The New World before Christopher Columbus. A little walk for history

If the reader closes his eyes -please try-, perhaps he could imagine a historical scene.

In mind, the imaginary curtain of a theatre slowly rises. A man arrives and stops in the center of the stage. He remains still, motionless, but something tells the viewer that whoever he is, he is not an ordinary person. His presence radiates strange energy. He dresses like a Renaissance European man.

Gerard Depardieu as Christopher Columbus. Photo: 1492: The Conquest of Paradise

Take a good look at the mysterious character. Yes, it’s true! You’re right: the man on stage is Christopher Columbus.

Act 1, scene 1

The famous navigator looks at the sky, like an actor playing any Shakespearean character. His left hand holds an ancient map drawn on a scroll. Silence takes up all the space. The explorer, now so questioned, at least his statues, seem to speak to the humanity to come. He’s talking to someone about the future. Perhaps you.

His voice is firm, deep, like that of a ghost speaking from beyond the grave. Speak calmly:

— ”Lord [the King Ferdinand of Aragon], because I know that you will have pleasure in the great victory that Our Lord has given me on my trip, I am writing this letter. By it, you will know-how in 33 days I went from the Canary Islands to the Indies with the army that the most illustrious King and Queen [the Catholic Kings] our lords gave me. There I found very many islands populated with people in uncountable numbers.

People sitting in the imaginary theater don’t understand the speech. But the Admiral ignores the audience and continues speaking:

— “People of this island and all the others found and have heard are all naked, men and women, as their mothers gave them birth. Some women occult one place [genitals] with a blade of grass or a cotton cap they made. They [the natives] do not have iron, or steel, or weapons, nor are they for it, not because they are not well-disposed people and of impressive stature, but because that they are wonderfully fearful.

The spectators realize that the Admiral seems to know geography very well:

— “I named the first [island] that I found San Salvador [Watling Island] in commemoration of His High Majesty, who wonderfully has given all this. Indians call it Guanahaní; I named the second island Santa María de la Concepción [Cay Rum]; the third, Fernandina [Long Island]; the fourth, Isabela [Crooked Island]; the fifth, Juana [Cuba], and so to each [island] a new name.”

The Admiral recognizes the real intention of his voyage: To find the mythical Cathay, the spices’ land:

— When I arrived at Juana [Cuba], I followed her coast to the west, and I found it so large that I thought it would be the mainland, the province of Cathay.”

(Please: take a break, like in the theater). Not smoking! And maintain your face mask.

West Indies. Photo: Northern Illinois University.

The New World is not so new

The above paragraphs are a literary exercise, a fiction. However, the quotes of the words expressed by Columbus are real. The narrator (me) of the story that you are reading, translated in a free way the original letter from old Spanish to English. As it is known, Columbus communicated to the Spanish Catholic Kings Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon his first impression about the new lands discovered by him. Although to be politically correct, the historical event was an Encounter.

The distant lands discovered/encountered by Columbus, the West Indies, expanded in the maps later. The most famous name for all people was the New World, although it was as old as the Old World. But no one knew then, as we know today that the age of planet Earth is about 4.54 million years.

Why remember the school days now?

Because it is necessary to know (remember) the prehistoric scenario where the Encounter took place; that is, the physical and human space where Christopher Columbus developed his fantastic adventure. And also, the place where numerous ecological changes occurred (some people prefer to say “catastrophe”).

Columbus and his men discovered a cluster of large and small islands (several archipelagos) of an enormous continent of around 42.437.680 km² (between Latitudes 58ºN-56ºS). Today the whole continent is named America, in honor of the great Italian explorer Americo Vespucci.

In the heart of the equatorial region, between the tropics of Cancer (northern border, Latitude 23. 5ºN) and Capricorn (southern border, Latitude 23. 5ºS), the New World locates. The Equatorial line (Latitude 0º) crosses this historical area. Almost the entire area belongs to the southern hemisphere of the planet.

One must mention two very significant geographical characteristics that define the complexity of the region: the imposing Andes Mountains and the Amazon River, with its fabulous river basin. Both orographic features were formidable barriers for the explorers of the expeditions that followed in the next centuries.

