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13,000 B.C.—A.D. 1492
Scholars used to think of Native American cultures as relatively static, unchanging for centuries until encountered and overwhelmed by the European invaders after 1492. Those scholars assumed that the descriptions of Indian cultures by early explorers could be read backward to imagine their predecessors from centuries past. With the help of recent archaeology and anthropology, we can now see that the explorers encountered a complex array of diverse peoples in the midst of profound change. Far from being an immutable people, the Indians had a complicated and dynamic history in America long before 1492.
Because so much remains controversial about native origins and so many new discoveries are daily made, all of the statements in this chapter are highly speculative and the dates are approximations. The archaeological evidence is fragmentary and limited, suggesting multiple possibilities. In general, I have favored the more cautious interpretations advanced by the debating archaeologists. And we should bear in mind that many contemporary native peoples entirely reject the scholarly explanations for their origins, preferring instead their own traditions that they emerged in the Americas and so literally belong to this land.
Writing about pre-Columbian America is also fraught with controversy because we often enlist ancient natives in contemporary debates over our own social and environmental problems. To highlight the social inequities and environmentaldegradation of our own society, some romantics depict the pre-1492 Americans as ecological and social saints living in perfect harmony with one another and with their nature. To refute that critique, more conservative intellectuals eagerly point out every example of native violence, human sacrifice, and environmental waste. By generalizing from such examples, the conservatives revive the mythology of the European colonizers: that Indians were warlike savages with a primitive culture that deserved conquest and transformation. Often the debate deteriorates into a competition over who was innately worse: the Indian or the European. In fact, it would be difficult (and pointless) to make the case that either the Indians or the Europeans of the early modern era were by nature or culture more violent and "cruel" than the other. Warfare and the ritual torture and execution of enemies were commonplace in both native America and early modern Europe.
Without pegging Europeans as innately more cruel and violent, we should recognize their superior power to inflict misery. By 1492 they had developed a greater technological and organizational capacity to conduct prolonged wars far from home. They also possessed imperial rivalries and religious ideologies that drove them outward across the world's oceans in search of new lands and peoples to conquer. Superior means enabled, and ideological imperatives obliged, Europeans to cross the Atlantic and invade North America after 1492. In the process, the newcomers escalated the bloodshed in the Americas to a level unprecedented in the native past.
And although Indians lacked the perfection of environmental saints, they did possess a culture that demanded less of their nature than did the Europeans of the early modern era. Almost all early explorers and colonizers marveled at the natural abundance they found in the Americas, a biodiversity at odds with the deforestation and extinctions that the Europeans had already wrought in most of their own continent. Colonization transformed the North American environment, which had already experienced more modest changes initiated by the native occupation.
With the exception of frozen and isolated Antarctica, North and South America were the last continents occupied by people. All of the human fossils found in the Americas are almost certainly less than fifteen thousand years old and belong to the biologically modern form. Dental, genetic, and linguistic analysis reveals that most contemporary Native Americans are remarkably homogeneous and probably descend from a few hundred ancestors who came to North America within fifteen thousand years of the present (with the exception of the later-arriving Athabascan, Inuit, and Aleut peoples).
Most scholars believe that the first Americans migrated from Siberia in northeast Asia. Genetic and skeletal (especially dental) evidence suggests special affinities between Native Americans and the peoples of Siberia. And the proximity of Siberia to Alaska offers the readiest passage between the Old and the New World, indeed the only practicable route for peoples without the marine technology to traverse the Atlantic or Pacific Ocean.
About fifteen thousand years ago the inhabitants of Siberia lived in many small bands that ranged far and wide in pursuit of the roaming and grazing herds of large and meaty (but dangerous) mammals, especially mammoths, musk oxen, and woolly rhinoceroses. It was a hard, cold, and generally short life in which hunger alternated with the episodic binges of a big kill. Because the people had to remain on the move (on foot) in pursuit of the herds, they could not develop permanent villages and did not accumulate heavy possessions.
In their pursuit of the herds, some hunting bands passed into what is now North America. Today the oceanic Bering Strait separates Siberia from Alaska. But between about twenty-five thousand and twelve thousand years ago, a colder global climate—an Ice Age—locked up more of the world's water in polar icecaps, which spread southward as immense glaciers, covering the northern third of North America. The enlarged icecaps lowered the ocean levels by as much as 360 feet, creating a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska.
