Some Europeans ventured out on unknown oceans in order to find trading routes to areas where spices and silver were to be obtained. The first to do this were the Spanish and the Portuguese. They persuaded the Pope to give them the exclusive right to rule over any new regions they might locate. Christopher Columbus, an Italian, sponsored by the rulers of Spain, sailed west in 1492, and thought that the lands he had reached were ‘the Indies’ (India and countries east of India about which he had read in the Travels of Marco Polo). Later exploration indicated that the ‘Indians’ of the ‘New World’ actually belonged to different cultural groups and were not part of Asia. Two types of culture were to be found in the Americas. There were small subsistence economies in the Caribbean region and in Brazil. There were also powerful monarchical systems based on well-developed agriculture and mining. These, like the Aztecs and Mayas of central America and the Incas of Peru, also had monumental architecture. The exploration and later the settlement of South America were to have disastrous consequences for the native people and their cultures. It also marked the beginning of the slave trade, with Europeans selling slaves from Africa to work in plantations and mines in the Americas.
European conquest of the people of America was accompanied by the ruthless destruction of their manuscripts and monuments. It was only in the late nineteenth century that anthropologists began to study these cultures. Still later, archaeologists found the ruins of these civilisations. The Inca city of Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911. Recently, photographs taken from the air have shown traces of many cities now covered by forest. By contrast, we know the European side of the encounters in great detail. The Europeans who went to the Americas kept log-books and diaries of their journeys. There are records left by officials and Jesuit missionaries. Europeans wrote about their ‘discovery’ of the Americas, and when histories of the countries of America were written, these were in terms of European settlements, with little reference to the local people.
People have been living in North and South America and nearby islands for thousands of years, and many migrations from Asia and from the South Sea Islands have taken place over time. South America was (and still is, in parts) densely forested and mountainous, and the Amazon, the world’s largest river, flows through miles of dense forest. In Mexico in central America, there were densely settled areas of habitation along the coast and in the plains, while elsewhere villages were scattered over forested areas.