Pre-Columbian Civilizations: America before Columbus

The story of the "discovery" of Americas through Christopher Colombus and his successors, who very quickly become conquerors, is known. This is less the case with the situation of the continent on the eve of this conquest, with the exception of the Aztecs and the Incas, because they are empires which come into conflict with the Europeans upon their arrival. What were these Americas then on the eve of the conquest? Were all these peoples connected, like those of the Old World?

The problem of sources

If every historian depends on his sources, the problem is very real with regard to the history of the Americas before the conquest. The main sources come from the Spaniards, who based themselves on the oral testimonies of the populations, and we therefore understand the questions that this poses. In addition, indigenous peoples have a notion of circular time, far removed from that of Europeans.

Another possible source, which has raised many questions in history, is archeology. But in the American case, it is fragmented and difficult to interpret. In fact, it is only in Mesoamerica that the difficulties are noticeably less thanks to the existence of calendars and writing. The problem that arises, however, is the mixture in these sources between history and myth. The same goes for the history of dynasties, so different are the units of time.

A large and dispersed population

As we know today, Amerindian peoples are not strictly speaking "indigenous", having come from Asia some 30,000 years ago.

The debates relate mainly to the number of the population, since the ranges have long varied according to historians between 100 and 10 million! According to a recent study by William M. Denevan (1992), the American continent as a whole would have welcomed just over 50 million inhabitants on the eve of the conquest, including 4 million for North America and 14 million for the only Mexico. The characteristic of this population is its great dispersion, with a high density first in the Pacific zone, then in the Atlantic zone, while the great plains, for example, seemed very "empty".

Thanks to the study of archaeological sites, we know that these populations lived in dense villages. Some were also nomadic, mainly in North America. In the 15th century, it was, for example, the Inuit who migrated eastwards to Greenland.

North America

We call this what has become Canada and the United States. It was the linguists of the nineteenth century who identified the languages ​​and dialects, and allowed a classification into twelve large groups allowing to see the mobility of tribes and ethnic mixing. The large geo-cultural areas in which we can locate these groups are generally: the wooded northeast (with for example the families of the Algonquians and Iroquoians), the southeast (Cherokees, Seminoles), the arid southwest ( first the Hopi, then the Apaches and the Navajo), the Great Plains (the Sioux, the Blackfeet or the Cheyennes), the Rocky Mountains (Paiutes, Nez-Percés), the Pacific coast (Yuroks, Tlingits, Nootkas) , and the arctic regions (Inuits, Aleuts).

This list is not exhaustive, but gives an idea of ​​the different groups encountered by the conquerors, and the links between them. Likewise, if we know part of the functioning of these very diverse societies (and not all nomads), it is much more difficult to make their “history” before the conquest than for the Mesoamerican or Andean peoples, for lack of sources. There are only a few examples of political constructions at the end of the 15th century, such as the reunion of the Iroquois tribes in Ontario, which led to the creation of a quasi-democratic system, which would have its importance in the 17th century.

Mayas "disappeared"?

The fall of the great Mayan cities of the so-called classical period (generally located between 300 and 900 AD) still provokes today a number of fantasies, sometimes giving the impression that the Mayan civilization itself has almost disappeared in Europe. arrival of the conquistadors! Obviously, this is not the case, and if the main Mayan sites have been deserted, there are still a few, like Mayapan, who succeeded Chichen Itza, defeated in the first half of the 13th century. The population of Mayapan is estimated at more than 10,000 inhabitants on the eve of the conquest, although it too was finally abandoned shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards (probably around 1440).

The situation of the Mayas was therefore difficult at the end of the 15th century: the great cities were abandoned, and the Mayan people were divided into rival provinces (there were eighteen of them when Cortes launched the final phase of the conquest, in the 1530s) who never ceased to fight against each other, facilitating the task of the conquistador in Central America, even if resistance was fierce until the end of the 16th century ...

The Aztecs (or Mexicas)

We are not going to retrace the entire history of the Aztec people here, but if we had to summarize their march towards their status as an imperial power, we would still have to go back to the fall of the Toltec city of Tula in the 12th century. Indeed, the Aztecs are part of the Nahuas people who came from the North of Mesoamerica to go to the Valley of Mexico, following the fall of Tula. This migration is a myth at the very basis of Aztec culture, the origins of which are uncertain (they are said to have come from the mysterious city called Aztlan). However, we know that the Aztecs reached the valley in question in the 13th century, guided according to the Mexica tradition (their real name from their installation in the region) by the god Huitzilopochtli.

The Mexica people are not yet fully structured, not to say "civilized", and they are not well received by other groups in the region. After a difficult period, the Mexicas finally founded a capital, Tenochtitlan (Mexico), in 1325. However, they remained under the threat (even the tutelage) of the Tezcoco cities, and especially Azcapotzalco (city of the Tépanèques). But the rivalry between these two radiant cities ended up serving the Mexicas: war broke out in 1418, Tezcoco was defeated and had to submit to the Tezozomoc tépanèque. The Mexicas, allies of the latter, obtain a share of the tribute and a right to inspect the conquered city.

