At this point, traditional histories jump directly to European colonization of the “New World”. Of course, that new world had its own history. Due to European colonization, the civilizations outside Eurasia have not directly left as much of a lasting legacy. However, colonization is a two-way influence. We can’t fully understand colonialism and imperialism without studying the subject peoples.
B. The Americas
Ancient modes of travel did not enable Europeans to penetrate Africa. Besides the forbidding Sahara, the west coast of Africa was non-navigable because currents only permitted southward sailing. The only sub-Saharan points of contact with ancient civilizations were at the Nile River and Africa’s east coast. That contact germinated the sub-continent’s earliest state, the Nubian kingdom.
The Nubians lived along the Nile in present Sudan. A Nubian dynasty took brief control of Egypt and ruled as pharaohs. The Nubian culture survived until 350, long enough to be reached by Christian monks. The subsequent Axum kingdom remained Christian, as did Ethiopia, which arose nearby in the Middle Ages. This unique pocket of Christianity was isolated from Europe for a millennium. The Sahel is the region where the western Sahara meets the savannah. This region’s greatest resources were salt mines in the Sahara and gold mines to the south. The salt / gold trade accelerated and expanded after Saharans domesticated the camel around the 3rd century. 2 Civilization developed on the Niger River between the mines. In the Middle Ages, the Sahel was dominated by the Mali and other empires.
The best-known personage of this era was Mansa Musa, the 14th century Mali Emperor. Bandits on trade routes were a serious problem in his time, and he brought law and order. 3 He founded a university and brought new architecture to Mali. Outside of Africa, Musa made Mali famous with his pilgrimage to Mecca. He was accompanied by a caravan of 60,000 richly dressed citizens, thousands of camels, and enough gold to depress Egypt’s gold market. 4 Mali was the second largest empire in the world at the time, 5 and according to some metrics Mansa Musa was the richest man in world history. 6
From the 9th century onward, Africa was strongly influenced by Arab culture. For the most part, Arabs penetrated Africa peacefully as traders and scholars. 8 Muslims had a monopoly on the African market, blocking European access. Traders were enticed by Africa’s gold as well as ivory, copper, and slaves. 9 For West Africans, the most treasured Arabian commodity was the war horse. 10 Islam itself had mixed success in Africa. Urban elites took to the new religion, but most kings could not convert their rural subjects.
Small independent states continued to rise and fall throughout sub-Saharan Africa without a dominant empire. 11 This was the Africa that Europeans encountered in the 15th century.
Both American cradles of civilization were conquered by upstart tribes in the 15th century. The Pacific South American Inca Empire became one of the world’s largest empires in its time. Aztecs (who called themselves Mexica) ruled the smaller Mesoamerican Empire. Coincidentally, these two tribes ascended within a decade of each other. Since neither the Aztecs nor the Incas had an ancient history, each tribe adopted the culture it dominated.
Olmec influences still endured throughout Mesoamerica, from the ballgame to pyramid temples 12 and a pantheon of animalistic gods. 13 The most iconic deity was Quetzalcoatl, the benevolent feathered serpent. In the 1st millennium, the Mayan civilization had been the most advanced. Mayan civilization was reminiscent of ancient Greece, a plurality of warring-but-trading city-states with unusually high cultural development. In addition to their famous astronomical calendar, they were one of the few civilizations to use the number zero.
