This article deals with the histories of the native peoples of North America before contact with Europeans. Another article covers Native American experiences in post-contact times.
Sometime after 35,000 BCE and before 10,500 BCE, people from Siberia arrived in North America. They had crossed the Bering Straight between Siberia and Alaska, which at that time was dry land due to the lower sea levels during the last Ice Age. Linguistic evidence indicates that they probably arrived, and then dispersed throughout the Americas, in at least three waves.
Archaeologists give the label “Paleo-Indian” to the first (and by far the longest) period of North American pre-history, lasting from as early as 35,000 BCE to 8000 BCE (and in some parts, 4500 BCE). In this period, the peoples of North America were hunter-gatherers. More precisely, they were predominantly big-game hunters, living a nomadic lifestyle and hunting the giant mammals (“megafauna”) which ranged North America in those days, such as woolly mammoths, mastodons, camels, bighorn bison, giant beavers, giant sloths, giant armadillos and musk oxen. They also had to contend with such fearsome animals as saber-toothed tigers, American lions and giant short-faced bears. Until around 9200 BCE they hunted with wooden spears, their tips hardened by fire. They used stone and bone tools for such applications as chopping and scraping.
As well as big game, the Paleo-Indians’ diet included a a wide range of seeds, berries, toots, bulbs and other wild plants.
In about 9200 BCE North Americans began using stone such as flint, chert and obsidian to make spear points. This marked the beginning of the Clovis culture (9200-8000 BCE), which spread throughout much of North America. The contemporary Sandia culture was local to the south west.
Between 10000 and 8000 BCE, the ice sheets retreated as the last Ice Age gave way to the Watershed Age. This was a warm, wet period North American pre-history. Coniferous forests spread across the continent, and then, from c. 6000 BCE, deciduous forests followed. By 5000 the climate was very similar to that of the present-day.
Plano (8000 BCE to 5000 BCE) and Folsom (c. 8000-4500 BCE) cultures were both centered on the Great Plains, and developed techniques for stampeding herds over cliffs or into swamps The Folsom culture was the more advanced, developing the atlatl, a wooden shaft used as an extension to the throwing arm to give a spear greater speed and power, and, wether there were no convenient cliffs or swamps, constructing corrals to trap animals in.
It is possible that these superior hunting strategies helped the magnificent megafauna of North America on its way to extinction, a process that took place between 9000 and 5000 BCE (some modern scholars refer to this as the “Pleistocene Overkill”) . From now on, hunting was restricted to much smaller game.
In human terms, this was marked by the transition from big-game hunting cultures of the Paleo-Indian to the more specialized Archaic cultures, which lasted from c. 5000 BCE to 1000 CE.
The pioneer cultures of the Archaic way of life in fact emerged much earlier, around 9000 BCE. These were the Old Cordilleran culture of the west coast (9000-5000 BCE), and the Desert culture of the Great Basin (9000-1000 BCE); both were located in regions where big game was not to be had. They were thus distinguished from their Paleo-Indian contemporaries by concentrating on hunting small game, fishing, and placing greater emphasis on foraging for edible nuts and berries. In short, they were exploiting their environments in a more intensive way, apparent in the wider range of implements they left behind, such as fishhooks, traps for small game, grinding stones for preparing food, and woven baskets.
As such they paved the way for Archaic cultures to thrive, in a world absent of megafauna. These tended to be more localized than their Paleo-Indian predecessors had been, more closely adapted to their particular environments. They remained nomadic, though some Archaic settlements, especially near lakes and rives where there was an abundance of aquatic food, were at least semi-permanent. They developed new technologies, such as atlatls, bolas (throwing weapons with weights attached), hammers, anvils, awls, drills, mortars and pestles, fishhooks, harpoons, stone cooking and storage pots, and baskets and cloths woven from plants. Food preparation and cooking was much more sophisticated. They domesticated dogs and built boats. They also shaped materials into ornaments, and buried their dead in elaborate ways.
The earliest true Archaic culture was the Cochise culture (7000-500 BCE), which was an offshoot of the Desert culture. In their dry desert environment, the Cochise hunted and trapped small animals such as deer, rabbits, snakes, lizards and insects. However they probably gained most of their nutrition from wild plants like prickly pear, juniper and yucca. They prepared their food using millstones. For shelter they used caves and cliff ledges, and later constructed simple pit houses – brush roofs over holes. In c. 3500 BC the Cochise began cultivating a primitive form of domesticated maize, probably as a result of contact with Mesoamerican peoples to the south.
