Before Columbus: 40 Captivating Historical Facts About the Pre-Columbian Americas

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1Mayan Codices

Mayan Codices

The Mayans had paper books (codices) that Spanish missionaries burned on arrived. This caused "much affliction" among the surviving Maya and only four Mayan codices survive today.

2. The 250,000 Native Arawaks were completely eradicated from Haiti less than 160 years after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Many poisoned their children to save them from the Spaniards. Columbus believed there were gold fields in Haiti. He ordered all natives 14 years or older to collect a certain amount of gold every three months, everyone who didn’t collect enough had their hands cut off. There was virtually no gold around; only a little dust in streams. Many natives fled and were consequently hunted down and killed by the Spaniards.

3. The Toltec civilization ruled over a small region of Mexico and it ended following a 4-year drought. One popular legend related to its fall is that Toltec king Huemac played a ball game against the Rain Deities and won. Instead of precious stones, the deities offered him young maize ears and maize leaves, but Huemac refused. What followed was a got a 4-year drought.

4. The Pre-Columbian Iron Age was caused by Japanese shipwrecks brought to the Pacific Northwest by the Kuroshio current. By the time Europeans arrived, tribes had been creating iron tools and weapons for years.

5. There was a pre-Columbian city just outside where St. Louis is now named Cahokia that was larger than London was in 1250 AD. Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippian culture, which developed advanced societies across much of what is now the Central and the Southeastern United States.

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6Paracas Elongated Skulls

Paracas Elongated Skulls

The Paracas was an Andean society which existed between 1200 B.C. and 100 B.C. One of the most notable characteristic of the Paracas was the cranial deformation. Excavations in Lima, Peru have revealed elongated skulls, which might be due to the custom of head binding which was observed by the royal classes.

7. The great bison belt was a tract of grassland that ran from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico around 9000 B.C. This allowed the bison to outlive other ice age animals and let them become the staple food of the Paleo-Indians who lived on the plains.

8. Polynesians may have traveled to the Americas in pre-Columbian times. Sweet potatoes originated from the Americas and were found in the islands when Captain Cook discovered them. The Maori word for sweet potato "kuumala," closely resembles Quechuan's word "kumara" for sweet potato.

9. The Pre-Columbian population of the Americas is estimated to have been 50-100 million people. 90% of the indigenous population died from diseases which were brought by Europeans, most of whom got infected and died without direct contact with the European. This sudden population decline fueled the legend of an empty continent ready to be seized by the Europeans.

10. The Inca created the most extensive pre-Columbian road network that was nearly 40,000 km long, even though they did not use the wheel nor had any horses. The roads were carefully planned and maintained. They were paved where necessary, had stairways, bridges and constructions such as retaining walls and a drainage system. Only 25% of the system remains visible today.

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11Muisca Rulers

Muisca Rulers

The Muisca people had two rulers (a "zipa" and a "zaque") and the line of succession was not patrilineal. The ruler's title was inherited by the ruler’s oldest nephew. Their reasoning behind this was that male parentage could be questionable, but the male ruler’s sister’s kids would definitely be of his blood.

12. The Mapuche of South America was one of the very few tribes who successfully resisted Spanish control, staying independent for over 300 years. They called the Spaniards "New Incas," because they had successfully resisted the Incan Empire before them as well. They were only subjugated in 1883.

13. The Olmec are largely viewed as the mother culture of Aztecs and Maya but they left no written works on their belief structures. So many interpretations on Olmec beliefs are largely based on interpretations of murals and artifacts.

14. The oldest known organized ball game dates to 1500 BC in Mesoamerica. Many people played for pure sport or gambling, but certain games also held religious significance, whereby the losing team would become human sacrifices.

15. Failure to learn the Mayan nixtamalization method of preparing corn lead to Pellagra epidemics in Europe, Africa, and the southern USA. Nixtamalization frees the amino acid Niacin. Nixtamalized corn and beans are a complete protein diet and the earliest evidence of nixtamalization is found in Mesoamerican equipment dating back to 1500 B.C. Corn thus became a staple food in Central America during this period.

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16Origin of Lacrosse

Origin of Lacrosse

Lacrosse has its origins in a tribal game played by eastern Woodlands Native Americans and by some Plain Indians tribes in what is now the United States of America and Canada. The game was extensively modified by European colonizers of North America to create its current form.

17. Vinland Map was once thought to have been a pre-Columbian map made during the Viking exploration of North America. It features a large landmass called Vinland, located in the Atlantic, which doesn’t actually exist. In 2018, after several investigations, researchers at the Yale University concluded that the map was a 20th century forgery.

18. Teotihuacan was the largest city anywhere in the Western Hemisphere before the 1400s. It had thousands of residential compounds and scores of pyramid temples, comparable to the largest pyramids of Egypt. It contains a massive central road and buildings but oddly, no military structures.

19. The Nazca culture of Peru, which existed 1000 years ago, is believed to have collapsed due to deforestation, resulting in floods that were severe enough to wipe their entire civilization out. They also built the Nazca Lines which are best seen from the air. In 1974, a man named Jim Woodman tested a theory that Nazca rode hot air balloons to view the Nazca lines. He built a balloon using 1000 year old weaving methods, filled it with smoke, and rode it upwards of 300 feet.

20. Paleo-Indians who are thought to be the earliest settlers of the Americas, (18,000-8,000 B.C.) hunted the Glyptodon (an armored mammal the size/weight of a Volkswagen Beetle) to extinction with stone tools.

21Muisca, Gold & El Dorado

Muisca, Gold & El Dorado

The Muisca people of ancient Mesoamerica had such an abundance of gold that it became their preferred material for handicrafts. The legend of El Dorado is also related to them. El Dorado was the name of a Muisca tribal chief who covered himself in Gold Dust and dived into a lake as part of a ritual. The story later morphed into one of a golden city in the center of a lake.

22. The Incan Empire lacked the use of wheeled vehicles, lacked the knowledge of iron and steel, and above all, they lacked a system of writing but were still able to construct one of the greatest imperial states in human history.

23. Execution by ritual torture was commonly carried out by Native tribes in the northeastern United States and Canada. The torture could continue for days and was conducted publicly in the captors' village, where the entire population (including children) would watch and participate.

24. The "Fuente Magna bowl" is an artifact discovered in Bolivia that is covered in Sumerian cuneiform writing. The bowl is over 4,000 years old and likely was brought to Bolivia by seafaring Sumerians, an incredible example of Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.

25. The oldest evidence of humans in the Americas was found in 2021. Ancient fossilized human footprints discovered in New Mexico are thought to be at least 21,000 years old, which pushes the time of human migration into the North America by at least 5,000 years earlier than previously accepted.

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