3 The First Americans

Europeans called the Americas “The New World.” But for the millions of Native Americans they encountered, it was anything but. Humans have lived here for over ten thousand years. Dynamic and diverse, they spoke hundreds of languages and created thousands of distinct cultures. Native Americans built settled communities and followed seasonal migration patterns, maintained peace through alliances and warred with their neighbors, and developed self-sufficient economies and maintained vast trade networks. Native Americans cultivated distinct art forms and spiritual values. Kinship ties knit their communities together. But the arrival of Europeans and the resulting global exchange of people, animals, plants, and microbes—what scholars benignly call the Columbian Exchange—bridged more than ten thousand years of geographic separation, inaugurated centuries of violence, unleashed the greatest biological terror the world had ever seen, and revolutionized the history of the world. It began one of the most consequential developments in all of human history and the first chapter in the long American yawp.

An artist's rendering of the Cahokia Mounds site when it was populated. People are shown constructing homes. Each home has stone walls and a roof made of a wood frame and straw.
Cahokia, by Michael Hampshire. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site.

American history begins with the first Americans. But where do their stories start? Native Americans passed stories down through the millennia that tell of their creation and reveal the contours of indigenous belief. The Salinan people of present-day California, for example, tell of a bald eagle that formed the first man out of clay and the first woman out of a feather. According to a Lenape tradition, the earth was made when Sky Woman fell into a watery world and, with the help of muskrat and beaver, landed safely on a turtle’s back, thus creating Turtle Island, or North America. A Choctaw tradition locates southeastern peoples’ beginnings inside the great Mother Mound earthwork, Nunih Waya, in the lower Mississippi Valley. Nahua people trace their beginnings to the place of the Seven Caves, from which their ancestors emerged before they migrated to what is now Central Mexico. America’s indigenous peoples have passed down many accounts of their origins, written and oral, which share creation and migration histories.

Archaeologists and anthropologists, meanwhile, focus on migration histories. Studying artifacts, bones, and genetic signatures, these scholars have pieced together a narrative that claims that the Americas were once a “new world” for Native Americans as well.

The last global ice age trapped much of the world’s water in enormous continental glaciers. Twenty thousand years ago, ice sheets, some a mile thick, extended across North America as far south as modern-day Illinois. With so much of the world’s water captured in these massive ice sheets, global sea levels were much lower, and a land bridge connected Asia and North America across the Bering Strait. Between twelve and twenty thousand years ago, Native ancestors crossed the ice, waters, and exposed lands between the continents of Asia and America. These mobile hunter-gatherers traveled in small bands, exploiting vegetable, animal, and marine resources into the Beringian tundra at the northwestern edge of North America. DNA evidence suggests that these ancestors paused—for perhaps 15,000 years—in the expansive region between Asia and America. Other ancestors crossed the seas and voyaged along the Pacific coast, traveling along riverways and settling where local ecosystems permitted. Glacial sheets receded around fourteen thousand years ago, opening a corridor to warmer climates and new resources. Some ancestral communities migrated south and eastward. Evidence found at Monte Verde, a site in modern-day Chile, suggests human activity began there at least 14,500 years ago. Similar evidence hints at human settlement in the Florida panhandle at the same time. On many points, archaeological and traditional knowledge sources converge: the dental, archaeological, linguistic, oral, ecological and genetic evidence illustrates a great deal of diversity, with numerous different groups settling and migrating over thousands of years, potentially from many different points of origin. Whether emerging from the earth, water, or sky, being made by a creator, or migrating to their homelands, modern Native American communities recount histories in America that date long before human memory.

In the Northwest, Native groups exploited the great salmon-filled rivers. On the plains and prairie lands, hunting communities followed bison herds and moved according to seasonal patterns. In mountains, prairies, deserts, and forests, the cultures and ways of life of paleo-era ancestors were as varied as the geography. These groups spoke hundreds of languages and adopted distinct cultural practices. Rich and diverse diets fueled massive population growth across the continent.

Agriculture arose sometime between nine- and five-thousand years ago, almost simultaneously in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Mesoamericans in modern-day Mexico and Central America relied upon domesticated maize (corn) to develop the hemisphere’s first settled population around 1,200 BCE. Corn was high in caloric content, easily dried and stored, and, in Mesoamerica’s warm and fertile Gulf Coast, could sometimes be harvested twice in a year. Corn—as well as other Mesoamerican crops—spread across North America and continues to hold an important spiritual and cultural place in many Native communities.

A painting of a Mesoamerican village by a river.
Prehistoric Settlement in Warren County, Mississippi, Vicksburg Riverfront Murals.