Human sacrifice became a notorious hallmark of Mesoamerican culture. The Aztecs took up this ritual with great zeal. It served religious purposes such as feeding the sun so he could continue to rise and shine. 14 Mayan and Aztec sacrifices were violent ordeals; priests would commonly decapitate the victim or cut out his heart. Most victims were prisoners of war from nearby tribes, making the Aztecs a fearsome neighbor. On the more civil side, the Aztecs are also known for centralizing their educational system 15 and engineering major water works. 16
Andean culture remained similar to the Norte Chico civilization, with an economy centered on llamas and potatoes. The Incas added an administrative structure, as they had thousands of kilometers of coastline to govern. They integrated numerous road systems and employed a network of runners to convey messages orally. As the Incas themselves were a small ruling minority, they appointed local leaders in their numerous provinces. Provinces were further divided into family groups, each responsible for a certain amount of agricultural product and / or labor for the state. 17 Materially, metal working was more highly developed here than further north. Incan masonry skills are still on display at Machu Picchu, a palace built without mortar. The Inca, too, practiced human sacrifice, albeit a much quieter form. The Andes are subject to climate extremes, earthquakes, and volcanoes. To mollify the gods, Inca sometimes sent them their own children. Several mummified children have been found high in the mountains and can now be seen in museums.
Civilization had not yet touched everyone by 1500. Many people continued to live Paleolithic lifestyles, some farming but not yet urbanized, and others still hunting.
South of the Sahel, most of Africa was inhabited by peoples speaking the Bantu family of languages. Originating in western equatorial Africa, over the last few millennia Bantu migrated eastward and southward into Africa’s interior. 18 Without strong states, they were easily exploited. African kingdoms enslaved Bantu prisoners of war since ancient times. 19 The increase of Arab wealth created high demand for these slaves. Since at least the 7th century, millions of Africans were exported to Arabs and Asians in international trade of an unprecedented scale. 20
Hundreds of tribes spanned the Americas, from the Arctic Eskimos to the nearly Antarctic Ona. A large North American economic zone, the Mississippian Culture, once ranged from Florida to Wisconsin. It was characterized by abundant agriculture, river trade, earthworks and temples, fairly large towns, priestly chiefdoms, and class structure. Mississippian settlements scattered into small tribes after 1350 for unknown reasons. 21 Eastern tribes warred regularly. Some started to coalesce into powerful alliances before European settlers arrived. The Iroquois Confederacy (present New York) was a union of five tribes formed for internal peace, which then proceeded to conquer its neighbors. It had a sophisticated (oral) constitution with republican representation, two centuries before the US version. 22
East of the Andes, the Amazon rainforest was home to infamous headhunters and cannibals. The Caribs were a seafaring tribe who settled and gave their name to the Caribbean Sea. Nearby at the Isthmus of Panama were the Muisca, expert goldsmiths whose women specialized in salt mining.
Australia was the only continent untouched by farming or ranching until modern times. As far as can be told, aboriginal life was much the same 500 as 5,000 years ago. Asian island hoppers had made it to Melanesia (northeast of Australia) by 1000 BCE. Migration then continued in small boats to islands as remote as Hawaii and Easter Island by 1000. Hawaiian culture, famous for surfing, was also unique for allowing open homosexual relationships. 23 Around 1200, Maori people discovered New Zealand – the last spot on Earth settled by man.
Back to Section 3.V: The “Middle Ages”
Top of this page, Section 3.VI: Outside Eurasia
Continue to Section 3.VII: The European Age
- Machu Picchu photo by Martin St-Amant (S23678), CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:80_-Machu_Picchu–Juin_2009-_edit.2.jpg (accessed and archived 10/15/19). ↩
