1492 was the year that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Being such, it is imperative to explore the major cultures of people who would be affected by the implications of European exploration of the New World. These groups, consisting of Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans, were ultimately brought together via the effects of the European’s voyages to the New World and Africa and development of the Americas; flourishing, trans-Atlantic slave trade of West Africans; and international markets that would soon be part of a vast network connecting the Old World to the New World. As one will find through an investigation of the religious, familial, political, and economical realms of the distinct populations to be illustrated in this survey, there were many different attributes that distinguished each society from each other. However, there were also aspects to be shared amongst these disparate peoples as well.
Beginning with religious matters, it is fit to begin with an examination of native populations of the New World. These peoples were practicing a number of spiritual religions that, while varying from tribe to tribe, largely involved the recognition of nature, icons, as well as the belief in gods. The Aztecs, whose people were flourishing in Tenochtitlan in 1492, were adherent to “sacrificing untold thousands of men and women to ensure agricultural fertility and the daily return of the sun,” while the last remaining vestiges of Mayans would extol their beliefs in religious centers (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 9-10). Native Americans living in the present-day United States also had various means of religious worship and adherence. While the New York-region Iroquois based their rituals and religious practices on agricultural cycles, some of the remaining Mississippian region peoples, such as the Natchez, greatly revered the sun and utilized idols.
West Africans, in 1492 on the cusp of becoming entangled in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, practiced a variety of religions. These religious followings including animism, and those which recognized a “remote creator god”; a sizable sum of West Africans were Islamic, having “been converted […] By Arab missionaries,” (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 22).
The Europeans, who, in 1492, were about to expand their reach to the New World via Christopher Columbus’ first voyage, followed Christianity, specifically Catholicism. The Roman Catholic Church, who at the time was a leading institution in Western Europe, vastly touched society through its countless churches and strong hierarchal leadership consisting of priests, bishops, cardinals, and the pope.
As broadly different as these perspectives on religion are, amongst these varied followings there exists a number of parallels. Primarily, it is important to recognize that, while practices certainly differ, both the Islamic Africans’ and Christian Europeans’ theologies are monotheistic, and remain to be among the leading religions in the world (Britannica). Furthermore, all three societies had, at points either then current or already in history, experienced practices of animism. Most importantly, though, is that at the heart of each society, despite their differences in religious practices, were the common elements of religion and spiritualism being significant aspects of life.
Family life among these three groups in 1492 present another point for examination. In the case of many Native American family structures, such as the Algonquians, men were hunters and fishers; women were integral as farmers. Farming women played an especially vital role in the Iroquois, which upheld the matrilineal system, whereby mothers would hand down farming rights to their daughters. Furthermore, with the help of her brothers, mothers were usually at the helm of child-rearing duties.
African households usually saw the men prepare farm land while the women took on the role of planting crops and harvesting. Furthermore, African men and women belong to gender-based “secret societies,” where their respective members would be exposed to sexual education, participate in initiation ceremonies, and be subjected to enforcement of conduct and morality codes (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 22). Slavery already proliferating in Western Africa in the early 1490s, children whose parents were slaves were normally free, however, both parent and child “were usually considered members of their [enslaving] society,” (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 23).
In stark contrast to the matrilineal societies as seen in groups such as the Iroquois, European households were firmly led by fathers, many of whom would practice primogeniture, a system through which land would usually be granted to the first-born son. Most families were peasants, and these households saw contributions from all able family members. Life for these peasant families was taxing, and many found it difficult even to subsist. Their lives were literally based on the agricultural cycle, for while farm work usually occurred in warmer months and harvesting and celebrations during the cooler, even births and deaths happened in greater frequency during certain months. Many babies were born in late winter and early autumn, and deaths often were clustered during the peak of winter and late summer, as epidemics and disease claimed many lives.
It is important to note that, for the contrasts among family life within these varied societies, there were many shared facets as well. Namely, Native Americans and Europeans did live according to the farming cycles and the seasons. These agricultural families invested much of their lives to keeping up the household, tilling, plowing, planting, and harvesting-indeed central elements to the survival of these groups. While European women did have functional roles in their households and on farms, many Native American cultures and West Africans particularly had similar gender structures, where women in both societies held an especially important role. In both scenarios, females were normally responsible for planting crops and harvesting produce.
Political matters in these societies are varied indeed. The political scene among the natives of those in the New World included such social structures as seen in the Tenochtitlan Aztecs, where a hierarchal system was followed. These people were mainly ruled by priests and “warrior nobles,” who even went so far as to utilize many non-Aztec people for slave labor. Generally, though, tribes in North American did not necessarily follow such political models. Clans of people, “groups of related families with a common identity and a real or legendary ancestor,” were largely self-governing, being led by clan elders and chiefs (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 10). These clans, which were devoid of social hierarchies, were led into battles by the elders and chiefs, and were instructed to marry outside of their own clan to avoid “inbreeding” (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 10).
