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In 1492, a Spanish-based transatlantic maritime expedition led by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus encountered the Americas, continents which were completely unknown in Europe, Asia and Africa and were outside the Old World political and economic system. The four voyages of Columbus began the Spanish colonization of the Americas.
For a long time it was generally believed that Columbus and his crew had been the first Europeans to make landfall in the Americas. In fact they were not the first explorers from Europe to reach the Americas, having been preceded by the Viking expedition led by Leif Erikson in the 11th century; however, Columbus's voyages were the ones that led to ongoing European contact with the Americas, inaugurating a period of exploration, conquest, and colonization whose effects and consequences persist to the present.
Columbus was an Italian-born navigator sailing for the Crown of Castile (Spain) in search of a westward route to Asia, to access the sources of spices and other oriental goods. This failed when he encountered the New World between Europe and Asia. Columbus made a total of four voyages to the Americas between 1492 and 1502, setting the stage for the European exploration and colonization of the Americas, ultimately leading to the Columbian Exchange.
At the time of the Columbus voyages, the Americas were inhabited by the Indigenous Americans, the descendants of Paleo-Indians who crossed Beringia from Asia to North America beginning around 20,000 years ago. Columbus's voyages led to the widespread knowledge that a continent existed west of Europe and east of Asia. This breakthrough in geographical science led to the exploration and colonization of the New World by Spain and other European sea powers, and is sometimes cited as the start of the modern era.
Spain, Portugal, and other European kingdoms sent expeditions and established colonies throughout the New World, converted the native inhabitants to Christianity, and built large trade networks across the Atlantic, which introduced new plants, animals, and food crops to both continents. The search for a westward route to Asia continued in 1513 when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa crossed the narrow Isthmus of Panama to become the first European to sight the Pacific Ocean from the shores of the New World. The search was completed in 1521, when the Castilian (Spanish) Magellan expedition sailed across the Pacific and reached Southeast Asia, retourning to Europe after sailing further West and achieving the first circumnavigation of the world.
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