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Pre-contact Americas

Sal provides an overview of the population and civilizations in the Americas over the past sixteen thousand years.

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Video transcript

- It is believed that the first humans settled North and South America, or began to settle it, about 15 to 16,000 years ago and the mainstream theory is that they came across from northeast Asia, across the Bering Strait, during the last glaciation period, when sea levels were lower and there was a land bridge, the famous Bering Land Bridge connecting the two continents and we have archeological evidence of humans in southern Chile as early as 14,500 years ago and as well in Florida as early as 14,500 years ago. So humans had migrated into, and settled in the Americas many, many, many thousands of years ago. And like other places in the world, they followed similar development patterns. The first evidence we have of the development of agriculture in the Americas is about seven to eight or nine thousand years ago so once again, it coincides with when agriculture, we believe, started to emerge in other parts of the world. And the more archeological evidence we find, we'll probably find dates that go even further back than that, in fact, I've seen some that go eight, nine thousand years ago. Now one misconception, significant misconception, about the Americas is that when the Europeans colonized, remember Columbus comes sailing in 1492, looking for the East Indies and then he bumps into this, he actually doesn't bump into the whole continent, he bumps into an island that's close to the continent, but with that you start having the beginning of the European colonization of the Americas, roughly the last 500 years, and one misconception that folks often have is, well it was maybe sparsely populated, mainly by hunter-gatherer nomadic people and nothing could be further from the truth. The modern estimates of the population of the Americas at the time of the European colonization, roughly around 1500 is 50-100 million people and to put that in perspective, so that's right around there, that's about 10 to 20% of the world population at that time. The world population at that time was about 500 million people and given that the Americas is about one third of the land, if you don't count Antarctica, it's not that different of a population density than the other continents, and we have significant cities that were in place in the pre-Columbian era, in the era before Columbus and the European colonization. For example, you might have heard of the Aztecs, this really, the core, the Mexica people, the Mexica tribe, in many ways the foundations, of the Mexican people pre-European colonization. You might also be familiar with the Mayan civilization, one of the longest lasting civilizations in, actually, in history, they're famous for one of the earliest cultures where we have the hieroglyphics, where we have writing. You're probably familiar with the Inca Empire and yes, that is me on a recent trip and at the time of the Inca Empire it is believed that it was possibly the largest empire on the earth at that time, incredibly complex structures and social structures, they had. Now what's often less talked about are things like the Mississippian culture, which was in North America right over here. The Mississippi River is named for them. This if their famous city of Cahokia near St. Louis and in there, in that peak, it would have 40,000 people in it. Around the world at that time, at the time of the Mississippian culture, there weren't many cities in the world that had 40,000 people, so it wasn't these, just hunter-gatherers and people who were nomadic, there were sophisticated civilizations, with sophisticated cultures and dense population centers and it had also been in place for a long time, similar, in timeframe, to some of the great ancient civilizations that we see in Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and in China. For example, the oldest civilization we know of, in Mesoamerica, is the Olmec civilization, right over here, here's a few of their artifacts they have. If we go into the Andes, near modern day Peru, we have the Chavin culture, right over there. As you can see, a lot of these cultures, at least the ones that I'm putting here, and this is just a sample, I'm sampling some around North America, some around Mesoamerica, and some in the Andes, and then you can even go further back and you can go to the Caral civilization, and what's really interesting about the Caral civilization is some archeologists call this the first civilization and it's unclear whether they had, whether they farmed grains and cereals that we often associate with civilizations, they use their surplus crops to have a more specialized labor force, but they were a maritime culture, even today the coast of Peru is a significant source of all of the, or a good chunk of the seafood in the world but a significant culture developed there, these are the remnants of their pyramids, and they developed, we believe, in the 4th millennium BCE, so this is around the same time as when Egypt first got unified around Menes, by Menes, or you have the first Sumerians in Mesopotamia and as far back as them you have these Quipus knots, which many archeologists view as a form of writing, it was a form of record-keeping and it was even used later on by the Incas. So the big take away here, is to challenge that misconception that the Americas somehow were not as, has populations and civilizations like everything else, it was only when the Europeans came in that all of that started to happen, no. Well before the Europeans came in, North and South America had been settled, agriculture developed at a similar timescale, significant, complex civilizations, writing developed on a similar timescale, but once you have the European colonization, some people say it was intentional, it was probably a combination of intentional and just diseases that were unfamiliar to the people here, within 150 years, that 50 to 100 million population, so now we're talking about, roughly by 1650, so you move a little bit forward in time, the population had gone to roughly six million people, some people refer it to a genocide, some people would say it's a combination of an intentional extermination of people plus just inadvertent disease, whatever it is, this was the significant decline of a complex and diverse set of populations. This is just a small sample of the major civilizations that were there, you had thousands of tribes across North and South America that had different cultures, different languages, different traditions and different religions.