Cultures in America

Beginnings


   The experience of human beings in America begins almost 25,000 years ago, a full 15,000 to 18,000 years before the emergence of agriculture in Asia and Africa, and 20,000 years before the emergence of urban living in Asia and Africa. The human experience in America is, then, as functionally old as humanity in general. It was time when human beings lived in small, tribal groups. These groups were universally nomadic or semi-nomadic. Having no settled food supply, they often wandered according to the availability of food, mainly vegetable food. What languages these early humans spoke is beyond our knowledge; even as far back as 25,000 years, though, human languages seemed to vary widely.

   The world was literally a colder place 25,000 years ago. For reasons we only imperfectly understand, a variety of geological and meteorological factors, including the circulation of the oceans and a decline in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, cooled the world climate to a point where unmelted snow began to collect in vast ice sheets. These continent-sized ice sheets covered almost all of Canada and a good portion of the northern United States as well as blanketing north Asia and Europe. With so much water captured in these oceans of ice, the oceans themselves dropped precipitously and the shallow regions of the continents emerged from the darkness of the oceans.

   One such shallow region lay between Asia and the Americas where there is now only the water of the Bering Strait: Beringia, the land bridge between continents separated hundreds of millions of years earlier. This land bridge was no mere sliver of land: Beringia at its height was one thousand miles wide, the distance from Seattle to Los Angeles, and it persisted for almost ten thousand years. It was free of ice as was most of Alaska; Beringia, then, was a vast open space of grass and tundra.

   Beringia was, however, a very cold place and a poor place to make a living. Groups of humans slowly made their way across this forbidding land, following migrations of herd animals or following the coastline and living off of the wealth of the sea, a far more likely scenario. These people had no idea that they were heading for new territory or a new continent; they simply lived as they had lived for tens of thousands of years. Sometime around 25,000 BC, a family or tribe of human beings first set foot on what is now North America; without knowing it, they had discovered the new world eons of time before Europeans would step on the continent in north-eastern Canada and presume that they had discovered this continent.

   Such were the beginnings of human life in the new world. They probably had no idea that they occupied a new continent, and their migrations were eventually halted by the ocean of ice covering Canada. As that ice receded, the vast expanse of North America and South America opened up before them; opportunity, though, had its price, for the recession of the ice also buried Beringia under the frigid waters of the Arctic Sea. Geology had now started a new history of humanity, one that would be, except for isolated and sporadic trade, separated and independent from all other human histories. These were a people with their own history. When Europeans would come on them after a long separate history, most of these human groups simply referred to themselves as "the people."

   Who were the People when before they migrated to America? Who, in Asia, Europe, or Africa were they cousins to? Since we have no remains of these first people, we have no idea what their physical characteristics were. In general, anthropologists and scientists believe that they were among the ancestors of the Mongoloid people, but to state this relationship positively is to overstate the evidence. However, because of the small numbers that migrated over Beringia and their subsequent separation from the rest of humanity, there is a remarkable genetic homogeneity among the People considering that they covered two giant continents with their descendants. While their cousins in Asia experienced the constant infusion of other human populations, the Native Americans rarely came in contact with non-Americans and there's certainly no evidence of massive immigration after the closing of Beringia.

   The earliest evidence of the People was found at Old Crow Flats in the Alaska Refuge. Radiocarbon dating suggests the site is as old as 27,000 years, that is, as old as Beringia itself. This is a remarkable finding, for it suggests that humans migrated across Beringia with astonishing speed. There are only a couple sites that lay between 27,000 and 12,000 years old, including a site in Peru at least 21,000 years old; this implies that humans spread very rapidly across both the North and South American continent. Dating back to 12,000 years ago, however, the number of human sites increases dramatically. While this certainly implies that we're looking in the wrong places for human sites, it may also suggest that major migrations across the two continents may have begun only as recently as 12,000 years ago. This is a vexed question, though, considering that there are sites in South America far older than 12,000 years old.


