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Native American Pre-History
A very concise look at Native American Pre-History
The indigenous peoples of North America
The purpose of this page is give a little background reference for our first people, those we call Native Americans. Here, we will begin to see where they came from, and who they might be…
There is NO PAYWALL on this page.
The Pre-Columbian era incorporates all period subdivisions in the history and prehistory of the Americas before the appearance of significant European influences on the American continents. Spanning the time of the original settlement in the Upper Paleolithic period, to European colonization during the Early Modern period.
True, the phrase “pre-Columbian era” literally refers only to the time preceding Christopher Columbus’s voyages of 1492. However, in practice, the phrase is usually used to denote the entire history of indigenous Americas cultures until those cultures were vanquished, diminished, or extensively altered by Europeans. Even if this happened decades or centuries after Columbus’s first landing. For this reason, alternative terms such as: Precontact Americas, Pre-Colonial Americas or Prehistoric Americas are also in use. In Latin America, the term usually used is Pre-Hispanic. The Norse colonization of North America is generally not treated as “pre-Columbian”, despite the fact that it predates Columbus by several centuries.
Exactly when the first group of people migrated into the Americas is the subject of much debate. Asian nomads are thought to have entered the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge (Beringia), now the Bering Strait and likely along the coast as well. Genetic evidence found in Amerindians’ maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) supports the theory of multiple genetic populations migrating from northern Asia and perhaps a small contribution from as far south as Micronesia. There is currently some claim of paleo-evidence/influence from Europe on America’s east coast.
Currently, the chronology of migration models is divided into two general approaches. The short chronology theory, suggests that the first movement beyond Alaska into the New World occurred no earlier than 14,000–17,000 years ago, followed by successive waves of immigrants. Artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to 14,000 years ago, and it has been proposed that the migrants had reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time.
The long chronology theory proposes that the first group of people entered the hemisphere at a much earlier date, possibly 50,000–40,000 years ago or earlier. Sites dating back to 20,000 years ago have been claimed. In the west, one of the earliest identifiable cultures was the Clovis culture, with sites dating from some 13,000 years ago.
Latest DNA based genetic research now indicates that all Western Hemisphere Native Americans are descended from a single gene pool with roots in Asia [the Mal’ta boy, Siberia of about 24,000 years ago]. (However, there is a current contention than some “mixing” took place, in transit, with people bearing genes indicating a southeast Asian origin. This is thought to have taken place before these Siberian peoples descended into North America.)
The only Clovis Culture grave ever found [Montana – 1968], dates at about 12,500 years old. It is that of a one year old boy, complete with red ocher on the body and a large selection of Clovis style bone and stone tools. The evidence set completes the perception that all Native Americans are descendants of the Clovis People. Canadian Native Americans appear not directly related to the baby, but to his family. Some 80% of all other Native Americans but mostly those now in Central and South America, prove to be directly related to the baby.
The recent find of a complete female skeleton (teenager) in a water-filled Yucatan cave has yielded radio carbon dates between 12 and 13,000 years ago, backed up by mitochondrial DNA from a wisdom tooth. That sample, also confirms the Siberian ancestry, noted above, on the mother’s side. Studies of nuclear DNA to determine the paternal ancestry, have not yet been completed. Much more will come from this well-preserved, complete find.
As the ice receded, the North American climate was unstable until about 10,000 years ago. This led to widespread migration among the Paleo-Indians, dictated by the changing climate and as preferred resources were depleted and new supplies were sought. Spreading throughout the Americas, they diversified into many hundreds of culturally distinct tribes moving from place to place. Hunter-gatherers, likely characterized by small, mobile bands consisting of approximately 20 to 50 members of an extended family. These small bands were thought to have subsisted primarily through hunting now-extinct giant land animals such as mastodon and ancient bison. Over time we have found a variety of the tools they made and used. Including unique styles of projectile points and knives, as well as less distinctive implements used for butchering and hide processing. In general, Arctic, Subarctic, and coastal peoples continued to live as hunters and gatherers.
Over the course of thousands of years, the vastness of the American continents, the variety of their climates, ecology, vegetation, fauna, and landforms, led ancient peoples to coalesce into many distinct linguistic and cultural groups. Agriculture was adopted in more temperate and sheltered regions. There, they domesticated, bred and cultivated a number of plant species.* (The majority of this agricultural revolution took place in South America.) These species were very nutritious, and they now constitute 50–60% of all crops in cultivation worldwide. Wherever it was adopted, plant cultivation permitted a dramatic rise in population.
The oral histories of these indigenous peoples describe a wide range of traditional creation stories. Often saying that a given people have been living in a certain territory since the creation of the world.
*The Originals Index – Resources and Hazards – Plants – Food Plants
The next four sections refer primarily to Paleo-Indian activities in the Eastern U.S.
Western Indians were still somewhat nomadic hunter-gatherers, without the horse.
There was eventually, widespread cultivation of South American developed crops.
