AIS 100: Introduction to American Indian Studies


II. Prehistory of North America

      A. Origins of 'New World' Cultures

One of the most controversial issues in American Indian Studies is the origins of  American Indians. It is certain that the Native American groups Inuit, Yupik and Aleut people came from Asia about 7-9,000 years ago. However, the origins of American Indian people are more difficult to prove and involve volatile political debates. Some Native Americans are not terribly concerned about origins or are rather satisfied with their traditional mythology. Other groups see origins as a crucial aspect of sovereignty. The non-Indians; especially European Americans were initially baffled by the existence of an entire new group of people in America and even the existence of America. Their own mythology certainly gave little hint and science has tended to cater to colonial bias and racism. More secure scholars have become more aware of the value of traditional myths and the need to be flexible with very scant evidence. In fact the lack of evidence is more of an influence on archaeological theories about American Indian origins.

American Indian myths are metaphorical stories about human experiences, including origins and migrations. However, myths were never meant to be interpreted rhetorically and their truths are derived from symbolic meaning. Everyone today views myths as 'false history', but history in the Western sense was never their objective and to read a myth as such is simply a misreading of the myth. Native American myths are just as varied as the 700 or more cultures that thrived in America. However, they do have common themes with the perception of multiple worlds or conditions that humans experience. These worlds came about by catastrophic events like earthquakes, floods, and volcanic eruptions. Each time a new world evolved the people/creatures developed new insights of how to cope. Humans evolved in cognitive ways that are unique, but that is fraught with contradiction; especially as we evolved self cognition and questioned our purpose and source of creation. Two folkloric themes are common to early humans in respect to origin myths. Among Northern cultures an 'Earthdiver' theme in the myth is prevalent as told by a culture like the Seneca and Mohawk. In Southern cultures an 'Emergence' theme is prevalent as told by the Hopi. In both, the experience of flooding and the instability of the earth's surface is common. Such experience is most likely reflected by all human experience with the Pleistocene or 'Ice Ages'. In some myths people migrated from the south or north ; and for some this confirms origins in or near their present space.

       Western science based its theory on objective physical evidence or the lack of  physical evidence. However, Western science often is burdened by the bias of non-Indian practitioners and institutions that also ignore Native American points of view. There are two premises for American Indian origins that can be generated to address origins and there are various secondary variations.

PREMISE Secondary Premise Evidence-Pro Evidence-Con Comments
I: American Indians were already here   Language phyla not connected or traceable to 'Old World' Lack of physical evidence; e.g. no pre- Homo sapiens sapiens/ hominids  
II: American Indians came from somewhere else   Lack of physical evidence; e.g. no pre-Homo sapiens sapiens/ hominids Language phyla not connected  or traceable to Old World Notice these are simply the reverse of above
  A. Bering Strait Land Bridge Theory Geological data supports the existence of a 1200 mi wide land mass (Beringia), between Asia and America

Animals migrate back and forth

Human movement does not have any direct physical support A  submerged land bridge and continental glacial destruction of land in the Subarctic tend to diminish chances of physical evidence
  B. Coastal Theory  Cultures along of West and East Coasts Logistics of boat tech and destruction of sites via rising sea levels around 8500 B.C. This theory was in the vogue in the 1970's and went out of favor and has been brought up again due to new sites
  C. Trans- Oceanic Theory Similar technologies and artifacts; especially in polished stone and ceramics Maritime logistics < 5,000 B.C. indicates the lack of boats for such extensive voyages This relates to issues of innovation vs. diffusion; proposed by Megger & Evans


        As you can see these premises require some background in geology and archaeology. The lack of physical evidence and a clear understanding of the climatic history of the American landscape continues to fuel speculative debate that is further compounded by political struggles over sovereignty and control.

     Solutions are probably going to be generated by linguistic data being augmented by genetic information coming from the genome project research.

   B. Paleo-Indians and the Archaic

       The best physical evidence of ancient American Indian cultures came in 1924 with the discovery of projectile points embedded in the bone of ancient Pleistocene megafauna, especially ancient mammoths and bison. Most early archaeologists put ancient Native Americans occupation of America at a mere 5,000 years ago. To find humans involved in the hunting of  'ice age' mammals pushed back the dates at least 10,000 years or to about 15,000 years ago. However, the potential for land bridge openings could go back as far as 100,000 years. Again the physical evidence consistently produced sites with dates of ca.12,500 years ago. Some recent sites have given dates of 19,000 or earlier, but the accuracy of the dates and the validity of artifacts are controversial. Here is a summary of these cultures and representative sites. Dates are years ago or B.P.

