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CHAPTER 1

Three Old Worlds Create a New, 1492–1600

0Chapter Summary


Chapter 1 gives us an understanding of the three main cultures that interacted with each other as a result of the European voyages of exploration and discovery of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The examination of the political, social, economic, and religious beliefs of Native Americans, West Africans, and Europeans helps us understand the interaction among the peoples of these cultures and the impact each had on the other. Although this interaction and its impact are major themes in Chapter 1, the chapter also focuses on the impact of geography and environment on peoples and the societies they build.

The first two sections of the chapter (“American Societies” and “North America in 1492”) deal primarily with the emergence and development of a variety of Native American cultures. In “American Societies” we first learn about American–Indian origins, but we are quickly introduced to the theme that geography and environment have an impact on people and the societies they build. The geography and natural environment of Mesoamerica, for example, made settled agriculture possible in that area. In turn, the practice of settled agriculture created a human-made environment conducive to the emergence of more complex civilizations. The wealth of and the political, social, and economic complexities of the Aztec civilization encountered by the Spanish when they invaded Mexico in 1519 were, in large measure, due to the development of agriculture in Mesoamerica thousands of years earlier.

The theme that the political, social, economic, and religious ideas of a culture directly relate to how the people of that culture obtain food necessary for survival continues in section two, “North America in 1492.” The diversity of Indian cultures in North America developed when the Native Americans north of Mexico “adapted their once-similar ways of life to very different climates and terrains.…” This, therefore, explains the emergence of small hunter-gatherer bands in areas not well suited to agriculture and the emergence of larger semi-nomadic bands that combined agriculture with hunting-and-gathering in areas with a more favorable environment. A culture’s means of subsistence also serves to explain the similarities in social organization between the agricultural Pueblo society of the southwest and the agricultural societies of the East. Furthermore, the way in which each tribe obtained food affected the political structure, the gender roles, and the religious beliefs of various tribes.

Section three, “African Societies,” begins with the sentence:

“Fifteenth-century Africa, like fifteenth-century America, housed a variety of cultures adapted to different terrains and climates.”

This statement carries the theme used in the discussion of pre-Columbian Native-American societies into the section on fifteenth-century African societies. After a brief mention of the Berbers of North Africa, the Muslim city states of the East coast, and the interior kingdoms of West Africa, our attention focuses on the societies along the Guinea coast, the area from which most slaves destined for sale in the Americas came. Here we learn of the religious beliefs and practices, the sexual division of labor, and the social systems of West African societies in the coastal area between the Senegal and Niger Rivers.


In section four our attention turns to the European societies of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. An explanation of the similarities and differences between European society on the one hand and American and African societies on the other hand is followed by a discussion of the devastating social, political, and economic impact of the Black Death and the Hundred Years’ War on European society. That discussion returns us to the recurring theme concerning the impact of environment on peoples and their societies.

The chapter’s focus then shifts to the political and technological changes in fifteenth-century Europe that paved the way for the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century voyages of exploration. But to achieve their primary goal of easy access to Asian and African goods and their secondary goal of spreading Christianity throughout the world, the early explorers had to overcome certain obstacles posed by nature. As they learned to master their environment, problems posed by the prevailing winds in the “Mediterranean Atlantic” (the Northeast Trades) led to the tactic of sailing “around the wind” and, subsequently, to discovery of the Westerlies. This knowledge eventually allowed the Spanish and Portuguese to exploit for profit the islands off the coast of Africa (the Azores, the Madeiras, the Canaries, and São Tomé). In the discussion about the use of these islands and the lessons European explorers learned there, a new theme is introduced: the desire of Europeans to extract profits from the Americas led them to exploit the plants, animals, and peoples in the societies they encountered. This new theme is further developed in the discussion of Christopher Columbus’s voyages and the first encounter between Europeans and Americans.

