Cultures in America

The Land


   The most salient aspect of the geography of North and South America is the isolation of the two continents from other continents. On one side, the Americas are separated from Europe and Africa by the Atlantic Ocean and on the other they are separated by the Pacific ocean. All the other major continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—have continuous land boundaries between them. This geographic isolation of the Americas, however, did not necessarily mean that the peoples of the Americas were isolated from the peoples. The Native Americans of northern Alaska had a spread of populations within eyesight of Siberia in Asia and Inuits in Greenland were among the first Native Americans to come in contact with Europeans. There is disputed archaeological evidence that some American products sporadically made it through some form of trade to Africa or the Middle East, but these remain only possiblities.

   It is safe to conclude that the land masses that the Native Americans occupied effectively isolated them from other human populations from around 21,000 years ago; this isolation did not effectively come to an end until the European discovery of America at the close of the fifteenth century AD.

   Although Native Americans did not have dramatic influxes of other cultures, Native American cultures, languages, and practices were by the Archaic period very diverse. From the Archaic period onwards, these cultures greatly influenced one another through trade, intermarriage, and migration. The trading system among Native Americans was vast. While we like to think of Native Americans as locally self-sufficient, much of the material life of Native Americans consisted of goods from sometimes a continent away. For instance, Native Americans in the northwestern United States used tobacco on a fairly regular basis—that tobacco was produced in the eastern United States and traded west.

   Some Native American societies, such as the Chaco Canyon culture—an early urbanized culture in North America—served largely as centralized trading centers. For the most part, however, trade among Native Americans was not systematic or centralized.

   The American continents stretch from above the Arctic circle to near the Antarctic circle. Virtually the entire range of climates and terrain available on earth are present on these two continents: tundra, plains, high plains, savannahs, deserts, high mountains, temperate rainforests, tropical rainforests, tropical deserts, and so on. By the Archaic period, the people of the Americas had settled almost every single area in the two continents with only a small amount of area left uninhabited.

   The least hospitable areas, such as tundra or large deserts, could support only small populations and were subject to the least migrations. As a result, the cultures that established themselves in those areas became highly conservative, retaining cultural characteristics and languages while other cultures changed very rapidly. The Aleuts, for instance, are a fairly homogenous culture from the western edge of Alaska to Greenland in cultural practices and language.

   Areas such as the northeastern woodlands and the plains areas of the United States supported larger populations and were attractive to migrating peoples. Because of the increased contact with other cultures through normal contact or migration pressures, these cultures changed with astonishing rapidity. The spread of the Woodland culture from the northeast to the Rocky Mountains appears to be an instantaneous event in the archaeological record. The constant contact and migration pressures also produced incredible cultural and linguistic diversity in very small areas.

   Almost all these geographical regions were amenable to a sedentary life, so Native Americans adopted a stable, sedentary life fairly early. However, one distinguishing geographic feature of North America is the presence of the largest unbroken plains on earth, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from Canada to Oklahoma. This is one vast ocean of grasslands with only sporadic forests (with the exception of a few large forests such as the Black Hills in South Dakota). This vast grassland did not encourage sedentary cultures; so while most Native Americans lived sedentary lives, there was a very large number of cultures living a nomadic existence on the plains as they followed the herds.


Civilizations in America
Civilizations in America
   The one anomalous feature of the human and geographic landscape was the rise of civilization—that is, urbanized cultures—in certain areas. In Africa and Asia, the very first human civilizations arose in river valleys—African civilization on the Nile, Mesopotamia between the Tigris and the Euphrates, Harappa on the Indus, and the Yellow River civilization on, well, the Yellow River. This human-geographic pattern was not repeated in the Americas. The major civilizations arose in what one would think were unlikely areas—the Valley of Mexico, the mountainous regions of South America, and, least probably of all, the tropical rain-forests of southern Mexico, Honduras, and Guatemala. This last is a curiosity, for tropical rain-forest, despite all the vegetation, is one of the poorest climates to conduct agriculture in—one requirement of urbanization is a high level of agriculture.

Richard Hooker



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@1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 2-6-98