Chapter 1 - Early America

Total Video: 01:38:00

Chapter One - Early America

By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
View of the Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde. By Pierce, C.C. (Charles C.), 1861-1946 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Heaven and Earth never agreed better to frame a place for man’s habitation.”

Jamestown founder John Smith, 1607


By User:Nikater [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cultural areas of pre-Columbian North America. By User:Nikater [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps as many as 500 distinct tribes inhabited North America before the Columbian encounter in the late fifteenth century. However, after that encounter, Europeans tended to view these early Americans as a single culture and attempted to apply a single policy in dealing with them—a mistake the United States would repeat after its Revolution hundreds of years later. In reality, there were more cultures and cultural differences in the Americas in 1500 than there were in Europe at that same time.

Video 00:1:20 links to: Meteor Crater Video (


Who were these earliest Americans and where did they come from? Many Europeans of that day speculated that these were the lost tribes of Israel or possibly the descendants of Egyptians who had migrated to the New World. In the past century it has become widely accepted that these first Americans migrated from Asia via a land bridge connecting modern day Russia and Alaska.

This theory holds that an ice-cap of up to two miles in thickness covered much of North America during an ice-age more than 10,000 years ago. With so much water trapped in the ice, ocean levels would have dropped hundreds of feet, exposing the Bering Strait which is less than 200 feet deep. This is currently the most widely held theory of ancient American origins.

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Origins Too?

Some interesting scholarship is going on right now which calls this theory into question. While it has long been assumed by Western scholars that the earliest Americans migrated from Asia, new finds are beginning to stir things up a bit. A growing number—though certainly not a majority—of scholars are speculating as to whether the first Americans were possibly from the South Pacific, Africa or possibly even Europe.

The topic is absolute dynamite right now for obvious reasons. The bones of Kennewick Man, discovered in Washington’s Columbia River in 1996, have been dated to 9,600 years. Initial examinations concluded that this was a Caucasian murder victim from the very recent past. Later testing indicated a Southeastern Asian ethnicity (not the Northeastern ethnicity one would expect from the land bridge theory). The presence of ossification in the bones led examiners to conduct radiocarbon dating which touched off a controversy between scientists, Native Americans and the Government. This ended in the discovery site being covered under tons of stone and dirt by the Army Corps of Engineers toward the end of the Clinton Administration in the late 1990s.

By LavaBaron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Burke Museum at the University of Washington, where the remains of the Kenneweck man are currently stored. By LavaBaron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

More Origins?

Other discoveries have indicated that the Americas were populated by humans much earlier than a recent ice-age migration model can support. In Cactus Hill Virginia, ancient tools which pre-date the Bering Strait Land  hypothesis bear a resemblance to European tool making. Recent DNA studies also possibly indicate shared DNA between modern Northeastern American Indians and Europeans. "Luzia Woman" was found in Brazil and dated to about 11,500 years. She has been described as possibly African, possibly Australian and just about everything but the expected Mongoloid. All of this is highly speculative and should make for exciting debate for decades to come.

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Early American Life

How did early North Americans live? Many believe that the earliest of early Americans were hunter-gatherers who, having populated much of the North American West Coast, then followed the bison and mastodon herds and receding glaciers back northward in an effort to remain in a familiar environment.

Video 00:01:32 link to: Old Faithful video (

Others of these early North Americans may also have been nascent agriculturalists who remained in place and learned to live in a changing environment by growing what they needed to survive.

Curiously, it would be need rather than plenty, which would lead to population increase and culture building as the most complex north American civilizations have been found in some of the most arid and difficult climates.

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User: Stilfehler at wikivoyage shared [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Mammoth skeleton at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver, Colorado. User: Stilfehler at wikivoyage shared [CC BY-SA 1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Pleistocene Age

The most prominent theories in geology, archaeology and anthropology today suggest a Pleistocene Age between 75,000 B.C and 8,000 years BC in which much of North America was covered by an ice-cap of between one and two miles thick. It is theorized that with so much water trapped in this huge amount of ice, the level of the world’s oceans would have dropped by several hundred feet. If so, then this would have revealed the ocean floor in the Bering Strait between present-day Alaska and Russia because the Strait is only 180 feet deep. It is widely believed that most North Americans were hunter-gatherers during this period—living off an abundance of mammoth, mastodon, and bison near the southern edges of the North-American glacial blanket.

