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America's History in the Making

Mapping Initial Encounters

Theme 1

Early encounters between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans expanded existing trade practices, uniting previously isolated regions and initiating the Columbian Exchange.

Europe could not rival the sophistication of China’s cities or bureaucracies in the 1400s. The Muslim world, which included much of central and southern Europe and northern and western Africa, was arguably better governed and educated. Asians and East Africans were already carrying on an extensive trade with each other. But Western Europe’s emerging nation states were aggressive—taking risks and embracing innovation in search of greater wealth, power, and markets.

A desire for Asian spices and textiles drew the Portuguese south in the 1400s, along the shores of West Africa, where they traded for slaves and eventually made their way around the continent to India. Columbus hoped for a more direct route and made the first of four journeys to the Americas in 1492. His accidental landing in the Caribbean initiated what is now termed the Columbian Exchange, a sustained exchange of people and other organisms across the Atlantic Ocean.

The Columbian Exchange was facilitated by extensive Native American trade routes, which had predated Columbus by more than a thousand years. These trade routes connected major urban centers, such as Cahokia in Illinois and Etowah in Georgia, with other communities.

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