The information is included here to help the continuity of the entire tale
and to help demonstrate the variety of Indian life before the white man came…
Middle Archaic period
Late Archaic period
Middle Archaic period
After the migration or migrations, it was several thousand years before the first complex societies arose, the earliest emerging about seven to eight thousand years ago As early as 6500 BCE, people in the Lower Mississippi Valley at the Monte Sano site were building complex earthwork mounds, probably for religious purposes. This is the earliest dated of numerous mound complexes found in present-day Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida. Since the late twentieth century, archeologists have explored and dated these sites. They have found that they were built by hunter-gatherer societies, whose people occupied the sites on a seasonal basis, and who had not yet developed ceramics. Watson Brake, a large complex of eleven platform mounds, was constructed beginning in 3400 BCE and added to over 500 years. This has changed earlier assumptions that complex construction arose only after societies had adopted agriculture, become sedentary, often developed stratified hierarchy, and generally also developed ceramics. These ancient people had organized to build complex mound projects from a different basis.
Late Archaic period
The Woodland period of North American pre-Columbian cultures refers to the time period from roughly 1000 BCE to 1000 CE in the eastern part of North America. The term “Woodland” was coined in the 1930s and refers to prehistoric sites between the Archaic period and the Mississippian cultures. The Adena culture and the ensuing Hopewell tradition during this period built monumental earthwork architecture and established continent-spanning trade and exchange networks.This period is considered a developmental stage without any massive changes in a short period, but instead having a continuous development in stone and bone tools, leather working, textile manufacture, tool production, cultivation, and shelter construction. Some Woodland peoples continued to use spears and atlatls until the end of the period, when they were replaced by bows and arrows. Photo: U.S. PD 2016 – Herb Roe – Wikipedia article
The Mississippian Culture
The Mississippian culture was spread across the Southeast and Midwest from the Atlantic coast to the edge of the plains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Upper Midwest, although most intensively in the area along the Mississippi River and Ohio River. One of the distinguishing features of this culture was the construction of complexes of large earthen mounds and grand plazas, continuing the moundbuilding traditions of earlier cultures. They grew maize and other crops intensively, participated in an extensive trade network, and had a complex stratified society. The Mississippians first appeared around 1000 CE, following and developing out of the less agriculturally intensive and less centralized Woodland period. The largest urban site of this people, Cahokia—located near modern East St. Louis, Illinois—may have reached a population of over 20,000. Other chiefdom’s were constructed throughout the Southeast, and its trade networks reached to the Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico. At its peak, between the 12th and 13th centuries, Cahokia was the most populous city in North America. (Larger cities did exist in Mesoamerica and South America.) Monk’s Mound, the major ceremonial center of Cahokia, remains the largest earthen construction of the prehistoric New World. The culture reached its peak in about 1200-1400 C.E., and in most places, it seems to have been in decline before the arrival of Europeans. Photo: U.S. PD 2013 Heironymous Rowe
Many Mississippian peoples were encountered by the expedition of Hernando de Soto in the 1540s, mostly with disastrous results for both sides. Unlike the Spanish expeditions in Mesoamerica, who conquered vast empires with relatively few men, the de Soto expedition wandered the American Southeast for four years, becoming more bedraggled, losing more men and equipment, and eventually arriving in Mexico as a fraction of its original size. The local people fared much worse though, as the fatalities of diseases* introduced by the expedition devastated the populations and produced much social disruption. By the time Europeans returned a hundred years later, nearly all of the Mississippian groups had vanished, and vast swaths of their territory were virtually uninhabited.
The Originals Index – Resources and Hazards – Disease
The Navajo and their offshoots, the Apache, and their offshoots the Kiowa, are late comers of Athabaskan origin. They are thought to have arrived in the American Southwest from the north by about 1500, likely passing through Alberta and Wyoming. Archaeological finds, dating to around 1500 and considered to be proto-Navaho, have been located in northern New Mexico around the La Plata, Animas and Pine rivers. I have seen no article discussing their specific genetic relationship with other Native American Tribes, I suspect it is very similar, however, there is that 10,000+ years time differential. (see also: Apache, Kiowa and Navajo)
The Horse and the White Man…
Beginning in the 1500’s, the horse, acquired from the Spanish, caused significant changes to the lifestyles of many Native American tribes. Dramatic as those changes were in the west, they didn’t hold a candle to the coming of the white man. Tribal territories, affiliations and lifestyles; everything changed dramatically over a period of about 150 years; some six or seven generations. The last two or three of those generations faced the full onslaught of the white culture. Part of the time period we consider the Old West encompassed the final battles and the subjugation of the remaining free tribes; known as the Indian Wars.* Some tribes were decimated outright by disease or conflict. Others migrated either by choice or by force; often moving west because of tribes east of them, now armed with the white man’s weaponry, were themselves being displaced by the whites.
Much of what occurred between the mid 1500’s and today’s world will be addressed in the pages of Old West Daily Reader…
Further insight into the Indians of the time may be found in:
The Originals Index – Native American Tribes
PLAYERS – Timelines Index – Timelines A-L Index – Indian Treaties Timeline
*PLAYERS – Timelines Index – Timelines A-L Index – Indian Wars Timeline
Quotes Index – Indian Quotes
Photo Gallery Index – Indian Photos
Photo Gallery Index – Indian Photos – Indian Chiefs
The Originals Index – Horses
References – Dictionary
Wk. 38, 09/21/2004 – National Museum of the American Indian
Wk. 33, 08/15/1977 – American Indian Institute
As always with Old West Daily Reader, this is a light touch on a vast and complex subject. Hopefully, Old West Daily Reader‘s Native American Tribes sections have enough information to start and/or enrich your own explorations into the amazing world of the First Americans. – Doc
Any mistakes or errors in this entire section are solely mine.
Please feel free to offer suggestions or corrections.
I want the information here to be accurate. email me.
Contact – Doc B.