The First Americans
|Digital History ID 3562|
In the spring of 1926, an African-American cowboy named George McJunkin made a discovery that profoundly altered our understanding of the first Americans in North America. While hunting for lost cattle along the edge of a gully near Folsom, New Mexico, he spotted some bleached bones. Those bones, it turned out, were the ribs of a species of bison that had been extinct for 10,000 years. Mixed in with the bones were human-made stone spearheads. The spearheads offered the first unambiguous proof that ancestors of today's Indians lived in the New World thousands of years earlier than most early 20th century authorities believed--before the end of the last ice age.
Although the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas in the late 15th century called it the "New World," it was a land that had been inhabited for more than 20,000 years. An enormous diversity of societies flourished, each with its own distinctive language, cultural patterns, and history. There are no written records that document these histories. To reconstruct this story, it is necessary to turn to fragile archaeological artifacts that record past human behavior. From snippets of baskets, fragments of pottery, food remains, discarded tools, and oral traditions, anthropologists, archeologists, and historians have pieced together information about these peoples' social organization, technology, and diet, including how these have changed over time. This is a remarkable story, which underscores the ability of the first Americans to adapt to--and reshape--extraordinarily diverse environments, create their own rich and sophisticated cultures independent of outside influences, and establish elaborate trading networks and sophisticated religious systems.
When and how the ancestors of today's Indians arrived in the New World remains one of the most controversial issues in archaeology. Many 16th century Europeans believed that the Indians were descendants of the Biblical "Lost Tribes of Israel" or the mythical lost continent of Atlantis. In 1590, a Spanish Jesuit missionary, Jose de Acosta, came closer to the truth when he suggested that small groups of "hunters driven from their homelands by starvation or some other hardships" had traveled to America from Asia.
Most scholars believe that America's first pioneers crossed into North America in the general area of the Bering Strait--which now separates Siberia and Alaska. Although the dates when the ancestors of today's Native Americans migrated remain disputed, existing evidence suggests that the first migrants arrived between 25,000 and 70,000 years ago. The earth's climate at that time was very different from today's climate. The earliest Americans entered the New World during one of the earth's periodic ice ages, when vast amounts of water froze into glaciers. As a result, the depth of the oceans dropped, exposing a "land bridge" between Siberia and Alaska. Twice, such a land bridge appeared--between 28,000 and about 26,000 years ago, and between 20,000 and 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In fact, the term "land bridge" is a misnomer; a vast expanse of marsh-filled land, a thousand miles wide, stretched between Siberia and Alaska. This land mass, now known as Beringia, allowed hunters from northeastern Asia to follow the migratory paths of animals that were their source of food into the more southerly parts of Alaska.
Supporting the notion that the first Americans came from Northeast Asia is the evidence of physical anthropology. Native Americans and northeast Asian people share certain common physical traits: straight black hair; dark brown eyes; wide cheekbones; and "shovel incisors" (concave inner surfaces of the upper front teeth).
Physical and linguistic evidence suggests that the migration into the Americas did not take place all at once. Many scholars believe that it took place in three distinct waves, with the Inuit (Eskimos) and the natives of the Aleutian Islands arriving more recently than the people who would inhabit the Pacific Northwest coast or other portions of North and South America.
The original settlers of North America were a remarkably adaptable people, capable of surviving in subfreezing temperatures in the tundra. In a climate much harsher than today's, they were able to build fires, construct heavily insulated housing, and make warm clothes out of hides and furs.
Despite a lack of wheeled vehicles and riding animals, the first Americans spread quickly across North and South America. This momentous movement of people was propelled by population pressure, since hunters and gatherers required a great deal of territory to support themselves. Archaeological findings suggest that these people moved along three routes: eastward, across Canada's northern coast; southward, along the Pacific Coast, as well as across the eastern Rocky Mountains, with some groups peeling off toward the eastern seaboard, the Ohio Valley, and the Mississippi Valley.