Conclusion: Pre-Colonial Development of North America

Conclusion: Pre-Colonial Development of North America

Many separate indigenous cultures developed and prospered in North America after the first waves of nomadic Paleo-Indians migrated to the continent across Beringia near the end of the Last Glacial Maximum.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the development of indigenous populations before the arrival of European settlers in the 17th century

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Civilization in America began during the last Ice Age when nomadic Paleo-Indians migrated across Beringia, an Ice Age land bridge that united the Eastern and Western hemispheres between Siberia and Alaska.
  • Eastern Woodland Culture refers to the way of life of indigenous peoples in the eastern part of North America between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE. This time period is widely regarded as a developmental period for the people of this region as they steadily advanced in their use of pottery and means of cultivation, tools, and textile manufacture.
  • The Great Bison Culture of the Great Basin area persisted from 10,500 BCE to 9500 BCE when the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison.
  • The mild climate and abundant natural resources along the Pacific Coast of North America allowed a complex aboriginal culture to flourish. Due to the prosperity made possible by the abundant natural resources in this region, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest developed complex religious and social ceremonies as well as many fine arts and crafts. At one time, these tribes made the Pacific Coast the most populated indigenous area in North America.
  • As Southwestern cultural traditions evolved, tribes transitioned from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements.
  • The Mexicas, or Aztecs, were one of the most powerful and advanced civilizations of the ancient world and remain culturally significant today.
  • The Maya civilization was a Meso-American civilization developed prior to 2000 BCE by the Maya peoples in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

Key Terms

  • Last Glacial Maximum (LGM): The last period in the Earth’s climate history during the last glacial period when ice sheets were at their greatest extension.
  • Mexica: Called Aztecs in occidental historiography (although this term is not limited to the Mexica), they were an indigenous people of the Valley of Mexico, known today as the rulers of the Aztec Empire. A Nahua people who founded their two cities Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco on raised islets in Lake Texcoco around 1200 CE.
  • Paleo-Indian: A classification term given to the peoples who inhabited the Americas during the final glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period.

Settlement of the Americas

Civilization in America began during the last Ice Age when nomadic Paleo-Indians migrated across Beringia. Beringia was an Ice Age land bridge that united the Eastern and Western hemispheres between Siberia and Alaska. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Paleo-Indians’ first dispersal into the Americas occurred near the end of the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), or the last period in the Earth’s climate history when ice sheets were at their greatest extension. Some genetic research indicates that secondary waves of migration occurred after the initial Paleo-Indian colonization, but prior to modern Inuit, Inupiat, and Yupik expansions. The Paleo-Indians would eventually flourish all over the Americas, creating regional variations in lifestyles while sharing a common style of stone tool production.

Beringia is defined as the land and maritime area bounded on the west by the Lena River in Russia; on the east by the Mackenzie River in Canada; on the north by 72 degrees north latitude in the Chukchi Sea; and on the south by the tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula. It includes the Chukchi Sea, the Bering Sea, the Bering Strait, the Chukchi and Kamchatka Peninsulas in Russia as well as Alaska in the United States. The area includes land lying on the North American Plate and Siberian land east of the Chersky Range.

Beringia, Late Wisconsin Glaciation: Beringia during the late Wisconsin glaciation.

Paleo-Indians subsisted as small, mobile groups of big game hunters, traveling light and frequently to find new sources of food, carrying highly efficient, fluted-style spear points as well as microblades used for butchering and hide-processing. As the climate changed and megafauna became extinct, Paleo-Indians were forced to employ a mixed-foraging strategy that included smaller terrestrial game, aquatic animals, and a variety of flora. After multiple waves of migration, complex civilizations arose.

Eastern Woodland Culture

Eastern Woodland Culture refers to the way of life of indigenous peoples in the eastern part of North America between 1000 BCE and 1000 CE. This time period is widely regarded as a developmental period for the people of this region as they steadily advanced in their use of pottery and means of cultivation, tools, and textile manufacture. While the increasing use of agriculture meant the nomadic nature of many groups was supplanted by permanent villages, intensive agriculture did not become the norm for most cultures until the succeeding Mississippian period. During this period, elaborate burial practices, intensive collection and horticulture of starchy seed plants, differentiation in social organization, and specialized activities began to develop. Due to the similarity of earthworks and burial goods, researchers assume a common body of religious practice and cultural interaction existed throughout the entire region, referred to as the “Hopewell Interaction Sphere.”

The map shows the Hopewell exchange system, which at its greatest extent ran from the Southeastern United States as far south as the Crystal River Indian Mounds into the southeastern Canadian shores of Lake Ontario up north.

