Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

An indigenous person of Central and South America; the indigenous people of North America are sometimes called Amerindians, but are usually referred to as Native Americans. Amerindians were formerly classified as a major branch of the Mongoloid peoples but are now described as a distinct racial group. They were the inhabitants of the New World at the time of the first European exploration in the late 15th century. Their forebears came from north‐eastern Asia, most probably taking advantage of low sea levels during the last Ice Age to cross the Bering Strait on land. The earliest certain evidence suggests that people were in the Americas by 15,000 years ago but an earlier date seems increasingly likely. Recent controversial archaeological finds in Mexico, Chile, Brazil, and elsewhere suggest a human presence as early as 30,000 or more years ago. There could have been several separate colonizations; the Inuits (Eskimos) and Aleuts (inhabitants of the Aleutian Islands) are the descendants of the most recent one, within the past 10,000 years. The first colonizers brought little more than simple stone tools and perhaps domesticated dogs for hunting. As hunters and gatherers they spread quickly south; hunting the plentiful game using fine stone projectile points such as those of the Clovis tradition.

The cultural development of Amerindians provides an interesting comparison with the Old World. Agriculture, which started developing 7000 or more years ago, was based on maize, squash, and beans, with manioc being grown in tropical forest regions. With no suitable animals to domesticate, apart from the llama and the guinea‐pig, and no draught animals to pull the plough, the development of more mixed farming was gradual. In the Andes, an advanced metallurgical technology developed from 1000 bc. Complex societies developed in many areas, which grew into sophisticated civilizations, for example, the Aztecs and Incas, but most collapsed after the arrival of the conquistadores and other European explorers in the 16th century.

Subjects: World History.

Reference entries

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.