In the Great Lakes region to the East, the Old Copper culture flourished from c. 4000 to 1500 BCE. Exploiting the wet and lush environment of the eastern woodlands, its people subsisted by hunting by hunting, fishing, and a wide variety of gathering plants. Uniquely for an Archaic culture, the Old Copper people used copper as a material for their tools, gaining it by quarrying it and gathering nuggets of the metal found in the soil. Originally they fashioned it using techniques developed for working stone – basically, chipping it – but later they developed annealing techniques, alternately heating and hammering the metal. In this way they were able to manufacture beautiful ornaments and tools.
The artifacts made by the Old Copper people were apparently in high demand from peoples throughout the eastern woodlands, and formed the basis of an extensive exchange network.
Another eastern Archaic culture emerged in the coastal region of New England and maritime Canada. This was that of the Red Paint people (3000-500 BCE) who got their name from the graves they dug, lined with red hematite. These graves contained beautifully made tools and ornaments of slate, quartzite, bone and antler.
From c. 1500 BCE, several cultures moved into the next phase of cultural development, often called the Formative. This was marked by such technological advances as the spread of agriculture, the emergence of settled villages, the domestication of animals, the acquisition of pottery-making and weaving techniques, and the invention of the bow and arrow. The archaeological remains of formative cultures also point to much more sophisticated belief systems and religious practices.
Before we look at the cultural variations which emerged in the different regions of North America, however, a discussion of Native American religion is in order.
Their religion varied from tribe to tribe, but, as with many traditional peoples, the Native Americans regard the material world as inseparable from the spiritual. Natural phenomenon such as trees, animals, rocks and mountains were infused with the supernatural. Many tribes had shamans to channel the spirit world towards fulfilling objectives desired by humans, and they used ritual and magic to attempt to gain power over nature. The rain dance is probably the best known example of this.
The belief systems of the Native Americans encompassed a variety of deities, differing from people to people. Some, such as the Iroquois, had an almost monotheistic belief in a Universal Spirit, the creator and source of all things; others worshipped a multiplicity of deities. Many feared ghosts, revered ancestors, respected the spirits of animals and plants, and sought to ward off demons.
Two traditions mingled
Modern scholars have detected, beneath the rich variety of religious belief and practice, the cross-fertilization of two main traditions. A “northern” tradition was bound up with the hunter-gatherer way of life, with shamans, trances, and communication with animal spirits to gain mastery over the hunt. Shared elements with the belief systems of peoples in northern Siberia and northern Europe suggest a very early date for this religious tradition, going back to days before the ancestors of the Native Americans came to the New World.
The “southern” tradition arose from the agricultural way of life, and would therefore have had originated in Mesoamerica. Here the emphasis is on fertility and the cycle of the seasons, and its tone is more hierarchical and disciplined: its ministers are priests, its practices involve secret rituals open only to the initiated.
Creation mythologies embodied elements from both, and the practices of different people were also a mixture of the two types. In some cases an agricultural deity such as the Corn Goddess is infused with characteristics elsewhere more at home in a hunting spirit such as the Great Bear.
This huge region was home to the most extensive Pre-Columbian cultures north of Mexico. It covers the area from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi Valley, and onwards into Texas; and from north of the Great Lakes down to the Gulf of Mexico.
This land of coast, mountain ranges, valleys, large rivers and huge lakes was until recent times blanketed by deciduous and coniferous woodlands. The abundant plant life and game – especially deer – that these environments offered fed large populations of hunters and foragers, especially along the banks of the rivers and lakes where people could also exploit aquatic resources. Trees also provided material for shelter, boats, tools and fuel.
It was in this rich environment that Formative cultures began to emerge. These were clearly more complex than those that had gone before, and their advent is marked by the construction of large-scale earthworks, often in the form of mounds. Indeed the leading cultural traditions that emerged in the region is often given the label “Mound-Builders” by archaeologists.
The earliest such earthworks were found at Poverty Point, in Louisiana, and dated to between 1800 and 500 BCE. They reveal a society able it to organize large groups of people over long periods of time to work on public projects.
Similar sites have yielded similar earthworks, but remarkably, there is no clear indication that their builders practiced agriculture. There is, however, evidence for long-distance exchange networks, with objects made from materials from other regions, such as copper, lead and soapstone. This would be a continuing feature of eastern woodland cultures, and as time went by these networks became more extensive.
From about 1000 BC some groups began supplementing their hunter-gatherer way of life with small-scale farming. This allowed villages to grow, often semi-permanent in nature: they moved to new locations as local soils became exhausted. The people of the Adena culture, which flourished between 1000 BCE and 200 CE, and which originated in the Ohio Valley before spreading out into neighboring areas, carried on the tradition of mound building – but with a difference. Whereas previously these earthworks seem to have been purely ceremonial, they are now burial mounds.
