American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Pre-contact Indian History (ca. 20,000 BCE to ca. 1500 CE)

The histories of the Native people of North America are ones of adaptation and diversity. This is true for the long "precontact" period as well as for today. The cultures most commonly cited as "prehistoric" (a misnomer, since the term implies both that writing was absent and that only natural events out of people's control, not political and cultural ones, shaped the development of Indian societies) are presented as snapshot descriptions of cultural fluidity. Far from being stopped in time, these cultures had antecedents and evolutions that depended for their direction on a multiplicity of factors, including climate, geography, and cultural influences and traditions. Most likely, over 100 million inhabitants who spoke at least 1,000 languages inhabited the Americas before New World diseases wiped out up to 98 percent of them, beginning in the late fifteenth century. In North America, a region of roughly 9 million square miles, population estimates range from 2 million or so to upward of 16 million.

Who were the first people, and how did they arrive? The most popular migration theory has northeast Asians—Siberians—following big game into North America over a land bridge called Beringia, made possible by the decline of the sea level due to glaciations, across what is now the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska. According to this theory, increasing numbers of people made their way into the interior of Alaska, the Bering Refugium, and moved south along the ice-free corridor of the MacKenzie River Valley. In an alternative version of the theory, people migrated southward through interior British Columbia, perhaps during an interglacial period.

In the early twentieth century, near Folsom, New Mexico, the first indisputable proof of human antiquity in the Americas was found in the form of a spear point stuck between the ribs of an extinct species of bison (buffalo). In the tradition of naming Paleo-Indian cultural or historical periods after point types, which themselves are named by the site at which they are first found, this bilaterally flaked, or fluted, stone point was named the Folsom point. A few years later, near Clovis, New Mexico, similar (if somewhat larger) points were found. The development of radiocarbon dating techniques in 1948 made it possible to ascertain the date of material containing carbon 14 (that is, formerly living matter) with a high degree of accuracy. Using this technique—by dating bones found alongside the stone artifacts—scientists dated the Folsom site to about 8,500 BCE and the Clovis site to about 9,500 BCE. Later archaeological finds revealed the extremely wide geographical distribution of the Clovis point throughout much of North America and even south to Central America.

Based on a number of factors, including the extinction of Pleistocene big game (presumably caused at least in part by an explosion of Clovis point–driven hunting as well as climate changes) and the lack of any older site in North America, the date for the first appearance of people in North America was widely thought for some time to have coincided with the appearance of the Clovis points. However, beginning in the mid-1970s, this theory began to unravel. Early human sites were discovered in present-day southwestern Pennsylvania and even in South America (Chile and Peru) dating from at least 12,000 BCE. The Topper site in South Carolina may date to roughly 13,000 BCE, and sites in Mexico have yielded artifacts that may date to 21,000 BCE. Moreover, no Clovis sites have been discovered in Alaska, the ice-free corridor, or along the Pacific Coast.

Other important evidence that casts doubt on the traditional explanations of original immigration includes the demonstrated antiquity of water travel. Boat travel may be as old as 800,000 years in parts of Southeast Asia. Certainly people traveled to Australia on boats roughly 40,000 years ago. With the likelihood that the first northeastern Asians had access to boats came the necessity of including sea travel in the mix of theories regarding the peopling of the Americas. Artifacts found on Santa Rosa Island, off the Southern California coast, and dating to roughly 11,000 BCE suggest that boats were in use at that time. Indeed, some scientists believe that the Siberian migration proceeded not along an interior ice-free corridor but along the coast.

Two other theories involve migration from the east. One posits a migration from northern Europe and along the northern ice shelf that presaged the Norse migration around 1000, perhaps using umiak-like boats. Supporters of this theory point to the similarities between the Clovis point and the bifacial projectile points made by northern European Solutreans between 16,000 and 19,000 years ago. (They do not, however, explain the 5,000-year gap.) Artifacts found near Cactus Hill, Virginia, suggest, but do not confirm, a Solutrean connection. This theory also accords more closely with some Native narratives involving very early east-west migrations. The second theory regarding coastal migration from the east has people arriving by boat directly across the Atlantic from southwestern Europe.

At this time, evidence for migration theories remains circumstantial. None of the earliest known archaeological sites are located near the Bering Strait or within the Bering Refugium. Nor is there proof of coastal migration routes. Even during the peak of the Ice Age, some areas of Beringia were always open to game and to humans; so no period of time for human entry into North America can be ruled out completely. Most scientists now conclude that humans inhabited North America well before 10,000 BCE, perhaps as early as 35,000 years ago and perhaps considerably earlier than that. The earliest humans likely entered North America from northern or northeastern Asia in a series of incursions over tens of thousands of years along a number of different routes, including land and, at the southern margins, sea. Further movement southward could have occurred through the ice-free corridor and/or along the Pacific Coast. Clovis, once considered the ancestor of all North American human culture, is now generally regarded as one of several ancient human cultural complexes.

With the one possible exception previously mentioned, none of these theories take any note of traditional Native American explanations of how people came to live in North America. Some Indian cultures date their population of this world from an emergence from worlds beneath it. Long migrations, generally involving east-west rather than north-south travel, figure prominently in the earliest histories of some groups. Many societies account for their origins with creation stories, often involving magical or tricky beings, such as Coyote or Raven. Such trickster characters often figure prominently in the creation of human ills such as death and suffering, while a benevolent Great Spirit is given credit for creation as well as for religion and even social and political organization. The Great Spirit is not generally considered to be responsible for ills that befall individuals, which are often said to result from improper action associated with immorality or violations of that which is sacred. Because of the association of the Great Spirit with creation and everything connected to it, most native North Americans lived in a highly sacred world, whose boundaries, locations, rules, and traditions most people took very seriously.

