In 1450, North America, Europe, and Africa were each home to complex societies with their own distinctive cultures. But their histories were about to collide, bringing vast changes to all three continents. European voyagers sailing in the wake of Christopher Columbus set in motion one of the most momentous developments in world history: sustained contact among Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans in dozens of distinct colonial settings. Before the arrival of Europeans, a wide range of complex Native American societies claimed the continent as their own. Although colonization brought profound change, it did not erase what had come before because Native American societies interacted with colonizers from the beginning. They shaped colonial enterprise in important ways, enabling some forms of colonization while preventing others.
Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans were surprisingly similar in many ways, though the differences among them were important as well. Their distinctive ideas about gods and the spirit world informed their political systems and animated their approaches to trade and warfare. Whether they met in peace or war — or whether peaceful interactions quickly turned violent — Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans viewed one another through lenses that were shaped by these ideas.
Period Perspectives: Contact between Europeans and the natives of America touched off a trans-Atlantic trade in animals, plants, and germs known as the Columbian Exchange. This trade altered the way people around the globe lived and thought. Within a hundred years, Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers developed colonies using natives and enslaved Africans for labor in agriculture and mining precious metals.Natives and Africans resisted oppression by maintaining elements of their cultures. The Spanish and the Portuguese were quickly followed to the Americas by the French and the Dutch, and later by the English.
Alternate View: Until the mid-20th century, most historians viewed Columbus and European explorers and settlers as great adventurers who founded colonies that developed into modern democracies. However, in recent years, historians have highlighted the vibrant and diverse native cultures that existed in the Americas before the arrival of Columbus, and how European diseases and violence destroyed so much of these cultures. The native population declined by 90 percent after the arrival of Europeans. To demonstrate this greater emphasis on native culture, historians often begin this period in 1491 rather than 1492.
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