The Precolonial Americas: North and South American Civilizations

What was North America like before 1607 ? When the Puritans, often referred to as the Pilgrims, came to North America in 1620 on the ship Mayflower and landed on the Massachusetts coast, what were the conditions, was there human activity or if not signs that human activity had occurred in the coastline of the North American continent ? There was nothing that would surely answer the questions the Puritans may have had on their minds at the time.


The Precolonial Americas: North and South American Civilizations

The Precolonial Americas: North and South American Civilizations

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To understand this, time should be taken to discover what the ‘new world’ was. The Mayflower landed in Massachusetts with 102 Puritan pilgrims in 1620, what was the North American coastline like, it certainly was not a well-known and understood destination before then.


The Puritans and the Plymouth Massachusetts settlements

Much interest in Britain among the populace was doing the rounds in political circles in London and within Christian Protestant groups in England and Holland.

Christian religious groups were voicing their grievances with the Church of England over the perpetuation of Catholic practice and doctrine in the Protestant Church after the Reformation. Holland was initially a possible choice for the Puritans as Protestantism was  practiced and accepted there freely. The move to Holland was not a total solution, as many Britons were amongst an unfamiliar community, so many Protestants decided that the new world would offer better chances without autocratic European interference. Some Dutch Protestants also felt much the same and took an active interest in the idea of migration to the new world.

Religious persecution connived with the continued influence of Catholic monarchies in all church affairs in Britain and elsewhere, which motivated Puritan Protestant interests in choosing to leave Britain and abandon any other possible hopes in Europe, for the new world.

The ‘new world’, in North America became of central interest to those who could see no other options in Europe, a hope that would give them peace of mind and a new start.

The movement of religious Puritans formed together, taking action to leave for the Americas. It mattered not who or where the group members came from, the cause was united with the goal to voyage to the new world and build a new community a new destiny.

Ships during the 17th century were not provisioned to carry any large number of civil passengers, it had never been tried before.

The practicalities of finance, what ships were affordable and available, keeping the Puritans intents secret from the authorities in England etc, and other unforeseen delays and interruptions to getting out of Southampton harbor, all had to be dealt with in their turn.

The Mayflower eventually weighed anchor and sailed from Southampton on 1620.  There was due to be two ships involved in the passage across the Atlantic Ocean, the Speedwell left Holland with the intent to rendezvous in Southampton beforehand and set sail with the Mayflower. In the event Speedwell became plagued with a leaking hull so was considered unseaworthy after two attempts to rectify the leaks, so was left behind in England. Mayflower sailed after some of Speedwells passengers and storage had been transferred to her. The journey from Southampton to Massachusetts took eight months. The passage was difficult, with some Pilgrim passengers perishing during the voyage.


The Plymouth Colony

The weather conditions the Pilgrims encountered were difficult, nearly half of the original ship’s passengers died within the first  months from decease and rough weather conditions. Without the necessary help, the small community would have expired. If it had not been for the aid that the small Wampanoag Indian community offered to the settlers, the remainder of the ship’s crew and passengers would have succumbed too.

The Wampanoag Indians, who inhabited parts of Massachusetts before 1600, are still indigenous to this area and the current day Rhode Island, as they had been in 1620. The beginnings of settler arrival and community in the new world, started with some co-operation with the indigenous people in New England and the Jamestown colony along the Virginia Coast set up in 1607.

Jamestown Colony was part of the annexures promulgated by the English King James I. It was not a true settlement as New England was, but a commercial landing for entrepreneurs of the English kings Virginia Company and the London based East India company. James 1st had much of the Virginia coast annexed for Britain for the purposes of commercial exploitation after 1607. He also had a vested business interest in the Virginia Company located there.

The monarch and parliament in London were equally keen to create overseas commercial ventures to revive a flagging economy in England. The North American continent would become open from thence forward to the early settler pilgrimages and English colonial exploitation which would lead to the American Revolutionary War more than 100 years later.


The Ancient North and South American Civilisations

Asian populations were believed to have travelled to North America about 15,000 years ago. The Explorer Christopher Columbus, Latin: Christophorus Columbus (1451-1506), represented Spain, but was an Italian born explorer and is accepted as the first European explorer to discover and set foot on North American soil. He was a largely self-taught man in geography, history and astronomy who had travelled the north seas routes to the British Isles and worked on his personal goal of establishing a western sea route to the East Indies.

Columbus was sanctioned by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain to conduct explorative work in the new world. He recorded his observations as a primary account of conditions at the time in parts of North and South America, visited the island of Cuba and annexed Haiti in or around the early 1490’s.