The conflict nonetheless resumes after Tezozomoc's death. But this time, Tenochtitlan is allied with Tezcoco and another neighboring city, Tlacopan; this is the Triple Alliance. The goal, to crush Azcapotzalco, was reached in 1428. The real victors, leaders of this alliance, are the Mexicas and we can then speak of the Aztec empire. Indeed, mainly with Moctezuma from 1440, the people of Tenochtitlan imposed their views on their allies (even if Tezcoco played a significant role) and began their conquest of Mesoamerica. Thus, from the 1480s, there remained only a few cities like Tlaxcala or the Tarasque and Guerrero regions which resisted. The period also saw the use of the capture of inhabitants of cities outside the Triple Alliance for what is called "the flower war", which offers the Sun a significant number of sacrifices.

It is an "empire" in full power, but nevertheless struck by doubt, that the Spaniards find on their arrival in 1519. Indeed, the Mexicas interpret as signs of bad omen phenomena like the appearance of a comet in 1509, and other tragic events such as the fire in the sanctuary of Toci, or various diseases and famines which lead to unrest. Moctezuma II is as if paralyzed by these prophecies, and the arrival of the conquistadors is seen in the same logic, perhaps explaining the attitude of the sovereign Mexica, which will bring about the fall of the empire ...


The 15th century marked the birth of the Inca "empire". It is a small company centered around the city of Cuzco, in the Andes, which at the beginning of this century extends on the shores of Lake Titicaca. Their leader is then Viracocha Inca. Like the Aztecs with Tula, it seems that the Incas felt linked to an ancestral civilization of this region, which occupied the city of Tiahuanaco around the 10th century.

The Incas, however, have rivals, the Chancas, who are mainly settled in the north-west of Cuzco. The war intervenes at the end of the 1430s, when the Chancas try to invade the territory of their neighbors, and lay siege to Cuzco, defended by a son of Viracocha Inca, the future Pachacuti ("He who turns the world upside down"). The Chanca offensive is a bitter failure and, worse, the Inca counterattack is radical: enemy territory is invaded, its leaders executed.

Coming to power, Pachacuti undertakes a large number of reforms, and then begins the beginning of the Inca rise in the Andes. The road is one of the elements that allows this impressive expansion in a few years. It was with Tupac Inca that the empire extended most in the last third of the 15th century, even reaching the edge of the Amazon. Tupac's successor, Huayna Capac, extended the road network to Quito and established the power of the Inca over all the Andes.

The beginning of the XVIth century is in the continuity, the Incas not knowing the troubles of the Mexicas. They continue to fortify their empire and expand into the Amazon. But the death of Huayna Capac in 1524 shows that the Inca power is ultimately more fragile than it appears: troubles begin that weaken the power and, on the eve of the conquest, the Inca empire is weakened.

A connected continent?

This immense continent, with a large but irregularly dispersed population, with very different political systems but comprising at least two very powerful and structured "empires" (Aztecs and Incas), was this continent therefore "connected"? Were there any commercial or even diplomatic relations between all these spaces and these populations?

We know first of all that the peoples of the Far North had contacts with the peoples of Asia, via Bering, contacts visible through similar cultural practices. Within North America, it is around the great rivers that the exchanges, mainly commercial, intervene: along the Ohio, Tennessee and Mississippi there is a real trade, connecting the peoples of the South of this part. from the Americas to those of the Northeast, to the Iroquois. There are even traces of Mesoamerican and South American artefacts, indicating that the trade was continental. Mesoamerica is also very connected, including with the Caribbean, thanks to a coastal trade and a route in the Yucatan connecting the rivers inland. We also know that the Mayans had relations with the peoples of Panama.

And it is precisely in Panama that Pizarro learns of the existence in the south of a great empire, that of the Incas. Obviously, imperial policies favor these connections through their desire for expansion; we even have a few legendary examples which no doubt contain an element of reality, such as those sea voyages in the Pacific during the time of Tupac Yupanqui. This Ocean is the setting for intense maritime traffic along present-day Peru, in cabotage and in connection with land merchant traffic. Rivers throughout the continent (from the Orinoco to the Amazon) are also strong vectors of connection.

Without falling into the caricature of the decline of the continent in the 15th century, it should still be noted that on the eve of the conquest, traffic and exchanges between all these spaces may seem less flourishing than in the classical period, whether in Mississippi or Mesoamerica with the abandonment of the great Mayan cities. In addition, there does not seem to have been any real contact between the two great empires, Aztec and Inca. However, the Americas that Europeans set out to explore and then conquer are well developed and connected, and are not civilizations lost or totally "barbaric" to the conquistadors, as has often been argued. And some peoples will resist for a very long time, like the Mapuche who will hold out ... until the independence of Chile (1818)!


- P. Boucheron (dir), History of the world in the 15th century, Fayard, 2009.

- S. Gruzinski, The Destiny of the Aztec Empire, Gallimard, 1995.

- C-F, Baudez, Les Mayas, Les Belles Lettres, 2009.

- H. Trocmé, J. Rovet, Birth of Modern America (16th-19th century), Hachette, 2005.

- H. Favre, Les Incas, PUF, 1984.

- E. Taladoire, B. Faugère-Kalfon, Pre-Columbian Archeology and Art: Mesoamerica, Ecole du Louvre, 1995.

- C. Bernand, S. Gruzinski, History of the New World volume 1: from discovery to conquest, Fayard, 2002.

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