Archaic Age

Inquiring of the same theories will lead us to a glacial retreat beginning around 8,000 BC and to the naming of a new era—the “Archaic Age.” It is reasonable to think that as the glaciers retreated northward, that weather patterns would change in response.

Animals seeking familiar weather patterns would have followed the glaciers north as would many who hunted those animals. Others, choosing to stay, would learn to adapt to a more arid environment through tool-making and invention to bring out of the ground what they were no longer getting from the mammal herds—namely, calories.

Stone hoes for turning the earth, small channels to move water and improved arrow points to bring down smaller game contributed to the building of culture by allowing people to create food surpluses, remain stationary, and establish rituals, social structures and traditions.

Beringia Land Bridge. Animated gif of its progress from 21.000 BC to modern times. By NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Beringia Land Bridge. Animated gif of its progress from 21.000 BC to modern times. By NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Paleoenvironmental Atlas of Beringia with animation showing the coastline after so many years.

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By 3,000 B.C., a primitive type of corn was being grown in the river valleys of New Mexico and Arizona. Then the first signs of irrigation began to appear, and, by 300 B.C., signs of early village life.

By the first centuries A.D., the Hohokam were living in settlements near what is now Phoenix, Arizona, where they built ball courts and pyramid-like mounds reminiscent of those found in Mexico, as well as a canal and irrigation system.

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Golden Age

The "Golden Age,” a two-and-a-half-millennium period between 1200 BC and 1250 AD, saw the continued development of irrigation and agriculture in Southwestern North America, a nomadic hunting culture on the Great Plains and a tendency toward a mix of hunting and farming tribes East of the Mississippi River. The first great civilizations in North America tended to arise near to, and West of, the Mississippi River. If necessity truly is the mother of invention, then it makes sense that some tribes in the Southwest, lacking a steady supply of animals, would seek vegetable sustenance, learn that vegetables do not run away, become proficient at raising them, build more permanent dwellings in prime agricultural regions and realize a regular surplus and population growth as they cooperated to further the community.

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Once a regular surplus became the norm, some members were freed up to serve as political and religious figures, hence, cultural development, societal structure and all the trappings not usually associated with hunter-gatherer tribes.

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The first Native-American group to build mounds in what is now the United States often are called the Adenans. They began constructing earthen burial sites and fortifications around 600 B.C. Some mounds from that era are in the shape of birds or serpents; they probably served religious purposes not yet fully understood.  

Western side of the Enon Mound, located inside of Mound Circle in Enon, Ohio, United States. By Nyttend - Own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Western side of the Enon Mound, located inside of Mound Circle in Enon, Ohio, United States. By Nyttend - Own work, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Adenans appear to have been absorbed or displaced by various groups collectively known as Hopewellians. One of the most important centers of their culture was found in southern Ohio, where the remains of several thousand of these mounds still can be seen. Believed to be great traders, the Hopewellians used and exchanged tools and materials across a wide region of hundreds of kilometers.


By around 500 A.D., the Hopewellians disappeared, too, gradually giving way to a broad group of tribes generally known as the Mississippians or Temple Mound culture. One city, Cahokia, near Collinsville, Illinois, is thought to have had a population of about 20,000 at its peak in the early 12th century. At the center of the city stood a huge earthen mound, flattened at the top, that was 30 meters high and 37 hectares at the base. Eighty other mounds have been found nearby.

Cities such as Cahokia depended on a combination of hunting, foraging, trading, and agriculture for their food and supplies. Influenced by the thriving societies to the south, they evolved into complex hierarchical societies that took slaves and practiced human sacrifice.

Video Cahokia. 00:09:44 (

Monks Mound, the largest earthen structure at Cahokia. By Skubasteve834 (EN.Wikipedia) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Monks Mound, the largest earthen structure at Cahokia. By Skubasteve834 (EN.Wikipedia) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Cahokia was sustained by agriculture, small game and cooperation. It is thought that their earthen mounds so impressed visitors that a mound-building culture spread to as much as half of the current-day continental United States. Several mounds have been found as far north as Cadillac in northern Michigan.

