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The pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continent, spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period to European colonization during the Early Modern period.

While the phrase "pre-Columbian era" literally refers only to the time preceding Christopher Columbus's voyages of 1492, in practice the phrase is usually used to denote the entire history of indigenous American cultures until those cultures were extinguished, diminished, or extensively altered by Europeans, even if this happened long after Columbus. The alternative terms precontact, precolonial, or prehistoric Americas are also used; in Latin America, the usual term is pre-Hispanic.

Many pre-Columbian civilizations were marked by permanent settlements, cities, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture, major earthworks, and complex societal hierarchies. Some of these civilizations had long faded by the time of the first permanent European colonies (c. late 16th–early 17th centuries),[1] and are known only through archaeological investigations and oral history. Other civilizations were contemporary with the colonial period and were described in European historical accounts of the time. A few, such as the Maya civilization, had their own written records. Because many Christian Europeans of the time viewed such texts as pagan, men like Diego de Landa burned them, even while seeking to preserve native histories. Only a few hidden documents have survived in their original languages, while others were transcribed or dictated into Spanish, giving modern historians glimpses of ancient culture and knowledge.

Many indigenous peoples in the Americas continue traditional practices while evolving and adapting to the modern world.

Historiography

Before the development of archaeology in the 19th century, historians of the pre-Columbian period mainly interpreted the records of the European conquerors and the accounts of early European travelers and antiquaries. It was not until the nineteenth century that the work of men such as John Lloyd Stephens, Eduard Seler and Alfred P. Maudslay, and of institutions such as the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology of Harvard University, led to the reconsideration and criticism of the European sources. Now, the scholarly study of pre-Columbian cultures is most often based on scientific and multidisciplinary methodologies.[2]

Genetics

Schematic illustration of maternal geneflow in and out of Beringia.Colours of the arrows correspond to approximate timing of the events and are decoded in the coloured time-bar. The initial peopling of Berinigia (depicted in light yellow) was followed by a standstill after which the ancestors of indigenous Americans spread swiftly all over the New World while some of the Beringian maternal lineages–C1a-spread westwards. More recent (shown in green) genetic exchange is manifested by back-migration of A2a into Siberia and the spread of D2a into north-eastern America that post-dated the initial peopling of the New World.
Schematic illustration of maternal (mtDNA) gene-flow in and out of Beringia, from 25,000 years ago to present.

The haplogroup most commonly associated with Indigenous Amerindian genetics is Haplogroup Q1a3a (Y-DNA).[3] Y-DNA, like mtDNA, differs from other nuclear chromosomes in that the majority of the Y chromosome is unique and does not recombine during meiosis. This has the effect that the historical pattern of mutations can easily be studied.[4] The pattern indicates Indigenous Amerindians experienced two very distinctive genetic episodes; first with the initial-peopling of the Americas, and secondly with European colonization of the Americas.[5][6] The former is the determinant factor for the number of gene lineages and founding haplotypes present in today's Indigenous Amerindian populations.[6]

Human settlement of the Americas occurred in stages from the Bering sea coast line, with an initial 20,000-year layover on Beringia for the founding population.[7][8] The micro-satellite diversity and distributions of the Y lineage specific to South America indicates that certain Amerindian populations have been isolated since the initial colonization of the region.[9] The Na-Dené, Inuit and Indigenous Alaskan populations exhibit haplogroup Q-M242 (Y-DNA) mutations, however are distinct from other indigenous Amerindians with various mtDNA mutations.[10][11][12] This suggests that the earliest migrants into the northern extremes of North America and Greenland derived from later populations.[13]

Settlement of the Americas