North America’s First People

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

For Your Consideration:
  1. Who are Native Americans?
  2. What does it mean to call something prehistoric?
  3. What is the leading theory for how Native Americans populated the Americas? Why can’t modern people be sure?
  4. What are the Three Sisters? Why do they work so well together?
  5. What evidence do we have for the complexity of ancient Native American societies? Is it meaningful to say that Native Americans were more primitive than Europeans of the same time period?
  6. Write a brief paragraph about the Native American group that once (or currently) occupied the land that is now your town.

Settlement of the Americas

Beringia sea levels measured in meters from 21,000 years ago to present

During recent ice ages, as large amounts of water were trapped on land as glaciers, ocean levels around the world were much lower than they are today. The narrow, shallow channel between Alaska and Siberia – known today as the Bering Strait – was a dry, grassland steppe. Asian nomads are thought to have entered the Americas via this Bering Land Bridge (Beringia), and possibly along the coast via canoes or other boats. These nomads were the ancestors of the first Native Americans – the indigenous peoples of the Americas, also known as Amerindians.

Exactly how and when Native Americans arrived in the Americas may never be known with certainty. This process may have included more than one migration event from Asia, but the fact of the matter is that no Native American group had a system of writing at the time of their migration. This means that the Americas were populated in prehistoric times – a time before written records. Instead, what we know about this ancient past comes from genetics – the study of how DNA varies between groups, linguistics – the study of how language varies between groups, and archeology – the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

Genetic evidence found in Native Americans’ mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) – distinctive genetic markers passed from mother to child, down through generations – supports the theory of multiple genetic populations migrating from Asia. Over the course of millennia, Paleo-Indians spread throughout North and South America. Exactly when the first people migrated into the Americas is the subject of much debate. One of the earliest identifiable cultures was the Clovis culture, with sites dating from some 13,000 years ago. However, older sites dating back to 20,000 years ago have been claimed. Some genetic studies estimate the colonization of the Americas dates from between 40,000 and 13,000 years ago.

Genetic migration back and forth across Beringia

Artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to 14,000 years ago, and accordingly humans have been proposed to have reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time. In that case, the Eskimo peoples would have arrived separately and at a much later date, probably no more than 2,000 years ago, moving across the ice from Siberia into Alaska.

One early site of human habitation was found near modern day Clovis, New Mexico. Archeologists have dubbed this the Clovis culture and identified its distinctive style of making stone tools – the distinctively shaped, fluted-stone spear point, known as the Clovis point. Dated to roughly 13,200 to 12,900 calendar years ago, the Clovis culture may have been ancestors to all other Native Americans.

The North American climate was unstable as the ice age receded. It finally stabilized by about 10,000 years ago; climatic conditions were then very similar to today’s. Within this time frame, roughly pertaining to the Archaic Period, numerous archaeological cultures have been identified.

The unstable climate led to widespread migration, with early Native Americans soon spreading throughout the Americas, diversifying into many hundreds of culturally distinct tribes. These early Native Americans were hunter-gatherers, likely characterized by small, mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. These groups moved from place to place as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. During much of this Paleo-Indian period, bands are thought to have subsisted primarily through hunting now-extinct giant land animals such as mastodon and ancient bison. Paleo-Indian groups carried a variety of tools, including distinctive projectile points and knives (the Clovis point), as well as less distinctive butchering and hide-scraping implements.

Simplified map of subsistence methods in the Americas at 1000 BCE
(yellow) hunter-gatherers
(green) simple farming societies
(coral) complex farming societies (tribal chiefdoms or civilizations)

The vastness of the North American continent, and the variety of its climates, ecology, vegetation, fauna, and landforms, led ancient peoples to coalesce into many distinct linguistic and cultural groups. This is reflected in the oral histories of the indigenous peoples, described by a wide range of traditional creation stories which often say that a given people have been living in a certain territory since the creation of the world.

The Three Sisters

Over the course of thousands of years, Native American people domesticated, bred, and cultivated a number of plant species, including crops which now constitute 50–60% of worldwide agriculture, most notably the Three Sisters – maize (corn), squash, and beans.

In a technique known as companion planting the three crops are planted close together. Flat-topped mounds of soil are built for each cluster of crops.  Each mound is about 12 inches high and 20 inches wide.  Several maize seeds are planted close together in the center of each mound.  When the maize is 6 inches tall, beans and squash are planted around the maize, alternating between the two kinds of seeds. The development of this agricultural knowledge took place over 5,000–6,500 years. Squash was domesticated first, around 8,000-10,000 years ago, with maize second (at first consumed primarily in the form of popcorn), and then beans.

