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U.S. History from America's Beginning to Now

American Indians from 20,000 BCE to 1491 CE

The AP U.S. History exam doesn't ask too many questions on American Indian history before Christopher Columbus, partly because high-school AP courses vary too much on pre-Columbian American history for the test makers to be sure what students have learned.

Although the AP may not have many questions on pre-Columbian America, you'll want to scan this chapter anyway as insurance, should an early-times question arise. Knowing as much as you can about the long years of this nation's American Indian forebears is important. After all, if the room you're sitting in were the history of human beings in North America, the amount of time European settlers and their descendants have lived here would be only one little corner.


Christopher Columbus wasn't looking for a new world in 1492; he was just trying to get to China without having to walk through Asia, as his Italian predecessor Marco Polo had done more than 200 years before. Polo had reported in his book The Million that China was full of untold riches. Columbus had a well-thumbed copy of Polo's story by his side as he dreamed of sailing to the riches of the East. He also saw a map based on one that Polo had brought back with him years before. On this map, you can still make out Europe, Asia, and Africa in rough form, right where they are supposed to be. What's missing is the entire New World.

Not surprisingly, when Columbus landed, he called the people he met Indians. They didn't look Chinese, so they must be Indians from the East Indies, related somehow to the India that Polo had talked about and where Alexander the Great had actually fought in the days of the ancient Greeks. It took six years of return voyages before Columbus confronted this inconvenient fact in a message to his royal sponsors: "I have come to believe that this is a mighty continent which was hitherto unknown . . . .Your Highnesses have an Other World here."

Of course, the people Columbus called Indians didn't think they were in a strange new world; they were home in the land that their legends told them had been theirs since the beginning of time. They knew every rock and tree and had a name for every valley and river. These first people had well-practiced ways of surviving with the thousands of plants and animals around them.

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