The History of Native Americans
Hundreds of different peoples inhabited the vast territories of the Americas full of natural resources and stunning landscapes for thousands of years. When Christopher Columbus arrived to the Bahamas, he called the local people “Los Indios” because he mistook the new lands he found for India, where he was heading with his fleet. This is the reason why Europeans began to call indigenous American peoples “Indians.” Nevertheless, it is wrong to generalize native peoples and use one name for all the tribes. Despite the fact that people from different tribes looked alike in terms of skin color and appearance, the culture of different ethnic groups differed from one another. The historic and environmental conditions in which different ethnic groups of the Americas developed significantly influenced their customs, traditions, and lifestyles.
The history of Native American peoples begins more than 15,000 years ago. First nomadic ancestors of Native Americans came from Asia over the Bering Land Bridge to the land now known as Alaska (Sonneborn 3). Some time passed, and these peoples moved south and east. It is hard to estimate the exact population of the continents during the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492, but the population of the north of present day Mexico nearly reached 18 million people (Sonneborn 27). Unfortunately, a high percentage of the indigenous population went extinct because of a smallpox epidemic. Local people did not have immunity to European diseases, so smallpox and measles spread very quick and caused the deaths of whole tribes and cities. Scholars still cannot estimate the number of people wjo died, but it is suggested that between 70 and 90 percent have fallen victim to the disease (Marr and Cathey 281). Whole cities were left abandoned, and the history of the extinct peoples may be learned only through the archeological findings.
South American peoples were incredibly skilled builders and farmers. South America is commonly divided into Mesoamerican, Carribean, Andean, and Amazonian areas (Waldman and Braun). The most well-known peoples of South America are the Olmecs, Maya, Aztecs, and Inkas. Despite the isolation from the rest of the world, these civilizations achieved many great things in astronomy, mathematics, city building, and agriculture. Cultivation of maize and potato from wild plants seemed to have taken thousands of years (Sonnenborn 9). These plants still have an important position of today’s agriculture economy of the world.
Tribes arranged their lives, political and social systems, agriculture, and nutrition according to the environmental conditions of their areas. In order to classify different groups of people in line with certain similar characteristics, scholars defined 10 culture areas in North America: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Southwest, the Plains, the California, the Great Basin, the Plateau and the Northwest Coast (Waldman and Braun). Plains peoples lived in a region of the Mississippi Valley where land was covered with tall grass. When Europeans came, they brought horses to the continent. Horses were extinct there since the Ice Age, and native people traveled and hunted on foot. Wild horses that appeared in the Plains changed the way of live of Plains Indians. After acquiring horses, they could travel longer distances, carry heavy loads, and hunt buffalos on horsebacks using bows and arrows or rifles.
Buffalos were the main game of the Plains tribal economy. Buffalo meant not only food but also skin for tipis, horns and bones for tools, and other goods. Before the horses appeared, people used to hunt buffalos by stampeding them over cliffs. Plains tribes usually consisted of groups of related families, who lived apart most of the year and gathered for collective buffalo hunts and religious rituals. The Sacred Pipe is a famous custom of the Plains indigenous people. Pipes were usually made of catlinite and decorated with feathers, beads, fur, and horsehair (Waldman and Braun).
The Plateau Culture Area is situated on the Columbia Plateau. Plateau peoples provided food for themselves by fishing, hunting, and gathering. The nature conditions of the region did not let them farm successfully. Rivers were the main source of food and trade for these tribes. The Great Basin peoples likewise were not able to practice agriculture because of the desert climate.
In addition to hunting and fishing, the peoples if the Southeast were skilled farmers. They grew corn, sweet potato, beans, squash, and other crops. Plentiful food allowed them to lead a mostly settled way of life. Southwest peoples had twp main occupations: nomadic hunting or farming. The tribes who practiced agriculture were highly skilled farmers, because it was hard to provide enough food to support villages population in such a dry climate. An outstanding achievement of the architecture of Southwest peoples were pueblos – houses of adobe brick or stone with levels connected by ladders. Nomadic hunters lived in another type of houses – pole-framed huts covered with plant matter. Subarctic and Arctic peoples did not farm because of the harsh climatic conditions. Arctic peoples include the Aleut and the Inuit. They are slightly different from other tribes: shorter with rounder faces and lighter skin. The Inuit people used to built igloos, ice brick houses, in winter time.
California inhabitants had enough food for high population settlements of hunter-gatherers. There was no need for farming and the only cultivated plant was tobacco. They constructed houses from poles covered with grass, reeds, or mats. California tribes were famous for basketry, because they were using baskets for a lot of needs (Waldman and Braun). The Northeast peoples had a lot of game and wood provided by forests. They were skilled carpenters, hunters, fishers, and farmers. Many of their villages were permanent. Similarly, the Northwest peoples were highly skilled in woodwork, hunting, and fishing, but they barely practiced farming, supporting their villages by hunting-gathering (Waldman and Braun). Environment conditions obviously influenced various peoples’ cultures.
In conclusion, both American continents had high-developed civilizations and much smaller tribes for thousands of years. Native Americans enjoyed all the natural treasures and riches of the land. Organizing their lives according to the conditions they lived in, they created a lot of unique traditions and ways of live. The contribution they made to world’s agriculture by cultivating potato, corn, and other plants cannot be underestimated. The variety of indigenous people’s heritage adds to the history of the world.
Marr, John S., and John T. Cathey. “New Hypothesis for Cause of Epidemic among Native Americans, New England, 1616–1619.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 16, no. 2, 2010, pp. 281-286.
Sonneborn, Liz. Chronology of American Indian History. Facts on File, 2007.
Waldman, Carl, and Molly Braun. Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes. Facts on File, 2009.