The exploitation theme continues into sections seven (“Spanish Exploration and Conquest”), eight (“The Columbian Exchange”), and nine (“Europeans in North America”). After a discussion of the elements that were part of the Spanish model of colonization and an explanation of the consequences of the interaction between the Spanish and the Mesoamerican peoples, we turn to a discussion of the transfer of diseases, plants, and animals among the three worlds that met in the Americas and the impact of these transfers on the societies in question. Our attention then shifts to attempts by the Portuguese, French, and English to exploit the natural resources of the Americas. Because they were primarily interested in profits from the natural wealth of the sea and land rather than in territorial conquest, European traders and fishermen descended upon the east coast of North America and the waters off that coast. After a discussion of the impact of the fur trade on the Europeans and Indians, the chapter turns to the reasons for England’s first attempt to plant a permanent settlement on the North American coast. The chapter concludes with an explanation of why this colonization attempt by England, under the supervision of Sir Walter Raleigh, failed.

0Learning Objectives


10. Describe the political, economic, social, and religious characteristics of the societies of the Americas and West Africa before their contact with the Europeans.

20. Describe the political, economic, social, and religious characteristics of European society prior to the European voyages of exploration and discovery.

30. Indicate the social, political, economic, and technological factors that made possible the European explorations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and explain the goals and motives behind those explorations.

40. Discuss the lessons learned by European seafarers in the Mediterranean Atlantic and the North Atlantic, and explain the relationship between those lessons and European exploration, discovery, and colonization in the Americas.

50. Examine the characteristics associated with Spanish colonization in the Americas, and discuss the consequences of the Spanish venture.

60. Examine the impact of the exchange of plants, animals, diseases, peoples, and cultures resulting from European exploration, discovery, and colonization.

70. Assess fifteenth- and sixteenth-century attempts by European traders and fishermen to exploit the natural wealth of North America.

80. Indicate the motives for and explain the failure of England’s first attempts to plant a permanent settlement in North America.


00Chapter Outline


I0. Introduction

The desire for treasure and trade led the European kingdoms of the fifteenth century to an interest in establishing colonies and trading posts that might strengthen the emerging nation states. This expansionist sentiment introduced Europeans to African and American societies that had evolved over centuries, and the cultural interaction that followed initial contacts between these civilizations profoundly influenced western history.

II0. American Societies

A0. Ancient America

The ancestors of Paleo-Indians possibly arrived in the Americans in three successive waves beginning some 30,000 years ago. Because of climate change accompanied by rising sea levels, the descendents of these earliest migrants were separated some 12,500 years ago from Asia, Africa, and Europe. Paleo-Indians survived by hunting large game and gathering wild plants and gradually spread throughout North and South America. As the prehistoric animals disappeared, however, people grew more dependent on agriculture, a change that allowed for the emergence of more sophisticated civilizations.

By 9,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Central and South America began cultivating various crops, and wherever agriculture dominated the economy, complex civilizations flourished.

B0. Mesoamerican Civilizations

Early civilizations emerged in what is now Mexico as early as 4,000 years ago. A number of powerful and complex societies developed, including the Olmecs, the Mayas, and Teotihuacán.

C0. Pueblos and Mississippians

Besides the empires of Mesoamerica, great civilizations arose further north, including the Hohokam, Mogollon, and Pueblo peoples of the modern states of Arizona and New Mexico, and the Mississippian culture of the midwestern and southeastern United States.

D0. Aztecs

The Aztecs moved into the Valley of Mexico in the twelfth century where they ultimately established an empire built on a warrior tradition that included human sacrifice and conquered people's tribute.

III0. North America in 1492

A0. Gendered Division of Labor in North America

Native Americans living north of Mexico adapted their cultures to the climate and terrain in which they lived. Hunting societies assigned the task of hunting to men, while women prepared the food, made clothing, and raised children. In the agricultural tribes of the West, the men farmed, but in the East, women performed that task.
B0. Social Organization

The social organizations of the agricultural peoples of the southwest and east were similar, with extended families being defined matrilineally. The nomadic Indians of the Prairies and Great Plains, by contrast, were usually related patrilineally.

C0. War and Politics

The Indians of North America engaged in wars with each other long before the coming of Europeans. Native American political structures, including the role of women, varied widely from tribe to tribe. Civil and war leaders divided political power in all North American Indian cultures.

D0. Religion

Although all Native Americans in North American were polytheistic, their most important beliefs and deities were tied to a group’s means of subsistence.

IV0. African Societies

A0. West Africa (Upper and Lower Guinea)

Upper Guinea had a culture that reflected contact with the Islamic Mediterranean region, while the peoples of Lower Guinea practiced traditional African religions.

