It is no secret that societies flourished on both the North and South American continents well before Europeans began arriving in the 15th and 16th centuries. Prior to the arrival of Europeans and other outside colonizers, native tribes across both continents had developed complex languages, named local places, and established trade routes that allowed for moderate interaction between various groups.
When you view a modern map of the United States, Canada, Mexico, or the nations of South America, you are looking at national boundaries carved out through political wrangling and the violence of war. In many nations, one language dominates and the root of names for cities, counties, and states is largely lost to history. However, there are some maps that offer new insight into the evolution of the Americas before and after colonialism.
North American Languages Before Colonialism
English might be the most popular and commonly used language in North America today, particularly in the United States, but the entire region used to consist of various civilizations using a number of different tongues to communicate with one another. In this map, featured in the Washington Post, you can see just how many different languages were spoken throughout the United States and greater North America before the arrival of European travelers.
Although the map does not denote the number of people who spoke any given language, it is stunning to see the many shaded areas representing different languages. Some of these are dialects of the same language, while many are separate altogether. Algic was a language spoken throughout much of Central and Eastern Canada, and even reached down into parts of modern-day Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as much of the American Northeast.
The Aztec Empire is often associated with Mexico and Central America, but the map shows that a Uto-Aztecan dialect was spoken predominantly along the western coast of Mexico, in portions of modern-day West Texas, and throughout the American West in California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington.
For the record, Spanish remains the second most common language spoken in the US today after English, followed by the likes of French, Vietnamese, Chinese, Creole, Arabic, Russian, and German.
Origin of Place Names Across the Americas
In a similar vein as the map referenced above, this map from Radical Cartography shows the place names that are common throughout the Americas today based upon the ethnicity or place of origin. One stunning example is America’s Lone Star State. The word “Texas” comes from a local Navajo dialect of the Caddoan language. These people lived in East Texas prior to colonialism, and their impact remains today in the state’s name, as well as the name of a county in both Texas and neighboring Louisiana.
A close look at the map reveals a mixture of origins ranging from indigenous populations to colonial rulers. For example, all of California, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado have place names dominated by the Spanish language. Conversely, America’s Eastern Seaboard has largely Dutch names.
South America is equally interesting, with names ranging in origin from Portuguese throughout Brazil and Spanish in many other nations, to Araucanian and even Taino and Arawak from the Caribbean in nation’s along South America’s northern coast.
Maps are the greatest learning tools at the disposal of mankind today. As the maps highlighted in this post show, a little creativity can go a long way toward providing a different perspective on the world we live in today.