Native American History

Pre-European Period

 


Everything was water except a very small piece of ground. On this were the eagle and the coyote. Then the turtle swam to them. They sent it to dive for the earth at the bottom of the water. The turtle barely succeeded in reaching the bottom and touching it with its foot. When it came up again, all the earth seemed washed out. Coyote looked closely at its nails. At last he found a grain of earth. Then he and the eagle took this and laid it down. From it they made the earth as large as it is. From the earth they also made six men and six women. They sent these out in pairs in different directions and the people separated. After a time the eagle sent the coyote to see what the people were doing. Coyote came back and said: "They are doing something bad. They are eating the earth. One side is already gone." The eagle said: " That is bad. Let us make something for them to eat. Let us send the dove to find something." The dove went out. It found a single grain of meal. The eagle and coyote put this down on the ground. Then the earth became covered with seeds and fruit. Now they told the people to eat these. When the seeds were dry and ripe the people gathered them. Then the people increased and spread all over. But the water is still under the world.


All humans are interested in their origins and try to account for their existence through creation stories, like the one quoted above which is told by the Yaudanchi (a Yokut-speaking Nation living in the south-central San Joaquin Valley of California). Every native North American society has such stories recounting the actions and deeds of "power" in the past. They commonly explain how people came to live where they do, how they acquired tools and customs, and why one should act, or not act, in certain ways. Most commonly they contain fundamental conceptions of nature, society, and how people ought to relate to the world and to one another.

Like North America's Native People, anthropologists and archaeologists also have creation stories which explain how America's native peoples came to be, though their stories differ markedly from those of most of the Native People. It's not a better story, just a different one. The short, and until a few years ago the standard textbook, version goes like this (for a longer version, click here):

Humans first evolved in Africa some 4 - 5 million years ago. Over the next 4 million years, through the interplay of evolution and adaptation, survival and extinction, many species of humans evolved. By about 100,000 - 120,000 years ago, people physically like modern humans had evolved in Africa and sometime around 100,000 years ago some of them migrated out into the rest of the world, reaching central and eastern Asia by at least 40,000 to 50,000 years ago. And it was from these "out-of-Africa" populations that the first immigrants into the Americans came, reaching North America about 12,000 years ago by means of a "land bridge" between Asia and North America.

The "land bridge" existed because at various times during the Pleistocene (Ice Ages), vast continental glaciers (in places up to two miles thick) formed over much of the northern half of North America. Each time the glacial masses reached their maximum extent (drawing massive amounts of water out of the ocean and causing a consequent lowering of sea levels worldwide), Alaska and northeastern Siberia were joined by a broad "land bridge" which formed part of a province geologists call Beringia. This land bridge appeared (and disappeared) several times during the Pleistocene (Ice Ages): from about 75,000 to 45,000 years ago, and again from about 25,000 to around 14,000 years ago, when the land bridge was exposed for the last time. And it was during this last emergence that high latitude living nomadic big-game hunters in Northeast Asia crossed into the Americas by way of the "land bridge." These pioneers lived in small bands, hunting large and medium sized game animals such as mammoth, musk ox, and bison which provided them with food, their hides a source of shelter and clothing, and their dung perhaps used in place of firewood.

Animated picture showing the retreat of the continental glaciers in North America from about 18,000 years ago to their disappearance at about 6,000 years agoThis map is a looping GIF animation depicting the retreat of glaciers in North America - beginning about 18,000 years ago. If your browser supports animated images, you will see the glacial extent changing on the map. If your browser doesn't support animation, you can view the animation by clicking here.

NOTE: This looping GIF animation was created by the Illinois State Museum and can be found on their website

However, once in Alaska, these big game hunters were blocked from going south or east by the presence of the glaciers, in some places up to two miles thick and stretching from the Atlantic coast to the mountain ranges of Alaska and British Columbia (but not quite all the way to the Pacific coast), and from the southern shores of the Great Lakes to the north polar regions. Then around 12,000 years ago the glaciers began to disappear and an "ice- free" corridor appeared between the receding glaciers of Alaska and British Columbia and those lying eastward in Canada, and opening the door to the Americas for the very first time (so the story went) in human history. And it was by means of this corridor that the hardy Siberian-cum-American pioneers made their way to the south, reaching the Great Plains of North America some 11,400 years ago.

Once the pioneers had traversed the "ice-free" corridor, they fanned out in many directions: some groups moved into the Eastern U.S.; others contined southward into northern Mexcio; while still other groups moved into the Great Basin and Southwestern regions of the U.S. In so doing they became the First Americans, or as the archaeologists call them, the Paleo-Indians, and have been regarded as THE ancestral populations to all of today's Native Americans.

The earliest, and best-known, of these "founders" are called the Clovis people, named after a site in New Mexico where, in the 1930s, large, bifacially flaked stone spear points were found in direct association with mammoth bones (in some instances actually embedded in the rib bones on the mammoths). Clovis hunters left their stone points and butchered animal bones at kill sites scattered across much of North America. When radiocarbon dating was introduced in the 1950s, Clovis sites were shown to range in age from about 11,000 to 11,400 years old - several thousands of years older than any other sites in the Americas (at least that was the thought then), just shortly after the corridor had opened up.

