The First Americans, pp. 5-11 The first human beings to arrive in the Western Hemisphere immigrated from Asia. They brought with them hunting skills, weapon- and tool-making techniques, and a full range of other forms of human knowledge and expertise developed during previous millennia in Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most likely, these first Americans wandered into the Western Hemisphere more or less accidentally, hungry and in pursuit of their prey.
African and Asian Origins The first human beings emerged in Africa approximately 2 million years ago and spread to Asia and Europe, but the Western Hemisphere remained uninhabited because of its inaccessibility. Two factors— climate and human adaptation— made possible the movement of human beings into the Americas. Climatic changes created a massive land bridge, called Beringia, across the Bering Strait and connected Asian Siberia with American Alaska. Across this pathway, humans who had adapted to the colder temperatures were able to enter the Western Hemisphere, many in search of game animals. Their migrations revolutionized the history of the world, both for their descendants in the Western Hemisphere and for the descendants of their ancestors back in Asia, Europe, and Africa. The first migrants— Paleo-Indians— likely arrived sometime after 15,000 B P. Physical and linguistic evidence confirms that they were almost certainly of Asian descent.
Paleo-Indian Hunters The first arrivals to the Western Hemisphere were nomadic hunters who used stone-tipped spears to pursue large mammals. As ice began to recede and corridors opened through the Rocky Mountains, Paleo-Indians went farther south. Some may have traveled by boat down the coast. Archaeologists' discovery of the spearhead they used, known as a Clovis point, at sites throughout North and Central America indicates that Paleo-Indians shared a common ancestry and way of life. About 11,000 B P, Paleo-Indians confronted a major crisis. The mammoths and other big-game animals they hunted became extinct due to environmental changes and overhunting; therefore, Paleo-Indians sought new ways of acquiring food, and their culture began to diversify significantly as men and women adapted to their new and different environments.
Archaic Hunters and Gatherers, pp. 11-16 The term Archaic is used to describe the many different hunting and gathering cultures that descended from Paleo-Indians. The Archaic period is the several thousand years in the history of ancient America that followed the Paleo-Indian mammoth hunters and preceded agricultural development. Like their Paleo-Indian ancestors, Archaic Indians hunted with spears but also killed smaller game with traps, nets, and hooks. Most Archaic peoples also used a variety of stone tools to prepare food from wild plants. The majority of Archaic Indians were nomadic hunter-gatherers whose migration patterns followed the availability of wild plants and animals.
Great Plains Bison Hunters Archaic hunters concentrated on bison, which grazed in huge herds on the plains east of the Rockies. Like their predecessors, these Archaic tribes were nomads who moved constantly to stay near their prey. The Great Plains inhabitants hunted on foot, killing the bison by hurling spears or by stampeding the animals over cliffs. By A D 500, most Great Plains hunters were using bows and arrows rather than spears, which made it easier for them to kill their prey.
Great Basin Cultures The Archaic peoples of the Great Basin— the region between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada— inhabited a region of great environmental diversity, from lake shores to arid climates. These zones of habitation changed continually depending on the amount of rainfall received. To adapt to their changeable environments, Great Basin Indians lived off plants, roots, and seeds such as piñon nuts; small game like rabbits, rodents, and snakes; and, in some areas, fish. Yet, despite the variety of foodstuffs available, Great Basin cultures relied on plants as their most important food source.
Pacific Coast Cultures An abundant natural environment made the California region the most densely populated in ancient North America. About five thousand years ago, the Chumash culture emerged near Santa Barbara. Plentiful food— particularly acorns— allowed the Chumash to establish relatively permanent villages. Conflict arose between Chumash villages over acorn-gathering territory. Another culture emerged along the Pacific Northwest coast. These Archaic peoples established large and permanent villages and harvested the bounty of the oceans and rivers, drying their catch to last throughout the year. With time free from the task of food gathering, people of the Northwest cultures became skilled woodworkers, carving canoes (used for both fishing and warfare) and totems to adorn their houses. Conflict arose between Northwestern cultures in their efforts to defend or gain access to plentiful fishing sites.
Eastern Woodland Cultures The forested environment east of the Mississippi River contained numerous Archaic cultures that adapted to local conditions in a variety of ways. Despite this variety, certain fundamental similarities were shared among all Woodland cultures. Deer, for example, was the most important food source for nearly all Woodland hunters. Woodland peoples were also gatherers of edible plants, seeds, and nuts. Around 6000 B P, some Woodland peoples began to establish more or less permanent settlements and, around 4000 B P, some groups began to cultivate plants for food and to use ceramic pottery, likely results of the introduction of Mexican crops and pottery through trade and migration.
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Native Americans in the 1490s, pp. 21-26 By the 1490s, approximately 4 million Native Americans had settled throughout North America. Regions in North America with abundant resources had relatively high population densities, such as California and the Northwest coast. In the food-scarce Great Plains and Great Basin, the population density was, respectively, half and one-third as much as the continental average.
By the 1490s, about a third of Native Americans lived in the Eastern Woodland region that stretched west from the Atlantic coast nearly to the Mississippi, and from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico. Three major groups of tribes inhabited the vast Eastern Woodland region. The Algonquian peoples lived along the Atlantic seaboard, in the Great Lakes region, and in much of the upper Midwest. Coastal Algonquians hunted, fished, and grew corn and other crops; inland and northern Algonquians found agriculture impractical due to severe weather conditions. The Iroquois tribes, located primarily in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, and part of the Carolinas and Georgia, successfully cultivated corn and other crops, which allowed them to build permanent settlements. Five Iroquois tribes— the Seneca, Onondaga, Mohawk, Oneida, and Cayuga— formed a confederation, the League of Five Nations, for purposes of war and diplomacy.
The Muskogean peoples, which included the Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Natchez tribes, were spread throughout the Southeast, south of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi. This region offered the Muskogean Indians abundant food, both from agriculture and hunting and gathering. West of the Mississippi River were the Great Plains Indians, many of whom had migrated from the Eastern Woodland s, forced westward by Iroquois and Algonquian tribes. Most of these tribes, including the Teton Sioux, Blackfeet, and Comanche, became dependent on the buffalo for their existence.
In the Southwest, the descendants of the Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mogollon peoples continued to live in settled agricultural communities. Around A.D. 1300, warlike Athapascan peoples invaded the area, attacking the pueblo Indians. Similar dependence on hunting and gathering persisted along the Northwest coast, where fishing reigned supreme. Indian cultures depended on hunting and gathering for their food sources, and many engaged in agriculture. Nonetheless, important trading centers existed throughout North America, particularly in the Southwest; it is likely that the Dalles site was the largest native American trading center on the continent.
All North Americans used bows and arrows for hunting and warfare and, although they did not use writing, they expressed themselves in a variety of other ways, such as by weaving patterns in baskets and textiles, dancing, and making music. They also engaged in elaborate burial rituals and religious rites. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that Native North Americans lived in blissful harmony with nature and each other. Archaeological sites provide ample evidence of violent conflict among Native Americans, including signs of human sacrifice and even cannibalism. Native Americans not only adapted to the natural environment, they also changed it in many ways, building thousands of structures, favoring useful plants over others, and by using fire for hunting, communication, and waging war.