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Birth of America, The Chapter One The Native Americans
Who were the Native Americans? The Spanish, French, and English explorers were perplexed by that question. Their first assumption that the natives were Chinese was soon abandoned; the natives obviously were not European and did not seem to be African either. The explorers could not think of any other possibilities. William Strachey spoke for them in 1612 in his Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania: "It were not perhappes too curyous a thing to demaund, how these people might come first, and from whome, and whence, having no entercourse with Africa, Asia nor Europe, and considering the whole world, so many years, by all knowledg receaved, was supposed to be only conteyned and circumscrybed in the discovered and travelled Bowndes of those three."
The Indian societies he saw, Strachey would have been astonished to learn, were formed by thousands of years of migration, splitting apart, rejoining, exchanging mates, settling, and adapting essentially the same process that shaped European lives and culture. Just as Europeans were products of the migrations of western Asians, so the Native Americans were descendants of migrants from eastern Asia. And just as the Europeans' languages give a view of their history, so American Indians' languages illustrate their background.
The first Indians the Spaniards encountered in what they named La Florida spoke dialects of a language known as Muskhogean. It was one of 583 languages that have so far been identified as spoken by natives in North and South America. Linguists trace it back to a tongue they call Amerind. Linguistic evidence points toward northeastern Asia as their "origin." What the spread of language indicates has now been confirmed by genetic studies. Together they suggest that ancestors of the American Indians probably began crossing to North America roughly 30,000 years ago. Climatologists now believe that from about 60,000 years ago, Asia and North America were joined at what is now the Bering Strait and archaeologists have found evidence of human settlements in northeastern Siberia from about 40,000 years ago. So it was possible for humans and animals to walk across a land bridge, which geologists call Beringia. They began to do so because, although much of North America was covered by huge glaciers and sheets of ice, parts of Alaska enjoyed a relatively mild climate. Even in the coldest times, there was a corridor of relatively open countryside that channeled movement of animals and men to the south. Then, about 10,000 years ago, with the coming of what geologists term the Holocene, a warmer epoch, so much ice melted that the sea rose as much as 120 meters and submerged the land bridge. Those people who had already made the passage from Asia profited from the melting of the vast sheets of ice to move inland and further south. By about 14,000 years ago, some had reached Patagonia and others had spread over both continents.
After their arrival in the New World, the speakers of Amerind spread out across almost the whole of North and South America. Pockets of other languages remained in the American Southwest and the Canadian Northwest. These were derivatives of an Old World language now called Na-Dene and were spoken in the far north of the continent where what is known as Eskimo-Aleut was the common tongue. Then, for thousands of years as families and small clans moved apart from one another, they acquired different habits, adapted to different environments, and made changes in the way they spoke. We can see how this process works by delving back into the past of our own language. Shakespeare's English is intelligible to us although it contains expressions we no longer understand. Middle English, spoken a few centuries earlier, is arcane. Farther back and farther away, English's close cousins Spanish, Italian, French, and Portuguese although sharing some vocabulary and much syntax and grammar, were already largely foreign. If we move yet farther afield to languages in our same Indo-European family, Russian, Persian, Greek, Armenian, and Sanskrit appear almost totally alien. So it was with the Indian languages. Over thousands of years and a large stretch of geography, each society elaborated from the common ancestor its own way of thought and speech.
When the French explorer Sammuel Champlain landed on the Saint Lawrence in 1608, he encountered a people speaking Algonquian, a language related to the language spoken far to the south in Virginia. What that seemingly unlikely fact tells us is that the two groups must have originally been one people; as one or both migrated, they first became neighbors and finally strangers, just the way our European ancestors did.
The largest, most sophisticated, and most warlike of the northeastern Indian societies were speakers of Iroquoian. When the explorers first encountered them, they had divided into five nations but were still linked by a confederation which they called Haudenosaunee (Iroquoian for "the Long House"). The 6,000 or so members of the confederation were tribes known as the Kaniengebaga (or, as their enemies called them, the Mohawks), the Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. Related to them and speaking dialects of Iroquois were the Cherokee and Tuscarora, who had earlier migrated southward.
Another family of languages was Siouan, spoken by peoples who dominated the Piedmont southward from Maryland. They included the Catawba, Saponi, Tutelo, Occaneechee, and Cheraw of the Carolinas and the Creek of what became Georgia, as well as scores of smaller, now mainly forgotten groups.
A fourth collection of societies, the North American native people the Spaniards first knew, spoke varieties of Muskhogean and inhabited the Gulf coastal region from Georgia to the Mississippi.
Speakers of these four groups of languages, the Native Americans living east of the Mississippi, probably numbered about 2 million on the eve of first contact with Europeans.
As they spread out over North America, the Indians developed such distinctive characteristics as to seem alien to one another, just as the European and African nations did. Frequently clashing with one another as they sought to defend . . .Birth of America, The. Copyright © by William Polk. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.