Hopewell Interaction Sphere: A map showing the Hopewell Interaction Sphere and various local expressions of the Hopewell cultures, including the Laurel Complex, Saugeen Complex, Point Peninsula Complex, Marksville Culture, Copena Culture, Kansas City Hopewell, Swift Creek Culture, Goodall Focus, Crab Orchard Culture, and Havana Hopewell Culture.

Great Basin Culture

Between 10,500 BCE and 9500 BCE (11,500–12,500 years ago), the broad-spectrum, big game hunters of the Great Plains began to focus on a single animal species: the bison. These bison-oriented indigenous peoples inhabited a portion of the North American continent known as the Great Basin. The Great Bison Culture of the Great Basin area required ease of mobility to follow bison herds and gather seasonally available food supplies. The climate in the Great Basin was very arid, which affected the lifestyles and cultures of its inhabitants. Most peoples of the Great Basin shared certain common cultural elements that distinguished them from other surrounding cultures, and except for the Washoe, most of the groups spoke Numic languages.

All groups were predominantly hunters and gatherers. As a result, the use of pottery was rare because of its weight, but intricate baskets were woven that could be used to hold water, cook food, and winnow grass seeds. Agriculture was not practiced within the Great Basin itself, although it was practiced in adjacent areas. Likewise, Great Basin tribes had no permanent settlements, although villages might be revisited winter after winter by the same groups of families. In the summer, groups would split, with the largest social grouping usually being the nuclear family.

Pacific Coast Culture

The mild climate and abundant natural resources along the Pacific Coast of North America allowed a complex aboriginal culture to flourish. Due to the prosperity made possible by the abundant natural resources in this region, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest developed complex religious and social ceremonies as well as many fine arts and crafts. Music was created to honor the Earth, the creator, ancestors, and all other aspects of the supernatural world. Many works of art served practical purposes, such as clothing, tools, weapons of war and hunting, transportation, and shelter, and others were purely aesthetic. At one time, the Pacific Coast was the most densely populated indigenous area in North America.

Southwestern Cultures

Three of the major cultural traditions that impacted the Southwest region include the Paleo-Indian tradition, the Southwestern Archaic tradition, and the Post-Archaic cultures tradition. As Southwestern cultural traditions evolved, tribes transitioned from a hunting-gathering, nomadic experience to more permanent agricultural settlements. Extensive irrigation systems were developed and were among the largest of the ancient world. Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were also constructed, and highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created. As various cultures developed over time and environmental changes allowed for many cultural traditions to flourish, similar social structures and religious beliefs developed. In fact, many Southwest tribes during the Post-Archaic period developed complex networks that stretched across the Colorado Plateau, linking hundreds of neighborhoods and population centers. Many tribes practiced animism and shamanism.

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Casa Grande National Monument: Photo of the Great House, a Hohokam settlement, at the Casa Grande National Monument.

The Aztec Empire

The Mexicas, or Aztecs, were one of the most powerful and advanced civilizations of the ancient world. The Mexica migrated to present-day central Mexico and created a triple alliance with other dominant tribes in the area. Over time, this alliance became the Aztec Empire. The heart of Aztec power was economic unity. Conquered lands paid tribute to the capital city, Tenochtitlan, the present-day site of Mexico City. Rich in tribute, this capital grew in influence, size, and population.

Like the Maya, Aztecs practiced a religion that was polytheistic and recognized a large and ever increasing pantheon of gods and goddesses. While many Meso-American civilizations practiced human sacrifice, none performed it to the scale of the Aztecs. To the Aztecs, human sacrifice was a necessary appeasement to the gods. Because of the Empire’s high rate of literacy, political and technological accomplishments, and economic unity, elements of Mexica and Nahua culture spread throughout Meso-America and remain culturally significant today.

The Maya Civilization

The Maya civilization was a Meso-American civilization developed by the Maya peoples in an area that encompasses southeastern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, as well as the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador. The first developments in agriculture and the first villages of the Maya civilization appeared during the Archaic period prior to 2000 BCE. The establishment of the first complex societies in the Maya region, including cultivation of the staple crops of the Maya diet—maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers—occurred in the Preclassic period, c. 2000 BCE to 250 CE. Since the early Preclassic period, Maya society was divided into elite and common classes. Over time, as the population increased and urban centers grew, the wealthy segment of society multiplied, and a middle class may also have developed, comprised of artisans, low-ranking priests and officials, soldiers, and merchants. Maya lineages were patrilineal, so household shrines to prominent male ancestors would often decorate residential compounds and were even worshiped. As elites became more powerful, these shrines evolved into grand pyramid structures to house the remains of deceased royals.