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From one continent to six: 200 - 20 million years ago

The reshaping of the surface of the earth, into the pattern now familiar to us, takes place between 200 and 20 million years ago.

First south America splits from Africa and drifts westwards (it is the snug fit between their coast lines which suggests the idea of continental drift to Alfred Wegener in 1912). Then Antarctica, India and Australia separate from Africa. Antarctica moves to the south, while India and Australia drift north and east.

Africa and India move slowly but forcefully towards Europe and Asia, reducing the Tethys Sea to its present-day remnant (the Mediterranean) and throwing up the Alps and the Himalayas from the force of the collision.

Finally north America splits from Europe and Asia (though remaining almost linked at its northern tip), thus forming the Atlantic ocean and completing the disposition of the continents as we know them.

Temporary bridges: 60,000 - 10,000 years ago

The Ice Ages play an essential part in mankind's advance from Asia into both Australia and America. The effect of an ice age is to lower the sea level by 100 metres and more. This narrows the gaps between many islands and sometimes even exposes a complete land ridge.

One such sunken ridge is the Sahul Shelf, under the largest stretch of sea between the Indonesian islands and Australia. Another lies between Siberia and Alaska.

The first Americans: 30,000 - 5000 years ago

During the most recent of the Ice Ages, lasting from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, an undersea ridge between Siberia and Alaska emerges from the sea. Known as the Bering Land Bridge, it lies partly south of the ice cap. It develops a steppe-like ecology of grasslands, grazed by large animals such as horses, reindeer and even mammoth.

Gradually, in many separate incursions, the hunter-gatherers of the Siberian steppes pursue their prey across the land bridge and into America. When the melting ice submerges the bridge, about 10,000 years ago, these northeast Asians become isolated as the aboriginal Americans.

The Siberian hunter-gatherers probably make their way along the north coast of Alaska and down through the valley of the Mackenzie river. Archaeological evidence shows that by about 15,000 years ago the central plains of America are widely inhabited. Traces of human activity at this time are preserved in the remarkable La Brea tar pit in Los Angeles. The glacial conditions further north mean that the central plains are at this time cool and moist.

During the next 5000 years, while the glacial period continues, humans penetrate far into South America.

The retreat of the ice caps (see Ice Ages) makes northern regions increasingly habitable both for large animals and for the humans who prey on them. By 8000 years ago hunter-gatherers have moved up the eastern side of the continent into Newfoundland and the prairie provinces of Canada.

From about 7000 years ago human groups adapt to the conditions of the northern coast of Canada, living mainly as hunters of sea mammals. They spread gradually eastwards along the edge of the Arctic Circle, eventually reaching Greenland. These hardiest of all human settlers survive today as the Eskimo (or, in their own name for themselves, inuit - meaning simply 'the people').

The first American farmers: 5000 - 2500 BC

The cultivation of crops in America begins in the Tehuacan valley, southeast of the present-day Mexico City. Squash and chili are the earliest plants to be grown - soon followed by corn (or maize) and then by beans and gourds.

These are all species which need to be individually planted, rather than their seeds being scattered or sown over broken ground. This is a distinction of importance in American history, for there are no animals in America at this time strong enough to pull a plough.

At first these crops merely supplement the food produced by hunting and gathering. But by 3000 BC the people of this area are settled agriculturalists. In this development they are followed by the hunter-gatherers of south America and then, considerably later, by some in the northern part of the continent.

The earliest known settled community in south America is at Huaca Prieta, at the mouth of the Chicama river in Peru. By about 2500 BC the people here have as yet no corn, but they cultivate squash, gourds and chili. They also grow cotton, from which they weave a coarse cloth.

The first American civilizations: from 1200 BC

The earliest civilization in America develops in the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico. Dating from around 1200 BC, it is the achievement of the Olmec people. Their culture is contemporary with Mycenae and the Trojan War, with the spread of the Aryans through northern India and with the Shang dynasty in China. At approximately the same time the Hebrews are moving from Egypt through Sinai towards the promised land of Canaan.

The Olmecs represent the beginning of civilization in central America. They are followed, about three centuries later, by the earliest civilization of south America - the Chavin culture of Peru.

These two first American civilizations, in Mexico and Peru, set a pattern which will last for more than 2000 years. A succession of highly developed cultures, all strongly influenced by the traditions of their predecessors, follows in the same two limited regions of the continent - in central America (also known as Mesoamerica) and in the strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific.

Archaeology provides evidence of these various cultures, but the only ones known about in any great detail are those surviving when the Spaniards arrive - to marvel and destroy. These are the very ancient Maya, and the relatively upstart dominant cultures of the time, the Aztecs and the Incas.

Greenland: from the 10th century

From high ground in western Iceland the peaks of Greenland are sometimes visible, across 175 miles of water. In about981 the distant sight attracts a Viking adventurer, Eric Thorvaldsson, also known as Eric the Red. He has a reason for leaving Iceland. He has been exiled for three years as a punishment for manslaughter.

Eric puts his family in a longship, together with their retainers and their livestock, and they sail towards the distinct peaks. They land in the southern tip of the island, near what is now Julianehaab, where they survive the necessary three years.

At the end of his exile Eric returns to Iceland to persuade more settlers to join him. With a better sense of public relations than of accuracy, he gives his territory the attractive name of Greenland. He sets off again with twenty-five longships, of which fourteen complete the journey (some turn back). About 350 people land with their animals. The colony survives four centuries in this inhospitable climate; eventually Greenland is abandoned in the early 15th century.

Meanwhile, in the very earliest years of Greenland, an outpost settlement is briefly established in north America.

Vinland: c.1000 - 1013

Icelandic sagas of the 13th century give various versions of how Leif, a son of Eric the Red, comes to spend a winter at a place west of Greenland which he names Vinland (the root vin in old Norse could imply either that grape vines or flat grassland characterized the place). In some accounts Leif loses his way when returning from Norway, in others he is following up reports made fifteen years earlier by Bjarni Herjolfsson, another Viking blown off course.

Either way it seems likely that in about the year 1000 Leif Ericsson lands at three successive spots in north America which he calls Helluland, Markland and Vinland. There is no way of identifying them, but it is possible that they fall somewhere on the coasts of Baffin Island, Labrador and Newfoundland, as Leif makes his way southward.

Leif returns in the following year to Greenland, but the sagas state that a few years later an Icelandic expedition - led by Thorfinn Karlsefni - establishes a new settlement at Vinland. The settlers survive only three winters, before being discouraged by the hostility of the native Americans - called in the sagas Skraelings, or 'savages'.

Archaeology proves that Vikings did indeed settle, however briefly, in north America. A site at L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, has a longhouse with a great hall in Viking style. It has also yielded artefacts of a kind used in Iceland - including a soapstone spindle, suggesting that women were among the settlers. The famous Vinland map, however, has been proved a forgery.

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