However or whenever the first humans arrived, by about 9,500 BCE, North America was populated by nomadic bands of Paleo-Indian hunter-gatherers. Depending on location, most food consisted of now extinct animals such as horses (today's horses are not descended from those of this era), camels, wooly mammoths, large bison, musk ox, mastodon, lions, and giant beavers, as well as deer, elk, caribou, and fish, berries and roots. People hunted using spears with stone points, made more effective in some areas by the atlatl, or spear-throwing stick. People continued the fluted-point technological tradition that earlier produced Clovis and Folsom points until roughly 5,000 BCE. Workmanship (flint knap-ping) of the stone blades (spear points, knives, scrapers, engravers, etc.), some of which were utilitarian and others apparently ceremonial, was often of extraordinary quality.

A new era (Archaic, or early Holocene) began about 10,000 years ago, as the glaciers continued to recede and the climate warmed. New areas to the north became available for habitation. The land features began to assume their present form, and many of the large grazing animals became extinct. Human populations grew from perhaps a few hundred thousand to many millions, and with the rise in population came increased cultural diversity and technological innovation. Techniques developed by early Holocene peoples for exploiting a variety of local resources proved to be so successful that they lasted, in many cases and with the subsequent addition in some areas of agriculture, until the period of Afro-European settlement. To a significant extent, population growth, along with the formation of multiethnic population centers in several "culture areas," was the result of complex historical events such as trade, warfare, diplomacy, and religious movements, as well as of climatic and other natural changes. Indeed, we must take care when using traditional conceptions of culture areas not to ignore the agency of Native people in giving rise to a multiplicity of rich, fluid histories. With that caveat, it can be helpful to think broadly about Native settlement in North America in terms of culture areas, or regions, because, while environment is not determinative of culture, the two have meaningful correlations.


Four native culture traditions—the Pueblos, the Uto-Aztecan O'odham, the Yuman, and the far more recent Na-Dene, or Dene (Apache and Navajo)— flourished in the Greater Southwest, located from southern Colorado/Utah and southeast California west across Arizona and New Mexico. The Southwest is a rugged land of extraordinary diversity: baking low deserts; towering, snow-capped mountains; deep canyons; mesas; and high plains. Rainfall is relatively low, especially in the southern deserts, although snowfall in the higher elevations can be plentiful. The region is drained mainly by the Colorado River and its tributaries and by the Rio Grande. Indigenous foods include agave, piñon nuts, cactus fruits, wild onions and potatoes, and a variety of berries, nuts, and seeds. Early people wove baskets, sandals, and cloth from wild fibers. Around 1500 BCE, people living in southern New Mexico began planting maize (corn) and squash, a skill they probably learned from their neighbors to the south. Beans, making up a third of the American staple crops, probably arrived around 500 BCE. (Beans contain high levels of the essential amino acid lycene, which corn lacks and which aids in the digestion of the protein found in corn. Moreover, while corn depletes nitrogen from the soil, beans, being legumes, return it to the ground; the two crops complement each other.) The people continued to harvest other plant and animal resources, however, and did not establish permanent settlement, or begin making pottery until roughly 300 BCE.

At about that time, a community located in the Gila River Valley constructed an irrigation canal about 5 kilometers (3 miles) long. This community, and others with a similar culture, became known as Hohokam. The modern Pima and Tohono O'odham (Papago) people are generally believed to have descended from the Hohokam, which may usually be seen as the frontier of Mexican civilization at that time. The Hohokam people constructed a village near present-day Snaketown that, enlarged and further developed, lasted until roughly 1450. During those 1,700 years or so, people planted fields watered by extensive irrigation systems, using stone manos and metates to grind their maize. They manufactured pottery (for storage, cooking, and ornamentation) and made ornaments from shell, turquoise, copper, macaw feathers, and other material acquired from extensive trade networks extending west to the Pacific Ocean, south deep into Mexico, and east to New Mexico and beyond. Their rectangular, single-unit homes and ball courts indicated population centers that were relatively self-sufficient. As is often the case with thriving agricultural communities, Hohokam religious and artistic development was rich and complex.

The Ancestral Puebloans represent another Southwestern cultural tradition. Located in the north and east of the region, the Ancestral Puebloans are the predecessors of the modern Pueblo Indians and are culturally descended from earlier so-called Basket Maker people (400–700). The Ancestral Puebloans also created extensive trade networks, acquiring goods, and some cultural traditions as well, from as far away as Mexico, California, and the Great Plains. Ancestral Puebloan people made and used bows and arrows, grew cotton, and stored their food surpluses in pits. The accumulation of significant food surpluses led directly, in some areas, to the replacement, around 700, of early adobe or masonry houses by expanded apartment-style buildings (pueblos), some with hundreds of rooms. These people also developed a highly complex religious/ceremonial life involving underground spaces, called kivas, and various supernatural beings. Major population centers flourished at Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon (as many as 6,000 to 10,000 people lived there around 1100, with complex and highly developed systems of trade, transportation, and ceremonialism), as well as in the upper Rio Grande Valley.