The viewer of the play (or article’s reader) faces with a physical space endowed with an astonishing geographical diversity (some deserts, many mountains, seas, lakes, rivers, and volcanoes); a rich fauna; many plants; and millions of humans. As for the latter, and considering only the period under review, there were no less than thirty regional civilizations dispersed everywhere.

A scholar, Richard E. W. Adams, sums it up very well by calling it “a compressed ecological diversity.” (Adams R.W. Ancient Civilizations of the New World, 1997). In this complex scenario of compressed ecological diversity, formed in turn by a mixture of a multitude of different and varied factors, the history of conquest developed later. We will try to relate here only some facets.

Novae Insulae XXVI, Nova Tabula, Novus Orbis, 1545. Sebastian Münster (1488–1552). Photo:

What was Indians’ geographical origin?

This matter was not known then and is still unknown. One can highlight some hypotheses based on the evidence of scientific studies. Many works supported by disciplines such as paleoethnography, paleoanthropology, and paleo-demography. And, for a relatively short time, also multiple genetic studies made on human remains and mummies.

Robert McCaa, when refers to a particular area of the New World (The Peopling of Mexico from Origins to Revolution, 1997), correctly points out:

The settlement of ancient Mesoamerica is one of the most complex phenomena of Mexican prehistory.”

With a less authoritative opinion, we can add that it is similar for the entire newly discovered continent. Most researchers (archaeologists and geneticists) accept that there were several waves of migration (between one and three) from Eurasia to mainland America. The human hordes crossed the Bering Strait in a slow but unstoppable flow. About 30,000 years ago, Bering’s land portion was a bridge between the two continents.

José de Acosta (1539–1600 ). Pdoto: WikiMediaCommons.

The famous 16th-century writer, José de Acosta, was a relevant Jesuit and perhaps the father of Anthropology. He is the author of the renowned Historia natural y moral de las Indias. In chapter XVI (How the first men were able to come to the Indies, and that they did not purposely sail to these parts), he said some interesting things. Perhaps supported (by his exquisite anthropological sense of smell, Acosta perceived and described the origin of the early settlers with astonishing precision for its time. With elegant humor, he wrote the following (it is my free non-academic translation from Spanish original):

It is true that the first Indians arrived in one of three ways in the land of Piru [he was referring to the mainland, and not necessarily to the country of Peru, as it is known today]. For whether they came by sea or by land, and whether by sea or by their determination, I say, whether they were driven by some great storm, as is the case in times of adversity and constraint, by a determination that they should sail and seek new lands.

It is true that the first Indians arrived in one of three ways in the land of Piru”.

Later, he ironically helped himself by resorting to the old mythology (i.e., Ganymede’s eagle and Perseus’ winged horse) to support his idea:

Outside these three paths, I cannot think of another possible one, if we are to speak according to the course of human affairs, and not start making poetic and fabulous fictions: otherwise, someone would want to look for another eagle, like Ganymede’s, or some winged horse, like Perseus, to carry the Indians through the air, or perhaps he likes to fish for mermaids and “Nicolaus” (?) to pass them through the sea. So, leaving aside this ridiculous talk, let us examine for ourselves each of the three modes that we put forward; perhaps this investigation will be of benefit and pleasure.”

The origin of the first Native Americans remains one of the holy grails of Archaeology, according to the opinion of anthropologist Brian Fagan, from the University of California (Santa Barbara) (Fagan B. Tracking the First Americans. Archaeology, 1990; pp. 14–20).

The origin of the first Native Americans remains one of the holy grails of Archaeology,

Photo: SPCNI

It is also one of the points that have generated the most controversy: the dogma, with more than sixty years of validity, assuring that the first colonizers crossed the 50 miles, Bering Strait, with their bare feet, some 12,000 years ago. A dogma that is still valid.

Although Fagan, like other authors, goes a little further back in time: the first settlers arrived on the American plains when Neanderthal man dominated in Europe. Then, most likely, they walked further down in search of better environmental conditions.

What about genetic studies?

Such studies support the idea that there were at least two migratory waves in Mesoamerica: one about 34,000 years ago; the second about 15,000 years ago. The most valid theory accepts that the first inhabitants of these lands were of Caucasian, rather than Asian, origin.