CULTURE Artifacts/Tools Activity Sites
Pre-Clovis ?; <15,000 unfluted blades;cores,flakes general hunting  &        gathering MonteVerde,Chile; Meadowcroft,PA
Clovis; 13,500-11,000 large fluted blades/points used with an atlatl or spear-thrower Big-Game hunting mammoth/mastadon Blackwater Draw, NM;           Murray Springs.,AZ; Lehner,AZ
Folsom; 11,000-10,000 smaller, fully fluted points also used on an atlatl Big-Game hunting ancient bison,ground sloth,horse Folsom,NM; Lindenmeir,CO; Agate Basin & Hell Gap,WY
Plano 9,500 -7,000 non-fluted lancelate pts. used on an atlatl Big-Game hunting modern bison Casper,WY;Hell Gap,WY;Agate Basin,WY
Archaic 10,500-3,000 triangular,stemmed or notched pts. used on an atlatl Small Game hunting and Wild Plant gathering All areas: Eastern Woodlands example-Dalton (Hardaway)

           The general shift to small game hunting and wild plant gathering is a world wide change and referred to as the Archaic. These changes were due primarily to Pleistocene extinction of over 100 species in conjunction with global warming and increased aridity (altithermal). In the chart above it is important to view the changes as a overall reduction of big game hunting ending in the American Plains. In the the rest of the Americas, Native  Americans survive like all humans by culturally changing to focus on smaller game and wild plants. The increased importance of seed/nut/bulb resources is reflected in the increase of grinding implements like mano/metates and pestle/mortars. Also, specialized subsistence strategies along coasts, lakes and rivers became more prevalent with increased fishing and gathering shellfish. The atlatl or spearthrower remained for a time, but was eventually replaced in most areas of the world by the bow and arrow about 5,000 years ago as evidenced by the considerable reduction of projectile point size.

      This subsistence shift focused more attention to the gathering of plants and their ultimate domestication. In mountainous/arid areas human cultures manipulated the plants the most by bringing seeds back to settlements and eventually domesticated certain favored plants to improve various features such as taste, access and size. In the desert regions small wild grass seeds became important and led to the development of domesticated plants. In America, Native Americans domesticated a wild grass that became huge and is known as American corn or maize. These plants developed throughout the Americas eventually led to the most dramatic lifestyle change in human history- farming. Similar changes in the 'Old World' are referred to as the 'Neolithic Revolution'.  These changes also occurred here in America and resulted in the development of sedentary cultures, civilization and empires.

Here are some of the plants developed/domesticated in America. These eventually had a tremendous effect on the entire world, but initially they were the building blocks that provided the economic resources of subsistence base for civilization and empires in the 'New World'. American corn (Maize), beans, and squash (CBS) were the most important in terms of both agronomy and nutrition. Therefore, we refer to CBS as the American triad of  food plants. All three  initially came from Meso America and were developed in the Tehuacan Valley, Puebla, Mexico about 7,000 years ago. North and South America developed their own domestic plants/cultigens, but CBS use eventually spread from Mexico to the Andes, Brazilian Highlands, Caribbean, Southwest and Eastern Woodlands/Plains. 



  Am. Corn (Maize) Zea mays Food, Oil, Med.
  Beans (Teprary, Pinto) Phaseolus vulgaris food
  Squash (Winter-pumpkin/ Summer-summer) Cucurbita sp. food
  bottle gourd Lagenaria sp. containers,utensils
  chili peppers Capsicum sp. food,spice,med.
  cotton Gossypium hirsutum textile,med.
  amaranth Amaranthus sp. food
  tobacco Nicotiana rustica med.
  cacao Theobroma cacao drink,food
  pineapple Ananas comosus food
  vanilla Vanilla planifolia spice,med
  guava   food
  cherimoya   food
  papaya Carica papaya food
  quinoa Chenopodium quinoa food grain
  potato Solanum tuberosum root food
  peanut Arachis hypogaea food,oil
  cotton Gossypium barbadense textile,med.
  lima bean Phaseolus lunatus food
  sweet potato Ipomoea battas food
  manioc/cassava Manihot esculenta food
  Brazil nut    
  Great N. Bean    
  Tepary Bean    
  Pecan Carya illinoensis food
  Jerusalem artichoke    


