Western Hemisphere's First Inhabitants

In telling the history of the United States and also of the nations of the Western Hemisphere in general, historians have wrestled with the problem of what to call the hemisphere's first inhabitants. Under the mistaken impression he had reached the “Indies,” explorer Christopher Columbus called the people he met “Indians.” This was an error in identification that has persisted for more than five hundred years, for the inhabitants of North and South America had no collective name by which they called themselves.

Historians, anthropologists, and political activists have offered various names, none fully satisfactory. Anthropologists have used “aborigine,” but the term suggests a primitive level of existence inconsistent with the cultural level of many tribes. Another term, “Amerindian,” which combines Columbus's error with the name of another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci (whose name was the source of “America”), lacks any historical context. Since the 1960s, “Native American” has come into popular favor, though some activists prefer “American Indian.” In the absence of a truly representative term, descriptive references such as “native peoples” or “indigenous peoples,” though vague, avoid European influence. In recent years, some argument has developed over whether to refer to tribes in the singular or plural—Apache or Apaches—with supporters on both sides demanding political correctness.

Arrival of the first inhabitants. Apart from the brief visit of the Scandinavians in the early eleventh century, the Western Hemisphere remained unknown to Europe until Columbus's voyage in 1492. However, the native peoples of North and South America arrived from Asia long before, in a series of migrations that began perhaps as early as forty thousand years ago across the land bridge that connected Siberia and Alaska.

The first Americans found a hunter's paradise. Mammoths and mastodons, ancestors of the elephant, and elk, moose, and caribou abounded on the North American continent. Millions of bison lived on the Great Plains, as did antelope, deer, and other game animals, providing the earliest inhabitants of the Americas, the Paleo‐Indians, with a land rich in food sources. Because food was abundant, the population grew, and human settlement spread throughout the Western Hemisphere rather quickly.

The Paleo‐Indians were hunter‐gatherers who lived in small groups of not more than fifty people. They were constantly on the move, following the herds of big game, apparently recognizing the rights of other bands to hunting grounds. These early native people developed a fluted stone point for spears that made their hunting more efficient. Evidence of such fluted points has surfaced throughout the Americas.

Life on the North American continent. Anthropologists have found an astonishing variety of culture and language groups among the native peoples of North America. Tribes living in close proximity might have spoken totally unrelated languages, while tribes living hundreds of miles from each other might have shared similar languages. Regions in which a population shares a similar lifestyle based on environmental conditions are known as culture areas. Although North America can be divided into many such regions, the most significant are the Southwest, Great Plains, and Eastern Woodlands.

The Southwest. Following the climate changes after the end of the last ice age (about ten thousand years ago), agriculture gradually developed in North America. The native peoples of central Mexico began planting maize, beans, and squash around 5000 B.C., and the cultivation of these crops slowly spread northward. In the desert Southwest, the Hohokam culture (southern Arizona) constructed an elaborate network of irrigation canals to water their fields. Farming meant a settled life, and the Hohokam lived in permanent villages with as many as several hundred residents. The villages served as economic, religious, and political centers.

East of the Hohokam, the Anasazi lived where the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet at the Four Corners. The Anasazi built permanent homes and developed villages with as many as fifteen hundred people. At the high point of Anasazi culture, Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico had twelve villages sustaining some fifteen thousand people, with straight roads connecting outlying settlements. Both the Hohokam and Anasazi established trade connections with tribes in what would become Mexico and California.

A major and dramatic change affected the Hohokam and Anasazi societies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however. At that time, a prolonged drought drastically reduced the water supply in the region. The area could no longer provide for a large population, and the villages were abandoned as the people left in search of more hospitable areas, many settling along the upper Rio Grande and establishing the pueblos that continue to this day.

The Great Plains. In contrast to the Southwest tribes, early native peoples of the Great Plains were hunters, relying on bison and other Plains animals to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Tribes followed the large bison herds and claimed extensive areas as their hunting grounds. Conflicts over territory led to a perpetual rivalry among the tribes that bordered on warfare.

With their dependence on hunting, Plains tribes had difficulty maintaining their standard of living. Of necessity nomadic, they were compelled to keep material possessions to a minimum. Their only domesticated animal was the dog. Limited to what they could carry with them, Plains peoples lived a harsh existence. The horse, introduced with the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth century, transformed the culture of the Great Plains.

The Eastern Woodlands. The “Eastern Woodlands” refers to the large, heavily forested area extending from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic seacoast, where several important cultures flourished. The Adena of the Ohio River Valley (fifth century B.C.), who left hundreds of burial mounds, developed into a larger cultural group known as the Hopewell, which continued to build elaborate earthen works. Although the Adena‐Hopewell peoples remained primarily hunter‐gatherers, archeological evidence indicates that they had an extensive trading network stretching to the Rocky Mountains and the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.

The first true farmers of the Eastern Woodlands were the Mississippians of the central Mississippi River Valley. The most important Mississippian center was Cahokia, which was located near the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers (St. Louis, Missouri). Cahokia had as many as forty thousand residents in a six‐square‐mile area, and by the thirteenth century its large population was straining to grow enough food to sustain itself. Aggressive neighbors also contributed to the instability of Cahokia, and the people finally scattered to form smaller villages.

Early North American society and culture. Estimates of the population of North America at the time of European contact have been revised upward by modern scholarship to as many as ten million. Although the native peoples varied widely, they did share some important social and cultural traits.

In modern America, society is chiefly based on the nuclear family (mother, father, and children), but kinship groups—the extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins—were key to the social relations among the native peoples. Among tribes as different as the Pueblo of the Southwest and the Iroquois of the Northeast, kinship was determined by the female line. The clan was composed of several kinship groups that claimed descent from a common ancestor, often a woman. The roles assigned to men and women were clearly defined. The men hunted, engaged in trade, made war, and were the tribal leaders, while the women cared for the children, gathered food, and cultivated crops. The exception to this pattern was in the Southwest where men also worked the fields. In societies where matrilineal descent was important, women had more responsibilities. They controlled property, distributed food, and either advised or were the real power in tribal councils.

Native peoples believed that nature was sacred. The sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, trees, and animals had spiritual power and were either the gods themselves or the abode of gods. Tribal creation myths were most often based on the interplay of these natural forces. While some tribes accepted the idea of a supreme being, polytheism was the rule. The shaman was considered the intermediary between the people and the gods in the spirit world. He or she also interpreted the visions and dreams that were an important part of religious practice. To induce dreams, an individual might fast for several days, use drugs, or go through a physical ordeal. In addition to rituals to bring rain or ensure a good harvest or hunt, ceremonies marking life‐cycle events—birth, puberty, marriage, and death—were common.

There is a tendency to view North American society at the end of the fifteenth century as a pre‐Columbian Garden of Eden corrupted by the arrival of the Europeans. This notion of an idyllic place where everyone was one with the environment and each other denies native peoples their own history. The Mississippians, for example, practiced torture and human sacrifice as part of their death cult. Tribes in the Pacific Northwest had a very rigid class structure based on private property and made slaves out of war captives and debtors. Among the Natchez in the Southeast, the hereditary nobles under the chief, or “Great Sun,” oppressed the majority of the tribe.