Who Discovered America: The First People Who Reached the Americas

| | March 11, 2024

If you ask anyone who discovered America you will notice that Christopher Columbus is often credited with discovering America in 1492, but it’s important to note that there were already indigenous people living in the Americas for thousands of years before Columbus arrived. Additionally, there is evidence that Norse explorers had reached North America centuries before Columbus, with the Viking explorer Leif Erikson leading a settlement in Newfoundland around the year 1000.

Who Discovered America First?

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While the popular belief is that North America was the first part that was discovered and populated, some actually argue that South America was populated first. Either way, the first people who crossed into the continent from either Southeast Asia, Polynesia, or Russia did that somewhere between 24,000 and 40,000 years ago.

Land Bridge and North America

If you’ve read more about the discovery of the Americas, you might’ve heard about the Bering Land Bridge. It’s the area between the most Western tip of Alaska and the most Eastern tip of Siberia.

During the last ice age, the seas froze so heavily that almost all the water gathered in glaciers. Because of this, sea levels plummeted about 120 meters, uncovering the land bridge between the two continents.

Some scientists believed that the ‘first’ inhabitants of America entered through the piece of land between Russia and Alaska. Formerly, it was thought that the Clovis people were the first ones to cross into the continent. However, they are dated to some 13,000 years ago. So that doesn’t match the first people entering the continent about 10,000 years earlier.

Land Bridges or Boats?

According to archeologists, the pendulum is swinging on this whole land bridge theory. In fact, the coastal conditions must’ve been quite favorable around 24,000 years ago.

While it is true that there was a land bridge during the last ice age, more convincing scientific evidence suggests that the very first people who found America actually used boats to arrive there.

Besides, it’s not hard to see why anyone would want to avoid the land bridge at all costs. Before arriving at the most eastern point of Russia, people would have to trek all the way through Siberia. The whole trek from Russia to contemporary America was around 3000 miles long.

Even today, there is no food to be found along the whole route. There are no trees, meaning there is virtually no opportunity to make a fire. So imagine how it would’ve looked like in the middle of an ice age. As one scholar puts it: ‘Suppose you could find a corridor through a mile-high wall of ice and follow it for a thousand miles. What would you eat? Popsicles?’

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The Ice Age in North America

The Comfortable Route

Did the first people in America have more advanced ways of gathering food in the most barren environments? Or did they simply make the more comfortable choice and went to the Americas over the sea? After all, you can eat the fish, oysters, and kelp that are found in the abundance of the sea.

To add, their journey might’ve been easier than many would think. Besides the fact that there was an abundance of food at sea, the currents of the Pacific Ocean flow in a great loop. Because of this, the earliest inhabitants potentially were carried by sea in their boats past Japan and a couple of islands in the Pacific, alongside the coast of Alaska.

Three days would be the longest amount of time that they would spend without seeing any land in sight to take a rest. Sure, not great, but not disastrous either. They just had to catch some food for a maximum of three days at sea, and they were all set.

The real question is whether they got out in Alaska or went a bit further, all the way down to South America. New evidence pops up every year. Or, in some cases, every day. A couple of years ago, the earliest archeological evidence was found in Chile. Nowadays, however, there is also earlier evidence in Mexico and the south of the United States.

The Americas After the First Inhabitants

Twenty-four thousand years ago is a long time. It goes without saying that we don’t have all the evidence to draw the whole image of the Americas during this time. The evidence of ancient civilizations begins piling up after the last ice age. Everything that came before that is literally at the bottom of the sea since all the water in the glaciers melted into the sea again.

READ MORE: Early Humans

So, more and more archeological evidence surfaces after the last ice age, which ended about 16,000 years ago. From around 8,000-10,000 years ago, we can grasp what the actual continent must’ve looked like. Keep in mind, however, that this means we miss about 15,000 years of history. What could you do in 15,000 years? Right, quite a lot.

Still, there should’ve been at least some substantial evidence if the continent was densely populated from early on. This simply doesn’t seem likely. Still, as long as evidence keeps on presenting itself, this might be debunked.

