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The Cultures of Prehistoric America Previous Next
Digital History ID 3564


Across from present-day St. Louis stands an earthen mound 100 feet high and covering 15 acres, bigger at its base than the Great Pyramid of Egypt. This mysterious mound is one of literally thousands that early Native Americans built in the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys, the Great Lakes region, and along the Gulf Coast. Before the 1890s, many authorities refused to believe that Indians could have created these mounds since they lacked horses, oxen, or wheeled vehicles; they thought that the Vikings, the Lost Tribes of Israel, or some long vanished civilization constructed them. We now know that they were built by Native Americans to serve as burial places, as platforms for temples, and the residences of chiefs and priests.

Many of these New World monuments are truly immense. One Ohio mound resembles a huge snake and measures a quarter of a mile long. A Georgia mound has a figure of an eagle across its top. The mounds provide clues to the rich and diverse cultures that Native Americans created during the more than 20,000 years before Europeans reached the New World.

Earthen mounds are not the only magnificent monuments that the Indians produced. On the face of a sandstone cliff in present-day Mesa Verde, Colorado, is a spectacular stone and adobe structure that once housed over 400 people in 200 rooms. Located 100 feet above a nearby plateau, the structure is accessible only by climbing wooden ladders and using toe holds cut in the sandstone. In southern Colorado and Utah, northwestern New Mexico, and northern Arizona, hundreds of similar communal dwellings are located in shallow caves or under cliff overhangs.

The first Europeans to arrive in the Americas in the late 15th and 16th centuries were an arrogant, ethnocentric people who drew a sharp contrast between their societies' technological accomplishments and those of the New World Indians. And while it is true that the Indian peoples had no steel or iron tools, wheeled vehicles, large sailing vessels, keystone arches or domes, digital numbers, coined money, alphabet system of writing, or gunpowder, this does not at all mean that they did not create thriving and inventive societies. For one thing, the Indians were the first people to cultivate some of the world's most important agricultural crops: chocolate, corn, long-staple cotton, peanuts, pineapples, potatoes, rubber, quinine, tobacco, and vanilla. In addition, the New World Indians built cities as big as any in Europe, established forms of government as varied as Europe's, and created some of the world's greatest art and architecture--including temples, pyramids, statues, and canals.

While many Americans are aware of the impressive cultures that thrived in Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala before Columbus's arrival--the Toltec, the Maya, the Aztec, and the Inca--far fewer are familiar with the magnificent ancient cultures to be found north of Mexico. In fact, from the Alaska tundra to the dense evergreen forests of the Pacific Northwest, from the arid deserts of the Southwest to the rich river valleys of the Southeast and the eastern woodlands, prehistoric Native Americans established complex cultures, ingeniously adapted to diverse conditions. The first Americans had to adapt their ways of life to vastly different environments. Before 2000 B.C., the ancestors of the Inuit and the Aleuts arrived on the coast and frozen tundra of western Alaska, where they adapted ingeniously to arctic conditions. Since few plants grew in the harsh arctic climate, the Inuit relied on hunting and fishing. They drew much of their food from the sea, hunting seals, whales, and other marine mammals. The game they hunted not only provided food, but also protection from the extreme cold. The Inuit wore layers of caribou-skinned clothing and constructed heavily insulated pit houses, dug into the ground and covered with furs and animal skins. The Inuit built sleds for transportation and spread out across the coast. These people were organized in a large number of small bands, which shared certain common cultural patterns while remaining largely autonomous.

Along the Northwest Pacific Coast--an area of dense forests, teeming with caribou, deer, elk and moose, and rivers, rich with sea life-- the ancestors of the Haidas, Kwakiutls, and Tlingits developed a distinctive culture oriented toward the water. The mild climate and the abundant marine life--salmon, sturgeon, halibut, herring, shellfish, and sea mammals--meant that these peoples could produce food with very little work. Such abundance freed these people to create some of the world's most impressive art forms as well as an elaborate ceremonial life. The people of the Northwest Pacific Coast constructed large, gabled-roof plank houses; carved family and clan emblems on totem poles; made elaborately carved wooden masks, grave markers, and utensils; and constructed great sea-going canoes, some more than 60 feet long. The region's abundant resources also produced a highly stratified society, where a few wealthy families controlled each village. Individuals announced their high social status at a feast called a potlatch. During this ritual, which could last for several days, a host demonstrated his wealth by distributing food and gifts to his guests.

It was in the arid Southwest that some of the earliest farming societies developed. The predecessors of the Pueblo and Navajo Indians were able to flourish in a desert environment by developing complex irrigation systems for farming and by developing structures suitable for vast temperature changes.

