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Overview of the First Americans
Digital History ID 2908

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 host of misconceptions. For example, many assume that pre-Columbian North America was a sparsely populated virgin land. In fact, millions of Native Americans inhabited the area that would become the United States.

This section traces the settlement of the Americas by Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of the New World Indians; it examines the diversity and size of Native American cultures; and identifies the defining characteristics of the Indian cultures of North America on the eve of European contact.


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.

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. And after the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Native Americans struggled intently to preserve the essentials of their diverse cultures while adapting to radically changing conditions.

Approximately 30,000 years ago, the Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of Native Americans, followed herds of animals from Siberia across Beringia, a land bridge connecting Asia and North America, into Alaska. By 8,000 B.C.E., these peoples had spread across North and South America.

No one knows for sure how many Indians lived in the Western Hemisphere in 1492, but the number was in the millions. In no sense were the Americas empty lands.

At least 2,000 distinct languages were spoken in the Americas in 1492. Cultural differences were marked. Some Indian peoples belonged to small bands of hunters and gatherers; some practiced sophisticated irrigated agriculture.

Complex, agriculturally-based cultures developed in a number of regions, including the Mayas and Aztecs in Mesoamerica, the Incas in Peru, and the Moundbuilders and Mississippians in the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys.

All Indians lived in organized societies with political structures, moral codes, and religious beliefs. All had adapted to the particular environments in which they lived. The idea of private land ownership was foreign; land was held communally and worked collectively.

The largest domesticated animals were dogs, llamas, and alpacas, and therefore the Indians could not rely on such animal by-products such as wool, leather, milk, and meat. Although some societies had developed the wheel, it was used as a toy. No society had shaped metal into guns, swords, or tools; none had gunpowder, sailing ships, or mounted warriors.

Deadly epidemics also aided the European conquest. The Indians were highly susceptible to European diseases. Smallpox, typhus, diphtheria, plague, cholera, measles, and influenza appear to have been unknown. Measles, mumps, whooping cough, and other epidemics grately reduced the Indian population.