The two other major Southwestern cultural traditions are the Mogollon and the Patayan. The Mogollon, characterized by outstanding red-on-brown and black-and-white ceramics, centered in the mountainous regions of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. Classic Mogollon Mimbres pottery reveals images of many kinds of fish found in the Gulf of California. The Mogollon people lived in partially excavated houses, which were well insulated and appropriate for the higher altitudes. The descriptor "Patayan" imperfectly describes a great diversity of Yuman-speaking cultures west and north of the Hohokam. The Yumans, too, cultivated crops after about 2,000 years ago, although mainly by taking advantage of annual floods, as opposed to the Hohokam method of constructing vast irrigation channels.

Southwestern agricultural societies all underwent a major transformation from roughly 1250 to 1400. During this period, the great Hohokam and Ancestral Puebloan population centers all but disappeared. The reasons for this disappearance remain somewhat unclear. Prolonged drought is the most likely factor, but intercommunity warfare and soil exhaustion also may have played a role. Also, what now appears as wholesale abandonments may at the time have been more gradual population shifts. In any case, while populations unquestionably become dispersed during this period, the region remained marked by a great deal of cultural continuity.


California encompasses unique cultural elements as well as those of regions including the Southwest (in the extreme southeast), the Great Basin (in Death Valley and the extreme west), the Northwest Coast (in the extreme northwest), and the Plateau (in the extreme northeast). The region includes deserts, high mountains, an enormous central valley, and over a thousand miles of coast. Not surprisingly, ancient lifestyles differed widely throughout this extremely diverse region. As mentioned, people first entered California no later than 11,000 BCE and possibly as early as 19,000 years ago or even earlier. About 9000 BCE, people in some parts of the region, particularly along the south coast, began supplementing reliance on (and generally extensive) hunting, gathering, and fishing by collecting seeds and grinding them with milling stones.

By about 3000 BCE, people had evolved distinct local cultural and subsistence patterns. The most common language groups were Hokan, Penutian, and Uto-Aztecan, although some people spoke languages from groups including Athapaskan, Yukian, and Algonquian. The Windmiller culture of central California was characterized by a relatively rich tradition of arts and crafts. The primary materials were stone, bone, wood, and shale, which was acquired in trade from coastal groups. Windmiller people also made pottery, twined baskets, and finely crafted charmstones. They buried their dead face down and oriented toward the west. Along the central coast, people used fast, highly maneuverable boats to reach offshore islands. They also set out on these boats to kill dolphins, porpoises, whales, and other marine life.

By about 3000–2000 BCE, as sea levels stabilized, coastal populations became among the densest in North America. By at least 1,500 years ago, the basic patterns of many "historic" California groups had been established. Coastal people had been eating marine life for millennia. Many inland people depended on acorns and buckeyes as important food staples. People collected acorns in the fall. After removing the kernels from the acorns, women sundried them, pounded them into flour, and then leached out the bitter tannic acid using a variety of methods. The only crop people actually cultivated was tobacco, although some groups modified the natural environment through techniques such as irrigation, transplantation, and burning to create favorable environments for certain wild plants and even animals.

Many groups also created rock art, by painting and/or by carving or pecking, from as early as 1000 BCE. Trade, mainly with close neighbors but not uncommonly with distant groups, was very well developed. People either bartered for goods (including salt, acorns, fish, beads, baskets, hides, pelts, obsidian, and bows) or purchased them with items such as dentalium shells, clamshell disk beads, and magnesite beads. Basketry, in particular, was extremely well developed in California, especially in the central regions. Although groups were fairly territorial, intercourse between them generally did not include organized warfare, and such conflicts as existed were generally settled quickly and with compensation for any loss incurred.

Most California Indians employed shamans (doctors) to mediate between the physical and the spiritual worlds. Shamans served both as religious leaders and healers. Some groups had secret religious societies, such as those associated with Kuksu rituals (a type of world renewal ceremony) and various spirit visitors or ghosts. Northern peoples also celebrated first salmon rituals, which provided an opportunity to gather in larger groups, to relate histories and mythologies, and to display wealth. In the south, mourning ceremonies were the most important, while across the region other ceremonies revolved around life cycle events such as puberty, astronomical occasions, and other natural phenomena. Perhaps not completely unlike a more contemporary period in California's history, some ceremonies required spiritual leaders to ingest psychotropic drugs, such as datura. Tobacco was also an important part of many rituals. Many California groups, especially in the north, observed a fairly rigid caste system, and some groups kept slaves.

Northwest Coast

The tendencies toward rigid caste systems and ostentatious displays of wealth were most pronounced in the rugged Northwest Coast, a region extending from Northern California to southern Alaska. This region, roughly 1,500 miles long but only about 100 miles deep, is defined by water: sounds, inlets, fjords, bays, and rivers. A cool, wet climate is fairly uniform throughout the region. Several cultural developments preceded the relatively stable subsistence patterns that lasted until contact with non-Native groups. This stability generally dates back to the time when sea levels stabilized, between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, although the timetable varied across the region, and other cultural practices, such as sedentary villages, social ranking, extensive woodworking, and distinctive regional art styles, emerged later, in some cases much later. Native people spoke at least forty dialects of languages in the Athapaskan, Haida, Tsimshian, Wakashan, Chimakuan, Salishan, and Penutian language families.

Two natural resources above all—fish, especially salmon, and cedar—played an enormous role in Northwest Coast life for millennia. Five types of salmon predominated: pink, coho, chum (dog), Chinook, and sockeye. Rituals celebrating the annual return of the salmon were common. Depending on location, people used a variety of methods to catch salmon, including nets, spears, and traps. People ate a wide variety of other fish, of course, such as halibut, eulachon, and herring, as well as shellfish, land mammals, plants, and roots such as camas and wapato. Red cedar formed the core of Northwest Coast technology. From it, people made clothing, baskets, plank houses, bowls, steam-bent boxes, and canoes, as well as a variety of artistic and ceremonial items. Other raw materials included obsidian, jade, jasper, amber, shells, whalebone, and stone. In general, the level of craftsmanship of tools and other objects was extremely high. Although most men could craft objects of wood, canoe making was a particularly specialized profession.