Shifts in climate appear to have played an important role in encouraging the development of agriculture in the Southwest. Between three and five thousand years ago, the amount of rainfall in this region increased, encouraging many people to migrate to the area, including some from Mexico already familiar with raising corn, squash, and beans. These people raised crops casually, supplementing a diet that depended largely on hunting and foraging. Around 3,000 years ago, however, the climate grew drier, killing off many of the region's wild game and vegetation. A group of people known as the Mogollon, who lived in permanent villages along the rivers of eastern Arizona and western New Mexico, responded to this change by devoting increased energy to farming, raising beans, squash, and corn. The versatility of the Mogollon is also apparent in the housing they constructed. To cope with the desert extremes of heat and cold, they built pit houses--structures burrowed two or three feet into the ground and covered with woven reeds and plaster made out of mud.

In central Arizona, the Hohokam, a group that had migrated from Mexico, constructed elaborate irrigation systems in order to transform the desert into farm land. They dug wells, built ponds and dams to collect rainwater, and created hundreds of miles of canals and ditches to channel water to their crops. The Hohokam combined farming with trade, which involved luxury goods such as precious stones, ornamental sea shells, and copper bells.

The ancestral Puebloans also used dams and irrigation canals to water their crops. Between 1000 and 1300 A.D., the ancestral Puebloans culture spread across much of northern Arizona, northern New Mexico, southern Colorado, and southern Utah, establishing more than 25,000 separate communities spread over 60,000 square miles connected by a remarkable system of roads. The ancestral Puebloans are best known today for their magnificent cliff dwellings--multi-roomed dwellings built atop mesas or along steep cliffs. By 1300, however, the ancestral Puebloans abandoned these cliff dwellings and moved to the south and east, apparently in response to incursions from hostile Indians and a severe drought that threatened their food supply. The ancestral Puebloans are the ancestors of the modern day Pueblo Indians.

The arrival of a new people into the Southwest, the Athabascans, created an important challenge to the ancestral Puebloans way of life. About 1000 A.D., bands of Athabascans, the ancestors of the Navajos and the Apaches, began to migrate to the Southwest from what is now Alaska and Canada. Formidable hunters and raiders, the Athabascans possessed the bow and arrow, and during the 14th and 15th centuries, raided ancestral Puebloans farming communities, and by 1500 had taken over the western desert. They lived in settlements consisting of "forked stick" homes, made by piling logs against three poles joined together at their tops, then covering the outside with mud. Later they fashioned hogans, earthen domes with log frames.

Along the lakes and rivers of the Midwest and the Southeast, prehistoric Americans established complex communities based on flourishing trade and agriculture. One of the earliest farming and trading towns arose approximately 1400 B.C., on the banks of the lower Mississippi River near present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi. Known as Poverty Point, the town showed many signs of Mexican influence, including a cone-shaped burial mound and two large bird-shaped mounds, and other huge earthworks. Networks of trade apparently connected Poverty Point with settlements along the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Arkansas rivers. Thus, thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans were already engaged in extensive trade of flint, copper, and other goods.

Around 700 B.C., other groups of people, known as the Adena, began to build large mounds and earthworks in southern Ohio. The Adena lived in small villages and supported themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering wild plants, modest farming, and some trading. The Adena built mounds as burial places. The bodies of village leaders and other high ranking people were placed in log tombs before being covered with earth.

From about 100 B.C., a new mound-building culture flourished in the Midwest, known as the Hopewell. These people developed thousands of villages extending across what is now Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri. The Hopewell supported themselves by hunting, fishing, and gathering, and also cultivated a variety of crops, including corn. The Hopewell developed an extensive trading network, obtaining shells and shark teeth from Florida, pipestone from Minnesota, volcanic glass from Wyoming, and silver from Ontario. The Hopewell created stratified societies, and buried their leaders in earthen mounds, filled with art works made of materials imported from areas more than a thousand miles away. The Hopewell built many more mounds than the Adena. A colder climate appears to have contributed to the decline of the Hopewell beginning around 450 A.D..

After 750 A.D., another mound-building culture, known as the Mississippians, emerged in the Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast. By cultivating an improved variety of corn, and using flint hoes instead of digging sticks, these people greatly increased agricultural productivity, permitting them to build some of the largest cities in prehistoric North America. The largest that we know about was Cahokia, across from present-day St. Louis, which probably had a population of 20,000. To protect the population from raids from neighboring peoples, many of these cities were protected by stockades. Like the Indians of Mexico, the Mississippians built flat-topped mounds in the center of their cities, where chiefs lived and the bones of deceased chiefs were kept.

The largest of the Mississippian settlements may have become city-states, exercising control over surrounding farm country. Within their towns, the Mississippians created a complex, stratified society, with a distinct leadership class, specialized artisans, an extensive system of trade, and priests. The Mississippians practiced a religion known as the Southern Ceremonial Complex. Somewhat similar to Mexican Indian religions, the "Southern cult," as it is known, provided a set of symbols and motifs of rank and status that recur in Mississippian art, notably a flying human figure with winglike tatoos around the eyes.

The Mississippian cultures grew until the 1500s, when diseases introduced by European explorers resulted in a sharp decline in population. However, one group of Mississippians, the Natchez, survived into the 1700s, long enough to be described by Europeans.

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