Western Hemisphere’s First Inhabitants
Historians have battled with the challenge of naming the hemisphere’s original occupants while presenting the history of the United States and the nations of the Western Hemisphere in general. Under the false belief that he had arrived in the “Indies,” explorer Christopher Columbus referred to the people he saw as “Indians.” This was an identifying blunder that had endured for more than 500 years since the inhabitants of North and South America had no collective term by which they identified themselves.
Historians, anthropologists, and political activists have all proposed names, none of which are completely suitable. The word “aborigine” has been used by anthropologists, however, it implies a primitive level of life that is irreconcilable with the cultural level of many tribes. Another word that lacks historical context is “Amerindian,” which combines Columbus’ mistake with the name of another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci (whose name was the source of “America”). “Native American” has gained popularity since the 1960s, however other advocates prefer “American Indian.” In the lack of a fully representative phrase, descriptive terms like “native peoples” or “indigenous peoples,” while ambiguous, avoid European influence. In recent years, there has been some debate about whether tribes should be referred to in the singular or plural—Apache or Apaches—with proponents on both sides seeking political correctness.
The first occupants arrive. Except for a brief visit by the Scandinavians in the early eleventh century, Europe had no knowledge of the Western Hemisphere until Columbus’ expedition in 1492. However, the native peoples of North and South America arrived from Asia far earlier, maybe as early as forty thousand years ago through the land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska.
The earliest Americans discovered a hunting paradise. The North American continent was home to mammoths and mastodons, the elephant’s forebears, as well as elk, moose, and caribou. Millions of bison, as well as antelope, deer, and other game animals, roamed the Great Plains, supplying sustenance for the Americas’ first inhabitants, the Paleo-Indians. Because food was plentiful, the population increased, and human habitation spread fast over the Western Hemisphere.
Paleo-Indians were hunter-gatherers who lived in small groups of up to fifty individuals. They were constantly on the move, chasing herds of large game, seemingly acknowledging other tribes’ rights to hunting sites. These early indigenous peoples invented a fluted stone tip for spears, which improved their hunting efficiency. Throughout the Americas, evidence of fluted points has been discovered.
The way of life on the North American continent. Anthropologists have discovered an incredible diversity of culture and language groupings among North America’s indigenous peoples. Tribes living near together may have spoken completely separate languages, yet tribes living hundreds of miles apart may have spoken similar languages. Culture regions are locations where a community shares a similar lifestyle due to environmental factors. Although North America is split into numerous such zones, the Southwest, Great Plains, and Eastern Woodlands are the most important.
The American Southwest. Agriculture eventually arose in North America following climate changes following the end of the last ice age (approximately ten thousand years ago). Around 5000 B.C., the native peoples of central Mexico began planting maize, beans, and squash, and cultivation of these crops gradually moved northward. The Hohokam civilization (southern Arizona) built an intricate network of irrigation canals to hydrate their lands in the dry Southwest. Farming necessitated a stable existence, and the Hohokam lived in permanent settlements of hundreds of people. The communities functioned as economic, ecclesiastical, and political hubs.
The Anasazi resided east of the Hohokam, where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah met at the Four Corners. The Anasazi established permanent settlements and villages with populations of up to 1500 people. Chaco Canyon in northeastern New Mexico was the epicenter of Anasazi culture, with twelve communities supporting around fifteen thousand people and straight routes linking outlying sites. The Hohokam and Anasazi both developed trading links with tribes in what would become Mexico and California.
However, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Hohokam and Anasazi communities saw a significant and dramatic transformation. A lengthy drought severely decreased the region’s water supplies at the time. The area could no longer support a large population, and the communities were abandoned as people fled in search of more favorable locations, with many settling along the upper Rio Grande and building pueblos that still exist today.
The Plains of Abraham. Unlike the Southwest cultures, early Great Plains natives were hunters, dependent on bison and other Plains animals for food, clothing, and shelter. Tribes followed the great bison herds and claimed vast regions for hunting. Conflicts over land fueled a never-ending competition between tribes that bordered on bloodshed.
Plains tribes struggled to maintain their quality of living due to their reliance on hunting. Because they were forced to be nomadic, they were forced to maintain material belongings to a bare minimum. The dog was their sole tamed animal. Plains peoples endured a tough existence, limited to what they could take with them. With the entrance of Europeans in the sixteenth century, the horse altered the civilization of the Great Plains.
Eastern Woodlands. The term “Eastern Woodlands” refers to a huge, highly wooded territory stretching from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seacoast that was home to multiple major cultures. The Adena of the Ohio River Valley (fifth century B.C. ), who left hundreds of burial mounds, evolved into the Hopewell, a bigger cultural group that continued to create complex earthen monuments. Although the AdenaHopewell peoples were essentially hunter-gatherers, archaeological evidence suggests that they had a vast trading network that extended all the way to the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines.
The Mississippians of the middle Mississippi River Valley were the first real farmers of the Eastern Woodlands. Cahokia, near the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, was the most prominent Mississippian center (St. Louis, Missouri). Cahokia had up to forty thousand individuals in a six square mile area, and its vast population was straining to cultivate enough food to maintain itself by the thirteenth century. Aggressive neighbors also contributed to Cahokia’s instability, and the population eventually dispersed to establish smaller settlements.
Society and culture of early North America. Modern study has altered estimates of North America’s population at the time of the European encounter upward to as many as 10 million. Although the native peoples differed greatly, they shared several key social and cultural characteristics.
In contemporary America, society is mostly built on the nuclear family (mother, father, and children), but kinship groups—the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins—were critical to native peoples’ social interactions. Kinship was decided via the female line among tribes as disparate as the Pueblo of the Southwest and the Iroquois of the Northeast. The clan was made up of many kinship groupings that claimed descended from a common ancestor, who was usually a woman. The roles that men and women were allotted were well defined. Men hunted, traded, waged war, and were tribe leaders, while women cared for children, collected food, and produced crops. The Southwest, where men also worked in the crops, was an exception to this tendency. Women had additional obligations in communities where matrilineal descent was prominent. They were in charge of property, food distribution, and either counselled or were the true authority in tribal councils.
Native Americans considered nature to be holy. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, plants, and animals all possessed spiritual force and were either gods themselves or gods’ abodes. The interaction of these natural forces was frequently used in tribal creation myths. While some tribes believed in a supreme god, polytheism was the norm. The shaman was seen as the go-between in the spirit realm between the people and the gods. He or she also interpreted visions and dreams, which were common in religious activity. A person may fast for many days, utilise medicines, or undergo a physical experience to generate dreams. Rituals to bring rain or assure a prosperous harvest or hunt were frequent, as were rites commemorating lifecycle stages like as birth, puberty, marriage, and death.
There is a tendency to see North American culture around the end of the fifteenth century as a preColumbian Garden of Eden ruined by European presence. This utopian vision of a paradise where everyone was one with the nature and each other denies local peoples their own history. As part of their death cult, Mississippians, for example, used torture and human sacrifice. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest had a fairly rigid class system centred on private property and turned war prisoners and debtors into slaves. The bulk of the Natchez in the Southeast were subjugated by hereditary nobility led by the chief, or “Great Sun.”