B0. Complementary Gender Roles

In West Africa men and women shared agricultural duties, with the men also hunting or herding while the women performed household tasks and managed local commerce. In Lower Guinea, society developed based on the “dual-sex principle.” Throughout Guinea religious beliefs stressed complementary male and female roles.

C0. Slavery in Guinea

Slavery existed in West Africa primarily as a means of accumulating wealth. The degree to which slaves were exploited varied considerably.

V0. European Societies

A0. Work, Politics, and Religion

Males did most of the farming or herding; women concentrated on the household and children. Men dominated European society, relegating females to positions of inferiority.

Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe.

B0. Effects of Plague and Warfare

Bubonic plague first struck Europe in 1346, then struck again in the 1360s and 1370s, killing a third of the continent's population. The Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), which disrupted overland trade routes, led merchants in the eastern Mediterranean to establish maritime links with Antwerp. This led to the use of the triangular sail and the perfection of the astrolabe and the quadrant.

C0. Political and Technological Change

European leaders took advantage of the chaos resulting from the Black Plague and the Hundred Years’ War to engender nationalism as a means of consolidating power. Along with this political innovation, technological change ushered in movable type and the printing press, which made information more accessible. The publication of Marco Polo’s Travels in 1477, led many European to believe they could trade directly with China by sea rather than relying on overland routes.

D0. Motives for Exploration

Developments in Europe made possible an era of exploration designed both to gain access to markets and to spread Christianity.

VI0. Early European Explorations

A0. Sailing in the Mediterranean Atlantic

European sailors learned much of navigation, winds, and currents by sailing in the Mediterranean Atlantic, a region bounded by the Canaries, the Azores, and the Madeiras. The most important concept was sailing “around the wind” or picking up westerly breezes that allowed ships to return safely to port.

B0. Islands of the Mediterranean Atlantic

In the fifteenth century, Europeans, particularly Portuguese and Spanish, settled the Azores, Madeiras, and Canary islands and began plantation economies.

C0. Portuguese Trading Posts in Africa

The Portuguese established trading posts in West Africa, which were mutually beneficial to the Portuguese and to the African kingdoms.

D0. Lessons of Early Colonization

On São Tomé in the 1480s, the Portuguese established sugar plantations dependent on slave labor from the African interior.

Europeans learned that they could transplant crops and livestock successfully to new lands, that the inhabitants of these new regions could be conquered, and that slave-based plantations could be profitable.

VII0. The Voyages of Columbus, Cabot, and Their Successors

A0. Columbus’s Voyage

Christopher Columbus sailed west in an effort to reach Asia. Instead of reaching Asia, he encountered the Bahamas a month after starting.

B0. Columbus’s Observations

Columbus made obvious his intentions by asking the natives about gold, pearls, and spices. He also marveled at the new plants and animals he encountered and described how they could be exploited. Columbus also reported that the human inhabitants he encountered would be useful as converts and as laborers.

Even though Columbus died believing he had found Asia, map makers named the new region America in honor of Florentine explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first to publish the idea that a new continent had been discovered.

C0. Norse and Other Northern Voyages

Leif Ericsson had established a short-lived settlement in modern Newfoundland in the year 1001.

Because of the winds they confronted, northern mariners who sailed to the region that was to become the United States and Canada followed a route different from those who sailed to the south.

D0. John Cabot’s Explorations

John Cabot deserves credit for the first formal exploration of North America’s northern coast. Other mariners added to Europe’s knowledge of the Western Hemisphere.

VIII0. Spanish Exploration and Conquest

A0. Cortés and Other Explorers

Having first arrived in the West Indies in 1506, Cortés embarked for the mainland in 1519. Malinche, one of twenty slaves given to Cortés by the Mayas, became his mistress and translator.
B0. Capture of Tenochtitlán

The Aztecs were weakened by a smallpox epidemic. Largely as a result, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán fell to the Spaniards in 1521.

C0. Spanish Colonization

Spanish conquerors established a colonial system that stressed strict royal control, the predominance of male settlers, and exploitation of Americans and Africans.

D0. Gold, Silver, and Spain’s Decline

The Spaniards extracted great wealth from their colonies, to the detriment of both the American and the Spanish cultures. The influx of such wealth into Spain led to rapid inflation, to the overpricing of Spanish goods in international markets, and to lavish spending by Spanish monarchs. Ultimately, the Spanish economy crumbled and Spain lost international importance.