Of course, the first people who trekked into Alaska had no notion that they were discovering and colonizing a new continent, nor that they were crossing a land bridge that would subsequently vanish beneath the rising Pacific Ocean when the global climate warmed. The newcomers naturally regarded the flat, gently undulating, cold, and arid grassland as simply an extension of their home.
The period between fifteen thousand and twelve thousand years ago was an ideal time for a crossing into North America, because the global climate was slowly warming and the glaciers were in gradual retreat, sufficiently so to permit an easier passage into the continent but not yet so far as entirely to refill the Bering Strait with water. By about ten thousand years ago the glacial ice had retreated to approximately its present limits in the arctic, and the climate and sea levels stabilized close to their modern configurations. As the icecap receded over the centuries, the migrants found it easier to spread southward and eastward into North America and beyond. Remarkably similar archaeological sites of human encampments suddenly became common about twelve thousand to ten thousand years ago in distant places, from California to Pennsylvania and Florida.
As the land bridge submerged, migration from Siberia became more difficult—but not impossible for people possessing small boats made from animal skins stretched over a wooden framework. At its narrowest, the Bering Strait is only three miles wide. Contemporary Native Americans who speak an Athabascan language descend from a second pulse of emigrants, who arrived about ten thousand to eight thousand years ago. Settling first in the subarctic of Alaska and northwestern Canada, some Athabascan bands gradually worked their way down the Rocky Mountains, reaching the American southwest about six hundred years ago. These people later became known as the Navajo and Apache.
A third surge of colonization began about five thousand years ago and featured the ancestors of the Inuit (or "Eskimos") and Aleut. Skilled boat builders, they specialized in the hunting of sea mammals—walruses, seals, and whales. The Aleut settled the Aleutian islands southwest of Alaska, while their Inuit cousins gradually expanded eastward along the Arctic coasts of northern Alaska and Canada, reaching Labrador and Greenland by about twenty-five hundred years ago.
PALEO AND ARCHAIC AMERICA
We do not know what the people in the first pulse of migration named themselves, but scholars call them the Paleo-Indians. As in their Siberian past, the Paleo-Indians lived by hunting and gathering in small bands of about fifteen to fifty individuals: the optimum size for far-ranging travel in pursuit of animals as well as for cooperation in the hunt and butchering. Their basic weapon and tool was a spear with a sharp, flaked-stone point (usually flint) bound tightly to a wooden shaft. Most of their archaeological sites were temporary encampments near perennial springs, waterholes, and river crossings—places where big game came to drink or to pass. After consuming a kill, they moved on in pursuit of another herd.
At first, the Paleo-Indians primarily found in North America a vast, cool grassland that sustained large herds of slow-moving herbivores initially inexperienced in defending themselves against a predator as cunning, numerous, and cooperative as humans. The beasts included immense mammoths, mastodons, bison, horses, and camels, as well as caribou, moose, and deer. The Paleo-Indians found beavers as big as bears: seven feet long. The giant bison had horns spanning six feet, and the mammoths stood twelve feet high and could weigh ten tons, nearly as big as their modern relatives, the elephants. The Paleo-Indians truly experienced the discovery and occupation of a vast new domain of "free land": free from other humans and abounding with plant and animal life. After centuries of subarctic hardship and recurrent hunger, the first Americans had found the hunters' Eden.
But no Eden lasts for long. An abundant diet permitted an explosive population growth, which, in turn, pressed against local supplies of plants and animals. As bands grew too large for a locale to sustain, they subdivided, with new bands hiving off in pursuit of more distant animal herds. By about nine thousand years ago, people could be found from Alaska to the southern-most tip of South America, a distance of some eight thousand miles.
Through some combination of climatic change and the spread of highly skilled hunters, almost all of the largest mammals rapidly died out in the Americas. The extinctions comprised two-thirds of all New World species that weighed more than one hundred pounds at maturity—including the giant beaver, giant ground sloth, mammoth, mastodon, and horses and camels. It is ironic that horses and camels first evolved in North America and migrated westward into Asia, where they were eventually domesticated, while those that remained in the Americas became extinct. The giant bison died out, leaving its smaller cousin, the buffalo, as the largest herbivore on the Great Plains. Of the old, shaggy great beasts, only the musk oxen survived and only in the more inaccessible reaches of the arctic.