The Paleo-Indians   The earliest Native Americans, or Paleo-Indians, emerge in historical evidence around 12,000 years ago. We know the most about western North American Paleo-Indians, for it is among these groups that we have discovered the richest finds of artifacts. We divide these early cultures into three major groups based on the artifacts that they left. The earliest group, whose artifacts date from 12,000 to 11,000 years ago, left spear or arrow heads that were designed in a manner that we call Clovis Fluted, named after the site where they were found. The Clovis people (or, alternatively, Llano) were, it seems, hunters; the game they most likely hunted were mammoths.

   The second group left artifacts dated from 11,000 to 10,000 years ago; these artifacts are characterized by a fluted knife made out of flint. This flute design is called Folsom Fluted point—again, after the site where they were found—and the people are referred to as the Folsom people. They, too, seemed to have largely been hunters, mainly of an extinct species of large bison.

   The next group are characterized by leaf-shaped, unfluted projectile points of remarkable diversity. From about 10,000 to 8,000 years ago, these people also hunted large animals, but they hunted modern animals; we call them the Plano cultures.

   These three cultures—the Clovis, Folsom, and Plano—represent the earliest American cultures we know anything about and are called, for no real logical reason, the Paleo-Indians, or "Old Indians." Mainly we know, from numerous sites, that they engaged in a subsistence pattern that largely centered around large animals such as mammoths and bison. Much of the evidence we have implies that their hunting methods involved mass extermination of their prey. Bison would driven over a "fall" or trapped in a box canyon and picked off using small spears or darts. Massive numbers of animals would die in these kills, and the practice of driving large animals over falls continued well into the nineteenth century by Plains Native Americans.


The Archaic Period   Following a logic only their hairdressers can understand, anthropologists separate Paleo-Indians from the Archaic period using a dividing line at around 8,000 years ago. In general, the Paleo-Indian and Archaic cultures are divided by what we know about their subsistence patterns. The evidence we have suggests that Paleo-Indians focussed on large animals and mass exterminations, while the Archaic cultures are characterized by focussing selectively on resources seasonally, so that they had a far greater range of subsistence resources than the Paleo-Indians.

   Roughly speaking, the Archaic cultures laid down patterns of life unique to individual areas; these patterns of life remained constant until the advent of Europeans. In addition, there is no part of North and South America from the Archaic period onwards that give evidence of any hiatus in human occupation, while the Paleo-Indians seemed to have occupied areas sporadically (this, however, is an argument from lack of evidence which may also mean a lack of knowledge). In other words, the Archaic period is that in which humans inhabited all parts of the North and South American continents.

   Unlike the Paleo-Indians, the Archaic cultures seem to have been primarily vegetarian. While we can't be certain, agriculture seems to have begun in the New World to about 7,000 years ago in the Mexican Highlands. There, it seems, people began to domesticate indigenous species of local plants. The most important domesticated plants in America were maize (around 5500 years ago), pumpkin squash (around 5500 years ago), amaranth (around 5000 years ago), and beans (around 3500 years ago). Maize, squash, and beans are the most vital foods in Native America cultures for they can be adapted to many different climactic zones and, in combination, provide a completely balanced diet if all three are eaten on a regular basis.


The Early Woodland Period   The Archaic period ended around 1500 BC with new cultural practices such as pottery making and the building of earth tombs. The People began to live in patterns closer to the modern patterns; this transitional period is called the Early Woodland stage. There is little else besides pottery and earth tombs to differentiate the Early Woodland from the Archaic, but there's no question that the cultural innovations of this stage produced the modern cultures of the Americas. The Early Woodland stage seems to have begun in the northeastern region of North America and spread very rapidly across North America to the Rockies. From the archaeological evidence, Early Woodlands culture practically appears to be a simultaneous event in North America from the Atlantic to the Rockies. At about the same time, the cultures of Mesoamerica were also developing spectacularly. The demands of agriculture had created not only cultural innovations, but social ones as well that, in the course of a few centuries, would lead to the rise of urbanization.

Richard Hooker



The Land


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-6-98