With the gradual accumulation of wealth, hierarchical social ranking became a key feature of most Northwest Coast societies. Status was quite rigid and tended to be inherited, although some movement was possible. Typically, four groups existed: nobility, upper-class free, lower-class free, and slaves (who were technically not members of society at all). Kin groups, which owned various rights and privileges, including subsistence areas, songs, and rituals, were identified by crests. Everything inheritable was said to originate from a supernatural spirit through an ancestor. Particularly in more recent times, the whole system of ranking and kin groups was confirmed and advanced by the potlatch, a complex ritual that featured feasting, singing, dancing, history recitation, and ostentatious gift giving. Potlatches also served to distribute surpluses, confirm alliances, and reinforce cooperation among kin groups.

Guardian spirits formed the basis of most Northwest Coast religion. Spirits could inhere in both animate and inanimate objects. Like most things they could be inherited, but individuals could acquire them as well through the vision quest, a rigorous process begun around the onset of adolescence and completed whenever the spirit became manifest. Spirits were generally associated with particular songs, dances, and skills. Most Northwest Coast art was heraldic in nature, announcing power and identity, and deriving in part from the spirit world. The well-known totem poles, carved and painted with heraldic or crest designs, were just one example of this ubiquitous type of art. People traded with each other and with inland groups, but the fact that the Northwest Coast is a relatively isolated region containing abundant natural resources militated against extensive trade.


Unlike the Northwest Coast, the Plateau region, defined loosely as the drainage basins of the Columbia and Fraser Rivers, is a land of extremes. The northern region is heavily forested and moderately wet, bitter cold in winter, and baking hot in summer, while the south tends toward sagebrush desert. To a significant extent and notwithstanding technological developments, such as specialized grinding tools (ca. 3000 BCE) and the bow and arrow and woodworking tools (ca. 500 BCE), the Plateau lifestyle changed relatively little from the first occupation of the region (well before the time of the so-called Kennewick man in eastern Washington, about 9,200 years ago) until the seventeenth century. The most important language families of the region were Sahaptin (Penutian) and Interior Salish. Most Plateau groups depended for food on fish, especially salmon, which were speared, netted, or, especially in the north, caught with hook and line. Other food staples included berries and roots (actually bulbs and tubers such as camas and bitterroot), which women gathered with special sticks and cooked in earth ovens. Some areas contained both large and small game.

Extended families tended to live in semisubterranean earth houses with conical roofs, entry to which was gained through the roof. Perhaps after about 1700 BCE, people also utilized summer houses made of tule mats. Some villages were occupied all year long, but generally people followed the food supply. Like their California neighbors, some groups manipulated their natural environment through regular burning to increase the yield of certain plant and animal foods. People using twined Indian hemp tule, and spruce and cedar root made a great variety of products, such as hats, bedding, nets, mats, and fine baskets. Canoes, both dugout and bark, served for water transportation.

With relatively easy access to neighboring regions of North America, Plateau people traded widely and extensively. Indeed, The Dalles, located at the head of the Columbia gorge, was one of the most important trade centers in North America. At the same time, valuing autonomy, relative equality, and cooperation, Plateau people tended to avoid warfare, both among themselves or with outsiders. Kin networks often extended over great distances. Specialized leaders arose only for special occasions, and political leadership, which might be exercised by either sex, depended on an ability to persuade rather than to overpower or to enforce decisions.

In general, Plateau ceremonialism was based on individual relationships with guardian spirits, which might be associated with either animate or inanimate objects. Boys and girls entering puberty generally undertook spirit quests, which consisted of travel to remote places where they encountered their spirit helper as manifested in special songs and powers. In turn, sacred spirits required certain forms of respect, a mutual process that helped to ensure harmony between people and their environment.

Great Basin

Similar in many ways to the Plateau, and occupying roughly 400,000 square miles of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, is an area commonly referred to as the Great Basin. The main differences between the Plateau and the Great Basin are the absence (except for neighboring peoples) in the Basin of salmon and the existence, where water existed at all, of more closed-water fisheries. This arid region consists generally of high deserts and valleys as well as freshwater and saltwater lakes.

With the exception of the Hokan-speaking Washoe, all Great Basin inhabitants spoke dialects of Numic (Shoshonean) languages. Perhaps to a greater extent than in any other region, and notwithstanding several significant environmental changes, much of the Great Basin was characterized by a remarkable cultural continuity from about 7000 BCE until late in the nineteenth century.

In part reflecting the relative paucity of food in the region, people of the Great Basin were peaceful and highly nomadic, with small, fluid, extended-family camps located mainly around such water as existed in the region, although semipermanent villages eventually developed in some of the more productive areas. People hunted game, such as birds, rabbits, deer, and antelope; they fished in the few freshwater lakes; and they gathered a variety of grasses, seeds (piñon), nuts (acorn), and other plants, as well as some insects (grasshoppers, crickets, some caterpillars, and fly larvae). Successful rabbit or mountain sheep drives were generally followed by a festival that included gambling, singing, dancing, and courtship. Some border groups experimented with agriculture, the Southern Paiute growing maize, beans, and squash, and the Owens Valley Shoshone building extensive irrigation canals to increase the amount of wild foods. The basic raw materials for baskets and containers were willow, grasses, and roots, as well as (depending upon location) stone, bone, obsidian, and wood. People fished using nets, weirs, basket traps, spears, and hook and line. Like their neighbors to the north and west, some groups practiced environmental management by selective burning and pruning.

