Discovery and Settlement of the New World



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Directions: Complete the reading provided and answer the following questions. All answers must be in complete sentences to receive credit. As you read the article, highlight the names of the various Native American groups and underline where they settled. Then, circle and define the following words:

  • Sedentary

  • Terrace

  • Proficient

  • Commodity

  • Aqueducts

  • Grandeur

  • Sprawling

  • Hierarchical

  • Coalition

  • Allegiance

  • Paternalistic

  • Bountiful

Discovery and Settlement of the New World

Pre-Columbian Era

The first Americans came from Asia, beginning as early as thirty thousand years ago, over a land bridge that formed at the Bering Strait during the Ice Age. The new immigrants were hunters and gatherers, and over a period of fifteen thousand years various groups spread over the American continents. By the time of the European “discovery” of the New World, there were perhaps as many as 100 million Native Americans, the vast majority living in Central and South America.
The development of agriculture by Native Americans more than five thousand years ago sparked new cultures and innovations. Hunters who previously roamed the land like nomads established permanent villages. Corn, sun, and water became focal points for many societies and played strong roles in religious ceremonies. In some cultures, control of the corn surplus was directly linked to power and authority.
Some of the first sedentary societies of North America were created by groups known as the Mound Builders, believed to be the ancestors of the Creeks, Choctaws, and Natchez. The mound building societies formed enormous earthworks into various shapes and sizes. Some mounds featured multiple terrace levels on which hundreds of houses were built. The largest known mound had a base that covered nearly fifteen acres and rose to a height of one hundred feet. While circles, squares, and octagons were the most common mound shapes, some patterns resembled creatures such as hawks, panthers, or snakes. Many believe that the different shapes were religious signs or territorial markers for different tribes.

The Mississippian culture flourished after the Mound Builders and expanded their settlements and trading network. They also built massive mounds that served as burial and ceremonial sites. As these peoples became more proficient at farming and fishing, they remained longer in one location and developed substantial dwellings. Clusters of mound builders settled in the Ohio Valley, along the Mississippi River, and as far west as present-day Oklahoma.


In the Rio Grande valley, the Pueblo people created complex irrigation systems to water their cornfields. The Anasazi or “Ancient Ones” in the Navajo language carved into the sandstone cliffs complete cities with baked mud structures that towered four or five stories high. They developed row upon row of terraced gardens that they used for planting crops.
In what is now the northeastern United States, the Iroquois Confederacy􀂲comprised of five Indian nations, the Seneca, the Oneida, the Onondaga, the Cayuga, and the Mohawk􀂲also relied on agriculture to multiply and prosper. Farming allowed the people to accumulate large quantities of food that could be stored for long periods. This helped to decrease the threat of starvation, especially during the winter, and ultimately led to population growth since more food was available and more hands were needed to cultivate and harvest the crops.
Many Native American groups developed sophisticated planting techniques that allowed them to take full advantage of the land and make the most out of the time and effort they put into their agricultural work. One of the more unique procedures, called “three-sister” farming involved a high yielding strain of bean that grew on the corn stalks while squash grew at the base of the plant to help retain moisture in the soil. This procedure allowed farmers, who were usually the females of the tribe, to harvest three different crops from the same field. These crops became an important commodity as farmers traded portions of their harvest to hunters for animal furs, bones, and meat.
The Iroquois League of Five Nations was the largest political and military organization east of the Mississippi River. However, even as North American civilizations grew in population,sophistication, and power, they did not compare to the complex societies of the Aztecs and Incas in Central and South America. These vast empires included paved roadways and canals that linked smaller cities, aqueducts that carried fresh water to urban pools and fountains, and giant pyramids that rivaled in grandeur those found in Egypt.
The Aztecs settled on the site of present-day Mexico City in the early 14th century. Although they might be considered latecomers to the area, their political skills and military strength enabled them to expand beyond their capital city of Tenochtitlan very quickly. While they used their military might to conquer several regions, Aztec leaders also formed alliances with many groups already established in the area. They convinced them to serve the empire rather than risk bloodshed and war. Food, baskets, household goods, precious metals, and even prisoners for human sacrifices were given to the rulers in Tenochtitlan. The empire grew rapidly as more and more subjects paid tribute to the Aztecs.
In South America, where the climate varies from cold mountain peaks to steamy rain forests, the Incas ruled much of the western coast. Perhaps more than 12 million people contributed to the creation of sprawling cities, terraced farmlands, extended roadways, and golden palaces. The Inca empire covered nearly 2,500 miles and included regions of present-day Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina. Although, like other native peoples throughout the Americas, they did not have their own written language or the use of the wheel, the Incas were extremely intelligent engineers. They built huge stone structures without mortar and designed suspension bridges that crossed deep mountain valleys.

Their well organized political structure and close-knit hierarchical society enabled the Incas to become the largest civilization in South America by 1500. Like that of the Aztec empire, the Inca empire was essentially a coalition of tribes. However, unlike the strong-handed rule of the Central American culture, the Incas allowed local groups to govern regions independently. Each tribe gave its allegiance to the ruler, the Sapa Inca, whom they believed was the descendent of the sun-god. In return for their cooperation, the people were treated well and accepted into the paternalistic Incan society.


The majority of the Native Americans that inhabited South and North America respected their land and often paid tribute to gods to bring them bountiful harvests and protection. However, little did they know that their way of life would change drastically once European explorers set foot on the American continents.


  1. When did the first people settle in the Americas? Where were they from? How did they get to this “New World?”



  1. Why does the author choose the word “sedentary” to describe the Mound Builders?



  1. How did the development of agriculture change the cultures of the Native American settlers?



  1. Describe two similarities between Mound Builders and Mississippians.



  1. What was critical for the development and the success of the Pueblo people in the Rio Grande region?



  1. What made the “three sisters” farming technique unique?



  1. What word or words could be used in place of the word “commodity”? Explain your answer.



  1. In what ways was the Iroquois Confederation unique from other Native American groups that lived in North America? What was the advantage they had?



  1. How did the Aztec and Incan empires differ from other Native American groups in the Americas?



  1. What impact does the word “grandeur” have on the author’s description of the Aztec and Inca pyramids?



  1. Using several pieces of evidence from the reading, why did the Aztec empire grow so rapidly?



  1. What examples does the author use to illustrate the claim that the Incas “were extremely intelligent engineers”?



  1. In what ways did the Incas and Aztecs differ from one another in the way that they maintained and controlled their empires?



Summary: Citing evidence from the article, describe the Native American cultures that the Europeans would have encountered when they arrived in the New World


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