Agriculture flourished in the fertile river valleys between the Mississippi River and Atlantic Ocean, an area known as the Eastern Woodlands. There, three crops in particular–corn, beans, and squash, known as the “Three Sisters”–provided nutritional needs necessary to sustain cities and civilizations. In Woodlands areas from the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to the Atlantic coast, Native communities managed their forest resources by burning underbrush to create vast park-like hunting grounds and to clear the ground for planting the “Three Sisters.” Many groups used shifting cultivation where farmers cut the forest, burned the undergrowth and then planted seeds in the nutrient rich ashes. When crop yields began to decline, farmers would move to another field and allow the land to recover and the forest to regrow before again cutting the forest, burning the undergrowth, and restarting the cycle.. This technique was particularly useful in areas with difficult soil. But in the fertile regions of the Eastern Woodlands, Native American farmers engaged in permanent, intensive agriculture, using hand tools rather than European-style plows. The rich soil and use of hand-tools enabled effective and sustainable farming practices, producing high yields without overburdening the soil. Typically in Woodland communities, women practiced agriculture while men hunted and fished.

Agriculture allowed for dramatic social change, but for some, it also may have accompanied a decline in health. Analysis of remains reveals that societies transitioning to agriculture often experienced weaker bones and teeth. But despite these possible declines, agriculture brought important benefits. Farmers could produce more food than hunters, enabling some members of the community to pursue other skills. Religious leaders, skilled soldiers, and artists could devote their energy to activities other than food production.

North America’s indigenous peoples shared some broad traits. Spiritual practices, understandings of property, and kinship networks differed markedly from European arrangements. Most Native Americans did not neatly distinguish between the natural and the supernatural. Spiritual power permeated their world and was both tangible and accessible. It could be appealed to and harnessed. Kinship bound most Native North American people together. Most peoples lived in small communities tied by kinship networks. Many Native cultures understood ancestry as matrilineal: family and clan identity proceeded along the female line, through mothers and daughters, rather than fathers and sons. Fathers, for instance, would often join mothers’ extended families and sometimes even a mother’s brothers would take a more direct role in child-raising than biological fathers. Mothers could therefore often wield enormous influence at local levels and men’s identities and influence often depended on their relationships to women. Native American culture meanwhile generally afforded greater sexual and marital freedom than European cultures did. Women often chose their husbands, and divorce often was a relatively simple and straightforward process. Moreover, most Native peoples’ notions of property rights differed markedly from Europeans’ notions of property. Native Americans generally felt a personal ownership of tools, weapons, or other items that were actively used, and this same rule applied to land and crops. Groups and individuals exploited particular pieces of land, and used violence or negotiation to exclude others. But the right to the use of land did not imply the right to its permanent possession.

Native Americans had many ways of communicating, including graphic ones, and some of these artistic and communicative technologies are still used today. For example, Algonkian-speaking Ojibwes, used birch-bark scrolls to record medical treatments, recipes, songs, stories, and more. Other Eastern Woodland peoples wove plant fibers, embroidered skins with porcupine quills, and modeled the earth to make sites of complex ceremonial meaning. On the Plains, artisans wove buffalo hair and painted on buffalo skins; in the Pacific Northwest weavers wove goat hair into soft textiles with particular patterns. Maya, Zapotec, and Nahua ancestors in Mesoamerica painted their histories on plant-derived textiles and carved them into stone. In the Andes, Inka recorders noted information in the form of knotted strings, or Khipu.

Cliff dwellings carved out and into the side of a canyon.
Andreas F. Borchert, “Mesa Verde National Park Cliff Palace” via Wikimedia. Native peoples in the Southwest began constructing these highly defensible cliff dwellings in 1190 CE and continued expanding and refurbishing them until 1260 CE before abandoning them around 1300 CE.

Two thousand years ago, some of the largest culture groups in North America were the Puebloan groups, centered in the current-day Greater Southwest (the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico), the Mississippian groups located along the Great River and its Woodland tributaries, and the Mesoamerican groups of the areas now known as central Mexico and the Yucatan. Previous developments in agricultural technology enabled the explosive growth of the large early societies, such as that at Tenochtitlan in the Central Mexican Valley, Cahokia along the Mississippi River, and in the desert oasis areas of the Greater Southwest.

Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico was home to ancestral Puebloan people between 900 and 1300 CE. As many as 15,000 people lived in the Chaco Canyon complex in present-day New Mexico. Sophisticated agricultural practices, extensive trading networks, and even the domestication of animals like turkeys allowed the population to swell. Massive residential structures, built from sandstone blocks and lumber carried across great distances, housed hundreds of Puebloan people. One single building, Pueblo Bonito, stretched over two acres and rose five stories. Its 600 rooms were decorated with copper bells, turquoise decorations, and bright macaws. Homes like those at Pueblo Bonito included a small, dugout room, called a kiva, which played an important role in a variety of ceremonies and served as an important center for Puebloan life and culture. Puebloan spirituality was tied both to the earth and to the heavens, as generations carefully charted the stars and designed homes in-line with the path of the sun and moon.

The Puebloan people of Chaco Canyon faced several ecological challenges, including deforestation and over-irrigation, which ultimately caused this community to collapse and its people to disperse to smaller settlements. An extreme fifty-year drought began in 1130; shortly thereafter, Chaco Canyon was deserted. New groups filled this land, including the Apache and Navajo, both of whom adopted several Puebloan customs. The same drought that plagued the Pueblo also likely effected the Mississippian peoples of the American Midwest and South. The Mississippians developed one of the largest civilizations north of modern-day Mexico. Roughly one-thousand years ago, the largest Mississippian settlement, Cahokia, located just east of modern-day St. Louis, peaked at a population of between 10,000-30,000. It rivaled contemporary European cities in size. No American city, in fact, would match Cahokia’s peak population levels until after the American Revolution. The city itself spanned 2,000 acres and centered around Monks Mound, a large earthen hill that rose ten-stories and was larger at its base than the great pyramids of Egypt. As with many of the peoples who lived in the Woodlands, life and death in Cahokia were linked to the movement of the stars, sun, and moon, and their ceremonial earthwork structures reflect these important structuring forces.

Cahokia was politically organized around chiefdoms, a hierarchical, clan-based system that endowed leaders with both secular and sacred authority. The size of the city and the extent of its influence suggests that the city relied on a number of lesser chiefdoms under the authority of a paramount leader. Social stratification was partly preserved through frequent warfare. War captives would be enslaved, and these captives formed an important part of the economy in the North American southeast. Native American slavery was not based not on holding people as property. Instead, Native Americans understood slaves as people who lacked kinship networks. Slavery, then, was not always a permanent condition. Adoption or marriage could enable a slave to become a member of the community and to enter a kinship network. Very often, a former slave could become a fully integrated member of the community. Slavery and captive trading became an important way that many Native communities regrew and gained or maintained power.

A bird's eye view of Cahokia. There are dozens of houses surrounding a wall that encloses more houses and a pyramid.
Cahokia, by Bill Iseminger. Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site

Around the year 1050, Cahokia experienced what one archeologist has called a “big bang,” which included “a virtually instantaneous and pervasive shift in all things political, social, and ideological.” The population grew almost 500 percent in only one generation, and new groups of peoples were absorbed into the city and its supporting communities. By 1300, the once powerful city had undergone a series of strains that led to collapse. Scholars previously pointed to ecological disaster or slow depopulation through emigration, but new research instead emphasizes mounting warfare, or internal political tensions. Environmental explanations suggest that population growth placed too great a burden on the arable land. Others suggest the demand for fuel and building materials led to deforestation, erosion, and or an extended drought. Recent evidence suggests that political turmoil among the ruling elite and threats from external enemies, as evidenced in the remains of defensive stockades, may explain the end of the once great civilization.

North American communities were connected through complex kin, political, and cultural relationships and sustained by long distance trading routes. The Mississippi River served as a particularly important artery, but all of the continent’s waterways were vital to transportation and communication. From its position near the Mississippi, Illinois, and Missouri Rivers, which created networks that stretched from the Great Lakes to the American Southeast, Cahokia became a key trading center. Archaeologists can identify materials, like seashells, that traveled over a thousand miles to reach the center of this civilization. 3,500 years ago, the community at what is now Poverty Point, Louisiana, had access to copper from present-day Canada and flint from modern-day Indiana. Sheets of Mica found at the sacred Woodland Serpent Mound site near the Ohio River came from the Allegheny Mountains, and obsidian from nearby earthworks came from Mexico. Turquoise from the Greater Southwest was used at Teotihuacan 1200 years ago.

In the Eastern Woodlands, many Native American societies lived in smaller dispersed communities in order to take advantage of the rich soils and abundant rivers and streams. The Lenapes, also known as Delawares, farmed the bottom lands throughout the Hudson and Delaware River watersheds in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. Their hundreds of settlements, stretching from southern Massachusetts through Delaware, were loosely bound together by political, social, and spiritual connections.