The North American Indigenous populations

The ethnic connections between the North and South American continents are not separate, in terms of their ancient ancestral ties. The indigenous people as some secondary sources have believed, that no links between both continents exist, is based in some ways on common ethnic perceptions. There are definite bloodlines between North and South American Indian population groups, including ancient Mexico.

North Americas Indigenous population numbers before the first settler communities started to inhabit the continent are not accurately known and have been difficult to establish. It has been estimated that as much as 50 million indigenous peoples inhabited the continent. Some estimates indicate double that number existed,  the latter is probably unlikely. These numbers would include the land mass of the United States of America and Canada combined. The early period of white European settlement is generally understood to have started at the time of Christopher Columbus’s explorations of North America in 1492.

They became naturalized in North America up until the 15th Century, many of these had migrated further or disappeared by that time, probably being absorbed into groups that already thrived in the ‘North’. Could changing weather patterns also have affected habitations, destructively or by migration, it was certainly possible. The period after 1493 would see settlers of European origin occupy and expel the early American peoples further from their traditional pastural lands.

From thence forward the numbers of indigenous communities would decrease rapidly, through deceases such as pneumonic plagues, Influenza, and smallpox. Enslavement and Imprisonment became common early on, by the settler authorities. The tribal groups would have consisted of the northern Iroquois, the Sioux Nation, Pawnee, Black foot, Cheyenne North and South, Arapaho and others.

The early indigenous people prior to the arrival of the settler pilgrimages and European Colonization, was based on hunter gatherer and Agri-pastoral communities for thousands of years. Anthropologist’s excavations over time have grounded the principal of the hunter gatherers and Agri-pastoralist activity as irrefutable.

As hunter gatherers the Early American tribes would migrate during the changing seasons. They became aware of their favorite regions, where the most abundant game and fertility was available, pastures with rivers close by were treasured as available and became tribal lands. This brought them into conflict with other tribes who would also lay claim to the same pastures, the battles of unwanted intrusion and ownership between the tribes became common.

The land was vast and is considered today as open frontiers. Cattle and horses were kept as provision by the tribes for milk and meat, not just for survival but as a sign of wealth. During raids by opposing tribal warriors, livestock theft during the incursions was common. The killing of tribal warriors and senior leaders and elders was also considered a psychological trophy for the attackers.

The Pawnee tribal conflicts with the Sioux Nations and other tribes  are well known, becoming legend. Being nomadic, a camp could be packed within one day and moved to scouted locations by the warriors whose role was also to locate and secure the migrations movement as well as protect the community, women, mothers with children the aged and elders.

The early American Indian tribes were autonomous so were reliant on their own leaders, elders, and medicine men. They valued the wisdom of the universe and the earth, they used wood totems to mark their group and beliefs, but there was no homage to numerous gods, just one deity in the heavens who controlled all the universe and their destiny. They believed they were protected by this and took wisdom from elders on such matters, the ancestors were their earthly link.

The commonalities of indigenous peoples in North America, with other regions around the world are very similar in context. The period after 1493 would see European origin settlers occupy and force the early American peoples further from their traditional pasture lands. From thence forward the numbers of indigenous communities would decrease rapidly, through Eurasian deceases carried by settlers, such as pneumonic plagues, Influenza and smallpox. Enslavement and Imprisonment became common early on.

Deportations and forced removal, war with the white settlers and the introduction of African slaves was too great an onslaught to withstand, the open frontiers would now become closed through settler expansion. The armed forces used against them, would become what is often called a general attitude of waste and massacre and in some descriptions, genocide, actions that would destroy much of the communities of the early Americans significantly.

Deportations developed into the 19th Century with forced removal, war with the white settlers, and the African slaves, as more settler expansion occurred. The armed forces used against them, would become what is often called a general attitude of massacre and genocide, actions that would destroy much of the communities of the early Americans significantly.


The South American Continental Landscape

The following groups of people were identified as the early inhabitants of the Americas, specifically South America :-

a) Caral-Supe : The oldest known Civilization in the Americas

Caral-Supe is the oldest known advanced civilization between the 4th and 2nd millennia BCE of South America and was located along the central coast of Peru, with the first cities formation around 3500 BCE. A society that was capable of inventing new technologies, as others would in the Southern Americas.

