Pre-Columbian America

*Long before Europeans explored the Americas, the Western Hemisphere was settled by pre-historic peoples.


*Most scientists believe that the first people to come to America were the ancestors of the American Indians, and that they came across the Bering Strait land bridge about 10,000 B.C. during the last ice age, when the seawater was lower.  Some have suggested, though, that they might have come during a previous ice age, around 35,000 B.C.


*A few scientists claim that there is evidence of human settlement in the Americas 50,000 years ago, at least on the West Coast, although no-one knows how anyone got there at that time.


*Others have suggested that at least some (and maybe all) American Indians came across the Pacific in canoes and catamarans from Polynesia (experiments have shown that this was possible, although there is little proof that it actually happened).


*Before modern science suggested these theories, some people believed that the Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel or possibly other settlers from Europe who had reached the Americas in some forgotten age.


*However they arrived, there were millions—perhaps 54 millions—of native people in the Americas by 1492, but they were divided into many different tribes and nations, and most would always identify with these nations rather than seeing themselves as all being ‘Indians.’


*Because very few of these nations, and none in what is now the United States, had a written language that is known today, so what is known of them today is based on archaeology.


*Corn was first grown in what is now Northern Mexico, and it spread from there across North America (reaching the Eastern Seaboard around A.D. 1000).  Later, cultivation of corn was combined with the farming of beans and squash, and these three crops, often grown together in mounds, were known as the Three Sisters.  Other crops such as tomatoes, potatoes, chocolate, and tobacco, all unknown in Europe, were important in the lives of some Indian groups as well.


*In most of what is now the United States, large empires or centralised kingdoms or even big cities like those found in Central America and the Andes did not exist, although there were some exceptions.


*In the Southwest around the Colorado River, corn-based agriculture aided by irrigation systems did allow the development of a large and fairly cohesive culture, known as the Pueblo (from the Spanish word for village; like many Indian nations, the Pueblo are known by the name another gave them).  They got this name because by the time the Spanish discovered them in the 1500s, they lived in large villages made up of houses built of mud bricks called adobe.  In many cases these houses contained many apartments of multiple storeys. 


*However, in the past, the Pueblo’s ancestors had often lived in dwellings carved out of the ground or in cliff faces. These historical Pueblo people are sometimes called Anasazi, a Navajo name meaning ‘ancient enemy.’  The largest of the cliff dwellings that remain can be found around the Four Corners region in the Southwest, especially at Mesa Verde, Colorado, and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.  The towns of the Pueblo, especially in the era when they constructed their great cliff dwellings, were linked by extensive road networks, indicating a closely linked culture, with Chaco Canyon as a major religious centre.  The dominance of Chaco came to an end sometime between AD 1150 and 1450, apparently due to drought and possibly warfare between different groups among the Pueblo or between them and other tribes moving into the area.  Still, the Pueblo culture survived and their construction skills were used to build the large adobe towns that the Spanish discovered in their expeditions across the Southwest.


*In the Mississippi valley and many of its tributaries, another culture developed between about AD 800 and 1500.  This culture is known as the Mississippian Culture or the Mound-Builders.  Their economy was based on agriculture, on hunting, and on trade along the waterways of the Mississippi watershed.  They are known as mound-builders because many of their towns were built on large raised areas, often with smaller mounds for important structures on the main mound.  Burial mounds were also common, and some large mounds were built in the shapes of animals (particularly snakes) on a scale that would only be visually meaningful if seen from above.  Unfortunately, treasure-hunters and amateur archaeologists dug up and destroyed many of these mounds in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but some have survived.


*The largest of the Mississippian cities was at Cahokia, in Illinois, right across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis, Missouri.  Estimates of its population range from 25,000 to 40,000, which would have made it larger than any European city at that time or any Anglo-American city prior to the 1780s.  Unlike most North American Indians, the people of Cahokia even worked with metal, producing decorations out of copper.  Cahokia began to decline in the 1200s, and was abandoned by the early 1400s, for reasons that are not clear, although over-hunting and deforestation may be part of the reason. 


*The Mississippian culture as a whole also declined in the 1400s and 1500s, in large part due to contact with European diseases in the 1500s.  However, some aspects of Mississippian culture probably remained in the culture of some Eastern Woodland Indians who were their descendants or who (like the Cherokee) moved into areas depopulated during the decline of the Mississippians.


*As the Mississippian culture was declining, five tribes--Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, and Seneca, (and later a sixth, the Tuscarora)--mostly in what is now New York State united as the Iroquois League or Five Nations around 1450.  The legendary founders of this confederation were Dekanawida and Hiawatha.  These Five Nations enjoyed peace and cooperation among themselves and managed a balance between being a unified league and having separate nations within it that their customs were later considered by Benjamin Franklin as a good basis for the US Constitution.  They practised Three Sisters agriculture, and also used their power to attack their neighbours, the Algonquian peoples.  When Europeans arrived in North America, the Iroquois were an important trading partner and ally (or enemy) in business and in warfare until after the American Revolution.