IX0. The Columbian Exchange

A0. Smallpox and Other Diseases

Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died from European diseases, particularly smallpox, to which they had no immunity.

Syphilis apparently traveled from America to Europe, with the first recorded case occurring in 1493.

B0. Sugar, Horses, and Tobacco

By the 1520s, sugar was being transported from the Greater Antilles to Spain. By the 1570s, the Portuguese cultivated sugar in Brazil for sale in the European market, and after 1640, sugar was produced in the English and French colonies in the Caribbean.

The introduction of horses into the Americas by the Spanish in 1493 ultimately led to changes in the subsistence cultures of North American natives.

Europeans believed that tobacco had beneficial medicinal effects.

X0. Europeans in North America

A0. Trade Among Indians and Europeans

Rich fishing banks off the coast of North America attracted many Europeans to the New World. The English also developed a lucrative fur trade with the Indians. The Indians, in turn, desired European goods. This mutually beneficial trade arrangement not only affected Indian cultures but had serious ecological consequences as well.

B0. Contest of Spain and England

Geopolitical conflict with Spain led England to desire colonies in North America.

C0. Roanoke

Early efforts by the English to settle the region they called Virginia had disastrous results.

D0. Harriot’s Briefe and True Report

Harriot, a noted scientist, publicized the benefits of Virginia, including its natural resources like copper, iron, furs, grapes, and people.

0Lecture Supplements

0Aztec Religion


Students may be unfamiliar with Native American culture. The following information provides some insight into the religion of the Indians who occupied Mexico and will help bring their society to life. The material also helps explain how the Spanish conquered the Aztec Indians with relative ease.

Aztecs believed that every fifty-two years the sun died. As the sun set behind the western mountains on the fateful last day of the epoch, the Aztecs destroyed their old calendars and extinguished all fires in the Valley of Mexico. Then they waited in terror—either the sun would be reborn at dawn or the world would freeze in an eternal night. In the morning, as the sun began to rise in the east, the Indians held the New Fire Ceremony on a mountain-top shrine. Using a razor-sharp obsidian dagger, a priest cut open the chest of a sacrificial victim and pulled out the still-beating heart. The priest then inserted wood kindling into the gaping chest cavity and attempted to light it with a fire stick. If the flame ignited, the sun would be reborn and the world would continue to live for another fifty-two years.

The Aztecs, like other Mesoamerican civilizations, kept careful track of time. They maintained two separate calendars, each with twenty-day months, in keeping with their base-twenty number system. One calendar described the 365-day solar year with eighteen months of twenty days, plus five “unlucky” days at the end of the year. The solar calendar served to preserve order in the universe, marking the times for planting and harvesting corn and for holding religious ceremonies. The second calendar had thirteen months of twenty days and matched the 260-day human gestation period. This calendar helped maintain order in human lives and provided the basis for pre-Columbian astrology. Every fifty-two years, the calendars reached the new year simultaneously, an event marking the potential end of the world.

The New Fire Ceremony illustrates the reciprocal obligations between men and gods in the pre-Columbian world. The Aztecs offered human sacrifices to feed the gods, who responded by making corn grow to feed the people. Fear always remained, however, that the new fire would not ignite, that the capricious gods would withhold the rains and destroy all life. This morbid cosmology ultimately contributed to the defeat of the Aztec Empire. Montezuma, uncertain of his own moral legitimacy, imagined the Spanish conquistadors might themselves be gods. His hesitant behavior gave the Europeans a strategic opening, which they used to enlist Indian allies and to conquer the Indian civilization.


0The Seven Cities of Cíbola


Following Columbus’s voyages, the Spanish moved rapidly into the Caribbean and Mexico, but the occupation of what became the American Southwest occurred more slowly. Events in the sixteenth century revealed both the imperative, and the impediment, to Spanish expansion in the New World. Students may be intrigued by the role that myths played in encouraging Spanish exploration. On the other hand, once the legends of golden cities proved false, the reality of inhospitable terrain and hostile Indians delayed settlement.

The medieval imagination conceived that across the oceans lay lands inhabited by strange monsters, giant men, and warrior women. Europeans also dreamed of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, fabled for their enormous wealth. After Columbus discovered America, explorers ransacked the hemisphere in search of riches. The Caribbean colonies proved disappointing, but Aztec treasures in Mexico renewed Spanish expectations.


