After news reached Europe in 1493 that Christopher Columbus had reached land west across the Atlantic Ocean, suddenly two worlds came into contact that for thousands of years had developed completely independently of one another. In the following decades, those two worlds painfully and haltingly began to merge, transforming the nature of identity and ethnicity in the Americas and resulting in a vibrant Mestizo culture that lives on to this day.
For people who have ancestors from Europe and the Americas, the story of the European side of the family tree before contact has long been known. But it has taken far longer for the true story of the peoples of the New World before contact to become accepted in popular culture.
Great New World Cultures
According to the conventional narrative of the last five hundred years, before Columbus arrived the Americas were filled with primitive peoples who were easily conquered by a vastly superior European culture. Although scholars have long known that pre-Columbian America was home to some of the greatest cultures of the age, only recently has the general public's view of the New World started to change.
We now know that, at the time the Spanish arrived in the New World, the Inca empire in South America was far larger than any in Europe, stretching 2,400 miles from modern day Colombia to Chile. Their 10,000-mile network of stone roads snaked through jungles and over mountain passes, all leading back to their capital, Cuzco, in present day Peru. Capable of great feats of engineering, the Incas created their cities, including their spiritual retreat Machu Picchu, with a standard of precision that far exceeded the abilities of European artisans at the time. The Indians who built these great South American metropolises still live and thrive in Peru today.
It would be very ignorant to write the Incas off as just “Indians.” [In Cuzco] we can see the highest expression of a higher culture. It is evidence of how sophisticated their technology was for the time, their engineering, hydraulics and architecture. And it also reveals the relationship the Incas had with nature. They believed in maintaining an equilibrium between man and the
earth. . .Man doesn't destroy nature to build something, but rather adapts his architecture to the setting. - Carlos Paz Sanchez, director, Peruvian Cultural Center, Cuzco
In central Mexico, major civilizations had flourished since the time of the Romans. Later came the Mayas with their advanced mathematics and writing, and the Mexica, leaders of the Triple Alliance once called the Aztecs. The Mexica capital of Tenochtitlan was home to 200,000 people and cleaner than any city in Europe.
Other civilizations lived farther north, including the Pueblo tribes with their planned communities built around one of the most sophisticated social structures in the world, and the cultures of the Mississippi River valley, who were among the most successful and productive farmers on earth.
New World Advances
The New World cultures were neither better nor worse than the cultures of Europe, but simply different. One difference was that the greatest advances of New World cultures did not involve inventing new machines but were instead driven by the effective use and management of the natural environment.
New World inventors, for example, made a major advance in one of the most important industries of the age, textile manufacturing, by growing and harvesting cochineal, an insect that lives on the prickly pear cactus, to mass-produce a true red dye. In Europe, where true red dye was so rare and expensive that only the rich and powerful wore red, this New World dye would rank only behind gold and silver in value.
The talent of the New World peoples also made possible a vastly more important set of inventions: new kinds of food. In one of the great food revolutions in history, Indigenous Americans succeeded through selective breeding in turning a weed called teocintle into maize (or corn), an achievement many botanists consider the most important feat of genetic engineering in human history.
First of all, corn is a human invention. It is a creation of man. Ten thousand years ago, corn did not exist. . . Together with the early Americans, it built cities, it built cultures. - Amado Leyva, agronomist
When corn was first introduced as a staple crop in the ancient Americas, it made tremendous population growth possible, from the Mayan peninsula all the way to what is today the United States and Canada. The people lived not just on corn but also on other crops like potatoes and tomatoes that they were the first to domesticate.
Based on this diet, some scholars believe that in the 15th century, the average person in the Americas may have been better fed than the average person in Europe. They also might have been healthier—without pigs, goats, and cows, the Americas had no small pox, measles, or similar diseases that people on other continents had caught from those animals.