East by sailing west was plausible. Though the calculations of Earth’s circumference made by the Greek geographer Eratosthenes in the second century BCE were known (and, as we now know, nearly accurate), Columbus greatly underestimated the Earth’s circumference and believed he had reached islands off the coasts of China or India, which was why he called the people there Indians. In August 1492, Columbus set sail with his three small caravels. The Santa Maria, his largest, was only 58 feet long. After a voyage of about three thousand miles lasting six weeks, he landed on an island in the Bahamas named Guanahani by the native Lucayans. He promptly christened it San Salvador, the name it bears today.





West Africa stretches from modern-day Mauritania to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and encompasses lush rainforests along the equator, savannas on either side of the forest, and much drier land to the north. Until about 600 CE, most Africans were hunter-gatherers, herders, and farmers. Where water was too scarce for farming, herders maintained sheep, goats, cattle, or camels. In the more heavily wooded area near the equator, farmers raised yams, palm products, or plantains. The savanna areas yielded rice, millet, and sorghum. Sub-Saharan Africans had little experience in maritime matters. Most of the population lived away from the coast, which is connected to the interior by five main rivers—the Senegal, Gambia, Niger, Volta, and Congo. Although there were large trading centers along these rivers, most West Africans lived in small villages and identified with their extended family or their clan. Wives, children, dependents, and slaves were a sign of wealth among men, and polygyny, the practice of having more than one wife at a time, was widespread.


This map shows the locations of the major West African empires before 1492. Along the Mediterranean coast, Muslim states prevailed.


Following the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, Islam spread quickly across North Africa, bringing not only a unifying faith but a political and legal structure as well. As lands fell under the control of Muslim armies, they instituted Islamic rule and legal structures as local chieftains converted, usually under threat of death. Only those who had converted to Islam could rule or be engaged in trade. The first major empire to emerge in West Africa was the Ghana Empire. By 750, the Soninke farmers of the sub-Sahara had become wealthy by taxing the trade that passed through their area. For instance, the Niger River basin supplied gold to the Berber and Arab traders from west of the Nile Valley, who brought cloth, weapons, and manufactured goods into the interior. Huge Saharan salt mines supplied the life-sustaining mineral to the Mediterranean coast of Africa and inland areas. By 900, the monotheistic Muslims controlled most of this trade and had converted many of the African ruling elite. The majority of the population, however, retained tribal animistic practices which gave living attributes to nonliving objects such as mountains, rivers, and wind. Because Ghana’s king controlled the gold supply, he was able to maintain price controls and afford a strong military. Soon, however, a new kingdom emerged.

By 1200 CE Mali had replaced Ghana as the leading state in West Africa. Muslim scribes played a large part in administration and government. By the fourteenth century, the empire was so wealthy that while on a hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, Mali’s ruler Mansu Musa gave away enough gold to create serious price inflation in the cities along his route. Timbuktu, the capital city, became a leading Islamic center for education, commerce and the slave trade.


Image from the 1375 Catalan Atlas showing West African cities and King Mansa Musa.


The institution of slavery is not a recent phenomenon. Most civilizations have practiced some form of human bondage and servitude, and African empires were no different. Similar to the European serf system, those seeking protection or relief from starvation would become the servants of those who provided relief. People taken in battle were also traditionally enslaved. Debt might also be worked off through a form of servitude. Typically, these servants became a part of the extended tribal family and their children were treated as full members of society. There is some evidence of chattel slavery, in which people are treated as personal property to be bought and sold, in the Nile Valley. It appears there was a slave-trade route through the Sahara that brought sub-Saharan Africans to Rome, which had slaves from all over the world. Arab slave trading, which exchanged slaves for goods from the Mediterranean, existed long before Islam’s spread across North Africa. Muslims later expanded this trade and enslaved not only Africans but also Europeans, especially from Spain, Sicily, and Italy. Male captives were forced to build coastal fortifications and serve as galley slaves. Women were added to the harem.


FOR MORE INFO: Read The Role of Islam in African Slavery to learn more about the African slave trade.



The major European slave trade began with Portugal’s exploration of the west coast of Africa in search of a trade route to the East. By 1444, slaves were being brought from Africa to work on the sugar plantations of the Madeira Islands, off the coast of modern Morocco. The slave trade then expanded greatly as European colonies in the New World demanded an ever-increasing number of workers for  extensive plantations growing tobacco, sugar, and eventually rice and cotton. In the New World, the institution of slavery assumed a new aspect when the mercantilist system demanded a permanent, identifiable, and plentiful labor supply. African slaves were both easily identified (by their skin color) and plentiful, because of the thriving slave trade. This led to a race-based slavery system in the New World unlike any bondage system that had come before. Initially, the Spanish tried to force Indians to farm their crops. Most Spanish and Portuguese settlers coming to the New World were gentlemen who would not stoop to  performing physical labor. They came to “serve God, but also to get rich,” as noted by Bernal Díaz del Castillo. However, native populations were all but wiped out by European diseases and the Spaniards needed a new source of labor. Although he later repented of his ideas, the great defender of the Indians, Bartolomé de Las Casas, seeing the near extinction of the native population, suggested the Spanish send black laborers to the Indies. Due to long contact with Europeans, Africans had resistance to most of the diseases that killed the Indians. The profitability of the African slave trade, coupled with the seemingly limitless number of potential slaves and the Church’s denunciation of the enslavement of Christians, led race to become a dominant factor in the institution of slavery.


Map showing the routes and relative amounts of Africans taken as slaves to destinations in the Atlantic and Muslim worlds.


In the English colonies along the Atlantic coast, indentured servants initially filled the need for labor in the North, where family farms were the norm. Indentured workers served only for periods of three to seven years before being freed. Because they expected to become full members of the colonial societies they served, indentured people could not be treated as harshly. Indentured workers in Virginia also joined with Africans in a rebellion against colonial authorities which alarmed the authorities. In response, the colonial government passed laws to separate indentured from enslaved people and treat the two groups differently. Although in Africa permanent, inherited slavery was unknown and children of slaves usually were free and intermarried with their captors, this changed in the Americas. Slavery became permanent and children born to slaves became slaves. This development, along with slavery’s identification with race, forever changed the institution and shaped its unique character in the New World.




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Setting the Scene by Dan Allosso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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