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SAT II U.S. History: Discovering Early Explorers of the New World

About 4 percent of the questions you encounter on the SAT II U.S. History exam deal with the period before European colonization. The material for the exploration age is vast, and most students have trouble answering questions from it; so, knowing some key concepts from this early age can boost your score.

You probably won't see questions based on strict fact from this time period, such as "What year did Columbus land in the New World?" Instead, you're more likely to encounter questions that ask about the driving forces behind exploration. Something more along the lines of "Which of the following best describes the primary motivation for the European explorations that resulted in the discovery of the New World?"

We were here first: Before Europeans set sail

Before the United States was even a twinkle in George Washington's eye, the forests and plains, lakes and rivers, and mountains and valleys that formed the foundation of the 13 original colonies and the countries to the south were home to non-European inhabitants. Strong evidence shows that long ago (exactly when is arguable, so the test won't ask you about it) North America's earliest inhabitants wandered from Asia across a land bridge to the area that's now Alaska. By at least 10,000 B.C., groups had moved into most of North and Central America and were headed into South America. Over the years, these groups developed civilizations and highly sophisticated cultures that populated North, Central, and South America. Some of the more well-known, and therefore, more likely to be tested, Native American groups include

  • The Mayans and Aztecs: These two groups lived in Central America, also known as Mesoamerica.
  • The Incas: This group lived in South America.
  • Other Native American nations: These groups extended across North America from the East Coast to the West Coast.

When studying these early cultures, keep in mind that the makers of the SAT II root for the underdog. In an attempt to conform to political correctness, SAT II questions regarding indigenous (which is a fancy way of saying "native") cultures tend to be complimentary, focusing on their accomplishments. Conquering nations fare less favorably on the pages of the exam. The SAT II usually focuses on the materialistic motivations of conquering cultures; so for questions that ask about the motivations of European explorers, choose answers that suggest a desire for the acquisition of riches.

Perhaps to emphasize the greed of European conquerors in the Americas (and because high school U.S. history texts cover early Central and South American civilizations), the SAT II incorporates early Central and South American history into at least one or two of its U.S. history questions.

In addition, the SAT II probably won't ask you a direct question about the characteristics of early Native American cultures, but it may ask you to compare the general traits of Native American cultures with societies in Central and South America as they were before Columbus arrived.

Pre-Columbian culture of the New World

Some of the more advanced cultures in the world existed in the Americas before European adventurers conquered them. Two such cultures were the Mayan and Aztec civilizations. The Mayan and the Aztec civilizations were part of Mesoamerican culture. (Meso means middle, and american means, well, American; so, these civilizations existed in the middle of the Americas.) Another advanced civilization was the Incas, who populated parts of South America. For the SAT II, you don't need to know too much about early Central and South American cultures except that they existed and were advanced thinkers.

  • Take the Mayans, for instance. They populated the Yucatan Peninsula (a region in southern Mexico) and Central America. They developed a written language and a highly accurate calendar. They were also pretty good at math. Unfortunately, the Mayan civilization didn't live to see the arrival of the Europeans.
  • The Aztecs, however, were still around when ships sailed in from Europe. The Aztecs themselves were conquerors who ruled central Mexico from their capital, Tenochtitlán, where Mexico City is now. This civilization's claim to fame included written language, a calendar so precise that it might put modern astronomers to shame, and sophisticated architecture.
  • Farther south, in what's now South America, the Incan society reigned. Linked by an extensive road system, this feudal empire stretched about 2,000 miles along the Pacific Coast of South America. The Incans developed a fancy irrigation system and became successful farmers.

One divided into many: Native peoples in North America

Native American peoples of North America were primarily nomadic, which means they wandered as needed for survival. Communities relied on the environment for sustenance, using plants for medicines and animal products for shelter and protection. Members within each nation helped each other out, but despite the existence of the Iroquois Confederacy (a loosely organized confederation of five nations), nations weren't closely associated with the others. A lack of unity among the Native American peoples may have contributed to their takeover by the Europeans.

What caused this lack of unity was the diversity among nations. Each nation developed a distinct culture based primarily on the type of land that it inhabited. Here's a list, according to region, of some of the widely known nations that existed when the Europeans first arrived in North America:

  • The Eastern Woodland Native Americans: These farmers and hunters lived along the eastern seaboard and greeted the first British settlers in the early 1600s. These groups lived on fish, deer, and other woodland animals. They cultivated corn, beans, and squash with sophisticated farming techniques like crop rotation, using fish heads as fertilizer, and supporting bean vines with cornstalks. They lived in domed structures and created extensive villages larger than many European villages of the 1500s. The Iroquois became the most powerful group living in the Eastern Woodland region, forming an alliance of five nations known as the Iroquois Confederacy to protect themselves from the Algonquin, another powerful group in this region.
  • The Southeastern Native Americans: Native Americans living in the Southeast led lifestyles similar to their neighbors to the north. They hunted and gathered and lived in wooden houses. These groups included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek, and Seminole.
  • Native Americans of the Great Plains: The native groups of the Great Plains relied on buffalo for their livelihood. Buffalo provided food, clothing, and portable housing in the form of teepees. The Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux lived nomadically, following the buffalo across central North America.
  • The Southwestern Native Americans: Native Americans of the Southwest were farmers who made the most of their arid environment by constructing apartment-like buildings out of clay and forming advanced irrigation systems. Better-known groups include the Apache, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni.
  • Native Americans of the Northwest Coast: Native groups living on the northwest coast had abundant resources that allowed them to develop permanent communities. Villages along the coastal shore supported fishing and farming for wealthy groups, which included the Coast Salish, Chinook, Tillamook, and Tlingit.

The SAT II probably won't ask you specific questions about Native American linguistics or yearly Incan potato consumption, but you are expected to know the general whereabouts, accomplishments, and characteristics of regional North American communities as well as early Central And South American civilizations. You may see a question like the following:

Which Mesoamerican civilization existed when the Europeans landed in the New World?

  1. Mayan
  2. Iroquois Confederacy
  3. Aztec
  4. Hopi
  5. Incan

The key to answering this question correctly is knowing the definition of Mesoamerican and a little about its early cultures. First, eliminate all groups that lived somewhere other than Mesoamerica. A swift glance through the list of Native American nations provides you with the information you need to eliminate answers (B), (D), and (E). The Hopi and nations of the Iroquois Confederacy occupied North America. Incans hung out in South America. So that leaves the Aztecs and the Mayans. Both groups made their homes in Central America, which is also known as Mesoamerica. How do you choose between the two? The other element of the question asks you to determine who was around at the time of Columbus. You know that Mayan culture disappeared before the explorers landed in the New World. Therefore, you can confidently choose (C), Aztec.

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