Housing in the Great Basin typically consisted of brush windbreaks in summer and conical pole (pine and/or juniper) frame structures supporting a covering of brush, bark, grass, and/or tule. Some northern groups used skins to cover the frames. Doorways generally faced east. People wore little clothing except in the coldest weather, when they might wear fur or twined-bark breechclouts as well as blankets of sewn rabbit- or buffalo-skin. As long as 7,000 years ago, people living in the Great Basin were part of extensive trade networks reaching across the region west to the Pacific Ocean. Traditional spirituality centered on various beings that were capable of influencing human existence. People practiced both individual (spirit dreams or visions) and communal (round dance) ceremonies, some of which were associated with life cycle events. Part of maintaining a harmonious relationship with their environment was the respect that people accorded to food and medicinal items, both plants (over three hundred of which were used medicinally) and animals.

Beginning about 500, people of a highly diverse culture, now known as Fremont, inhabited the eastern edge of the Great Basin. One feature of the Fremont culture was farming: People in this area, probably under the influence of their Pueblo neighbors to the south, began supplementing their regular diet with maize, beans, and squash as early as several hundred years BCE. Several hundred years later, people added the bow and arrow to their tool kit of atlatls and darts, and they began settling down in relatively stable communities. Fremont culture was characterized by these developments as well as by the existence of moccasins, clay figurines and containers, distinctive rock art, and other traits. By around 1400, the Fremont culture became dispersed to the point of disappearance.

Great Plains and Prairie

To the east of the Great Basin, the Plateau, and the Southwest lay the huge Great Plains and Prairie, a grassy region of roughly 1.5 million square miles located between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi River, and from west-central Canada to Texas. The Plains are characterized by their altitude, wind, and aridity, while in lower, more humid regions the prairie grasslands extend east to the forests of the Midwest. The Plains' greatest river is the Missouri and its tributaries. The flat topology allows frigid polar air in the winter and scorching heat in the summer; these contrasts often give rise to dramatic weather events, such as blizzards and tornadoes. People exhibiting Clovis cultural attributes were present in the Great Plains 12,000 years ago; human habitation may well have extended back considerably farther than that. These early hunters stalked ancient species of big game and then their successors, the bison. As the region warmed and the big game moved north and died out, the Plains became depopulated to the point where no evidence of human habitation has been found from about 5000 BCE to 3000 BCE. From around 2500 BCE, as the bison population recovered, to 500 BCE, people living in small camps hunted bison, elk, deer, antelope, and other creatures; used grinding stones to process seeds; and gathered pine seeds, wild onions, juniper bark, and yucca (in the west).

Beginning around 2,500 years ago, people living in the Plains began to be influenced by the Adena and Hopewell cultures to the east (see "Southeast"). Villages appeared in some of the river valleys, inhabited by people living in oval pole wigwams. People began growing maize in an area from about Kansas City to the Dakotas. They buried their dead in mounds (although, unlike true Hopewell culture, the tombs revealed no status differentiation). Items indicating the presence of vast trade networks, eastward and westward perhaps even to the Pacific Coast, included conch, olivella and dentalium shells, and copper beads. Bows and arrows appeared throughout the Plains early in the first millennium CE. Around 850, as contact increased with neighboring peoples, agricultural settlements became more pronounced throughout the Missouri Valley, although these farmers continued to rely extensively on bison for their food. In the central Plains, people built rectangular wooden homes framed by posts and partially insulated with earth, often located on a bluff above a river flood plain.

In present-day south-central Wisconsin, a town later known as Aztalan appears to have been an outpost of the great Mississippian capital Cahokia (see "Southeast"). People living here and in similar towns cultivated corn, squash, sunflowers, probably chenopods, and tobacco. The societies of the upper midwestern Mississippi, known as Oneota, were characterized by the almost exclusive use of agriculture as well as by extensive trade and the use of pottery. Strangely, tuberculosis seems to have appeared among the Oneota people, perhaps brought over to the Americas by the Norse, who were attempting to colonize the Gulf of Saint Lawrence region at about this time. In the western Great Lakes region, people improved the soil by adding ash and charcoal, although they also hunted and fished to ensure a stable, nutritious diet. In general, the farther west people lived, the less they practiced agriculture and the more they hunted bison. People's possessions and gear were carried in bundles lashed between poles by specially trained dogs.

By the fifteenth century, or roughly 250 years before the introduction of the horse changed life on the Plains dramatically and forever, populations were increasing all across the region, but especially in the northern parklands. New arrivals included Caddoan groups from east Texas, such as the Pawnee, and Apacheans from western Canada. Toward the east and Missouri River Valley regions, farming towns grew to contain as many as a hundred houses, and, in a sign of increased competition for land, the towns were increasingly defended with stockades and ditches. Rectangular houses gave way to a more rounded style along the Missouri, while hunting camp dwellings were usually hide tipis. All across the region, but especially in the west, bison remained plentiful, as did elk, beaver, and numerous other game (High Plains people did not eat fish as a rule). People tended to follow the game out onto the open areas in summer and back into the wooded areas in winter. The favored way to take bison was by driving them over cliffs or to the head of a ravine or by stalking them individually or surrounding them in groups and then shooting them with arrows. In the southern High Plains, Apachean groups became heavily influenced by the Pueblo people to their west, becoming small-scale farmers as well as bison hunters. Conversely, some of the region's nomadic hunters, such as the Kiowa, may once have been Pueblo dwellers who moved east to follow the bison during the droughts of the fourteenth century.