Cahokia was undone by its own success several hundred years before the Columbian encounter. Continual deforestation around the city drove the small game away and removed most protein from this people’s diet. Their mounds remain as a testament to their industry and way of life.

Pre-contact North America

“Pre-Contact North America” refers to that quarter-millennia period before Columbus landed in the “New World.” This was actually a period of cultural decline for North Americans in both the East and the West. Out west, a nearly two-decade drought, coupled with predatory raids from the Athapascan people drove the agricultural Mogollon and Anasazi out of their significantly developed settlements (see chapter photo at the beginning). These would reconstitute themselves as the Hopi, Zuni and Pueblo peoples. The Athapascan raiders would become the Apache and Navaho and would continue in a parasitic relationship with those whom their ancestors had driven out earlier.

Nobody is quite sure what happened in the East. The lack of cultural ties to the Golden Age leaves researchers scratching their collective heads. Clearly, the Eastern tribes lost ground culturally, possibly for the same reasons as the Western tribes but it remains unclear.

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On the Verge

On the verge of contact with Europeans in 1492, Native Americans had settled (though usually quite sparsely) in most regions of North America. The hundreds of tribal groups, languages, dialects and economic systems were more varied than was Europe of that same time. Contrasted to the mono-cultural hunter-gatherers theorized about in the Pleistocene Era, North Americans had indeed adapted to new ways of living and of being.

Southern San Rafael Fremont Indian petroglyphs (~400 to ~1350 A.D.) (Capitol Reef National Park, southern Utah, USA). By James St. John [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Southern San Rafael Fremont Indian petroglyphs (~400 to ~1350 A.D.) (Capitol Reef National Park, southern Utah, USA). By James St. John [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.


Perhaps the most affluent of the pre-Columbian Native Americans lived in the Pacific Northwest, where the natural abundance of fish and raw materials made food supplies plentiful and permanent villages possible as early as 1,000 B.C.. The opulence of their “potlatch” gatherings remains a standard for extravagance and festivity probably unmatched in early American history.

To the extent that farming could be found in this region, so could slavery. The women who worked the fields would encourage the men to raid for the purpose of obtaining slaves who would lessen the field work for these women. These slaves would have one achilles tendon severed so as to prevent escape and to render any dreams of return to a former existence hopeless.

Cultural areas of North American Indigenous peoples at the time of European contact. By User:Nikater [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Cultural areas of North American Indigenous peoples at the time of European contact. By User:Nikater [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

West Coast

Further south, the original inhabitants of California lived a relatively easy existence of fishing, gathering plentiful acorns, and generally not engaging in civic development as this was not necessitated due to an abundance of game and gatherables like nuts and wild berries.


In what is now the southwest United States, the Anasazi, ancestors of the modern Hopi Indians, began building stone and adobe pueblos around the year 900. These unique and amazing apartment-like structures were often built along cliff faces; the most famous, the “cliff palace” of Mesa Verde, Colorado, had more than 200 rooms. Another site, the Pueblo Bonito ruins along New Mexico’s Chaco River, once contained more than 800 rooms.

The dry conditions forced the inhabitants to cooperate to obtain the most from scarce water resources. Small irrigation canals watered the maize which sustained the Pueblo peoples. The Pueblo peoples themselves were farmed by the Navaho and Apache raiders who would take what they needed from these farmers, being careful not to do so much damage as to prevent next year’s cycle of crops and raids.

Great Plains

On the Plains, a hunting culture was able to sustain itself on the tens of millions of Bison which dwelt there. Bison were so plentiful that these hunters were able to gather as many animals as they needed simply by setting range fires and frightening entire herds over cliffs—usually to obtain only a few animals. The later introduction of the horse by the Spanish would curtail this method because mounted hunters were able to bring down game with greater precision and efficiency. In fact, the introduction of the horse may have extended the era of the great bison herds until the time of Railroad expansion in the United States.

