Before the Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus set foot on the territories of the Americas or the “New World” in 1492, the continent was home to many civilizations and smaller communities that were ethnically rich and socially extensively developed. However, the arrival of Spanish explorers following Columbus’s steps, looking for power and wealth, provoked a tumultuous turn in the history of these civilizations, leading them to an unescapable decline.
What Were the Pre-Columbian Empires?
Pre-Columbian civilizations settled in Central America and South America. These communities significantly developed sociocultural, economic, and religious systems and declined after clashing with a different worldview imposed by foreign explorers from the Iberian Peninsula. The combination of military conflicts, the introduction of new diseases by the explorers, and the imposition of a different socio-religious system destroyed the social fabric of the original communities. Explorers stole and exploited their lands, enslaved them, and forced them to convert to Christianity.
Before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492 through the Caribbean Islands of what is now the Dominican Republic and Haiti, many civilizations and smaller communities inhabited the continent. Among the most critical cultures were the Olmecs, the Aztecs (self-named Culhua-Mexica), the Maya in Mesoamerica (Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize), and the Incas (self-called Tahuantinsuyo) in the West Andean region in South America (Peru).
The term pre-Columbian refers to the settled societies that inhabited the Americas before Columbus inaugurated a new era of colonization in 1492. However, the term often refers to few specific cultures, ignoring the vast social diversity that inhabited the Americas before the Iberian invasion.
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Although the term references a period before the arrival of Columbus and marks the before and after of the Central and South Americas colonization era, some American indigenous civilizations peaked in sociocultural development even after the Spanish and Portuguese invaded these territories. Thus, the terms pre-Hispanic or Ancient America can also be used.
There has also been some confusion regarding some of the words used to identify some of these communities, such as in the case of the Aztecs. This denomination has been used since the 18th century to refer to the original Mexicas who inhabited Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). To be precise, this was the sociopolitical power from which the Aztecs wanted to set themselves free. Now, some historians have clarified that Aztecs are the people who came from the still-unknown city of Aztlán and who invaded the Mexicas, helping Hernán Cortés to conquer Montezuma.
The Ethnic & Cultural Diversity of Communities & Political Powers
Although the Aztecs, Mayas, and Incas are often referred to as the most developed cultures in Ancient America, other communities were established over a long-lasting period of social and cultural development. For instance, the Caribes and Tainos in the Caribbean were the communities that Christopher Columbus first saw when reaching the island “La Española” (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), naming them Indios (as he thought he was stepping over the lands of India in the Old Continent). The Tupies and Guaranis in Brazil and Argentina were also prominent.
Pre-Columbian cultures developed great sociocultural, linguistic, and religious systems. Local archaeology has identified significant developments in architectonic, mathematic, astronomic, artistic, and agricultural knowledge, with social systems of labor differentiation. Despite the cultural and geographical differences between these civilizations, all shared a centralist political regime, a well-established economic system, and a polytheistic structure of beliefs.
In Central America, the Olmecs (1500 BCE – 300 CE) settled in the Gulf of Mexico, now Veracruz and Tabasco. They were characterized by the construction of colossal rock-carved heads and the establishment of a foundational writing system.
The Aztecs (1325 BCE – 1521 CE) settled in Central and Eastern Mexico and developed big-scale construction of temples and markets. Through military force, they could expand their rule until the death of their leader, Montezuma II, and the taking over of Hernán Cortés in 1521. The Aztec empire was not a monolithic political structure as is often thought; it was instead a multiethnic unit that resulted from the end of a civil war. However, the city of Tenochtitlán was more military-dominant.
Mayans (300 BCE – 900 CE) might be among the most popular pre-Columbian civilizations. They settled in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, and the Petén Jungle in Guatemala. They developed a great knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, and writing ability. They reached a civilization peak around 600 CE.
In South America, the Incas (1438 BCE – 1572 CE) developed their socio-religious rule along the Peruvian Andes. They achieved great military force, which allowed them to become Ancient America’s most significant civilization. It was the last surviving regional political structure until the invasion in 1532 by Francisco Pizarro.
Colonization & the Fall of Pre-Columbian Civilizations
Nowadays, it is hard to argue against the fact that Spanish colonization led by conquistadors was the cause of the fall of pre-Columbian communities. Many historians have shown the atrocities that were committed in the name of the Spanish monarchy and a civilization project to convert “savages” and “barbarians” to the socio-religious structures of Christianity.