*Among the Iroquoian peoples (which besides the Six Nations included the Lenni-Lenape (or Delaware) and the Cherokee, who moved south as the Mississippians declined), men tended to handle warfare, hunting, and fishing, while farming was in the hands of women.  This also meant that most property belonged to the women of the tribe, and most Iroquoian nations were matrilineal, with family ties being based on the mother’s family (with boys sometimes raised by their maternal uncles rather than their fathers).  When Europeans arrived, they were baffled by the economic, and often political, power held by women and held the men who seemed to do no work as lazy (hunting, fishing, and warfare being sports rather than necessities among Europeans).


*Many other North American Indians had similar cultures, but without a major cultural centre like Grand Chaco, Cahokia, or the Iroquois Grand Council.  Corn, beans, and squash, and in some places fishing (especially the Pacific Northwest) were the basis of societies that were largely subsistence cultures, although each had its own religious, artistic, and other cultural traditions. 


*The Indians of the Pacific Northwest were particularly notable for their woodcarving (such as totem poles) and for their practise of celebrating major occasions with feasts called potlatches held by a noble member of their society in which gifts (including food and slaves) as well as titles and hunting and fishing rights would be bestowed (or sometimes destroyed in a bonfire).  In some cases aristocrats competed with each other to throw the most lavish celebrations.  To some Europeans, this seemed wasteful and even unnatural, as people gave away their hard-earned possessions, and to outsiders they often seemed poor despite living in a rich area; both the USA and Canada attempted to ban potlatches in the late 1800s.


*In many coastal areas, shells were used as currency and trade goods.  These included wampum beads made from quahog and whelk shells along the East coast, especially in New England, and dentalium or dentalia used along the Pacific coast and sometimes further inland.  Later, cowrie shells, which were used as currency in parts of Africa and Asia became valued trade goods in some parts of the New World when the slave trade connected North and South America with Africa.


*The American Indians in Central and South America, unlike those of North America, had created several large and powerful empires prior in 1492 the pre-Columbian period.


*Southern Mexico and Central America were dominated by the Maya, who had a network of independent city-states that covered the Yucatan and much of southern Central America between 250 AD and about 900 AD, when, for reasons yet unknown (possibly warfare, possibly drought, possibly soil depletion), they abandoned many of their cities, including all those in the southern part of their lands.  Some northern Mayan cities survived longer, but often made war on one another, with a particularly destructive rebellion in 1450, and the Mayan culture was very weak when the Spanish finally arrived (although many Mayan people remain in Mexico, and many still speak Mayan languages, and a few examples of their written language have been preserved, making them one of the few Indian cultures to leave historical records from pre-Columbian times).  Like many Central American Indian nations, the Mayans practised human sacrifice.


*The Aztecs were the dominant empire of what is now southern central Mexico, with their capital at what is now Mexico City.  Their society was based on agriculture and on conquest.  Beginning around 1300, they began to conquer and subdue their neighbours, eventually conquering a large empire, in part because their religion required frequent human sacrifice, and people often preferred to sacrifice prisoners of war rather than local people.  They had a highly hierarchical society with a rigid class structure and a powerful military.  However, some of the nations they ruled over resented them and would ally with the Spanish when they arrived in the New World.


*The major empire of South America at the time Europeans arrived was that of the Inca, in the Andes, in what is now Peru, and parts of Bolivia, Chile, and Ecuador.  The Inca domesticated the llama, built roads across their Empire, created impressive irrigation systems to water their terraced farms, and built a vast empire while peacefully assimilating the empires around them.  They did this partly through the mita system of taxation which required labour rather than money be paid.  While the Inca had no system of writing, they kept records on knotted strings called quipus.


*However, the empire did not last long.  It was created in 1438, and continually expanded, in part because Inca religious practises required that while a dead emperor’s oldest son got the title of emperor, all the wealth from the dead emperor’s lands went to the other descendants to take care of them and to take care of their father in the afterlife, so the new emperor had to expand the kingdom to get his own land for wealth.  The Inca also offered human sacrifices, although not as much as the Aztec did.  Between 1529 and 1532, two sons of a recently deceased Inca emperor began a civil war for control of the empire, badly weakening their society and political system so that when the Spanish arrived in Peru in 1532, they were able to easily seize control of the empire.


*In other parts of South America and in most of the Caribbean, Indian societies were stone-age cultures that practised fairly primitive hunting and gathering (with some slash-and-burn agriculture in parts of Central and South America).  Some Indians in and around the Caribbean, such as the Caribs, may have even practised cannibalism, although this is debated by historians today.

This page last updated 24 January, 2020.
Powered by Hot Air