Atlantic History Comparative Indigenous History of the Americas
Yanna Yannakakis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 January 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0173


The Atlantic world as an organizing concept for the history of the region bounded by Europe, Africa, and the Americas from the age of exploration to the age of revolution that often takes Europe as its starting point and fractures along the lines of the North (British) and South (Iberian) Atlantic. An important critique concerns the degree to which Atlantic history is a repackaging of the narrative of European imperial expansion into the Americas and the political and territorial expropriation of native peoples. At the broadest level the historiography of America’s native peoples tends to be organized along geographic lines—North America (including borderlands), Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and South America (primarily the Andes but with growing interest in Amazonia)—without much explicit reference to the Atlantic world paradigm. However, there are points of interest that stretch across these separate traditions and that resonate with themes in Atlantic history, such as empire, culture contact, flow of ideas, movement of peoples, systems of labor and exchange, construction of racial ideologies, and making of hybrid identities. Undergirding these historical emphases is a shift away from a view of native people as victims in their encounters with Europeans and toward a consideration of them as active historical agents who participated in the making of a “new world,” even if it was on terms that were ultimately unfavorable to them. Emphasis on native agency has arisen from distinct traditions in regionally based literatures. The “new Indian history” (North America), the “new philology” (Mesoamerica), and Marxist historiography of the Andes, all of which emerged in the 1980s, put native people at the center of historical narratives and argued for their indispensability in the making of the societies in which they lived although with very different theoretical and methodological approaches. The trend toward native agency found institutional support in the American Society for Ethnohistory and its journal, Ethnohistory, both established in 1954 to promote interdisciplinary research on the native peoples of the Americas. More recently the society has tried to bridge the divides among scholarship of North America, Mesoamerica, and South America though with limited success. Yet ethnohistorians have clearly succeeded in making indigenous history a central aspect of the history of the Americas and in reorienting the narrative as a whole. Although there is seminal Spanish-, Portuguese-, and French-language literature on native peoples in the Americas, the historiography that is most broadly comparative and that engages most fully with Atlantic world themes is generally published in English. For these reasons and for the sake of a coherent overview, the citations here are confined to English-language historiography.

General Overviews

There are no general overviews of the history of indigenous people that treat the entire Atlantic world. Each of the major geographic regions—North America, Mesoamerica, and South America—was home to diverse native societies with distinct forms of political and social organization. Despite the difficulties posed by generalization, a few synthetic works have emerged, each bearing the mark of the scholarship that is specific to these broad regions. In the case of Mesoamerica, Carmack, et al. 2007 integrates the histories of Mesoamerica’s many ethnic groups, including the Nahua, Maya, Mixtec, and Zapotec, through the analytic lens of Mesoamerica as “world system.” The authors argue that on the eve of contact with Europe the powerful city-states of Mesoamerica were bound in a complex web of interaction involving trade and empire building that situated some regions at the center and others at the periphery. This world system set the stage for the confrontation with Spanish invaders and provided the foundation for colonial society. These assumptions run through the new philology, an approach to Mesoamerican history that emphasizes cultural continuities in the face of Spanish colonization based on analysis of indigenous language sources produced by native people during the colonial period. Andrien 2001 provides a synthesis of Andean history that takes the Inca Empire as its starting point and that situates pre-Columbian Andean institutions and practices, such as “reciprocity,” as the basis for colonial society. Despite continuities, the relentless labor demands of colonial mining transformed the Andes in profound ways. Scholars have argued therefore that colonial society in the Andes was more exploitative and protocapitalist than in Mesoamerica. The synthesis in Andrien 2001 incorporates both the economically driven historiography and the more recent culturally driven historiography dealing with questions of colonial consciousness and identity. Richter 2003 synthesizes the new Indian history, rewriting the narrative of early North America from the perspective of native people and with the assumption of their centrality in its making. Daniel K. Richter challenges long-held assumptions and reconsiders historical events, figures, and sources. His work does not, however, treat the history of native people west of the Mississippi or the Spanish borderlands, areas of North American native historiography that have boomed in the early 21st century. Into this void steps Calloway 2003, which synthesizes ethnohistorical research with the author’s own empirical work to present a masterful overview of the history of native people in what would become the western United States.

  • Andrien, Kenneth J. Andean Worlds: Indigenous History, Culture, and Consciousness under Spanish Rule, 1532–1825. Diálogos. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2001.

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    This overview, appropriate for undergraduates, synthesizes the history of the indigenous people of the Andes with a strong emphasis on Peru, focusing on themes such as preconquest Inca history, Spanish conquest, colonial administration, economy, labor, social organization, religion, and the 18th-century Andean rebellions.

  • Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. History of the American West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

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    Calloway presents a native-centered history of the American West from 500 BCE to 1804, analyzing how native peoples jostled with expanding European empires for regional power. Of particular note is his argument that the 18th century rather than the 19th was formative of social and cultural relations in the West.

  • Carmack, Robert M., Janine L. Gasco, and Gary H. Gossen, eds. The Legacy of Mesoameríca: History and Culture of a Native American Civilization. 2d ed. Exploring Cultures. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.

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    This overview, appropriate for undergraduates, synthesizes the history of the Mesoamerican culture area, from its foundations to the early 21st century. Unit 2, “Colonial Mesoamerica,” coauthored by Louise M. Burkhart, engages most fully with Atlantic history themes, such as conquest, colonial society, and indigenous literature produced during the period.

  • Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003.

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    In this narrative of early American history from the perspective of native people, Richter argues that prior to 1763 native and European societies moved along parallel tracks rather than on a path toward inevitable conflict. After Britain won the French and Indian War, racial attitudes hardened, and conflict became inevitable.

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