Ancient America, 40,000–1500 B.C.
Ancient America, 40,000–1500 b.c.
Land Bridge. The first immigrants to North America came to the continent between 40,000 and 10,000 b.c. in two large movements timed to the rhythmic shrinking and expanding of the world’s seas. Between what is today Alaska and Siberia a land bridge sixty miles long and a thousand miles wide emerged periodically as ocean waters receded to allow passage overland from Asia to America. The migration route into North America ran between glacial ridges to the northeast and southwest, and the first peoples worked their way south along the Canadian Rockies into the American Great Plains and from there to all points of the compass. The migrants came in three waves. The first consisted of what archaeologists call the Amerinds, the ancestors of most Native American peoples and the progenitors of most Native American languages. Second were the Na-Déné, a cultural and linguistic group that gave rise to the Athapaskans of Canada and the American Southwest. Last were the Inuit, who populated the Arctic and moved eastward until they collided with the Vikings in Greenland.
Prehistory, Protohistory, and History
When historians and archaeologists discuss early North America, they employ three terms to characterize different periods of time, all of which are predicated on a definition of history as the written record of the human past. North America’s prehistory goes back at least twenty thousand years and encompasses all time that came before the first European landings in North America. The period is called prehistory not because nothing happened but because none of the native peoples left behind written records of what happened. Protohistory occupies that fuzzy space between prehistory and history, and it is usually meant to describe the early contact period when natives and Europeans first met but had little sustained contact with one another. Written records describing contact existed, but the bulk of what happened to native peoples went unseen by European eyes and unrecorded by European scribes. History starts after prolonged interaction between natives and Europeans and is characterized by the voluminous writings left behind by colonists, soldiers, officials, and even a handful of natives who learned to read and write.
Paleolithic Culture: 40,000–8000 b.c. What we know of the first North Americans is what archaeologists have been able to determine from examinations of the stone tools they made, the garbage pits they left behind, and the sites they chose for their homes. Remarkable more for the similarities in their cultures across the continent than for the differences, the first people have come to be known as Paleo-Indians. In spite of the ice that covered much of the continent when they first arrived, the area encompassing Siberia and Alaska consisted of flat, grassy plains that supported large animals such as the woolly mammoth and giant sloth and smaller creatures such as the ancestors of today’s horses. The Paleo-Indians followed the herds of beasts and hunted them for food, clothing, and the materials with which they made many of their tools. Over time their culture evolved into four distinct traditions, the most important and most widespread of which is called Clovis. Socially and politically, the Paleo-Indians were organized in band societies, small groups of extended kin that had little or no allegiance to other bands. Band leaders were in charge of organizing
the hunt and leading the people in a nomadic pursuit of big game.
Changes. By 8000 b.c. the Paleo-Indians had replaced their relatively dull stone blades and projectile points with much sharper ones made by chipping flint or chert. They also developed the atlatl, a sort of lever used to extend the length of the arm while throwing a spear. The device improved the velocity, accuracy, and penetrating power of spears and increased Paleo hunters’ efficiency. Two thousand years later the earth began to warm, and the ice melted. As the oceans rose once again, the land bridge disappeared beneath the waves, and the Paleo-Indian population was cut off from its Asian homeland. When coupled with the natives’ increased proficiency in hunting, the climatic changes triggered an important change in the Paleo environment. Between 9000 and 5000 b.c. the big game animals that had dominated the landscape vanished.
Archaic Culture: 8000–1500 b.c. The demise of the woolly mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, and giant bison and the retreat of the great North American icecap forced Paleo-Indians to change the ways in which they fed, clothed, and organized themselves. They began to hunt smaller mammals and to supplement their diets with fruits, nuts, and grains that the women gathered. Moreover, the invention of basketry enabled people to store quantities of food for later use as they moved from site to site in pursuit of seasonally available resources. The culture that had structured Paleo-Indian societies gave way to a new cultural configuration archaeologists call Archaic. The Archaic hunter-gatherer societies were the last cultural tradition that was ubiquitous throughout most of the continent. As different Archaic groups developed techniques for hunting and gathering in their local environments, however, their cultures began to diverge from one another. Competition for land also grew more fierce, and people developed more sedentary lifestyles in order to avoid the constant conflict with other groups that seasonal migrations caused.
Horticulture. If the atlatl and basketry were important technological innovations, then the impact of horticulture—the cultivation of plants—can only be characterized as a revolution in lifestyle. Indeed, horticulture emerged out of the increased sedentarism that characterized the late Archaic period and gave rise to the variety of unique Classical cultures that arose across North America beginning about 1000 b.c. The green revolution dates back more than nine thousand years to when Mesoamericans began experimenting with wild varieties of corn, beans, and squash. Between 3400 and 2300 b.c. horticultural Mesoamerican societies began to flourish, and, owing to the trade networks that connected natives in the Americas, it was not long before the plants spread into North America. Although the rate of their spread varied from region to region, by the ninth century corn, beans, and squash had developed into staple crops from the Southwest to the Northeast. Horticulture changed things because it provided a regular and relatively predictable source of food that enabled groups to stay in one place. To store the food some groups used baskets while others developed the ability to make pottery. With the technology to raise and store crops, hunting-and-gathering societies grew into larger and more-complex units anthropologists call tribes, which were characterized by more differentiation between leaders and commoners and by more-complex forms of social, political, and economic organization.
As Big Game Died Out, Paleo-Indians needed to develop technologies and strategies for hunting smaller mammals such as white-tailed deer and mule deer. The large, heavy thrusting spears that they had tipped with Clovis points needed to be replaced. During the transition to the Archaic period, spears were made smaller and lighter, but hunters made an even more important technological advance that enabled them to hurl their new spears with greater force and accuracy. The atlatl consisted of a throwing stick with a notch on one end that held the spear in place. To improve the throwing action of the stick, a craftsman drilled a hole through a specially carved stone and slipped the stone over the throwing stick. As the hunter hurled the stick, the stone shifted its weight from back to front and added additional force to the thrust of the hunter’s arm. The new weapon worked well, and hunters used it for several thousand years before adopting the more accurate, more efficient, and more deadly bow and arrow in the early centuries a.d.
Sources: Robert L. Bettinger, Hunter-Gatherers: Archaeological and Evolutionary Theory (New York: Plenum Press, 1991);
Lynda Shaffer, Native Americans before 1492: The Moundbuilding Centers of the Eastern Woodlands (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1992).
Carl Waldman, Atlas of North American Indians (New York: Facts on File, 1985).