People ate bison meat fresh or cut into strips and then dried and stored. Mixed with fat and berries, the meat, called pemmican, could last for several months, generally throughout the winter. Clothing, which in some areas was decorated with porcupine-quill embroidery, was derived mainly from bison and/or deer. Bison parts also provided containers (hides and stomach), tools (bones), rattles (hoof), bowstrings and thread (sinew), ropes and belts (hair), spoons and cups (horn), and other items. Authority was highly transient and was earned by traits such as bravery, spiritual attainment, generosity, and a sense of humor. For many Plains people, the circle was a sacred shape, symbolic of the interconnectedness of the universe. As a circular object, the pipe bowl was also associated with the sacred, and agreements concluded over a pipe of tobacco were not broken in theory or practice. The Great Mystery, Wakan Tanka, presided over an array of sacred natural beings and phenomena. Like some Native Americans in other regions, Plains people entering adolescence tended to hold vision quests in which, through the benefit of purification and self-deprivation, they received power or "medicine" that could be used for certain specific purposes. Such medicine was often accompanied by songs and dances, and it had a physical manifestation as well (the sacred bundle). Another way to communicate with the sacred realm was through visions, generally obtained either through dreaming or as part of ceremonies.


Settlement patterns differed considerably in the Southeast, a region generally described as bounded by the eastern Great Plains and a line running east-west from about Delaware to Iowa. It is fairly flat, except for the Appalachian Mountains, and generally warm to hot, and wet, except less so in the northern and northwestern regions. The area was heavily forested with some grassy prairies, except along the Gulf Coast, where semitropical vegetation and swampland prevailed. The Southwest was dominated by Muskogean speakers, but Algonquians and Siouans were also present.

Due to the relative wetness of the Southeast, the regular flooding of major river systems, and rising sea levels as a result of melting glaciations, evidence of early human history is particularly scarce. People were in the region no later than about 12,000 BCE. By roughly 5000 BCE, people lived in some small settlements; ate deer and other large animals, fowl, shellfish, fish, nuts, berries, and seeds; and made various tools (including canoes), baskets, and ornaments. People from different settlements probably engaged with each other at popular fishing or trapping sites, leading to trade and other forms of human interaction. Along the coast, people may have traded with people as far away as Central and South America. Early cultivation, including squash and sunflower, dates from at least 1400 BCE, with maize appearing almost 1,000 years later. Inconclusive evidence suggests that one early town—Poverty Point, near Vicksburg—may have been founded by Olmec (Mexican) traders. The town, which was more than 7 miles across, contained mounds over 75 feet high. Artisans made fine beadwork, stone tools, and clay balls designed to serve as heating elements.

Beginning in about 500 BCE, the Adena culture formed along the Ohio River in present-day Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Indiana. Most Adena people ate food that they hunted or gathered, supplemented with domesticated plant foods (squash, sunflower, amaranth, chenopod, and marsh elder). Population density was relatively low; camps were characterized by hot-rock cooking ovens and areas of specialized activity (perhaps tool making or weaving). In addition, Adena culture was characterized by relatively complex communal burial rituals. Burial mounds grew by successive burials and cremations, with various ornaments (made of copper, mica, and other material), tools (points, axes, atlatls), and other items (such as sacred pipes) being buried with the body or ashes. Adena trade networks stretched throughout much of the Southeast. The Adena people also often constructed circular earth-works more than 300 feet in diameter with interior ditches and exterior banks. Unlike at Poverty Point, Adena people tended to live in scattered dwellings rather than in towns.

The Adena probably evolved to some extent into the later, and even more complex, Hopewell culture, also based in the central Mississippi and lower Ohio Valleys, which flourished between about 100 BCE and 450. The Hopewell differed from the Adena primarily in the cultivation of maize and in the loose integration of a huge region by political/trade leaders who legitimated their power with status symbols of rare, exotic material such as gold, obsidian, and silver in the form of hawks, stags, bears, and snakes. After the Hopewell declined, due in part to the onset of a cooler climate, people living farther south continued to enjoy a relatively high standard of living.

With the warm-up of the Midwest around 750, and the introduction of a new variety of maize, a new period, the Mississippian, developed. The fortified city of Cahokia, located near present-day St. Louis, was the center of Mississippian culture, which appears to have formed from flourishing Gulf Coast and lower Mississippi Valley societies. Cahokia began around 950 and lasted until roughly 1450. At its peak around 1100, Greater Cahokia was probably home to as many as 50,000 people, of whom up to 15,000 lived in the capital itself. This was North America's largest settlement until Philadelphia took over the distinction shortly after 1800. Other major Mississippian cities included Moundville, Etowah, and Spiro.

In addition to its sheer size, a distinguishing feature of Cahokia was its earthen platform mounds. The largest was originally more than a hundred feet high and with more area than a football field. People built wooden platforms on some of the mounds to serve as palaces or mausoleums. They also erected huge (30-inch-diameter) posts on the mounds and in the plazas adjacent to the mounds. These posts may have had ritual and/or astronomical significance. Cahokia's trade networks were huge, stretching north to the Great Lakes, east to the Atlantic Ocean, south to the Gulf of Mexico, and west to Texas. They may even have extended to Mexico. Food, largely including corn, beans, and squash, was abundant, and people built wattle-and-daub houses beside their fields on the outskirts of the city. Characterized by a focus on rank and power, Mississippian ceremonialism was, along with art, cosmology, and other aspects of the culture, sophisticated and rich.