The three crops benefit from each other. The maize provides a structure for the beans to climb, eliminating the need for poles or lattices which are more commonly used today. The beans provide the nitrogen to the soil that the other plants use, and the squash plant spreads along the ground, blocking the sunlight, helping prevent the establishment of weeds. The squash leaves also act as a “living mulch,” creating a microclimate to retain moisture in the soil, and the prickly hairs of the vine deter pests.

three sisters

Not only do these the Three Sisters grow symbiotically, they provide an almost complete nutritional package.  Maize, beans, and squash contain complex carbohydrates, essential fatty acids and all eight essential amino acids, allowing most Native Americans tribes to thrive on a plant-based diet.  Author Charles C. Mann explains, “Maize lacks the amino acids lysine and tryptophan, which the body needs to make proteins and niacin;…. Beans have both lysine and tryptophan…. Squashes, for their part, provide an array of vitamins; avocados, fats.”

In general, Arctic, Subarctic, and coastal peoples continued to live as hunters and gatherers, while agriculture was adopted in more temperate and sheltered regions, permitting a dramatic rise in population.

Most Native Americans shaped their environment with fire, employing slash-and-burn techniques to create grasslands for cultivation and to encourage the abundance of game animals. Native Americans domesticated fewer animals and cultivated plant life differently from their European counterparts, but did so quite intensively.

Native American Culture Areas at the time of European contact

Complex Societies

After the migration or migrations from Asia, it was several thousand years before the first complex societies arose, the earliest emerging possibly seven to eight thousand years ago. As early as 6500 BCE, people in the Lower Mississippi Valley were building complex earthwork mounds, probably for religious purposes.

Artist’s conception of Watson Brake, an archaeological site in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana that dates from the Archaic period. The oldest earthwork in North America, it was built and occupied 3500 BCE, approximately 5400 years ago.

Since the late twentieth century, archeologists have explored and dated these sites. They have found that they were built by hunter-gatherer societies, whose people occupied the sites on a seasonal basis, and who had not yet developed ceramics. Watson Brake, a large complex of eleven platform mounds in modern day Louisiana, was constructed beginning 3400 BCE and added to over 500 years. This has changed earlier assumptions that complex construction arose only after societies had adopted agriculture, become sedentary, with stratified hierarchy and usually ceramics. These ancient people had organized to build complex mound projects under a different social structure.

Mound building was continued by succeeding cultures, who built numerous sites in the middle Mississippi and Ohio River valleys as well, adding effigy mounds, conical and ridge mounds and other shapes.

This mound, located in Safety Harbor in Pinellas County, Florida, represents the southernmost extent of the mound building Mississippian culture. It was built by the Tocobaga people and occupied until contact with the Spanish in the 1500s.

Native Americans built monumental earthwork architecture and established continent-spanning trade networks – systems of waterways, paths, and meeting points (markets) that allow different regions and societies to exchange goods.

Native American trade networks spanned the continent. Archaeologists know this because of distinct products such as the ones depicted on this map, found far inland at a site in modern day Ohio.

The Mississippian culture was spread across the Southeast and Midwest from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the plains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Midwest, although most intensively in the area along the Mississippi River and Ohio River. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of complexes of large earthen mounds and grand plazas, continuing the moundbuilding traditions of earlier cultures. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network and had a complex stratified society. The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 CE.

The largest urban site of this people, Cahokia—located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois—may have reached a population of over 20,000. Other chiefdoms were constructed throughout the Southeast, and its trade networks reached to the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America. (Larger cities did exist in Mesoamerica and South America.) Monk’s Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric Americas. The culture reached its peak in about 1200–1400 CE, and in most places, it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of Europeans.

Sunrise over Monks Mound from the Woodhenge timber circle at Cahokia in modern day Collinsville, Illinois. Woodhenge was likely a calendar, allowing the inhabitants of Cahokia to track planting season and holidays. All rights held by the artist, Herb Roe © 2017.

Many Mississippian peoples were encountered by the expedition of Spaniard Hernando de Soto in the 1540s, mostly with disastrous results for both sides. Unlike the Spanish expeditions in Mesoamerica, which conquered vast empires with relatively few men, the de Soto expedition wandered the American Southeast for four years, becoming more bedraggled, losing more men and equipment, and eventually arriving in Mexico at a fraction of its original size. The local people fared much worse though, as the fatalities of diseases introduced by the expedition devastated the populations and produced much social disruption. By the time Europeans returned a hundred years later, nearly all of the Mississippian groups had vanished, and vast swaths of their territory were virtually uninhabited.

It is important to remember that while these Native American societies were ancient, it would be a mistake to regard them as simple or primitive. Their technologies and techniques were well-adapted to their environment. They developed over time. There is a popular idea that European technologies of the 1500s were inherently superior to those of Native Americans, but it is probably more useful to think of them as suited to different purposes.

For example, Native Americans considered early European guns to be little more than “noisemakers”, and concluded they were more difficult to aim than arrows. Noted colonist John Smith of the southern Jamestown colony noted that “the awful truth … it [a gun] could not shoot as far as an arrow could fly”. Moccasins were more comfortable and sturdy than the boots Europeans wore, and were preferred by most during that era because their padding offered a more silent approach to warfare and hunting; canoes could be paddled faster and were more maneuverable on rivers and lakes than any European boats, which were better suited to ocean travel.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. Pre-Columbian Era
  2. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus