North and South America were hardly an empty wilderness when Europeans arrived. The hemisphere contained cities, roads, irrigation systems, extensive trade networks, and large structures such as the pyramid-temples whose beauty still inspires wonder. With a population close to 250,000, Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico, was one of the world’s largest cities. Its great temple, splendid royal palace, and a central market comparable to that of European capitals made the city seem “like an enchanted vision,” according to one of the first Europeans to encounter it. Further south lay the Inca kingdom, centered in modern-day Peru. Its population of perhaps 12 million was linked by a complex system of roads and bridges that extended 2,000 miles along the Andes mountain chain.

Map of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico, probably produced by a Spanish conquistador and published in 1524 in an edition of the letters of Heman Cortes. The map shows the city’s complex system of canals, bridges, and dams, with the Great Temple at the center. Gardens and a zoo are also visible.

When Europeans arrived, a wide variety of native peoples lived within the present borders of the United States. Indian civilizations in North America had not developed the scale, grandeur, or centralized organization of the Aztec and Inca societies to their south. North American Indians lacked the technologies Europeans had mastered, such as metal tools and machines, gunpowder, and the scientific knowledge necessary for longdistance navigation. No society north of Mexico had achieved literacy (although some made maps on bark and animal hides). They also lacked wheeled vehicles, since they had no domestic animals like horses or oxen to pull them. Their “backwardness” became a central justification for European conquest. But, over time, Indian societies had perfected techniques of farming, hunting, and fishing, developed structures of political power and religious belief, and engaged in far-reaching networks of trade and communication.

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