In Boqueirao de Pedra Furada (in the Brazilian region of San Raimundo Nonato), some remains suggest a date of settlement of about 47,000 years before the present (B. P.). A very distant period from the date considered correct: around 12,000–15,000 years B. P. The hypothesis is not universally accepted; indeed, it even generated some controversy among archaeologists and scholars.

A genetic study in 2003 was much more accurate. This multidisciplinary and international work contrasted two genetic techniques: the detection of mitochondrial RNA and mutations on the Y chromosome (exclusive to males). The work analyzed 438 Amerindians from 24 different ethnic groups. The comparison group was 404 Mongolians.

From this work, researchers suggest the existence of two waves of migration to the Americas from central and southwestern Siberia. A second migration settled in North America. Those “founding fathers” were the Asian ancestors who migrated to Europe and America around 14,000 years ago.

Photo: Page Museun/Travis S.

Homo viator, agriculture, hierarchy, and the gods: The first societies

The ancient humans tirelessly sought out more favorable lands and climates. They looked for new places for those traveling further south, as genuine immigrants from the Neolithic period (Homo Viator, pioneers of human travel). Perhaps because they had not forgotten their evolutionary origins (as primates), they moved in groups, like their relatives in the North did.

The intense cold and big game hunting were the sources of food and provider of climate-protective clothing, but these facts supposed the death of many native species; for example, the horse became extinct. Let us remember that this beautiful animal was an essential protagonist in the phenomenon of the conquest of the Europeans that occurred thousands of years later. Concerned about subsistence, hunters needed to find the necessary proteins by killing smaller animals and looking for a more varied diet based on very different crops (vegetable proteins). It is was the beginning of agriculture.

Agriculture established 7,000 years ago (4,000–8,000, depending on the geographical area). Corn, the essential basis of nutrition, began its plant biography in Mexico. The avatars of this plant are closely related to human development for 5,000 years. However, it did not start using as food until 3,000 years ago. About 1,300 years before that, people on the Pacific coast were growing it.

The diet was quite homogeneous until the generalization of the cultivation of corn: fruits, vegetables, berries, and nuts. But deficiency creates a need. And trade began. The first steps were towards the exchange of goods, a primitive and rudimentary form of commerce. It was the beginning of traveling, more or less far, to exchange salt, plants, and obsidian.

The issue, generated by the need to feed themselves, led people to join in villages and small towns. The hierarchy had just been born (about 1,200 years ago). This fact created an order of the social elements that, since then, have persecuted us all. But then it was a new phenomenon: after the death of a tribal leader, his grave was different from the rest, because no one (even the owners of power) was exempt from the journey of no return.

Social classes emerged forever. The rudimentary tomb was more ornate than others, showing symbols relating humans to a higher ideal: the gods, an idea born to worship. It was an ancient human invention, which allowed people to search for an explanation, as pure and direct as it may seem today, to what there is no rational way to understand.

Here is a list of some of the many gods and goddesses: the crocodile, the fish, and the snake may have been the first rudimentary gods representing the Earth (the crocodile) and the Sea (the fish); that is, a rudimentary worldview of the material world was beginning. This whole complex phenomenon was dynamic, gradual, imperceptible.

From the lands that today make up Canada and the United States to Central America, the Caribbean, and South America, none of these primitive peoples knew that the planet humans walked on was round (nor could they understand what the planet meant). For thousands of years. Moreover, they were unaware that geographers would describe centuries later an area, precisely in the center of the world’s ball, called tropical because it is bounded to the North by the so-called Tropic of Cancer and to the south by Capricorn.

Looking for better places: home sweet home

The conditions of habitability of the Tropic — called “la Torrida” by 16th-century Spanish chroniclers — , were much better than those of the North (cold, arid, sad). A place with hard winters ruled by the dictatorship of the endless night (sun, clouds, rain, temperature, humidity, vegetation, lakes, rivers and immense plains, mountains).

The study of early settlements suggests that the first settlers arrived in the southern part of the United States in Central America (where the Republic of Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica are today) and in South America some 12,000 years ago. From Mesoamerica and South America, they moved to the many islands of the Caribbean and the Atlantic.

There is no agreement among scholars on this issue, since in so many fields of science, especially on topics related to the New World, the discrepancies are endless. The figures vary according to the place and the authors: it seems that the most accepted, or least discussed time, is that of the 12,000 years cited.

