Atlantic History Pre-Contact America
Kathleen DuVal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 January 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 10 May 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0045


People lived in the Americas for at least ten thousand years before the arrival of Europeans and Africans beginning in 1492. This history is both important in its own right and relevant to the interactions between the Americas and the Atlantic World that emerged in the 16th century. Because most precolonial Americans did not have written languages and because their oral histories either were destroyed or much changed by the devastation of colonization, most information about the precolonial Americas comes from archaeology, combined with information gleaned from early European documents. Increasingly, historians are integrating the “pre-contact” period (which has also been called “prehistory”) into a longer version of the history of the Americas, cognizant of continuities as well as ruptures in the 15th and 16th centuries. This entry seeks to provide readings in English by historians familiar with archaeology and by archaeologists writing in ways accessible to historians and general readers. Bibliographies within individual works will lead researchers to more works in particular fields, including in languages besides English and by archaeologists and anthropologists writing for specialists.

General Overviews

These works provide overviews of the Americas before 1492. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas (1996–2000) is a sweeping collection on a vast number of topics throughout the Americas. Mann 2005 is written for a popular audience and would work well in the classroom. The other books are written for scholarly audiences, but not just for those trained in archaeology. Bruhns and Stothert 1999 focuses on women, giving a useful introduction to the continent through the lens of gender. For introductions, see Confer 2008 on North America, Florescano 1994 and Knight 2002 on Mexico, and Bruhns 1994 on South America. Arkush and Allen 2006 employs a comparative approach to studying ancient warfare. For other general treatments, see Textbooks and Surveys.

  • Arkush, Elizabeth N., and Mark W. Allen, eds. The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

    A comparative study of warfare and its social and political effects in the precolonial Americas as well as other continents.

  • Bruhns, Karen Olsen. Ancient South America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    Accessible and readable introduction to precolonial South America.

  • Bruhns, Karen Olsen, and Karen E. Stothert. Women in Ancient America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.

    Valuable survey of women and gender in the precolonial Americas starting around 10,000 BCE.

  • Trigger, Bruce G, et al. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996–2000.

    Ten-book reference collection with volumes on North, Central, and South America (including the Caribbean). Each book edited by scholars in the relevant field.

  • Confer, Clarissa W. Daily Life in Pre-Columbian Native America. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008.

    Basic but useful accounts of how people lived in various regions of North America in the 15th century.

  • Florescano, Enrique. Memory, Myth, and Time in Mexico: From the Aztecs to Independence. Translated by Albert G. Bork and Kathryn R. Bork. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

    Although this book’s content goes as far as Mexican independence, most of it deals with the cultures of Mexico before the Spanish.

  • Knight, Alan. Mexico. Vol. 1, From the Beginning to the Spanish Conquest. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    This first volume in a projected three-volume set, which will span the entire history of Mexico, provides both a useful overview of the long history of precolonial Mexico and a model for integrating precolonial and postcolonial history.

  • Mann, Charles C. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus. New York: Knopf, 2005.

    Vivid account of the late-15th-century Americas written by a journalist who is well-informed on current archaeology.

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