West Africans primarily lived in “hierarchal, socially stratified societies ruled by princes,” (Henretta, Brody, and Dumenil 21). Of the West Africans who did not live under the control of princes, many were ordered as to family and bloodlines.
European political structure during 1492 was by and large based on the rule of kings, who held most of the authority, controlled much of the land, headed military issues, and benefitted grandly from peasant labor. Kings, however, did not hold exclusive power. Nobles, while waning in control compared to decades earlier, held a considerable share of property, and oversaw many of the struggling peasants. These ruling bodies, along with the tight social structure of families, communities, and the Catholic Church, steadily guided much of Western Europe.
Despite the differences between the various political structures of the three continents, there are corresponding elements to be analyzed. Principally, societies such as those of the Aztecs, Western Europe, and even many parts of Western Africa, were based on stratifications. Power was conveyed by figures such as kings in Europe, nobles in Aztec culture and Western Europe, and princes in West Africa. North American native people, particularly “those of the woodland Indians of Eastern North America,” share similarities with some West African societies in that both peoples “dwelled in stateless societies organized by household and lineage,” (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 21-22).
Finally, an analysis of thee three major cultures as they existed in 1492 would not be complete without consideration of the economic picture. Regarding New World peoples, the Aztecs of Tenochtitlan, a region of more than 200,000 people, led a very complex economy indeed. It was a strong and vigorous society replete with artists, merchants handling commodities from textiles to gold, and well-established trading routes that “crisscrossed the empire,” (Henretta, Brody, Dumenil 10). The economies of the northern natives were rather different from that of the Aztecs to the south. Unlike the elaborate goods sold in metropolitan Tenochtitlan, the basis of economies for peoples such as the Iroquois and the Cherokees was largely agricultural. Furthermore, Iroquois traded hand crafts and used wampum for currency, and the Cherokees were deft game hunters (Encarta).
European influence had already entered West Africa by 1492, introducing Western trade, largely based on produce, in the region. However, another market that had begun flourishing by the end of the fifteenth century was that which involved slaves. Arabs, Europeans, and Africans themselves had, by 1492, begun their involvement with African slaves, many being “held in bondage as security for debts; others [being] sold into servitude by their kin, often in exchange for food in times of famine,
While the Portuguese, a leading maritime trade force, were exploring Western Africa, and Spains’s Christopher Columbus had begun his commissioned voyages for riches in the New World, the rest of Europe’s economy, too, was on the verge of expanding. Though many of Europe’s poorer, agricultural regions were still based on the local exchange of crop harvests and practical goods, other parts of the continent, namely Italy, were at the forefront of the Renaissance, a profound intellectual, artistic, and economical movement that would eventually filter throughout Western European society. The Renaissance embodied the proud and enthusiastic reflection upon Greek and Roman intellect, connections to trade networks that reached from Asia to Africa and eventually to the Americas, and exposure to the cultures and thinking of diverse regions throughout much of the world.
Perhaps one of the most significant conclusions to draw from the state of the economies of the three continents in 1492 is that these distinct regions were already on a crossroads. For the most part, the complex trade dynamic involving the New World, Europe, and Africa was in its infancy, for Christopher Columbus and his crew had only just begun to introduce through the landmark 1492 trans-Atlantic voyage this particular tri-continental economical body. However, Europe had already well established trade with Africa by the early 1490s, and therefore these two peoples had, in a sense, a quasi-symbiotic economic relationship at the time. In 1492, some native people in the New World, particularly the Aztecs, also had a dynamic economy. Other natives, such as the Iroquois and Cherokee peoples, had economies largely based on the exchange of agricultural goods, which is similar in nature to the structure of European peasant economies that also were primarily reliant on the local markets of produce and functional goods.
As exhibited through this examination of Native American, African, and European cultures in 1492, while there were diverse perspectives on religion, family life, politics, and economical structures, throughout these three regions of the world, there were some common elements, too. For, as is seen during what was to become the European-led renovation of the New World, and broad utilization of African slaves for the more than three centuries to come, there were indeed vast, pervasive conflicts between the many diverse people and cultures that would play major roles in the development of the Americas.
The incredible and painful discords amongst the Africans, Europeans, and Native Americans during many of their struggles both with and against each other during the early history of the New World were protracted, often bloody, and scarcely resulting in mutual successes from the onset. However, the early strife, battles, toil, and sacrifices felt by all three groups would eventually lead to the development of many rich and diverse cultures and nations that abound from the tip of South America to the Northern Slope in Alaska. Though, perhaps the grandest result of New World development is the inception of a strong, enduring nation that would take on the many faces, flavors, and facets of the globe that it leads: The United States of America.
“Cherokee.” Microsoft Encarta. 2006. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 21 January 2007
“Christianity.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 21 January 2007
Henretta, James A.; David Brody; and Lynn Dumenil. America: A Concise History. 3rd Ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006.
“Iroquois.” Microsoft Encarta. 2006. Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia. 21 January 2007