The Adena earthworks were larger and more complex than those of the Poverty Point culture, and this must reflect a more complex society. The grave goods show that some individuals enjoyed higher status and wealth than others.
As time went by farming became more important to the economy of the people of the eastern woodlands. The Adena culture was eventually displaced by the Hopewell culture, which emerged around 200 BCE and came to an end about 700 CE. This shared many features with the Adena, but on a larger and more sophisticated scale; it also covered a much larger area than the Adena had done.
Eventually the Hopewell culture was succeeded by another, the Mississippian. And just as the Hopewell had been more advanced than the Adena, so the Mississippian was more advanced than the Hopewell.
Whilst the Mississippian culture carried on many of the traditions pioneered by the Adena and Hopewell, it also displayed new features, possibly derived from contact with the Mesoamerican world to the south. Most notably, the Mississippians constructed not just burial mounds, but temple mounds as well – a strikingly Mesoamerican characteristic.
The Mississippian people’s society was the most complex of all the “mound-building” cultures of the eastern woodlands, and was moving towards urbanism. Indeed, their larger settlements, the most famous example being Cahokia, on the banks of the Mississippi, were the size of major European cities of the time, though lacking the density of true urban settlements.
The Mississippian culture as a whole lasted until just before contact times, though remnants of it, for example amongst the Natchez people, endured into the 18th century.
With the passing of the last of the “mound-builders”, semi-urban culture disappeared amongst the peoples of the eastern woodlands, but the lifestyles of the great majority of the people will have continued as before. By contact times, the leading tribes in the northeast were the members of the Iroquois League of Five Nations, whose foundation is dated to 1142 according to oral tradition, with the Huron as their most powerful rivals. There is evidence that the Iroquois had moved into the northeast from further south, probably in the 15th or 16h century. Their’s was not the only confederacy in the region: others were the Abenaki and Powhatan confederacies.
In the southeast, the larger tribes included the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole.
The people of the eastern woodlands tended to be semi-nomadic, practicing a mixed economy of hunting, fishing, foraging and farming. Southeastern peoples tended to focus on farming more, using other hunting, foraging and fishing to supplement the diet. Crops included maize, beans, squash, sunflowers, pumpkins and gourds for food, and tobacco for ceremonial purposes.
Eastern villages and fields were often situated on the banks of rivers, streams and lakes, giving their inhabitants access to fresh water and aquatic food sources. These small settlements tended to move regularly to take advantage of fresh soils to cultivate, as well as new wild resources.
In the northeast, longhouses built of wood formed large communal dwellings, on average about 60 feet long by 18 feet wide. These were used by various Iroquois tribes, and by the Hurons. Other peoples generally lived in smaller wigwams, with longhouses serving as council or ceremonial buildings. To the south, people lived in small huts made of wattle and daub, with thatched or matted roofs.
The eastern woodlands were criss-crossed by a network of well-beaten paths, used for inter-tribal trade. Rivers and lakes were also vital trade arteries. Bark canoes were the main form of water transport: their lightness and portability made them ideal for long-distance inland voyages which involved stretches of overland portage from one waterway to another. To facilitate trade, clam-shells ground into beads and strung into wampum were used as a form of money, as well as for tribal records.
This region is today covered by the states of Arizona and New Mexico, and stretches north into southern Utah and Colorado and south into northern Mexico. This is a dry terrain of mountains, tablelands (mesa) and desert, with steep canyons cutting into the landscape. The vegetation covering is characterized by desert shrub and cactus, and by evergreen trees able to grow in the dry climate, such as pinyon and juniper.
It was in this unpromising environment that farming reached its highest state of development north of Mexico. Indeed, it was this region’s contact with the advanced societies of Mesoamerica, as well as the harsh environment, with its very limited supplies of game and edible plants, that led to the rise of a remarkably sophisticated, irrigation-based agriculture here.
The Archaic Cochise culture gave rise to three major Formative cultures in the region: the Mogollon, Hohokam and Anasazi.
The Mogollon culture arose around 300 BCE, and endured until c. 1200 CE. It was the first southwestern culture whose economy was primarily based on agriculture, though small-game hunting remained an important activity (and may have become increasingly so after the adoption of the bow and arrow around 500 CE), as did foraging for wild plants.
From 1200 CE the Mogollon culture was gradually absorbed into the Anasazi culture, which by then had reached a more advanced stage.