The region characterized as Northeast encompasses close to a million square miles. It extends from the Atlantic Ocean westward to where the woodlands shade into prairie, and from the mid-Atlantic area north to the boreal forest. Geologically, the Appalachian Mountains and the Great Lakes dominate the region, which is well watered and drained by major rivers such as the Saint Lawrence, Hudson, Ohio, and Susquehanna. Almost all Northeastern Indians spoke Algonquian or, to a lesser extent, Iroquoian languages. The first people probably arrived from the southwest at least 12,000 years ago, moving north with the big game and the receding glaciers. Food staples by about 4500 BCE included deer, caribou, and sea mammals. Most people may have congregated along the coast, but, owing to the raised sea levels since that period, any sites of early human coastal habitation would be well underwater. With a general warming from about 3000 BCE, the variety of foods in the Northeast increased to include hickory trees, abundant and reliable river fish runs, and many smaller mammals and fowl as well. Technological innovation grew as well to include fishhooks and nets, woodworking tools, dugout canoes (birchbark in the north), and soap-stone bowls.

People in the region began using pottery around 1000 BCE. Evidence suggests that the custom did not arrive from the south, as might be expected. Local residents may have either invented it independently or learned it from contacts in the far northwest or even from the far northeast—Scandinavia and northern Europe. Around this time, people began smoking and cultivating tobacco. By roughly 2,000 years ago, small, nomadic hunter-gatherer-fisher communities lived in rectangular houses generally made of poles covered with slabs of bark. Corpses were sprinkled with red ochre powder and buried with a variety of ornaments and tools and with tobacco and pipes. Adena artifacts and mounds appear as far east as the eastern Great Lakes and western New York; however, in general the Northeast was not heavily influenced by Mississippian cultural traditions.

It was not until about 1000 that Northeast Indians—notably, the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) of New York—began to cultivate maize, beans, squash, and sunflowers using slash-and-burn agricultural techniques. With this development, populations increased and became somewhat more sedentary. Competition for arable land, combined with the Iroquoian desire to dominate the region economically, was a major factor in two developments: (1) the dramatic expansion of warfare, along with ritualistic forms of war-related activities, including, in some areas, cannibalism, and (2) the formation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, or Iroquois League, by Hiawatha (Aionwantha) and Deganawidah (The Peacemaker), probably in the twelfth century.

The Iroquois League was a remarkable peace treaty among five nations: Cayuga, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, and Seneca. Freed from internecine warfare, the League's member nations were free to turn their attentions without, which they did with astonishing effectiveness, ultimately dominating an area from the Hudson to the Ohio River Valley and the Saint Lawrence to the Susquehanna. Iroquoians generally lived in heavily fortified towns surrounded by fields of crops. Descent within families and clans, as well as political leadership, was matrilineal. Some clans had their own wooden houses, which could be up to 400 feet long. Among their ceremonies was the False Face Society, whose members lured curing forest spirits into homes through the use of grotesque carved masks.

Although some Algonquian people south of the Saint Lawrence region grew crops, in general they relied less on agriculture and more on hunting, gathering, and fishing (fish, shellfish, and sea mammals). Instead of longhouses, Algonquians tended to live in dome-shaped wigwams covered with sheets of birch bark, slabs of elm or conifer bark, mats, or hides. People transported their goods on sleds, pulled by men, or in canoes. A seasonal routine prevailed in which people availed themselves of the richness of the sea in summer, of running fish near rapids in spring and fall, and of interior hunting grounds in winter. Their fishing and trapping technology was highly sophisticated, and the ratio of labor to comfort was, in general, quite favorable. People used shell beads, called wampum, to maintain tribal records and during some ceremonies.


The harsh Subarctic was another region in which life changed relatively little in several thousand years. The Subarctic is characterized by the well-watered boreal forest. Long, cold winters, followed by springs filled with biting insects, limited the aboriginal population considerably. The two main language groups were Athapaskan (Dene), mainly in the west, and Algonquian, mainly in the east. Despite the challenging climate, trade networks, which became quite extensive, began at least 10,000 years ago. The Laurel culture of Manitoba and northern Ontario (ca. 1000 BCE–800 CE) was characterized by coiled, impressed, incised, and fired pottery. Warfare tended to be small-scale and local, especially in the east. Religious traditions varied through the vast region of the Subarctic. If there was a common theme, it was respect for all of nature and the existence of natural powers, which might be acquired or accessed by means of fasting or spirit quests.

Depending on locations, people hunted caribou and moose, the big game, with stone blades and snares. They moved around using snowshoes and canoes, living in bark- or hide-covered, pole-frame houses or tents. After they acquired the bow and arrow, between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago, they began driving moose and caribou into corrals or lakes, where they were shot. Fowl and smaller animals also were snared or shot. Among the many tools, clothing and other items made from animal parts included the ubiquitous babiche, or semisoftened rawhide, that was used for everything from snares to netting and bowstrings. People tended to travel overland, although canoes made of bark or moose hide were not uncommon in some areas.


