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Having been inhabited by humans since at least 42,000 years ago, Hispaniola was one of the most culturally diverse places in the world, home to hundreds of languages and cultures. Agriculture is thought to have risen independent in the highlands around 7000 BC.
The arrival of Europeans however, brought huge changes to the islands, the introduction of wheat and cattle farming replaced much of the indigenous plant life, while diseases killed great numbers of the native people.
Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach Hispaniola, doing so on his third voyage to the Indies. He set up a base, named San Salvador, at the far western end of the island, to facilitate trade with Tidore. This base was soon joined by San Juan and Bautista along the north coast, and Caridad on the Bajas Islands. By 1526, San Salvador was the capital of New Spain and the Spanish Indies.
These trading posts soon grew into settlements, with the surrounding forest levelled in favour of farmland. The locals with whom the Spanish had contact were sometimes friendly though often opposed to the new settlers, especially after the fervent attempts to proselytise the natives. Traditional customs such as headhunting were fiercely stamped out by the missionaries, who were fairly successful in converting much of the native population.
The spread of disease was the largest threat to the natives, small pox, typhus and influenza, brought over by the Europeans, killed as many as 80% of the native population by 1570, and many others were enslaved as the settlers pushed inland. Today 92% of the population are of Spanish or mixed descent, with only a few natives retaining their old way of life in reservations in pockets of the mountainous interior.
Marcos Huelva was the first European to successfully cross the formidable mountain range and travel between both sides of the island, in 1644.