Many separate villages have been identified as the core of their existence from the main central temples. These were not early American hunter gatherer tribes, but a single fixed civilization with their own hierarchies. Caral-Supe was based on a religious community of stone temples with thirty towns and infrastructure built individually, in a similar style and purpose of the Ancient Egyptians and Romans.


b) The Olmecs on the Gulf of Mexico (12000-400 BCE)

The Olmecs were noted for the first building of Pyramids and Temples, and the curious large baby faced stone bodiless heads that they perfectly sculpted. The cultivation of the bean and domestication of the cacao tree and the chocolate they made from them, that later spread all around the world, was South American in origin. The Olmec too invented the first writing in the American continents.

The Olmecs had kings, and played an indoor ballgame called Mesoamerican. The sport is believed to have started about 3700 years ago and involved a large rectangular building, erected for the playing of the sport and spectators, and was also played amongst the Zapotec, Mayan, and Aztec civilisations. It involved all the community, politically and socially. Societies of the early South American Indian communities were far different than the life of indigenous communities in North America.

The Zapotec, Mayan, Nasca and Aztecs would become world renowned ancient South American civilisations after the early Olmecs as kingdoms, which populated the regions they inhabited, without migrating. These Kingdoms had a similar approach to their communities as the ancient Buddhist Srivijaya of Sumatra, the Javanese kingdoms and Timbuktu. It has been established that signs of earlier civilisations existed with the temples that they built or extended for their needs, a kind of refurbishment of vanished kingdoms, adapted by later inhabitants, of the structures left behind. Not all temples were Mayan or Aztec original developments, based on a known timeline. Much has been discovered beneath current ruins to indicate definite earlier traces of ancestors using GPR surveys and research.

The Nasca society (1 – 700 ADE) carved giant images or geoglyphs on the earth’s surface, located in Peru, they bear witness to ritual practices, of religious and possibly astrological significance to their kingdom.


c) The Mayan and Aztec Civilizations

Were of much larger communities, with many temples built or older ones reinhabited in strategic parts of their kingdoms, constructed distinctly for the purpose of a ruling king, administration, religious priests, and ritual. The  governance of their people was the centre of their existence, its defence and community.

Temples were constructed by teams of stone masons and labourers, the dimensions of which are amazingly perfect minute of angle constructions, applying perfect asymmetric architecture by today’s standards.

The Tiwanaku Empire (550-950 ADE) displays the practice used in constructing differing sizes of stone blocks in perfect alignment, incorporating larger rough-cut stones and steps perfectly. There are signs of work groups involved on the original temple sites, based on recent archeological research.

The mining and refining of gold, metals, and precious stones, was practiced and appears in many of the early South American civilisations. Kings of the Aztecs, Mayans and Zapotec kingdoms valued gold as a sign of prosperity and wealth. Refining gold and metals used in ritual ceremonies, the minting of monetary coins in commerce, for personal bodily adornment and many other uses in public and civil life were seen as the norm.


Religions and Ritual

Ceramic sculptures of the Mayans, and other ancient South American civilisations, indicate how these societies were structured, the importance of the spiritual world and after life and the Gods and deities they worshipped.

The Mayan people believed in the ‘feathered serpent’ Kukulcan in Mayan traditional dialect, as a god. There were differences of the Gods or deities worshipped in civilisations, but also similarities between any two people’s beliefs in certain gods.

A comparison would be the Mayans and the Aztecs. The Aztecs worshipped the sun god Huitzilopochtili’  but shared several similarities with the Mayans. The feathered serpent deity, Kukulcan’ in Mayan dialect and ritual was called Quetzalcotl’ in the Aztec Nahuatl dialect. Human sacrifices were a commonality in many contemporary cultures and were demanded during certain periods of time to please the Gods as a sign of the community’s recognition and thanks to them.

Different Gods would be worshipped. Kukulcan ‘/’QuetzalcotlMayan and Aztec references to the Feathered Serpent is praised for the birth of man. A gentle God which only required the sacrifice of the butterfly. Many subjects of a civilization's homages, such as praise for the god of fertility, the farming of maize, praise for wind, water, and artistry, would be attributed to one God, Kukulcan’. Many gods attributing hundreds of life homages were not practised as was the case elsewhere in the world.



North and South America were different but not unconnected civilisations. Their timelines were certainly quite different, with contrasting community practices amongst their peoples.

Temples and religion in South America were completely different to that which existed in comparison to the early North American civilisations. No temples were built extensive in early North America, some unexplained geoglyphs do exist and are preserved, but the cultural authority does not show any enthusiasm in pursuing research into origins. Some are today mere tourist attractions in the United States of America.

The comparisons between North and South America are centrally based on life in the Iron and Bronze ages, singularly or an overlapping of both in either society. Both continents would suffer the intrusions of outsiders in their communities in time.

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