The Arctic, 12,000 miles across from the western Aleutian Islands to Greenland, is, in its way, a land of great contrasts. During most of the year it is covered by ice and snow. In the short summer, under a sun that never sets, the tundra blooms, and water returns to its liquid form. The coastal people in the Arctic are the Inuit, while people living in the interior are considered Indians. Roughly 10,000 years ago, people in the Aleutian Islands were building oval, semisubterranean whalebone and driftwood houses covered with sod, which they entered through the roof. As the sea level stabilized, around 5,000 years ago, coastal villages became more established. Much of the interior west at that time was grassland—the perfect environment for bison— which early Indians burned to ward off forest encroachment. In other parts of the Arctic, people ate sea mammals (such as seal and walrus), polar bear, birds, and, where available, fish. By about 2000 BCE, people in northern Alaska were living in protoigloos (houses entered through a sloping passageway); these people heated and cooked with driftwood- or bone-fed fires. To the east, people lived mainly in hide tents.

People now known as Dorset lived in the far northeast from about 500 BCE until about 900 (1500 in northern Quebec and Labrador). These people depended mainly on sea mammals for meat, hides, and cooking oil. They dressed in fur parkas; made bone, ivory, and wood carvings; and lived in igloos, or domed shelters of snow blocks. They apparently pulled their sleds themselves without the aid of dogs. They hunted seals with spears, but not with the bow and arrow, at blowholes and on the ice's edge. In the west, people of the so-called Norton culture began using pottery and building permanent settlements. In the far north and west, people began the tradition of wearing highly polished plugs of stone or bone (labrets) in their lower lips or cheeks about 2,500 years ago. Coastal residents along the Bering Strait began using highly maneuverable kayaks and, for whaling, more substantial umiaks, as well as special knives and harpoons. With a more stable food supply, people were able to build large villages of up to several hundred homes. Their society grew wealthy and stratified. They also developed sophisticated artistic traditions, which were influenced by their contact with people in northeast Asia, along with technological innovations that included iron blades of hammered iron and copper and dogsleds. This pre-Inuit, or so-called Thule, culture was well established in Alaska and far northwestern Canada by 1000 CE and throughout most of the rest of the Arctic shortly thereafter. At about this time, the Thule encountered another group of intrepid explorers, the Norse.

By about 1500, then, between 2 million to as many as 18 million people lived in North America. The highest population densities were in the salmon-rich communities of the Northwest Coast and in parts of California, as well as among some villages in the Northeast, Midwest, and Southeast. As might be expected across such a vast land, cultural traditions were extremely diverse. Some groups barely survived in the harshest climates of the Great Basin and the Subarctic, while others enjoyed plenty of food year-round. Some groups had changed relatively little for thousands of years, while others had developed numerous complex, sophisticated forms of social organization, religious practice, and artistic traditions. In all cases, however, the appearance of large and permanent groups of non-Natives, beginning about 1500, introduced an element of change that was to have the most profound effects on native societies over the following several hundred years.

Barry M. Pritzker

Further Reading
Campbell, Lyle, and Marianne Mithun, eds. 1979. The Languages of Native America. Austin: University of Texas Press.; Carlson, Roy L., ed. 1982. Indian Art Traditions of the Northwest Coast. Burnaby, B.C.: Archaeology Press, Simon Fraser University.; Champagne, Duane, ed. 1994. Chronology of Native North American History. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.; Collins, June McCormick. 1974. Valley of the Spirits. Seattle: University of Washington Press.; Cordell, Linda S. 1984. Prehistory of the Southwest. Boston: Academic Press.; Dickason, Olive P. 1992. Canada's First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Dobyns, Henry F. 1983. Their Number Became Thinned. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.; Dumond, D. E. 1977. The Eskimos and Aleuts. London: Thames and Huston.; Fagan, Brian M. 1995. Ancient North America. London and New York: Thames and Hudson.; Galloway, Patricia, ed. 1989. The Southeastern Ceremonial Complex: Artifacts and Analysis. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Gibbon, Gary, ed. 1998. Archaeology of Prehistoric Native America. New York: Garland Publishing.; Ives, John W. 1990. A Theory of Northern Athapaskan Prehistory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.; Jennings, Francis. 1984. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire. New York: W.W. Norton.; Jennings, Jesse D. 1983. Ancient North Americans. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.; Johansen, Bruce E. 2005. Native Peoples of North America. Westport, CT: Praeger.; Kehoe, Alice Beck. 1992. North American Indians, 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.; Kroeber, A. 1939. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Laughlin, William, and Albert B. Harper, eds. 1979. The First Americans: Origins, Affinities, and Adaptations. New York: Gustav Fischer.; Mason, Ronald J. 1981. Great Lakes Archaeology. New York: Academic Press.; Maxwell, Moreau S. 1985. Prehistory of the Eastern Arctic. Orlando and London, FL: Academic Press.; Nichols, George P., ed. 1988. Holocene Human Ecology in Northeastern North America. New York: Plenum Press.; Paterek, Josephine. 1994. Encyclopedia of American Indian Costume. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.; Pauketat, Timothy, and Diana DiPaulo Loren, eds. 2005. North American Archaeology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.; Pritzker, Barry M. 1998. Native Americans: An Encyclopedia of History, Culture and Peoples. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.; Ross, Thomas E., and Tyrel G. Moore, eds. 1987. A Cultural Geography of North American Indians. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.; Sturtevant, William, ed. 1978. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.; Swanton, John R. 1946, reprinted 1979. The Indians of the Southeastern United States. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 137. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 137.; Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed. 1987. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Wedel, Waldo R. 1961. Prehistoric Man on the Great Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Wright, Gary A. 1984. People of the High Country. New York: Peter Lang.; Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. 1981. The Only Land They Knew. New York: The Free Press.

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  People and Groups
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