In that sense, the continent only became more densely populated around 14,500 years ago. Scientists believe that the Americas were just as populated as Europe at one point before Europeans entered.

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A sculpture of ancient people depicting their lifestyle

READ MORE: How Long Have Humans Existed?

Indigenous Empires and Native Settlements

The coastlines of the Americas remained the most prominent settlement areas after the discovery of America. This, again, confirms the likelihood of people arriving by boat rather than the land bridge. In regard to North America, it’s probable that people began to spread to the east coast of the continent about 12,000 years ago.

Along the coasts of the newly discovered lands, small villages and chiefdoms sprouted. Oftentimes, the settlements themselves were densely populated. Being close to the sea also meant that the inhabitants mainly lived off the sea. If they didn’t live off the sea, they were busy hunting and gathering.

Or rather, they were busy gathering and hunting, since hunting for food was mostly a choice that was made out of sheer necessity. The inhabitants had highly specialized knowledge about the plants and animals in their own area, but, just like many others on this planet, had a great desire to explore beyond the boundaries of their own communities.

Who Were the First Peoples in America?

Just like the actual first settlement in America, who came to America first is also quite hard to pin down. Some reports show that people must’ve come from Southeast Asia or Polynesia, while others think they came from contemporary Russia. The evidence to support the advanced maritime techniques of more than 24,000 years ago is simply too shallow at this point.

Na-Dene and Inuit

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The Return from the Hunt: Netsilik Inuit diorama in the Arctic exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (United States)

We do know, however, how the first people came to be recognized over time. Among the ethnic groups that were most prevalent in the earliest settlements, we see the Na-Dene and Inuit populations. Some believe them to be related and arriving at the same time on the continent. Others think they come from different migrations.

The Inuit are known for their fishing techniques and their ability to navigate the Arctic Ocean. The Na-Dene also share bonds with the Inuit. All are believed to have come from the Asian continent or Polynesian islands into America with boats, either landing in the west or in the north.

So again, boats, not the land bridge. A member of the Navajo tribe (descendants of the Na-Dene) when shown a map of the land bridge confirmed it by saying to researchers from Cambridge University: ‘It might well be that other people used the land bridge, but the Navajo choose another route.’

Agriculture and Trade

Around 1200 BC, farming communities began to co-exist with other gathering and hunting communities. Corn, pumpkins, squash, and beans became a staple in the diet of some of the populations, including the Aztecs and Mayans.

READ MORE: The Aztec Empire: The Rapid Rise and Fall of the Mexica

The predecessors of the Aztecs and Mayans, the Olmecs, already established far-reaching trading routes. From about 1200 BC onwards, the Olmecs had trade routes from Central America all the way to the north. Besides, they had their own system of writing and mathematical system, which they used for building their many pyramids.

READ MORE: Pyramids in America: North, Central, and South American Monuments

Europeans Explorers Discover America

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Leif Erikson Discovers America by Hans Dahl

Finally, the European explorers make their presence felt in the American continents. We can finally start talking about Leif Erikson. That’s right, still, no Christopher to be seen. Leif Erikson was a Norse explorer who discovered North America as the first European. Or rather, he was the one that first put a settlement on an American island.

Vikings in America

The Vikings, of which Leif Erikson was a member, discovered Greenland around 980 AD. On Greenland, they created an ancient Norse settlement. Today, the vast piece of land belongs to another Scandinavian country: Denmark. In 986 AD, a Viking explorer discovered a new frontier whilst sailing West, which would be the Canadian coast.

So if you’re asking in what year America was discovered by Europeans, 986 AD would be the correct answer. That was long before Columbus set sail. After the initial discovery, Leif Erikson created a Viking settlement on the continent in 1021.

The settlement is on a little island off the coast, called Newfoundland. Seems like an appropriate name. In case you’re interested in the first European settlement on American soil, you can visit it. Nowadays, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Whether it was a settlement with the aim of colonizing the American continent is debatable, however. Either way, the settlement was abandoned not long after its initiation due to a war with Native Americans.

