Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, c. 1350-1650

Module code: HS3691

Module co-ordinator: Dr Deborah Toner 

Module Outline

Every year, on the second Monday of October, the United States has a national holiday to commemorate the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, an event which marks the beginning of American history in many textbooks and in many people’s minds. Less well known is that Columbus Day is also met with protests and anger by numerous Native American organisations, which object to the version of history that Columbus Day represents. This is the version of history that treats the pre-1492 era as “prehistory”: unchanging, unproductive, unsophisticated, and uncivilised.

The real history of the pre-1492 period is about as far from this picture of stagnation as you can get. Major cities, far bigger than any in Europe at the same time, had been established at the centre of societies in North, Central and South America for centuries before 1492. Economic networks of trade and exchange stretched for thousands of miles, connecting together societies very different and distant from one another. In the fifteenth century, the Aztec and Inca empires were expanding their power, authority and wealth at an incredible rate. Expert scholars still don’t fully understand the religious, cultural, and intellectual traditions of various indigenous societies that Europeans in the sixteenth century dismissed as uncivilised.

So, a major aim of this module is to challenge the widespread perception that America’s history began in 1492: from the perspective of indigenous peoples, the idea that America was “discovered” in 1492 seems very strange indeed. The course explores the rich, diverse, and dynamic history of the indigenous peoples of the American continent in this period, focusing mainly on the Aztec, Inca, Maya, Cahokia, and Powhatan societies.

It is also important to think about why these societies are often not studied in their own right, but only as part of the history of European “discovery”. By exploring how indigenous histories are represented in museums, documentaries, films, textbooks and other media, the module considers how this has led to the development of many stereotypes and misconceptions about indigenous peoples that continue to shape the way that Native Americans and indigenous people in Mexico and Latin America are perceived today. 

Topics covered

Recognising that many people may never have studied these societies before, in the first half of the course, we study the key political, social, economic, and cultural features of the Aztec, Inca, Maya, Cahokia and Powhatan people. This will involve figuring out how these societies were organised, asking, for instance: who was in charge? What did people do for a living? Were there big differences in the wealth and power of different social groups? Where did people live? What legal and religious rules sought to control people’s behaviour? This part of the module also uses a variety of different sources to try to develop a sense of what life was like for people living in these societies, which can often seem so different to our own.

In the second half of the course, several important themes are studied, including gender, religion, and the use of public space in major cities, so that we can think carefully about the similarities and differences between indigenous societies and delve deeper into their most important features. Finally, the course concludes by exploring how various indigenous societies reacted to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas: by this point in the course, it is hoped that we will be better equipped to understand 1492 and beyond from the indigenous, as well as the European, perspective.


Each week there is an hour-long lecture highlighting essential information, areas of debate for each topic, and what students should read to follow up on different leads. This is followed by an hour-long seminar where set readings will be discussed in depth between different groups of students. Seminars will also include student presentations on particular primary sources, debates, and problems relevant to the weekly topic.


Assessment is a combination of essays and exam (weighted 50:50), and is organised to support the development of comparative skills across the course. The first essay that students are asked to complete, roughly halfway through the course, will relate to one of the societies we study in the first half of the course. In the second essay near the end of the course, students will have to compare and contrast two different societies within a single question. The exam will also feature comparative questions.


Coe, Michael D., The Maya

D’Altroy, Terence N., The Incas

Pauketat, Timothy R., Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians

Restall, Matthew, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest

Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown

Smith, Michael E., The Ancient Civilizations of Mesoamerica: A Reader

Townsend, Camilla, Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma

Townsend, Richard F., The Aztecs

Young, Biloine and Melvin Fowler, Cahokia: The Great Native American Metropolis