At the same time that the largest mammals became extinct, the environment became more diverse. Over the generations, the global warming gradually shrank the grasslands and expanded the forests. The revival of complex forest environments expanded the range of plant and small animal species that could be gathered for food.
The changing climate and the demise of the mega-animals induced the nomadic bands to pursue more diversified strategies to tap a broader range of food sources. The natives had to learn their local environments more intimately to harvest shellfish, fish, birds, nuts, seeds, berries, and tubers. The Indians obtained more of their diet from fishing as they developed nets, traps, and bone hooks. Their hunting evolved into the patient and prolonged tracking of more elusive mammals, especially deer, pronghorn antelope, moose, elk, and caribou. Beginning about nine thousand years ago the Indians adjusted to their smaller, fleeter prey by developing the atlatl—a spear thrower that provided increased thrust, velocity, and distance.
American archaeologists distinguish the peoples leading this more complex and more locally framed way of life between about nine thousand and three thousand years ago as "Archaic" to distinguish them from their "Paleo-Indian" ancestors. As the Archaic Indians exploited a broader array of food sources, they more than compensated for the loss of the great mammals. Obtaining more to eat, more reliably, they resumed their population growth. The more local and eclectic Archaic way of life could sustain about ten times as many people on a given territory as could the Paleolithic predation on herds of great beasts. From a late Paleolithic level of about 100,000 people, North America's population probably grew to one million by the end of the Archaic period. Obliged to change by the potentially disastrous demise of the megafauna, native peoples innovated to develop a more efficient and productive relationship with their diverse environments.
In the temperate climes, people began to live for longer periods in semi-permanent villages located beside rivers and lakes or along seacoasts, at places where fish and birds and shellfish and wild food plants were most abundant. They also settled in larger groups within smaller territories. Each band developed a seasonal round of activity and movement within a more defined territory, harvesting those plants and animals as they became abundant at different seasons. For example, in the southwest during the summer and fall the people dispersed to hunt rabbits, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and antelope. The onset of winter with its cold rains led them to gather in larger groups in caves and rock shelters in the sides of canyons, where they harvested prickly pear and piñon nuts. In the spring, they scattered again in pursuit of roots and berries and game.
Archaic Indians also began to modify the environment to increase the yields of plants and animals that sustained them. In particular, they set annual fires to reduce small trees and encourage edge environments that, by providing more browse and better grazing, promoted a larger deer herd for the people to hunt. In some places the Indians weeded out inedible plants to encourage clusters of edible plants such as wild onions, sunflowers, and marsh elder. These practices brought a people to the verge of horticulture.
Gender structured work roles: men were responsible for fishing and hunting while women harvested and prepared wild plants. In general, men's activities entailed wide-ranging travel and the endurance of greater exposure and danger, while women's activities kept them close to the village, where they bore and raised children. We can intuit this from burials, for the dead were interred with the tools they needed in the afterlife: men with hunting, fishing, woodworking, and leatherworking tools; women with tools to dig and grind nuts and roots. Women probably gained in status as their gathering activities became more critical to their band's survival.
The Archaic way of life was a decentralizing phenomenon as many far-flung peoples figured out how best to exploit the mix of resources peculiar to their locale. The immense continent of North America offered extraordinary climatic and environmental diversity. Peoples living along the Atlantic or Pacific coasts, on the Great Plains, in the Rocky Mountains, in the interior deserts, on the edges of the Canadian arctic, or in temperate forests had to pursue different strategies for survival, had to adapt to different seasonal cycles affecting distinctive sets of plants and animals.
As the Archaic Indian bands proliferated and specialized in harvesting the particular local resources, they became distinguished culturally, developing different languages, rituals, mythic stories, kinship systems, and survival strategies. The native peoples of North America spoke at least 375 distinct languages by 1492. The process of cultural differentiation proceeded most elaborately and rapidly in the Pacific northwest and northern California, where the general abundance and the subdivision into many localized micro-environments led to the development of some five hundred culturally diverse communities speaking nearly fifty distinct languages.