     C. CBS and the Formative

The changes that domestic plants or cultigens brought were dramatic and is referred to as the Formative.  Many consider these changes as inherently good, but a lot of problems were brought upon humans throughout the world. Domestication of plants and animals most fundamentally brought about an increase of sedentary living. People were generally seasonal in the earlier hunting, gathering and modest horticulture lifestyle. As the farming took hold,  people  needed more fertile land and developed more intensive agricultural techniques.  The sedentary lifestyle increased fertility and population density leading to a shift from village life to urban life. The emergence of urban life or cities not only saw increased populations but the emergence of social hierarchies; often resulting in a takeover of a ruling elite. In turn as urban centers developed their power base increased with trade and ultimately led to the formation of empires. In America such changes resulted in empires in Meso America ( Valley of Mexico, El Peten, Yucatan,etc.), South America (Andes, N. Tropical, Brazilian Highlands) and later in North America (Southwest, E. Woodlands, Plains). A number of courses are needed to expand on this cultural development (AIS /Anth 130; Anth 110; CS 155), but a summary will present the basic cultures and areas.

Meso America

Gulf Coast

PreClassic     2000 BC- Olmec La Venta,Tres Zapotes,San Lorenzo
V. of Mexico Classic AD 300 Teotihuacano (Totonacs,Otomis) Teotihuacan
Oaxaca   Zapotec, Mixtec Monte Alban
Jalisco/Colima   Tarascan Tzintzuntzan
Zacotecas/Durango   Chalchihuites Alta Vista,La Quemada
El Peten,Yucatan, Southern Highlands   Maya Tikal, Uaxactun, Palenque,Uxmal, Copan,Piedras Negras
Hildago Post Classic    AD 900- Toltec Tula
    Aztec Tenochititlan


South America

N. Andes

Initial/Early Horizon        3,500 BC- Chavin Chavin de Huantar
S. Andes   Paracas  
C. Andes   Ancon Garagay
N. Andes Intermediate    300 BC- Moche  
    Chimu Chan Chan
S. Andes   Tiahuanaco Tiahuacano
Brazilaian Highlands   Tupiguarani  
C. Andes Late Horizon   AD 1000 Chancay  
S. Andes   Ica  
N. Tropics  Columbia   Chibchas (Tirona)  
Brazilian Highlands   Santarem  
Andes   Inca Cuzco, Machu Picchu, Urubamba


North America


L.Archaic     2500 BC- Desert Archaic  
Southwest   Cochise  
    San Jose  
Eastern Woodlands   E. Archaic Koster
  Classic 1000 BC-    
Southwest Southwest Traditions        100 BC    
    Mogollon Montezuma's Castle
    Anasazi Chaco Canyon(Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, P. Alto; Kayenta (Keet Seel, Betatakin);Canyon de Chelly (Antelope Ruins); Mesa Verde (Cliff Palace)
    Hohokam Snaketown,
    Patayan (Hakataya)  
  >AD 1000 Dene  
Eastern Woodlands Woodland    1000 BC Adena Serpent Mound, Chillicothe
    Hopewell Mound City, Havana
Plains   Hopewell Knife River
Eastern Woodlands Mississippian   AD 900 Mississippian Cahokia, Etowah, Town Creek, Moundsville, Spiro
Plains   Plains Village Huff Site

     These American civilizations were unique and developed with very little help from other parts of the world. American Corn is indigenous to America and Native Americans hybridized this grain to produce huge ears compared to the grains of the 'Old World'. Other 'New World' developments like the peanut or groundnut, a pea that planted itself in the ground,and the potato continue to be important world crops. Native Americans developed writing, metal and the wheel; but never used the wheel for beasts of burden. In fact Native Americans did not domestic livestock too much and preferred to keep most meat in a wild or semi-wild state. The dog was domesticated thousands of years ago by most people of the world, including Native Americans.

     In spite of the differences there were many similarities between the world civilizations. Farming brought its share of problems to include exponential population growth, increased diseases, increased warfare and despotic rulers. Initially there is evidence of harmonious theocratic empires, but eventually these crumble; including those in the Americas. At the time of initial contact with the 'Old World' the Aztec and Incan civilizations were the most notable in power and resources. It was Cortez in 1519 who invaded the Aztec Empire eventually reaching Tenochititlan , present day Mexico City and Pizzaro in 1532 who invaded the Inca Empire. The lust for wealth in gold and silver drove Europeans to destroy these last Native American civilizations. Since Europeans disrupted cultural development so much, we will never know how Native American traditional cultures would have faired. We will next look at some traditional Native American cultures at the moment of European contact, beginning in AD 1492.

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Copyright S. J. Crouthamel