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New World Encounters
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New World Encounters

[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: We begin with that rarest of things: a world-transforming event. It's two o'clock in the morning, October 12, 1492. Three Spanish ships have been at sea for 33 days. Christopher Columbus has gambled that by sailing west in the unknown Atlantic, he'll reach Asia, opening a blue-water trade route to China, then the world's greatest civilization.

Columbus is on the flagship Santa Maria when a lookout on the Pinta spots a white cliff in the moonlight--and shouts: "Tierra! Tierra!" That moment was the beginning of a new age of world history.

A knowledgeable person in 1492 knew the earth was round. But that person's world had only three continents--Europe, Asia, and Africa--and they were located around the landlocked Mediterranean. Christopher Columbus changed that forever. Columbus went to his death convinced he'd landed somewhere in Asia, but others suspected he'd found what Shakespeare called "a brave new world."

[Picture of Columbus Landing]

The Vikings had landed in North America more than 500 years before Columbus, but hadn't followed up their discovery. Spain did, and its discovery set loose creative energies all over Europe. Columbus's landfall in the Bahamas began one of the most momentous cultural encounters in history. It re-united two worlds--two peoples who'd lived apart for tens of thousands of years. And it created the modern Atlantic community.

Trade and enterprise expanded beyond all reckoning, and even the world's food would never be the same. In l492, no one in Ireland had ever tasted a potato, and Italians ate pasta without tomato sauce. Nor had the Indians Columbus encountered ever tasted an onion, a peach, a pear, an orange, or a banana, or anything made with rice, wheat or sugar. And they'd never seen a horse, a cow, a pig, a goat, a chicken, or even a honeybee.

Europeans enriched this cultural exchange by taking back with them a host of plants, besides the tomato and the white potato. They took back squash and cocoa, beans and corn, avocados and pineapples, chili peppers and peanuts, as well as two non-food plants, tobacco and cotton, which would sustain wealthy and brutally exploitative slave systems in the New World.

Columbus's voyages, as we'll see, changed the global economy and ecosystems in other, and sometimes catastrophic, ways. But the point I want to make here is that the originator of what has been called the Columbian Exchange wasn't the real discoverer of America. And that American history doesn't begin in l492.

Pre-Columbian Civilizations

It begins in the Ice Age, approximately 30,000 years ago. We may never know precisely when our history begins or who were the first peoples to set foot on the land we call America. But what we do know is that at least one group of original discoverers were Stone Age hunting bands from Asia. They migrated from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge that appeared when massive sheets of ice captured the seawater of the Bering Strait, exposing the dry ocean floor. These early American immigrants were searching for game, and their search took them through corridors created by towering walls of blue ice.

Others may have entered the continent over the ice flows from the east in an almost unfathomable feat of endurance and navigational skill. Still the continent was vast and unpopulated prior to the arrival of these people. So wherever they migrated, when they got there they were utterly alone. Then almost 10,000 years later the ice melted, the sea rose up again, the land bridge disappeared, and they were cut off from the rest of the planet.

For thousands of years these Stone Age hunting bands lived nomadic lives. But about 9,000 years ago, people in the highlands of Central America began cultivating beans, squash and corn; and that changed everything. These first part-time farmers began, over a period of thousands of years, to live close to their fields, and they started making pottery to store their surplus. Village life was born; humans began to settle down; and corn became the foundation of a new, more complex civilization.

[Photo: Mesa Verde structures]

Two of the greatest of these corn-based civilizations grew up before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. At Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, the Anasazi Indians harnessed scarce water with earthen dams and irrigation systems to turn the desert floor into a garden of squash and corn. And the architects built magnificent multi-storied apartments, and 400 miles of arrow-straight roads to surrounding communities. When Chaco Canyon was abandoned, some of its master builders migrated l00 miles north to Mesa Verde. There, in huge caves in the canyon walls, they built communal houses so fantastic that the place has been called "The Disneyland of American archeology."

Today, these are both active archeological sites, but we may never know why the Anasazi left, first Chaco Canyon, and then Mesa Verde. When the Spaniards arrived, they were both empty places. About the time the Anasazi were shaping their desert culture, the Mississippian, or Mound Building people, were living in Cahokia, a sprawling urban cluster just across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis.

[Picture: Cahokia]

The Pharaoh-like rulers of Cahokia lived atop colossal, man-made earthen mounds, one of them with a base larger than any Egyptian pyramid. By the 13th century, Cahokia had a population of perhaps 30,000 people and a trading network encompassing the entire Mississippi River basin. When the Spaniards moved into the Southeastern United States, they encountered what was left of Mississippian civilization. The lands occupied by these people, and, further west, the descendants of the Anasazi, were the areas of North America that Spain first penetrated. The invaders had decisive advantages over those they invaded.

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