Cultural differentiation did not mean cultural isolation. Trade networks developed over very long distances. Archaeologists have found that some relatively small and highly valued objects could pass hundreds and even thousands of miles through multiple bands. At Archaic sites in the midwest or Great Basin, archaeologists find marine shells from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts; on the coasts they uncover copper from the Great Lakes and obsidian from the Rocky Mountains. Ideas and innovations traveled along with these objects so that the trading peoples influenced one another over long distances.
Through trial and error, over many generations, horticulture evolved from the practices of gathering wild plants, rather than by sudden and conscious invention. As some Indian bands protected, watered, and harvested productive patches of wild plants with edible seeds, they also gradually developed hybrids of increasing reliability and productivity. For example, wild maize has a single inch-long ear with fifty tiny kernels. By 1500 B.C., Indians in central Mexico had learned how to cross maize—"Indian corn"—with other wild grasses to create hybrids with multiple ears, protective husks, and cobs with multiple rows of kernels.
The Indians of central Mexico pioneered the three great crops of North American horticulture: maize, squashes, and beans. As these domesticate plants became more important in their diet, the peoples of central Mexico devoted less time to hunting, gathering, and fishing. Indeed, the expansion of cleared fields and the growth of the human population reduced the habitat for wildlife. By expanding the food supply, horticulture permitted a renewed surge in the human population and a more sedentary life in larger and more permanent villages. Indeed, maize requires permanence, for unless carefully tended, guarded, and watered through its growing season, the crop will succumb to pests, weeds, and drought. As people became dependent on corn, they had to live most of the year in villages near their cultivated fields. The new horticulture also promoted economic differentiation and social stratification as the food surplus enabled some people to specialize as craftsmen, merchants, priests, and rulers.
But the new dependence on horticulture also had negative consequences. The crops were vulnerable to catastrophic collapse from a prolonged drought or infestations of insects and blights. Horticulture also demanded more sustained and repetitive work than did the hunting-and-gathering life, in which temporary bursts of exertion alternated with longer stretches of rest. And a horticultural diet that relies too heavily on one plant, particularly maize, is not as healthy as the diverse diet of hunter-gatherers. The skeletons of early farmers reveal a want of sufficient salt or protein, episodes of early childhood malnutrition, and an overall loss of stature. Moreover, the denser populations of horticultural villages facilitated the spread of communicable diseases, principally tuberculosis, which was less common among dispersed hunter-gatherers.
Consequently, native peoples were often slow to adopt Mesoamerican horticulture. By about 1500 B.C., peoples in the American southwest and midwest had begun to cultivate some maize and squash, but only as a minor supplement to their hunting and gathering. Not until about 500 B.C. did native peoples north of the Rio Grande develop strains of maize better suited to their cooler climate and shorter growing season. Thereafter, cultivation spread more rapidly. Between about A.D. 700 and 1200, maize, beans, and squash became fundamental to the native diet in the American southwest, midwest, and southeast and the more temperate portions of the northeast.
In Mexico and the American southwest, where maize cultivation was most advanced, Indian men reduced their hunting and became the primary cultivators. In those relatively arid regions, maize fields required the laborious construction and maintenance of extensive irrigation ponds, dams, and ditches. In the more humid stretches of central and eastern North America, maize cultivation arrived relatively late and required less labor. Consequently, there the native peoples regarded horticulture as an extension of gathering, which was a female responsibility, while the men remained preoccupied with hunting and fishing.
Horticulture never spread universally among the Indians. Some lived where the growing season was too short: in the vast arctic and subarctic regions of Alaska and Canada or in the high elevations of the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Or they dwelled where there was too little water: in the western Great Plains and in most of the Great Basin between the Rockies and Sierra Nevada. Where either the growing season was too short or water too scant, the inhabitants continued to live in small, mobile, highly dispersed, and relatively egalitarian groups. Rather than horticulture, the most significant development for these people was their adoption of the bow and arrow after about A.D. 500.