Everything seemed to fit quite nicely: no people in the Americas before 12,000 years ago (because of the ice sheets), the opening of an ice-free corridor beginning around 12,000 years ago, and the "sudden" appearance of Clovis at about 11,400 years ago, and their seemingly rapid spread over much of North America. Thus Clovis were the First Americans.

A simple, persuasive, once might even say seductive, story - several small bands of nomadic big-game hunters from Siberia colonizing a virgin land and over thousands of years their descendants would spread to every corner of the Americas and give rise to most of the native people in the Americas today. This was (and for many archaeologists it still IS) the gospel of American archaeology.

BUT .... it now seems that this scenario is much too simple. All across the Americas, archaeologists and anthropologists, along with geneticists, linguists, geologists, and some of America's native peoples, are assembling new data, reassessing older data, and generating new models that call into question both the single genetic and cultural origin model as well as the Clovis First model. And the answers now emerging to the questions of who were the First Americans, from where did they come, how did they get to the Americas, when did they arrive in the Americas, and what were their lifeways during initial colonization are very different from those of just a few years ago and suggest a picture very different from the standard textbook story of Who the First Americans were.


Subdivisions of Native American History - the Pre-European Period

Archaeologists divide North America's past into a number of time periods, both to emphasize features share by cultures at one time as well as highlight their differences from cultures of other times. Unfortunately, there's little agreement on how best to divide the past that is useful and/or consistent across native North America. The one used here divides the period before the coming of the Europeans and Ameropeans (American born descendants of European settlers) into three major time periods: Paleo-Indian, Archaic, and the Formative.

The Paleo-Indian period covers that span of time during which people first came into the Americas. Since there is great controversy surrounding exactly when the first people came to the Americas, no fixed starting point for the Paleo-Indian periods be can be given. Some scientists say humans came into the Americas no earlier than 13,000 years ago, while other scientists believe that people were living in the Americas long before 13,000 years ago. Also, the origin tales of many of the Native American societies state that they were created in essentially those geographical locations where they were when first encountered by Europeans; thus, the Indians have always been in the Americas. The Paleo-Indian period ends with the major climatic changes (and accompaning flora and faunal changes) brought about by the end of the Pleistocene (Ice Ages), some 10,000 years ago.

The Archaic period is an outgrowth of the Paleo-Indian period and spans the time from the end of the Pleistocene until about 4,000 to 5,000 years ago. It was during this time that the Paleo-Indians spread out across the Americas, moving into every habitable portion of the continents, adjusting and adapting to regional extremes of temperature and climate, to the mountains and valleys, lush woodlands and dry deserts, verdant prairies and arid tundra, coastal marshlands and inland lakes. Over time, increasingly varied Indian cultures evolved so that by the end of the Archaic, North America was a veritable patchwork of differing cultures, languages, and societies.

The end of the Archaic is difficult to fix. As early as 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, societies in many places in North America began to do things differently: moving away from mainly egalitarian social systems to extremely complex, often highly stratified, soci-political systems; shifting from nomadic to sedendtary settlement patterns and living in large, permanent villages and towns; experimenting with a variety of indigenous North American plants, some of which would be domesticated in the following period; engaging in a wide range of environmental management practices, including the use of fire; manufacturing pottery; engaging in long distance trade. On the other hand, many archaic period societies maintained an archaic way of life until less than 100 years ago.

The Formative period, beginning at various times between 3,000 - 5,000 years ago, witnessed a flowering of native societies. Archaic period trends became dominant themes during the formative. In some geographical regions, people engaged in full-time agriculture, lived in cities of 10,000+ people, and elevated their leaders both architecturally and socially. For example, at the ancient city of Cahokia, leaders, who may have been considered as living embodiments of gods and goddesses, lived on top of giant earthen mounds which soared several hundreds of feet into the air. In what is now the southwestern U.S., societies who are glossed under the term Anasazi, erected multi-room, mulit-storied apartment complexes, built roads to connect their towns and cities with each other, and engaged in long-distance trading with the might empires of Mesoamerica.

The Formative period ends with, or perhaps slightly before, the European colonization of North America. I say "perhaps slightly before" as there are indications that prior to European settlement of North America, European fishers were regularly visiting the rich fishing grounds off of present-day Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Maine. In the process, these fishers often came ashore to acquire water, food, timber, and fuel, and it's possible that they may also have infected the local Indian populations with diseases. Given the near lack of genetic immunity to these diseases, coupled with the dense population in northeastern North America, it's possible that disease were beginning to decimate many of the Formative period societies before actual European settlement.

Additional information on these three periods can be found by selecting from the following topics:

  Paleo-Indian

 Archaic

 Formative


 

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Anthropology 7 Homepage | Preface | Syllabus

Brief Historical Overview
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Regional Lifeways


Last Updated 3 January 2007 by CSmith