The East

In the Great Lakes region, a combination of fishing, hunting, limited agriculture and wild rice gathering sustained the people. In the more humid east, maize was the staple of most tribes, supplemented by occasional hunting forays for bison in the west. In the Southeast, plentiful game, agriculture and some agricultural slavery were present.

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Regarding customs, religious observance and culture at large, several factors influenced most tribes. For example, hunter-gatherers tended to be mobile, male-dominated (patriarchal) and individualistic in both their governance and religion. Agricultural tribes tended to stay in one place, emphasize political and religious community, have more elaborate religious rites, more elaborate political structure and more elaborate and permanent architecture. Hunter-gatherers tended to reckon the family line through the father, while agricultural tribes tended to reckon through the mother and were matriarchal. Tribes which blended hunting and agriculture (like many of the eastern tribes the European colonists would first encounter) tended to assign hunting to males and farming to females and have a mix of patrilineal and matrilineal family reckoning.


Specific limitations would prevent North Americans from putting up effective resistance to Europeans. First, the lack of resistance to European and African diseases decimated the North Americans. In many cases, disease would have wiped out more than half of a tribe’s population before they ever saw a white person. Coupled with this was the lack of wheel and metallurgical technology as well as efficient use of beasts of burden. Because North Americans did not use the wheel, nor harness oxen and horses, they could not move nearly as much equipment as Europeans. Because they had no metallurgy, they could not forge steel weapons. All of these factors would conspire to put North Americans at a distinct disadvantage to European colonists beginning in 1492.

Video: (00:09:00)  Pre-Columbian West  ( This video is accessible to NMC students only (login required).

"Fundación de Santiago" by Pedro Lira [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
"Fundación de Santiago" by Pedro Lira [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Time-worn pueblos and dramatic cliff towns, set amid the stark, rugged mesas and canyons of Colorado and New Mexico, mark the settlements of some of the earliest inhabitants of North America, the Anasazi (a Navajo word meaning “ancient ones”).

By 500 A.D. the Anasazi had established some of the first villages in the American Southwest, where they hunted and grew crops of corn, squash, and beans. The Anasazi flourished over the centuries, developing sophisticated dams and irrigation systems; creating a masterful, distinctive pottery tradition; and carving multi-room dwellings into the sheer sides of cliffs that remain among the most striking archaeological sites in the United States today.

Yet by the year 1300, they had abandoned their settlements, leaving their pottery, implements, even clothing — as though they intended to return — and seemingly vanished into history. Their homeland remained empty of human beings for more than a century — until the arrival of new tribes, such as the Navajo and the Ute, followed by the Spanish and other European settlers.

The story of the Anasazi is tied inextricably to the beautiful but harsh environment in which they chose to live. Early settlements, consisting of simple pithouses scooped out of the ground, evolved into sunken kivas (underground rooms) that served as meeting and religious sites. Later generations developed the masonry techniques for building square, stone pueblos. But the most dramatic change in Anasazi living was the move to the cliff sides below the flat-topped mesas, where the Anasazi carved their amazing, multi-level dwellings.

The Anasazi lived in a communal society. They traded with other peoples in the region, but signs of warfare are few and isolated. And although the Anasazi certainly had religious and other leaders, as well as skilled artisans, social or class distinctions were virtually nonexistent.

Religious and social motives undoubtedly played a part in the building of the cliff communities and their final abandonment. But the struggle to raise food in an increasingly difficult environment was probably the paramount factor. As populations grew, farmers planted larger areas on the mesas, causing some communities to farm marginal lands, while others left the mesa tops for the cliffs. But the Anasazi couldn’t halt the steady loss of the land’s fertility from constant use, nor withstand the region’s cyclical droughts. Analysis of tree rings, for example, shows that a drought lasting 23 years, from 1276 to 1299, finally forced the last groups of Anasazi to leave permanently.

Although the Anasazi dispersed from their ancestral homeland, their legacy remains in the remarkable archaeological record that they left behind, and in the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo peoples who are their descendants.

By Maproom [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Map of Ancestral Puebloan Territory. By Maproom [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Nikater [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
By User:Nikater [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

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