Dispersed and relatively independent, Lenape communities were bound together by oral histories, ceremonial traditions, consensus-based political organization, kinship networks, and a shared clan system. Kinship tied the various Lenape communities and clans together and society was organized along matrilineal lines. Marriage occurred between clans, and a married man would join the clan of his wife. Lenape women extended authority over marriages, households, agricultural production, and even may have played a significant part in determining the selection of leaders, called sachems. Dispersed authority, small settlements, and kin-based organization contributed to the long-lasting stability and resilience of Lenape communities. One or more sachems governed Lenape communities by the consent of their people. Unlike the hierarchical organization of many Mississippian cultures, Lenape sachems acquired their authority by demonstrating wisdom and experience. Dispersed communities and their leaders gathered together in times of council or for ceremonial purposes. Sachems spoke for their people in larger councils that included men, women, and elders. The Lenape experienced occasional tensions with other indigenous groups like the Iroquois to the north or Susquehannock to the south, but the lack of defensive fortifications near Lenape communities leads archeologists to believe that the Lenapes avoided large-scale warfare.

The continued longevity of Lenape societies, which began centuries before European contact, was also due to their skills as farmers and fishers. Along with the “Three Sisters,” Lenape women planted tobacco, sunflowers, and gourds. They harvested fruits and nuts from trees and also cultivated numerous medicinal plants which they used with great proficiency. The Lenapes organized their communities to take advantage of growing seasons and also the migration patterns of animals and fowl that were a part of their diet. During planting and harvesting seasons, Lenapes gathered together in larger groups to coordinate their labor and take advantage of local abundance. As proficient fishers, they organized seasonal fish camps to net shellfish and catch shad. Lenapes wove nets, baskets, mats, and a variety of household materials from the readily available rushes found along the streams, rivers, and coasts. They made their homes in some of the most fertile and abundant lands in the Eastern Woodlands and used their skills to create a stable and prosperous civilization. The first Dutch and Swedish settlers who encountered the Lenapes in the seventeenth century recognized Lenape prosperity and quickly sought their friendship. Their lives came to depend on it.

In the Pacific Northwest, the Kwakwaka’wakw, Tlingits, Haidas, and hundreds of other peoples, speaking dozens of languages, thrived due to the moderate climate, lush forests and many rivers. The peoples of this region depended upon salmon for survival and valued it accordingly. Images of salmon decorated totem poles, baskets, canoes, oars, and other tools. The fish was treated with spiritual respect and its image represented prosperity, life, and renewal. Sustainable harvesting practices ensured the survival of salmon populations. The Coast Salish people and several others celebrated the First Salmon Ceremony when the first migrating salmon was spotted each season. Elders closely observed the size of the salmon run and would delayed harvesting to ensure that a sufficient number survived to spawn and return in the future. Men commonly used nets, hooks, and other small tools to capture salmon as they migrated upriver to spawn. Massive cedar canoes, as long as 50 feet and carrying as many as 20 men, also enabled extensive fishing expeditions in the Pacific Ocean, where skilled fishermen caught halibut, sturgeon, and other fish, sometimes hauling thousands of pounds in a single canoe.

Food surpluses enabled significant population growth, and the Pacific Northwest became one of the most densely populated regions of North America. The combination of population density and food surplus created a unique social organization centered around elaborate feasts, called potlatches. These potlatches celebrated births and weddings as well as determined social status. A party would last for days and the host would demonstrate his wealth and power by feeding and entertaining guests with food, artwork, and performances. The more the host gave away, the more prestige and power they had within the group. Some men saved for decades to host an extravagant potlach that would in turn give him greater respect and power within the community.

An elaborately carved and painted mask.
Intricately carved masks, like the Crooked Beak of Heaven Mask, used natural elements like animals to represent supernatural forces during ceremonial dances and festivals. 19th century brooked beak of heaven mask from the Kwakwaka’wakw (Pacific NW). Wikimedia.

Many peoples of the Pacific Northwest built elaborate plank houses out of the region’s abundant cedar trees. The 500-foot-long Suquamish Oleman House (or Old Man House), for instance, rested on the banks of Puget Sound. Giant cedar trees were also carved and painted in the shape of animals or other figures to tell stories and express identities. These totem poles became the most recognizable artistic form of the Pacific Northwest, but peoples also carved masks, and other wooden items, such as hand drums and rattles, out of the great trees of the region.

Despite commonalities, Native cultures varied greatly. The New World was marked by diversity and contrast. By the time Europeans were poised to cross the Atlantic, Native Americans spoke hundreds of languages and lived in keeping with the hemisphere’s many climates. Some lived in cities, others in small bands. Some migrated seasonally, others settled permanently. All Native peoples had long histories and well-formed, unique cultures that had developed over millennia. But the arrival of Europeans changed everything.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

American History I Copyright © by Lumen Learning is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book