How did European culture influence life in the Americas?

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After European explorers reached the New World, their efforts to colonize the Americas had dramatic impacts of life lived there. Today, European culture has almost entirely replaced indigenous lifeways. Here, I will describe some of the cultural impacts of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.

One of the most significant impacts of European colonization of the Americas was the sheer reduction in cultural diversity. In North, Central, and South America, the Europeans regarded the Native peoples as being essentially all the same, despite a wide variety of linguistic dialects, religious practices, social hierarchies, customs, and subsistence practices. It is estimated that thousands of indigenous American languages have been replaced by English, Spanish, and Portuguese through the legacy of colonialism. Language and religion often went hand in hand in the process of cultural conversion, and perhaps as many distinct religious traditions as languages have been replaced by Christianity through forced conversion. 

Subsistence strategies were also significantly changed through European intervention or influence. The native people of the Americas lived in a wide variety of settlement patterns or lack thereof. Nomadic and semi-sedentary groups would move from place to place to hunt and gather throughout the seasons. Settled nations might have practiced small-scale farming or employed massive agriculture. When Europeans arrived, they often rounded up indigenous nations and forced them to live in communities under the "guidance" of European missionaries. This meant that the more nomadic ways of life, relying on buffalo hunting, salmon fishing, or gathering, were replaced by animal husbandry and crop rearing. Many indigenous people welcomed the opportunity to increase trade with Europeans but were not prepared to give up their lifeways. Some were forced into cultural conversion, others were killed.

The degree of prosperity and development many First Nations saw before European contact has never again been achieved. For example, the Inca empire was one of the wealthiest and best administrated societies the Americas have ever seen. Though their economy was primarily based on the exchange of agricultural produce, animals, and textiles, they had great wealth built up in the gold and silver used to decorate temples and palaces. Spanish conquistadors had far less interest in llamas and corn than they did in gold and silver- materials they already knew to be very profitable. Great amounts of wealth were stolen from the Americas for the profit of Europeans, including the estimated 24 tons of gold demanded as ransom for the Incan Emperor. Today, any surviving indigenous groups live in highly isolated communities (like Amazonian natives) or in impoverished, somewhat isolated communities like the Reservations of the United States. 

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How did the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas transform native cultures and life?

European newcomers dramatically changed native cultures and life. Here are five key changes:

  1. War. The European newcomers were, in large part, there to conquer. The conquistadors of Spain even had it right in their title! Europeans, and later Americans, had a long and bloody history of conflicts with native tribes, ranging from Cortes's battles against Montezuma's Aztecs to Jackson's Trail of Tears in the mid 1800s.
  2. Disease. Europeans brought with them devastating plagues. Smallpox and other deadly diseases, to which Native Americans had little immunity, ravaged entire populations.
  3. Tools of conflict. Trade with Europeans gave natives access to steel weaponry, horses, and firearms. This transformed wars between native tribes.
  4. Religion. Many Europeans traveled to the New World to escape from religious persecution and/or to evangelize their faith to nonbelievers. The slow spread of Christianity and the gradual conversion (willing or otherwise) of Native populations had a tremendous impact on the traditional cultures and religions of various tribes.
  5. Agriculture. Farming was known to many tribes in the New World but was not universal, and domesticated animals were extremely rare. European farming techniques and tools, and the knowledge of cultivating sheep, goats, cows, and pigs, led to a substantial alteration of many natives' food dependencies.

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