Columbus and the Crew

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Cristopher Columbus at the court of the Catholic monarchs by Juan Cordero

Still, eventually, Columbus would also join the party. You might wonder after reading all this, why is Columbus called the one that discovered America? 

Most probably, it has to do with the effects it had on our contemporary society. That is to say, it has to do with the fact that the Spanish colonists were able to wipe out almost every single one that was living on the continent.

So in that sense, the Spaniards could basically rewrite history themselves and claim it to be true. All others that would challenge the Spanish narratives were minorities anyway, so they would never win.

The New World

The original plan of Christopher Columbus was to set sail to the East Indies. The Silk Road was the first actual trade route that was established between Asia and Europa. However, it took ages to go up and down to trade spices. Going from Europe to the Far East by sailing the Atlantic Ocean would be the quickest and easiest option.

Originally, Christopher Columbus was Italian. However, he moved to the countries that bordered the Atlantic to make the route to the Far East as short as possible. Here, he would search for funding for his projects.

His math wasn’t great though. He calculated the earth to be quite a bit smaller than his contemporaries believed it to be. For these reasons, his request for funding was rejected by the Portuguese and the Brits. Eventually, the Spanish King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile did agree and provided Columbus with the money.

Christopher Columbus departed on August 3, 1492, in his boat the Santa Maria. It took him about 70 days to cross the Atlantic Ocean, eventually arriving in the Caribbean islands. The Santa Maria is believed to have stranded on an island called San Salvador. At San Salvador, the quest for spices from the Far East Started.

Right there and then, the cruelest episode in history and the greatest exploitation process known to mankind was initiated. Still, It took people some time before they realized Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas on the 12th of October 1492.

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Cristopher Columbus

Unethical and Incapable

After some point, Christopher Columbus returned to Spain. However, it wasn’t long before he would start his next Spanish expedition to San Salvador. In total, he would have three subsequent voyages to the Americas. His reputation, however, has never been good. Not even right after he discovered the New World.

His incapability sadly didn’t stop with his miscalculations on the initial voyage. His leadership skills, too, were horrendous. In fact, they were so bad that he ended up being arrested for his mismanagement and had to return to Spain in chains.

This happened after Francisco de Bobadilla was sent by the Spanish crown to investigate the accusations made by the men that accompanied Columbus on the Spanish expeditions. The Spanish court stripped him from all the noble titles he gained. Eventually, Columbus died fourteen years after his initial voyage with the Santa Maria.

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Enslaving of Native Americans by Theodor de Bry

Colonial period

As we discussed before, the first inhabitants of the Americas built a rich and diverse culture over the tens of thousands of years in which people settled on the continents. Sadly, the Indigenous populations saw a steep decline, while the number of Spanish colonists increased steeply after the first entry of Columbus.

The decline of the Indigenous populations wasn’t because the colonists had such an advanced war strategy. In fact, the effort of the Spaniards oftentimes didn’t match the resistance efforts of the Indigenous civilizations. After all, they were much more adjusted to the land and used it to their advantage.

Still, the colonists were able to expand and continue their exploitation due to one single thing: the European diseases they brought with them.

The inhabitants of the Americas didn’t have immunity to smallpox and measles, which became the main reason for the rapid decline of the Indigenous peoples. If the Indigenous people were immune to these diseases, our world would’ve looked a lot different.

The colonizers deemed people that were already living on the continent to be ‘noble savages’. While this was meant to indicate their intellectual inferiority when compared to the colonizers, there is quite the body of evidence that indicates that the Indigenous wisdom directly inspired the intellectual movement that is called the Enlightenment.

The Name America

Amerigo-Vespucci
Amerigo Vespucci

Just like ‘Native’ and ‘Indians’, the name ‘America’ is a legacy of the colonizers. The name comes from the man who first identified that the lands that Columbus sailed to actually weren’t the East Indies. He was called Amerigo Vespucci. However, the Indigenous people that are still left have chosen to name the two contingents Abya Yala or Turtle Island.

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