US History I – Origins of a New Nation – Pre-Columbian Native Americans
Native Migration to the Americas
Scholars have two main theories of how the modern-day Native Americans of America arrived here. Both theories hypothesized the Paleo-Indian arrived from Northeast Asia thousands of years ago. The first of the two theories is the land-bridge theory. This theory states that during an ice age (a time when most of the world was covered by ice and glaciers), a land-bridge was exposed allowing travel between Asia and modern-day Alaska. Over thousands of years, native peoples migrated southward and inward through the North and South American continents. The other theory is called migration theory. In this theory, it is hypothesized that the Paleo-Indian used small boats from Asia to America working their way down the west coasts of North and South America, and into the interior. The migration coming from Asia ceased between ten thousand and twelve thousand years ago, as the climate warmed. At the same time, the American environment became more diverse, populated with deserts, forests, and plains.
Diversity and Agriculture
It is through the aforementioned differences in the climate and environment that Paleo-Indians and later modern Native American cultures became diverse. By the time Columbus arrived in 1492, there were over 375 distinct spoken languages. Larger populations were growing in the Americas thanks to the development of corn, squash, and beans – crops high in calaries and able to support larger populations. The larger populations fostered growth in architecture and technology, especially prevalent in the Mayan and Aztec communities. It was the Mayans who were the leading group of people along the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean coast, while the Aztecs dominated the highlands of central Mexico. Other than farming, some tribes relied on fishing, while others relied on hunting, depending on the environment.
Southwest and Mississippi River Valley
In the modern day Gila and Salt River valleys in Arizona the ancient Hohokam people built over five hundred miles of irrigation canals. Their buildings were mostly constructed from adobe, which is a sun-dried brick, and could reach as high as three stories tall! Also in the southwest, the Anasazi constructed their villages into the rock-face of cliffs – sometimes reaching as high as five stories tall! They lived in the Four Corners region of present day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado. There is evidence that the early Native American cultures of the Mississippi River Valley were influenced by the Mayas and the Aztecs – demonstrated by their large pyramids (but made of dirt). They lived in areas of present day Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Ohio, Arkansas, and Mississippi.
Great Plains and Eastern Woodlands
The main diet of early Native Americans in the Great Plains were the grazing animal, the buffalo. While some built small grass thatch houses near rivers, most used teepees for shelter, which were made from buffalo, and were portable, to follow the food source (buffalo), who were constantly on the move. The Eastern Woodland culture were mostly farmers, but also relied on hunting and fishing. Algonquians lived in wigwams oval frames made of small trees which were about 10 to 16 feet in diameter, while the Iroquois lived in multifamily longhouses which were also made of wood, but were usually more than 200 feet in length. The Iroquois were made up of five peoples – the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayuga, and Seneca, who shared an oral constitution of laws, passed down from generation to generation. They formed the Iroquois League which was a loose confederation for promoting peaceful cooperation among members.
Common Cultural Features Amongst Many Early Native Americans
Despite cultural diversity, many early Native American groups shared several cultural features. For example, most early Native Americans did not have centralized nations, such as those in Europe Instead, political power was spread among many local chiefs with limited authority. Most also believed that spirits could be found in nature, which could either be persuaded to help or harm. Private property was rare, except in cases of some family possessions. Land was almost never seen as a possession of an individual or family.
Lapsansky-Werner, Emma J. United States History. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008. 4-10. Print.