Meanwhile, to the west of the Mogollon the Hohokam culture had emerged around 100 BC, and shared many of the same characteristics. The distinctive feature of Hohokam culture was an economy based almost entirely on irrigation agriculture.
The Hohokam culture came to a sudden end around 1500 CE. Their descendants are generally considered to be the Akimel O’odham (Pima) and Tohon O’odham (Papago) peoples.
The Anasazi culture was the most advanced of the southwestern cultures. It emerged to the north east of the Hohokam culture, and at about the same time as. It was from c. 750 CE, however, that the Anasazi developed a new kind of architecture, the pueblo, for which their descendants are still famous.
The Anasazi culture began to go into decline from about 1300. Many of the survivors moved south and settled in the Rio Grande and Little Colorado valleys. Here they maintained the cultural traditions of the Anasazi and became ancestral to present-day Pueblo peoples such as the Zuni, Keres, Tiwa and Hopi.
Most modern pueblos are located on mesa tops. There are also some villages situated in the desert lowlands, or along rivers. These displayed other types of houses – pole-framed huts covered with plant mats or earth.
Maize was the most important of all crops, probably providing more nutrition than all the other crops combined. After maize, the most important food crops were beans and squash. Other crops were not grown for food. Fiber plants such as cotton were a major source of fabrics – only in the southwest of North America were true looms in use. Also, dye plants, ornamental plants, medicinal herbs and stimulants (such as tobacco) were grown.
Other groups have arrived in the region in more recent times, from c. 1000 CE onwards. These came in from the north, following a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Later they took to raiding farming settlements to supplement their diets, and may have played an important part in the decline of the older, more settled cultures. These peoples included the Apache and the Navajo (Dineh). The latter, after contact with the Spanish and their sheep, eventually took to a herding lifestyle.
This region comprises the long mountainous coastal strip down the western side of present day Canada and the United States, from the Alaskan panhandle down to southern California. It also includes the Columbia Plateau of the United States/Canadian border, with its streams and rivers flowing down into the Pacific.
The ocean currents keep the climate temperate, and rainfall ranges from very abundant in the north to sparse in the south. Throughout the two thousand miles coastal region, however. the presence of sea life in the ocean and fresh water life in the streams and rivers allowed dense populations and complex societies to grow up at an early date, in the almost complete absence of agriculture (the only crop grown was tobacco).
The northwest in particular was noted for its large villages, warlike chiefdoms and precocious artistic development. The mountainous terrain, punctuated by inlets, islands and inshore channels, led the inhabitants to use the sea as a primary resource, for hunting big sea mammals (whales and seals), fishing, inter-community communication and trade. They used very seaworthy dugout canoes, the biggest of which were almost 100 feet long and able to seat up to 60 people.
The dense tree cover of their homeland also provided the materials for a vast array of other products, and they were master woodworkers. They made roomy plank houses, giant, elaborately decorated totem poles, beautifully carved chests, boxes, masks, bowls and a variety of other items. They also crafted fine baskets, textiles and other goods, including copper objects – a testimony to trade they practiced, as the nearest copper was only available along the Copper River in inland Alaska.
Further south, the Californian coast also gave rise to a dense hunter-gatherer-fisher population. This landscape was not as mountainous as the northwest, nor the tree cover as dense (and in the south almost disappears). This made wood resources less available. Though wood plank houses similar to those of the Northwest were by no means unknown, particularly in the north, the inhabitants constructed many other kinds of dwellings as well. Among the most common were cone-shaped structures made from poles, and covered with brush, grass and reeds. There were also domed earth-covered pit-houses.
The peoples of the Columbia Plateau also lived in a land of abundance, with plentiful game and fresh water foods, as well as berries, roots and bulbs. Like the other peoples of the Pacific regions they could easily subsist without cultivating crops. However, they had a more nomadic lifestyle than their coastal neighbors, living in villages of semi-underground, earth-covered pit-houses in cold weather and in temporary shelters of wood frames and mat coverings in warm weather.
These comprise the grasslands of the Great Plains, which stretch from east-west from the Mississippi Valley to the Rocky Mountains, and north-south from Canada to southern Texas, and to their west the desert of the Great Basin, between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada range.
The Great Plains are covered by a mostly treeless grassland. The rainfall diminishes the further west one goes, from around 40 inches per year to under 10 inches per year, and the grass gets shorter. Throughout its entire length and breadth, however, the Great Plains offered grazing lands for millions upon millions of American bison, generally known as the buffalo.
