Digital History

The First Americans

Correcting Myths and Misconceptions Next
Digital History ID 3561



Most of the history that we acquire comes not from history textbooks or classroom lectures but from images that we receive from movies, television, childhood stories, and folklore. Together, these images exert a powerful influence upon the way we think about the past. Some of these images are true; others are false. But much of what we think we know about the past consists of unexamined mythic images.

No aspect of our past has been more thoroughly shaped by popular mythology than the history of Native Americans. Quite unconsciously, Americans have picked up a complex set of mythic images. For example, many assume that pre-Columbian North America was a sparsely populated virgin land; in fact, the area north of Mexico probably had seven to twelve million inhabitants. Also, when many Americans think of early Indians, they conceive of hunters on horseback. This image is misleading in two important respects: first, many Native Americans were farmers; and second, horses had been extinct in the New World for 10,000 years before Europeans arrived.

One of history's most important tasks is to identify myths and misconceptions and correct them. This is especially important in the study of the Indian peoples of North America. Many textbooks still begin their treatment of American history with the European "discovery" of the New World--largely ignoring the first Americans, who crossed into the New World from Asia and established rich and diverse cultures in America centuries before Columbus's arrival. Although few textbooks today use the word "primitive" to describe pre-contact Native Americans, many still convey the impression that North American Indians consisted simply of small migratory bands that subsisted through hunting, fishing, and gathering wild plants. As we shall see, this view is incorrect; in fact, Native American societies were rich, diverse, and sophisticated.

Throughout their history, Native Americans have been dynamic agents of change. Food discovered and domesticated by Native Americans would transform the diet of Europe and Asia. Native Americans also made many crucial--though often neglected--contributions to modern medicine, art, architecture, and ecology.

During the thousands of years preceding European contact, the Native American people developed inventive and creative cultures. They cultivated plants for food, dyes, medicines, and textiles; domesticated animals; established extensive patterns of trade; built cities; produced monumental architecture; developed intricate systems of religious beliefs; and constructed a wide variety of systems of social and political organization ranging from kin-based bands and tribes to city-states and confederations. Native Americans not only adapted to diverse and demanding environments, they also reshaped the natural environments to meet their needs.

Copyright 2016 Digital History