Sorry if the questions seem too vague. I would like to know if the indigenous people of what we now know as the Americas knew the continent as a two- or three-part continent (North, Meso, and South America).

I do know that at least the Maya (and probably the Incas) had contact with people from other subcontinents. However, their description of the world seems to be limited to their own habitat, as if other people had appeared out of nowhere.

This is particularly striking with the Mapuche, who were very extensive and had close relations (and struggles) with the Incas and other peoples. Yet their description of the world is limited to what they called Nag Mapu, which is extremely limited geographically.

The same appears to be true for the Aztecs, who (presumably) came from North America and then somehow "forgot" where they came from and adopted a geographically limited view.

So the question is: Was there a pre-Columbian civilization that was aware of all subcontinents? And if not, why?

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    If you're asking how many people in 1491 had their conception of the earth as a sphere with multiple large landmasses on its surface, rather than a simpler conception of "China" or "Inca (Peru)" being far off lands with triptik-style ideas of how to get there, that would probably be almost nobody no matter which hemisphere they resided in. Sure, most anyone with any nautical knowledge knew the earth was round. However the first known globe wasn't made until 1492.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 21:28
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    Such divisions are either based on the tectonic plate theory (which was unknown prior to the 20th century) or are artificial. Why would you expect pre-columbian people to divide the American landmass the way it is done now? Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 4:20
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    The "continent" angle (title & first 4 paras) seems distracting if not incongruent to the presumed meaning of the last para, apparently a very different question? The geographical/geological concepts/categories are 'modern, western' etc (ie: probably anachronistic to ask about), while the last-para-Q seems inquire not about 'the concept', but about 'peoples being aware of all 3 landmasses we consider continents'—ie: whether some peoples just knew (parts of) all 3 of em (regardless of how they viewed/called them)? Please clarify whether it's about theory (continents) or practical knowledge. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 11:11
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    Concur with others that the question is laden with unexamined assumptions. The modern tripartite division might have utility to modern globe and geopolitics, but pre-modern people would probably have conceived of the land differently, and mapped it differently. Even if you go back a couple of hundred years in the West, maps were based on different assumptions of the world. I'd like to see a frame challenge answer that addressed the issues raised in comments.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 12:51
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    The Central/North America division is entirely cultural/political and it would be surprising that an entirely different culture made that division. But the Darien Gap <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dari%C3%A9n_Gap> in southern Panama/northern Columbia is a nearly impassible stretch of the Isthmus of Panama and is considerably more of a separator between continents that that between Africa and Eurasia.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 12:59

1 Answer 1


The answer is Yes.

One example would be the Chimu civilization (circa 900 CE–1470 CE), a civilization predating the height of the Inca Empire and centered further north had extensive, durable contacts north and south of the American continent.

Cheap and fast canoe and reed-raft travel made possible for long-distance commerce routes for precious metals and other goods. Theses archeological sources are easy to check for historians because a metal objects' composition is very easy to track to certain mining locations. The same applies to jadeite and other flint or precious stones.

Also, we have historical sources. Pizarro found many ships traveling southwards when trying to reach Peru. Contact routes were established, well known and quite common from the Inca Empire up to the Panama area. Even, during Pizarro's travel to Peru in 1526, his travel bags returned in a Tumbesine raft, which happened to be faster than the Spanish ships (the rafts were much lighter and the 'Indians' knew the currents better than the Spanish).

The Indians thus provided four large rafts and their crew. Hernando de Soto took command of one of them, the one that carried his own luggage, Cristóbal de Mena did the same with the one that carried Hernando Pizarro's things see more

Chimu commerce

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    Does this answer this question? Reads to me as if you wanted to answer sth about long distance trade, sailing? Like this one or its dupe? I don't see how "rafts" etc explain how pre-Columbian peoples saw the geography of the landmasses, or what concept the Chimu indeed had for any of the aspects of this Q? Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 9:58
  • The answer is yes, the Pre-columbian peoples were aware of "America" as a three parts continent. You obviously can research further. For instance, the conquest of Peru was targeted by the Spanish, because of info indians gave in Panama. Plenty historical info about this. This is 2,5k kilometers away, so you understand they had some idea of the landmasses they were traveling.
    – James
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 11:16
  • The Q remains a bit unclear to me (see comment below that), so maybe your A fits (I say: 'already fits better 'over there'' ;). But your comment mystifies me in my reading this Q: 'just' 'knowing places & how to get there' (from which you infer your A; & what might answer the subQ I read from Q) is epistemologically quite different from 'mapping' closely to 'real world' contours & conceptualising about it (first few paras & title of this Q). The latter I don't see from this A. Can you clarify that in A? Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 11:29
  • Also note that eg I personally not only understand but actively use all three concepts: 1 'America' for "The Americas", 2 continents geologically as in N&S (the "double continent"), like eg WP does and a mainly culturally/politically defined 3-parts incl Meso concept. So, 'it is 3 parts' feels a little apodictical without further explanation. See how Meso excludes most of Mexico, while the Q' example "Aztecs" assumes Mexico as being in that Meso category. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 11:38
  • Oh, I understand better now the Q as the "three subdivisions mindset". On that regard, there are 2 things pre or early literate see very easily: 1st river mouth sizes, like the Orinoco and Mississippi or the Rio Grande on the Caribbean Basin, which could be understood as a 3 part system. Greek explorers mentioned that regarding the size of Africa (unexplored back then), so Africa got to be a continet pretty early in Greek mindset, yet unexplored. I do not know of historical sources mentioning that in America. 2nd flock bird migrations, the same as the 1st one.
    – James
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 12:13

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