These grasslands had been home to hunter-gatherer societies since the time of the Plano culture (from c. 8000 BCE, see above), but some scholars think that they were emptied of people in the 13th century, due to prolonged droughts. If so, people returned sometime in the 14th century, and in late pre-contact times, the population was made up of many small, semi-nomadic farming communities along the rivers, of such tribes as the Wichita and Pawnee; and hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Blackfoot and Comanche on the open plains.
The nomadic lifestyle of some of these groups, coupled with the flat, open landscape, enabled them to use dogs to haul supplies on a travois. This was a v-shaped wooden frame, with the pointed end placed over the animal’s shoulders and the open ends dragging on the ground. A plank or webbing in middle created a platform to hold goods.
In the Great Basin the rainfall falls off to nearly nothing, and the vegetation cover is very sparse. The streams coming off the encircling mountains evaporate in the extreme heat and vanish into “sinks”.
The few inhabitants were hunters of small game such as rabbits, rodents, snakes, lizards and birds; and foragers for edible seeds, nuts, berries, roots and insects. The harsh environment forced on them a continually nomadic existence in the search for food and water, and for materials for basic tools and utensils. They lived in small family groups, dwelling in small cone-shaped structures called “wikiups”, made of a pole frame covered by brush and reeds. At times during the year the various bands met together for communal antelope or rabbit hunts, but their public ceremonial and tribal identity were impoverished compared with those of other Native American peoples.
This region encompasses most of Canada and Alaska.
The subarctic is made up of northern forest, and is a land of coniferous woodlands, lakes, swamps, rivers and streams. Long, harsh winters are interspersed by all too short summers, plagued by black flies and mosquitoes.
The thin population, consisting of peoples related to other Native Americans to the south. consisted entirely of nomadic hunters and hunter-gatherers: the cold climate made farming impossible. For most, life revolved around the seasonal migration of caribou between the Arctic tundra and the subarctic forests. In the latter, other large animals such as mouse, musk oxen, deer and to south, buffalo could also be hunted. Smaller game included beaver, mink, hare, otter and porcupine. Fish and wildfowl supplemented the diet.
The fur and feathers of animals and birds were crucially valuable for warmth. Birch bark was also a valuable material, used for making boats, cooking vessels and other containers.
The most common dwellings were small cone-shaped tents (or tipi) covered in animal hides.
To the north are the tundra and ice fields of the Arctic proper. This was inhabited by small groups who specialized in living in such an inhospitable environment. Between about 2500 BCE to 1000 BCE, Inuit and Aleut groups – who shared many cultural traits and spoke closely-related languages – crossed the Bering Sea from Siberia in small boats and dispersed throughout the Arctic regions.
By the time they arrived in North America they had already developed a lifestyle well adapted to extreme cold. Hunting sea mammals – whales, seals and walruses – was the primary means of subsistence, supplemented by fishing. Those parts of the animals which were not edible were used for making clothes, houses, sleds, boats, tools, weapons and ceremonial objects; and for cooking fuel (wood being extremely rare).
Dogs were vital to these people. They were used for pulling sleds, sniffing out seals beneath the ice, and tracking land animals.
The typical “Inuit” lifestyle – igloos, kayaks, sleds, dog teams and so on – was that of the groups living on the coast. Other groups lived inland, tracking caribou and fishing freshwater lakes. Yet other groups migrated seasonally to take advantage of both inland and coastal environments.
Adaptations and innovations
The peoples of the Arctic developed specialized clothing for the extreme cold. The skins, furs and intestines of sea mammal, caribou and polar bear were pressed into service for clothing, as were the furs and feathers of small animals and birds. From these materials the Arctic peoples crafted insulated and waterproof trousers, boots and mittens, and tailored hooded parkas to hang loosely over the body – often in double layers for insulation – but to fit snugly at the neck, wrist and ankles. They insulated their mittens with down and moss.
Snowshoes were used in both the Arctic and subarctic; the Inuit also had crampons to walk on ice, and test staffs to judge the strength and thickness of ice.
Kayaks made of hide coverings, mostly walrus or seal, over a whale-rib or wooden framework, were used for hunting expeditions. They were powered by a single person with a double paddle; some had a front seat for a harpooner or passenger. For transporting people and goods by water, umiaks were used. These were large, open flat-bottomed boats carrying as many as 10 people. They were not suitable for icy conditions, so were only used in summer.
The Inuit lived in temporary settlements, which in summer consisted of wooden- or bone-frames covered in hides. Sometimes large numbers would gather together and form sizable settlements. In winter, they would scatter again into small family groups to pursue the quarries. When out on the snowfields and ice sheets, they built igloos – dwellings made from blocks of ice, carefully shaped to make a dome-shaped structure.
Follow the history of the Native American peoples into post-contact times.