- Mark Kurlansky, Salt: A World History, Penguin Books (USA, 2003), Ch. 2, https://books.google.com/books?id=GhpNc1YU6wsC&q=camel#v=onepage&q=camel&f=false (accessed and saved 9/29/19). ↩
- Florence Lemoine, “Mansa Musa”, Lives and Legacies: An Encyclopedia of People who Changed the World: Government Leaders, Military Rulers, and Political Activists, ed. David Del Testa, Oryx Press (2001), p. 116, https://books.google.com/books?id=vSwi2TYabS4C&pg=PA116#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed and saved 9/29/19). ↩
- al-Umari, Masalik al-absar fi mamalik al-amsar (1338), translated into English as “Pathways of Visions in the Realm of Metropolises” in Levitzion and Hopkins (eds.), Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Cambridge University Press (1981), pp. 269 – 273. The cited excerpt is reprinted at http://www.bu.edu/africa/outreach/k_o_mali/ (accessed and saved 9/29/19, archived 10/15/19). ↩
- Ase Berit and Rolf Strandskogen, “Mansa Musa (Kankan Musa)”, Lifelines in World History Vol. 2: The Medieval World, Routledge (2015), p. 182, https://books.google.com/books?id=wHqsBwAAQBAJ&pg=PA182 (accessed and saved 9/29/19). ↩
- Brian Warner, “The 25 Richest People Who Ever Lived – Inflation Adjusted”, Celebrity Net Worth (4/14/14), http://www.celebritynetworth.com/articles/entertainment-articles/25-richest-people-lived-inflation-adjusted/ (accessed and saved 9/29/19, archived 10/15/19). ↩
- African civilizations map by Jeff Israel (ZyMOS) and Monsieur Fou, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:African-civilizations-map-imperial.png (accessed, saved, and archived 10/15/19). ↩
- Patricia and Fredrick McCissack, The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songhay: Life in Medieval Africa, Henry Holt and Company (1994, Kindle eBook edition 2016), locations 242 – 254. ↩
- John Haywood, Atlas of Past Times, Borders Press (2003) p. 100. ↩
- P. James Oliver, Mansa Musa and the Empire of Mali (Kindle eBook edition, 2013), p. 20. ↩
- Alexander Kent and Peter Britton, “Africa 1453 CE”, TimeMaps, https://www.timemaps.com/history/africa-1453ad/ (accessed and saved 9/29/19, archived 10/15/19). ↩
- Bamber Gascoigne, The Maya, Aztecs, Incas and Conquistadors: a Brief Introduction, HistoryWorld Ltd (Kindle eBook edition, 2011), locations 60 – 75. ↩
- Michael Coe, “The Olmec heartland: evolution of ideology” in Robert J. Sharer and David C. Grove (ed), Regional Perspectives on the Olmec, Cambridge University Press (1989) p. 71. ↩
- The editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Huitzilopochtli”, Encyclopedia Britannica (1998 – 2015), https://www.britannica.com/topic/Huitzilopochtli (accessed, saved, and archived 10/05/19). ↩
- Gascoigne (2011), op. cit. at location 370. ↩
- Barbara Mundy, “Water and the Aztec Landscape in the Valley of Mexico”, Mexicolore (3/24/12), http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/water-in-valley-of-mexico (accessed and saved 10/16/16, archived 10/15/19) ↩
- Staff writer, “Economy of the Inca Empire”, Boston University / Peru Cultural Society, http://www.discover-peru.org/inca-economy-society/ (accessed and saved 10/23/16, archived 10/15/19). ↩
- James Newman, The Peopling of Africa, Yale University Press (1997), pp. 140 ff, https://books.google.com/books?id=pDjlC1ws158C&pg=140 (accessed and saved 10/05/19). ↩
- Akosua Perbi, “Slavery and the Slave Trade in Pre-Colonial Africa”, 4/05/01, http://www.latinamericanstudies.org/slavery/perbi.pdf pp. 1 – 2 (accessed and saved 10/22/16, archived 10/16/19). ↩
- Tunde Fatunde, “Scholars focus on the Arab trans-Saharan slave trade”, University World News, Issue 217 (4/13/12), http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120413180645205 (accessed and saved 10/22/16, archived 10/16/19). ↩
- LaDonna Brown, “Mysteries of the Mounds: The Abrupt Decline” (video), Chickasaw.TV, https://www.chickasaw.tv/history-timeline/video/mysteries-of-the-mounds-the-abrupt-decline (accessed 10/23/16, archived 10/16/19). ↩
- Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., 500 Nations, Alfred E. Knopf publishers (New York, 1994), pp. 44 – 53. ↩
- William Kornblum, Sociology in a Changing World, 9ed, Wadsworth Cengage Learning (2011), p. 165, https://books.google.com/books?id=DtKcG6qoY5AC&pg=PA189 (accessed 1/04/17). ↩
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