The name the Europeans gave to the continents may come from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer, but there is also a school of opinion that they were named by a family of fishermen and merchants from Bristol known as Ameryck (ap Meryck) who may have visited the seas off Newfoundland in 1481. They may have visited the Caribbean area also to bring back plants native to the area. (Evidence is based on Customs records from the British National Archives.) The Portuguese may have visited the northern waters even earlier. Columbus is believed to have traveled in a Portuguese ship to Greenland in 1477. The history of European contacts with the Americas is disputed, with Viking contacts the most likely, and there are signs that Columbus might not have been the first to reach the Caribbean, but was the first to make a politically significant contact.
The Americas contain the three main cultural strands of: the native Americans; the Europeans who arrived in the 15th century; and the Africans they brought as slaves.
The native cultures of the Americas included all human possibilities from the city cultures of Central America to hunter gatherers. Were there contacts between the New and Old worlds before Columbus? Viking contacts from the 9th to 14th centuries seem very likely. Earlier contacts are more problematic with disputed evidence leading to no conclusion. (See Speculations)
The Americas have been profoundly affected by the European invasion which began soon after Columbus's arrival in 1492. The native cultures remain but often almost invisible. They may have affected the political system in some Central American countries, such as Mexico. The Federal system of the United States may be an imitation of or inspired by the Iroquois political system.
In 1494 to prevent war between Spain and Portugal the Pope persuaded them by the treaty of Tordesillas to divide the world! between them. The Portuguese were supposed to get the east and the Spaniards the west. But they didn't know about the bulge of Brazil. The English, a fringe people, and the French were of course not supposed to get anything.
But the move of European interest from the east to the new lands to the west made England no longer a fringe.
The English colonies in North America were comparatively close together with communications between them. On independence they found it easier to cooperate than to remain separate. The people tended to be small farmers rather than aristocrats (except in the slave owning south).
The Spanish colonies in the south developed from many different centers. They often had no communications between each other. Communications had tended to be directly with Spain. Thus it was not surprising that when they became independent during the 19th century they remained separately independent. The Spaniards planted imitations of their own aristocratic society in which the rich had a contempt for trade and useful work and the majority were poor peasants kept in ignorance and powerlessness. This may be the biggest difference from the English colonies which produced the United States.
In New England settlers tended to be small and medium sized farmers who did their own work. Costa Rica is the example which shows this, as it was the only Spanish colony which was settled by small farmers, and is the only Latin state with an old functioning and peaceful democracy. Another difference was that the English colonies inherited English law, administered by juries of citizens rather than by judges appointed by an absolute monarch.
African culture is as pervasive as the first two. The influence of African religion, traditional beliefs and language, especially Yoruba, can be detected in all the countries to which Africans were brought. Much of the popular music of the United States, for example, can be decoded as derived from Yoruba religion.
Was there contact with Africa before the European arrival? The evidence is patchy and ambiguous. The Olmec heads of Central America look, superficially, African but nothing at all is known about the people who made them, or how they were made in very hard stone. Here is an article hinting at some connections.
Peter Watson - The Great Divide
The Great Divide: Nature and Human Nature in the Old World and the New
Great Divide: History and Human Nature in the Old World and the New
Last revised 18/03/12
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