the pre-columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history of the americas before the appearance of significant european influences on the american continent, spanning the time of the original settlement in the upper paleolithic period to european colonization during the early modern period.
while the phrase "pre-columbian era" literally refers only to the time preceding christopher columbus's voyages of 1492, in practice the phrase is usually used to denote the entire history of indigenous american cultures until those cultures were extinguished, diminished, or extensively altered by europeans, even if this happened long after columbus. the alternative terms precontact, precolonial, or prehistoric americas are also used; in latin america, the usual term is pre-hispanic.
many pre-columbian civilizations were marked by permanent settlements, cities, agriculture, civic and monumental architecture, major earthworks, and complex societal hierarchies. some of these civilizations had long faded by the time of the first permanent european colonies and the arrival of enslaved africans (c. late 16th–early 17th centuries), and are known only through archaeological investigations and oral history. other civilizations were contemporary with the colonial period and were described in european historical accounts of the time. a few, such as the maya civilization, had their own written records. because many christian europeans of the time viewed such texts as pagan, men like diego de landa burned them, even while seeking to preserve native histories. only a few hidden documents have survived in their original languages, while others were transcribed or dictated into spanish, giving modern historians glimpses of ancient culture and knowledge.
many indigenous peoples in the americas continue traditional practices while evolving and adapting to the modern world.