The New World refers to the western hemisphere, especially the Americas, which was almost entirely unknown to Europeans before the "age of discovery" beginning in the early 16th century. The Italian explorer Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) was one of the earliest, and the most well-known, of these European explorers; the first of his four famous voyages from Spain to the Americas began in 1492.
Sebastian Munster's Map of the New World, first published in 1540
A colorful map of what the German cartographer, Munster, and his contemporaries believed the Americas looked like during the European "age of discovery."
The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America, Mesoamerica, and South America as well as Greenland. There are almost as many terms for indigenous people in the Americas as there are geographic regions. For example, 'pueblos indígenas' is a common term in Spanish-speaking countries such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. 'Aborigen' is used in Argentina; 'Amerindian' is used in Guyana. Indigenous peoples are commonly known in Canada as Aboriginal peoples, which include First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples. Indigenous peoples of the United States are commonly known as Native Americans or American Indians, and Alaskan Natives.
Scientists believe that migrations of humans from Eurasia (the combined continental landmass of Europe and Asia) to the Americas first took place via Beringia, a land bridge which formerly connected the two continents across what is now the Bering Strait. The most recent migration probably took place around 12,000 years ago, but the earliest period remains somewhat of a mystery. These early Paleo-Indians soon spread throughout the continent, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally-distinct nations and tribes. According to the oral histories of many indigenous peoples of the Americas, they have been living there since their genesis, which is represented in a wide range of traditional creation stories.
While some indigenous peoples of the Americas were traditionally hunter-gatherers — and many, especially in Amazonia, still are — many groups practiced aquaculture and agriculture. The impact of their agricultural endowment to the world is a testament to their time and work in reshaping and cultivating the flora indigenous to the Americas. While some societies depended heavily on agriculture, others practiced a mix of farming, hunting, and gathering. In some regions, the indigenous peoples created monumental architecture, large-scale cities, chiefdoms (with hierarchies based on kinship), states, and empires. Many parts of the Americas are still populated by indigenous Americans, and some countries have sizable populations such as Belize, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Greenland, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru.
At least a thousand different indigenous languages are spoken in the Americas. Some, such as Quechua languages, Aymara, Guaraní, Mayan languages, and Nahuatl, count their speakers in millions. Many indigenous people also maintain aspects of their traditional cultural practices, including religion, social organization, and subsistence economies. Some indigenous peoples still live in relative isolation from Western society, and a few are still considered "uncontacted peoples."
Cultural practices in the Americas seem to have been shared mostly within geographical zones where unrelated peoples adopted similar technologies and social organizations. An example of such a cultural area is Mesoamerica, where millennia of coexistence and shared development among the peoples of the region produced a fairly homogeneous culture with complex agricultural and social patterns. Another well-known example is the North American plains where, until the 19th century, several Native American groups such as Blackfoot, Crow,and Sioux shared the traits of nomadic hunter-gatherers based primarily on buffalo hunting.
Indigenous visual arts traditions in the Americas span thousands of years, representing cultures from Mesoamerica to the Arctic. Visual arts by indigenous peoples of the Americas comprise a major category in world art history. Their contributions include pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculptures, basketry, carvings, and beadwork. Much of this artwork provides insight into the values, beliefs, and ceremonial rituals of early cultures of the Americas. In the following chapter, we will examine in detail the artworks of various indigenous groups throughout North and South America prior to 1300.
Mayan Funerary Urn
Ceramics such as this urn provide insight into the values, beliefs, and ceremonial rituals of early cultures of the Americas.