In 1536, the adventures of Alvar Núnez Cabeza de Vaca and an African slave named Esteban caused the Spaniards to turn their attention to the north. In 1528, the men had landed in Florida as members of an ill-fated treasure hunt. Indians massacred most of their party, and the survivors made an incredible journey through the Gulf Coast region and into northern Mexico before coming across a Spanish expedition. In Mexico City, they related Indian stories of golden cities, and Esteban returned north with Fray Marcos de Niza to search for Cíbola. Scouting ahead, Esteban sent word to the friar that he had discovered the fabled treasure. The African then disappeared.

When Fray Marcos arrived back in Mexico City with his story, the viceroy commissioned Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to conquer the cities of gold. Departing in 1540, his expedition explored as far northeast as Kansas, but they found no treasure. Esteban's city of gold turned out to be the dusty Zuni pueblos near what became Santa Fe, New Mexico. Some historians believe that Fray Marcos had made the report solely on the word of Esteban. Others conclude that Marcos saw the pueblos from a distance, and that seen at sunset the adobe buildings took on a golden glow. In his excitement, and reflecting the European faith that such cities existed, he believed he had surely found the mythical kingdom. Still other scholars suggest that the friar knew the treasure did not exist, but he hoped to encourage Spanish settlement in order to Christianize the natives. In any case, the disillusioned Coronado and his expedition returned home without the riches they had sought.

Instead, they carried accounts of dry lands that were too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer and that contained nothing of value. Their harsh descriptions discouraged settlement in the north for decades to come. The Spanish eventually established Santa Fe in 1609, and more than a century later a few ranches appeared in Texas and California. The region, however, remained lightly settled during the Spanish colonial period.

0Class Activities


10. This project can be applied to both Africa and the Americas. Divide the class into groups and assign each group, or have them choose, a different Native American or West African group. Allow them several days to research the culture of the group, and then have them make oral presentations to the class. Students will find Chart A in the “Organizing, Reviewing, and Using Information” section in the Study Guide useful in completing this project.

20. Hold the Court of Henry the Navigator. Have one student portray Columbus and present his proposal for a westward voyage. Have a group of students advise concerning the proposition. Next have a student present the idea to Ferdinand, Isabella, and their advisors. In Henry's court, assign some students to support Columbus; in the Spanish court, have a few students oppose his ideas.


Discussion Questions0


10. Present the following list to the students and have them say where the item originated. Discuss the implications of the exchange of each item: beans (New World); chocolate (New World); corn (New World); cotton (both); horses (Old World); potato (New World); pumpkin (New World); turkeys (New World); wheat (Old World); wool (Old World).

20. Native Americans had a variety of complex cultures. What factors led to such a wide range of civilizations? Describe some of the important differences between Indian culture groups. Describe any significant similarities. Do Americans today understand the sophistication of the pre-Columbian world? Why or why not?

30. What factors led to the relatively rapid conquest of the Caribbean and Mexico? Why did the Spaniards prove less interested in, or less successful at, colonizing other areas of North America?

40. An overarching theme in Mexican history is the degree to which the culture reveals an Indian heritage and the degree to which it reflects a European legacy. Why might some Mexicans want to deny or criticize the European influence on their society? What positive contributions did the Spaniards make that Mexicans might embrace?


0Paper Topics


10. Have students complete Chart B in the “Organizing, Using, and Reviewing Information” exercise in Chapter 1 of the Study Guide and write a paper on this topic:

Compare or contrast the impact on the health of the peoples of the Old World and peoples of the New World caused by the early contacts between Europeans and peoples of the Americas. Be concrete and specific.

20. Have students select a Mesoamerican or West African culture group and write a paper on that group.

NOTE: Students will find Chart A in the “Organizing, Using, and Reviewing Information” section in Chapter 1 of the Study Guide useful if this topic is chosen.

30. Have students select one or more items that traveled from one hemisphere to the other and write a paper on the results of that “exchange.”

40. Have students pick one or more of the factors shaping European development in the fifteenth century and write a paper on the way that factor influenced the age of exploration.

50. Have students write papers on the ways in which the Spanish claim to the New World influenced European politics and international relations.



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