San Bartolomé de las Casas & Theodor de Bry: Denouncing Spanish atrocities
It was the Spanish Dominican friar San Bartolomé de las Casas who first wrote about the horrors he encountered when visiting the first Spanish colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. In his most famous writing, “Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies,” he denounced the Spanish explorers’ violence against indigenous peoples. He wrote:
“We can estimate very surely and truthfully that in the forty years that have passed, with the infernal actions of the Christians, there have been unjustly slain more than twelve million men, women, and children. In truth, I believe, without trying to deceive myself, that the number of the slain is more like fifty million.”
(de las Casas, 1992)
“Their reason for killing and destroying such an infinite number of souls is that the Christians have an ultimate aim, which is to acquire gold and to swell themselves with riches in a very brief time and thus rise to a high estate disproportionate to their merits.”
(de las Casas, 1992)
De Las Casas’ work was published and translated to English in 1583, accompanied by illustrations of German illustrator Theodor de Bry (1528-1598). Through this collaboration, both authors spread a denouncement of the alleged cruelty of the Spanish in the Americas. This work also greatly influenced the construction of the myth of the “noble savage” and the critiques against the obscurantism of Catholicism and the decadency of Spanish society.
De Las Casas’s work founded the so-called “Black Legend,” a term that refers to anti-Spaniard propaganda that accused them of cruelty and intolerance, formerly spread by Protestant Anglo-Saxon historians. In response, during the 20th century, many Spanish historians addressed this topic in favor of a good image of Spain, identifying former accusations and hostile propaganda as based on exaggerated fantasies.
Although this continues to be an ongoing debate, we can be sure, following recent anthropological and historical perspectives on colonization, that the conflictive encounter between indigenous pre-Columbian empires and foreign colonizers created an unstable environment where locals could no longer exist as a well-established civilization.
Historical evidence states that Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors obliged natives to convert to Christianity, exploited their territories and bodies, stole mineral resources, and commercialized them as enslaved people. One of the best works that addresses this topic is Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, The Question of the Other (1999), where he analyses the Spaniard conquest, colonization, and destruction of pre-Columbian cultures in Mexico and the Caribbean.
In 1519, Hernán Cortés traveled from Cuba to Mexico with 500 men, aiming to destroy the Aztec empire and their king Montezuma. On the 13th of August of 1521, Cortéz invaded México-Tenochtitlán with the help of indigenous communities that were cheated, making them believe that they were going to liberate themselves from the power of the Mexica empire. Years later, Cortés continued expanding his power to the north and south, founding the Viceroyalty of New Spain.
Some years later, Francisco Pizarro, inspired by the achievement of his fellow explorer Cortés, started an expedition with 200 men to conquer the territories of the Inca Empire and take over the rule of their king, Atahualpa. By 1533, this was the world’s most extended empire, composed of a conflictive unit between different conquered communities. Pizarro kidnapped Atahualpa and killed him on July 26, 1533. After that, with the help of indigenous soldiers who wanted to get rid of the power of the Incas, Pizarro fought against troops in Cuzco, which were defeated on November 15, 1533. This opened the way to the later establishment of the Viceroyalty of Peru.
What Can We Learn about the History of Pre-Columbian Empires?
Traditional historiography often portrays historical events as fixed facts in time and space, but social, cultural, and historical conjunctures are processes of development that sometimes overlap with other events and have blurry limits. In the case of the rise and fall of pre-Columbian civilizations, it is hard to establish specific moments that can set temporal and spatial boundaries in the complex interweaving between the local previous socio-cultural and political regimes of the Americas and the consequences of the arrival of Spanish and Portuguese explorers to these territories.
For instance, many other cultures have histories of rise and fall, such as in the case of the cultures that inhabited Colombia, Venezuela, and Panamá. Furthermore, post-colonial indigenous movements have made great efforts to recover cultural knowledge that was lost and destroyed. Although the pre-Columbian civilizations do not exist as formal cultural and political units, their legacy still has resonance in the complex question of understanding historically what the Latin American identities are made of.
de Las Casas, B. (1992). A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies. Penguin UK.