In the past, we believed that the first Americans crossed a land bridge from Asia to Alaska about 15,000 years ago and slowly spread south. We know now that boats and coastal migrations allowed Native Americans to settle simultaneously in multiple locations along the western coasts of the Americas. We know that Native Americans may have numbered as many as 50 million at the time of European contact and that in the Mound Builders, the Aztecs, the Mayans and the Incans, Native Americans had complex, sophisticated cultures featuring large cities. Some Native cities like Tennochitlan, were as larger or larger as any European city of the same era. However, Native Americans did have geographical disadvantages compared to Europeans, which resulted in a smaller number of food crops and pratically no domesticated animals. Native American technology included impressive accomplishments in building and architecture, but lacked iron, steel or gunpowder.
The Americas were very, very different when the first humans arrived. There were 33 types of large animal (bigger than a human) living in the Americas prior to the arrival of humans. Examples include the mammoth (a big elephant); the glyptodont (an armadillo the size of an SUV); the dire wolf (a larger, more powerful version of that animal) and various types of saber-toothed tigers. All these animals die out by 10,000 BCE and the reason for the extinction (known as the “Quaternary Extinction Event") is still being debated. Some think the arrival of humans in the New World caused the die-off; that humans over-hunted and killed off the megafauna. Others argue that climate change was the reason. A combination of both factors is probably the best explanation we have at the moment.
For many years, the accepted theory was the Land Bridge Theory – the first Americans crossed into Alaska from Asia in about 15,000 BCE on a land bridge that existed where the Bering Sea is now and then spread southward. This would explain some of the earliest evidence of Native Americans in what is now New Mexico (the Clovis people). But it could not explain new evidence from Chile in South America (a site called Mount Verde) which shows humans had spread down to the tip of that continent by 14,000 BCE. A better explanation is the Coastal Migration Theory – that the first humans in America arrived here from Asia and the Pacific Islands by boat; that they made multiple landings on the western coasts of both North and South America and then spread slowly eastward.
We believe that most Native American tribes shared some common cultural traits. We think there was not much emphasis on private property and that land especially was held in common by the whole tribe. We think that power was decentralized and spread amongst many local chiefs or family leaders who had limited authority. We think that most Native American religions feature the belief that every object (living and unliving) in the world is occupied by a spirit and these sprits must be respected and dealt with. We think that women were respected and treated fairly. But… these traits are true of almost any culture that lives of the land in small groups (“hunter-gatherers”). For Native Americans in large, complex societies living in cities (Aztecs, Mayans etc.) – these traits were not part of their culture.
Look at the picture – the plant on the left is “teosinte”, the Mexican grass from which corn was developed. An ear of corn (maize) is on the right – see how different they are from each other! The challenge Native Americans faced in domesticating maize was tougher than the challenge of domesticating wheat, in which the version we now eat is pretty close to the wild version. As for the “Three Sisters” - Sister Bean fixes, or makes available in plant form, nitrogen from the air, Sister Corn provides the support for Sister Bean’s trailing vine, Sister Squash provides ground cover to hold moisture and maintain healthy soil environment as well as deterring animal invaders with its spiny stems.
The North-South axis we discussed yesterday was a problem for the Native Americans when it came to finding suitable animal candidates for domestication. As you move north or south, climate and conditions change dramatically (think of how different the climate of New York is from that of North Carolina). Animals that thrive in one area cant do well if you go very far up or down the continent. This means successes couldn’t be shared across the Americas – this is why the llama stayed In South America. Contrast this with Asia and Europe’s East-west axis – here the climate stays about the same across thousands of miles and successes like goats, pigs, cows and sheep can be shared from China to Rome. Of course, another issue for the Americas is the extinction event that killed off most of the suitable animal candidates for domestication: the North and South American megafauna.
It is important to see that Native American science was different from Western science. Some Native cultures had complex systems of writing and mathematics, used to calculate calendars and predict dates important for agriculture. Before contact by Europeans, many Native cultures had cities and large buildings. A group called the “Mound Builders” raised many large structures in North America; the Aztecs and Mayas had pyramids in Central America and the Incas in South America had stone buildings that displayed high levels of skill and talent. However, the making or smelting of iron was unknown. Metals like gold were worked but only for ornamental purposes. The wheel was used by Aztecs as a children’s toy but was not a part of any Native American toolkit. While Native American technology was well-adapted to Native American needs, it would not compare well with European technology (guns, steel, ships) of the same time period.
In North America, the Mound Builder civilization of the Mississippi River stands out. This culture flourished from about 900 CE to 1500 CE. They had large towns featuring sacred monuments built on top of earthen mounds. Their agriculture was complex and was based around the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans and squash. And we have evidence they had contacts and trade with many other tribes, including some as far away as Central America. Yet. By the time European reached this area in the 1700’s, all evidence of this culture – except their mounds – had vanished. Death caused by European diseases like smallpox was the likely cause of their decline.
At the time of first contact, the Aztecs had conquered most of the region of central Mexico. Many tribes in the area paid them tribute (in other words, the tribes got to keep their independence as long as they gave the Aztecs food and gold). The Aztecs had a complex religion that required human sacrifices, so conquered tribes also had to send captives to the Aztec capital for that purpose. It should be noted that the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, with a pre-contact population of 300,000 was one of the largest cities in the world at that time. In the Yucatan peninsula, the Mayans had a complex civilization that had ruled that area for a thousand years, but was coming into decline at the time of first contact. The Mayans are known for their achievements in writing and mathematics, as well as their calendar system.
The Incas, like the Aztecs, controlled most of the tribes living in their region of South America – but unlike the Aztecs, their religion did not demand human sacrifice. Incan agriculture was based around the potato and had advanced irrigation, because of the mountainous nature of the country. Incan architecture was very advanced. The most well-known example is Machu Picchu, where the stone temples built by the Inca used a mortarless construction that fit together so well that a knife could not be passed through the stonework. The Incas communicated using a complicated system of knots on strings called “quipu” that has not been completely deciphered to this day.
Native Americans were more susceptible to diseases like smallpox than Europeans were. The Native American mortality rate from smallpox may have been as high as 95%. One method of calculation of Native American populations pre-contact is to take a reliable number (say, the number of Natives in Mexico counted in a Spanish survey of 1600) and then work backward by assuming that count represents the surviving 5% of the original pre-contact population. As you’ll see in the Guided Notes exercise, this method gives very different results based on small changes in the mortality rate. The most widely accepted population estimates have the Native Amerian population at about 50 million people (North, Central and South America combined) prior to the arrival of Columbus.
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