Natives also did not develop horticulture in the temperate and humid coastal zone of California and the Pacific northwest, despite its sufficient growing seasons and abundant water. Along the Pacific coast, the hunting-gathering-fishing complex was so productive that the native peoples did not feel the pressures that elsewhere led to horticulture. In California an abundance of acorns and other edible wild plants supported an especially large population. Similarly, in the mild and rainy Pacific northwest, the people lived plentifully on fish (especially salmon) and sea mammals. Endowed with a bountiful diet and leisure time, the Indians of the northwestern raincoast could develop and sustain elaborate rituals, art, and status hierarchies without developing horticulture.
HOHOKAM AND ANASAZI
Between about A.D. 300 and 1100 two especially complex and populous cultures emerged in the American southwest: the Hohokam and the Anasazi. The names are scholarly conventions, for we do not know what those peoples called themselves. "Hohokam" and "Anasazi" signify broad cultural similarities rather than linguistic and political unity. Neither constituted a nation-state, to say nothing of an empire. Instead, both cultures consisted of several linguistic groups and many politically independent villages or towns (later called pueblos by the Spanish). Neither the Anasazi nor the Hohokam had beasts of burden (other than dogs), developed a system of writing, or employed the wheel. Nonetheless, both built substantial stone and adobe towns directed by a social hierarchy headed by men who combined the roles of chief and priest.
The Anasazi and Hohokam annually conducted public rituals meant to sustain the harmony and productivity of their world. Far from taking harmony and abundance for granted, they regarded constant ritual exertion as essential to prevent nature's collapse into chaos. Their arid land of limited resources and competing villages afforded good cause for their existential anxiety.
Both the Anasazi and the Hohokam manifested, to varying degrees, the influence of central Mexico, the preeminent cultural hearth of the continent. In trade with central Mexico, they exchanged turquoise stones for parrots, copper bells, and maize seed. In addition to transmitting their food crops, Mesoamericans taught the Hohokam and Anasazi how to cultivate cotton and to weave cloth. The largest Hohokam villages constructed ball courts and platform temple mounds resembling those of central Mexican cities.
Excerpted from AMERICAN COLONIES by Alan Taylor. Copyright © 2001 by Alan Taylor. Excerpted by permission.
|1||Natives, 13,000 B.C.-A.D. 1492||3|
|3||New Spain, 1500-1600||50|
|4||The Spanish Frontier, 1530-1700||67|
|5||Canada and Iroquoia, 1500-1660||91|
|7||Chesapeake Colonies, 1650-1750||138|
|8||New England, 1600-1700||158|
|9||Puritans and Indians, 1600-1700||187|
|10||The West Indies, 1600-1700||204|
|12||Middle Colonies, 1600-1700||245|
|14||The Atlantic, 1700-80||301|
|16||French America, 1650-1750||363|
|17||The Great Plains, 1680-1800||396|
|18||Imperial Wars and Crisis, 1739-75||420|
|19||The Pacific, 1760-1820||444|
Posted January 9, 2003
An outstanding chronological history of the setlement of our country. Absolutely jam packed with fresh facts and a new slant. Taylor wastes no words..this is a huge amount of information. It was the #1 history book I read in 2002(of about 50).Fantastic in scope..Taylor does a wonderful job of describing the problems and thought processes of the day...for just a couple of example nuggets:..I had no idea that early plantation labor in VA wasnt African until around 1700..for about 100 yr before that..it was English serfs who sold themselves into servitude as tradeoff for voyage fare. Did you know that SC was founded by a group of English colonists from Barbados who fled in part in fear of a slave uprising on the then British sugar colony? Did you know Acadia, then a 14th colony (now the Canadian maritime provinces) were invited into the revolution but decided against it? Given the French defeat..that decision is why Canada and US are not the same country today. Expect nuggets like this with American Colonies.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 27, 2002
People interested in early American history, especially the cultural, political, economic and other forces driving and shaping the history, will appreciate Adam Taylor's highly readable, interesting, balanced, and lucid account of the founding of each colony and its nature. Major American events, such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, cannot really be understood without an understanding of the nature of the first settlements; and Adam Taylor does a more balanced, articulate job of explaining this nature than anyone else I have read. I enjoyed every minute spent reading the 'American Colonies' and highly recommend it to others.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.