As for the plot line of this story, it doesn’t matter if they arrived 12,000, 15,000, or 20,000 years ago. It seems that the migration was terrestrial, and successive generations invested thousands of years in doing so.

Some scholars point to the possibility, no doubt romantic, that they may have used very rudimentary barges (kayaks and umiaks) — even simple tree trunks, sailing forward with an unknown destination and stopping here and there. Pushed by the strong currents and no less strong winds, the ancient explorers advanced southward along the Pacific coast.

This vast ocean was a sea still unknown to Europeans. Until the 16th century, when the Extremaduran conqueror Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475–1519), its discoverer, named it the South Sea; but, perhaps the ancient explorers could arrive across the Atlantic. In any case, they spent 10 or 20 years traveling. In other words, a journey made by members of the same generation, or perhaps two successive generations.

In favor of the marine hypothesis is the proven fact that humans sailed across the 60 miles that separate Asia from Australia about 40,000 years ago; and, on the other hand, there is no doubt that the Tainos and Caribs of the West Indies traveled by sea from the continent to colonize the Caribbean islands.

Regardless of how they traveled and how long it took them to complete the journey, these primitive populations began to settle in some specific parts of the continent. At first, there were very few. The population density could be around two inhabitants per square kilometer (2.2 inhabitants per square kilometer = 220/100 km2) in the Valley of Tehuacán, Mexico, between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago.

Over time, their habits changed a lot. The changes went even further with the introduction of agriculture, approximately 4–8 thousand years ago (a fact that had occurred in Mesopotamia, on the other side of the world, around 12,000 years before Christ).

Nomadic bands lived by hunting, collecting seeds, and vegetables as they went displacing. Then they began to plant new crops (corn), which required settling down near them and, as a consequence, absolutely and progressively changing the modus vivendi.

Guaraúnos or Waraos Indians of the Orinoco River (Venezuela). Engraving by H. Tiriat, 1894. Image courtesy of

The grandparents of Moctezuma and Atahualpa

The first Mesoamerican settlers were hunter-gatherers. We can consider them, colloquially, like the grandparents of the Aztecs, Mayans, and several dozen of peoples, the early Amerindians colonists.

Life serves death. The first colonists maintained their number with great difficulty. Life expectancy was very short: between 28 and 44 years for those who reached 15. The birth rate was very high (around 55–70 births per thousand inhabitants) -with total fertility of just over eight children.

Infant mortality was very high, due to malnutrition, infectious diseases, accidents, sacrifices, predatory carnivorous beasts, snakes. Something similar happened to adults (accidents, fights, infections).

This demographic model belongs to what demographers usually call a “high population pressure system,” characterized by high mortality and fertility. The latter was a consequence of couplings from an early age (12.7 years for women-girls and 19.4 years for men); on the other hand, there was a firm intention to favor birth, as shown by the terrible fact that they sacrificed infertile couples. The (terrible) rule could have been: Whoever does not contribute to the tribe growth is not worthing for the appreciation of the community.

In any case, population growth continued for millennia. Human beings, whatever field they inhabit or compete, are usually of a winning species, at least within the biological scale, and if it said in evolutionary terms (Darwinism).

Human population in Mesoamerica continued to grow: 43 inhabitants per 100 km2 about 3,000 years ago; 165 inhabitants per 100 km2, 2,500 years ago; and 1,100 inhabitants per 100 km2, between 1,300 and 2,100 years ago.

Human beings expanded their territory to unsuspected extremes, and that still amazes us. From time to time, a news item appears in the press or in a National Geographic documentary, which tells of the discovery of a hidden tribe in the Amazon rainforest. Although one of those last “occult and newly discovered tribe” was fake news.

Whoever does not contribute to the tribe growth is not worthing for the appreciation of the community.

The outlook at the arrival of Columbus

In the eight centuries preceding the appearance of the Spanish (in the period between 500 and 1300 AD), the population of present-day Mexico grew dramatically: 3.600 inhabitants per 100 km2; in addition, it occurred the development of several fortified and urbanized cities along with the surges of certain rudimentary states’ forms.

In some areas, the demographic phenomenon was even higher: in the center of the Valley of Mexico, the population grew from a density of 5,000 per square kilometer 3,500 years ago to 1–1.2 million around 1519, when the conqueror Hernán Cortés first made contact with the Aztec empire (1519–1520) The higher population density, and the changes due to agriculture, led to the appearance of big human concentration nuclei and the birth of towns and cities, some of which reached an enormous development.

A detail from “The great mural the city of Tenochtitlan” (1945–1952), by Diego Rivera. Mexico City, National Palace

The paradigmatic example of this assertion was the city of Tenochtitlan: the Aztec imperial capital, an Indo-American and pre-Renaissance Venice planted in the middle of the great lake Texcoco. The place was a well urbanized, protected city, better distributed than the most important European cities of its time, and it was very populated.

It probably had a total of 250,000–300,000 inhabitants, surpassing Paris, the most populated city of the time; or Seville, an anthill of people that was improving thanks to the trips from the New World; and also, Florence and Venice, owners of the Mediterranean and Renaissance art, culture and civilization. Tenochtitlan, the great city of the Aztec empire, was the ignored capital of the world. Of a world unknown to enlightened Europe.

The Discovery that it was an Encounter

A critical fact emerged in the slow but inexorable course of humanity: the Encounter between two different worlds. Perhaps it is best expressed if we say the crossing of many worlds that were circulating on destiny’s roads. It happened a complex genetic, cultural, and ideological recombination. A mixture of people, but also a fortuitous encounter of animals, plants, and, something not less impressive, an interchange (encounter) of ideas. The clash between several and very different cosmogonic options.

How many people inhabited the New World before the Encounter?

Christopher Columbus, like his more enlightened contemporaries in the disciplines of geography and history, was not aware that many people were populating the land that was awaiting him to glorify his name. Neither he nor the companions knew the exact number of inhabitants — although, honestly, no one knows today.

The indigenous Caribbean people were natives of the Taino and Caribb tribes, both of continental origin, who settled throughout time in the archipelago of the Antilles. Moreover, there were more than a hundred cultures and civilizations scattered in the human mosaic of the nearby and as yet undiscovered continent (the Spanish chronicles said “Tierra Firme,” to refer to the continental part).

A population of millions of people, inhabitants of the islands, and the continent. Human beings with very different ideas from those of Europeans. For example, the vision of the world. The native Indians were unbelievers, animists or followers of the sun god, or worshippers of the moon, trees, crocodiles or snakes. People who believed in ideas, no more or less primitive or modern than those preached by the Roman Pope of the time, or by the monotheistic or polytheistic beliefs of other cultures. Religious beliefs as sure or mistaken as those of the Admiral himself and his patrons, the Spanish Catholic Kings.

The indigenous peoples of the New World were occupied, in their way, with the difficulties of everyday life. They were very probably people who were astonished by climatic and celestial phenomena, although they were unaware of the existence of other parts of the world. The other half recognized itself as civilized, and it beat to their rhythm. But the Indians were equal to the invading foreigners (the Others) in terms of mutual ignorance. Both ignored the Other. Ignorance has no borders.

But the Indians were equal to the invading foreigners (the Others) in terms of mutual ignorance. Both ignored the Other. Ignorance has no borders.

Millions of men and women were busy growing and multiplying. The unfathomable mysteries of life and death worried them. In short, they were people who, in their vital essence, did not seem so different from those who swarmed the paths of European, Asian, and African history. The same people who had just arrived. After all, the newcomers were also human beings, but they were mistaken for gods.

(Break’s over)

Act 2, Scene 1

After a few months exploring the new lands discovered — I am sorry, I wanted to say “lands encountered” — Christopher Columbus decided to return to Europe. This first journey will be followed by three more.

Spectators who were looking at the scene seem a bit surprised. The man on the stage looks like a statue. Or, perhaps, is it a statue that looks like a person? Oh, my God: It’s a marble statue!

Suddenly, several persons masked arrive near the Columbus Memorial and surround it. One of them throws red paint at the monument. Minutes later, they hit and knock it down while shouting slogans and meaningless insults. One of the protesters carries a banner. It says:


(They come out).

Image modified from original: WPClipart.

Medical Doctor (Infectious Diseases specialist/Professor of Medicine) and writer (narrative, theater).

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