GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 21
tribes continued to fight in court for reburial. In 2015 new DNA evidence indicated
the Kennewick remains were closer to modern Native Americans than to any other
modern population and in 2016 Congress passed a bill permitting the repatriation
of the remains to the tribes. In early 2017 more than 200 members of five Columbia
Plateau tribes and bands gathered to lay the remains of Kennewick Man, finally, to
rest.14 The debate over the origins of America’s first peoples continues.
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES
It is too easy to dismiss scholars’ skepticism and insistence on meeting scientific
criteria as stemming from political or racist motivations. And few scholars today
would argue that precontact (the time before interaction with Europeans) America
was “empty” before the Europeans arrived. Instead, America was “a pre-European
cultural landscape, one that represented the trial and error as well as the achievement of countless human generations:’ 15 Indian peoples in different times and
regions pursued varied activities. They built irrigation systems that allowed them
to farm in the deserts. They cultivated new strains of crops and built settled and
populous communities based on corn, beans, and squash. They improved hunting and fishing techniques and crafted more efficient weapons and tools. They
exchanged commodities and ideas across far-reaching trade networks. They fought
wars, established protocols of diplomacy and peacemaking, and learned to communicate with speakers of many different languages. They developed various forms
of architecture suited to particular environments, different seasons, and shifting
social, political, and economic purposes. While medieval Christians were erecting Gothic cathedrals in Europe, Indians in the Mississippi basin were constructing temple mounds around open plazas, creating ritual spaces, and demonstrating
the power of their chiefdoms. Throughout America, people built societies held
together by kin, clan, and tradition. They created rich forms of art, music, dance,
and oral literature and developed ceremonies and religious rituals that helped keep
their world in balance.
West Coast Affluence
People were harvesting the rich marine resources of the California coast ten thousand years ago. As the climate stabilized and came to resemble that of today, the
coastal regions of California supported large populations of hunter-gatherers who
lived in permanent communities (Map 1.2). The inhabitants cultivated only one
crop – tobacco – but harvested an abundant variety of natural foods. Women
gathered acorns and ground them into bread meal; men fished the rivers and
ocean shores and hunted deer and smaller mammals. The Chumash Indians of
the Santa Barbara region lived well from the ocean and the land, following an
annual cycle of subsistence that allowed them to harvest and store marine mammals, fish, shellfish, acorns, pine nuts, and other wild plants. Chumash traders were
part of an extensive regional exchange network, and Chumash villages sometimes
22 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
0 50 100 miles
0 50 100 kilometers
â™¦ Map 1.2 Native Peoples of California at Time of First European Contact, c. 1542
Then, as now, California was a region of tremendous cultural and linguistic diversity.
Information from Robert F.Heizer, ed., Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8: California
(Washington, D. C.:Smithsonian Institution Press, 1978), ix.
housed a thousand people. The sophisticated and diversified hunter-gatherer lifestyle in California supported a population of 300,000 people, speaking perhaps as
many as one hundred languages, before Europeans arrived. California was a land
of cultural diversity. Population was least dense and most mobile in the Mojave
Desert, while being much more heavily concentrated and more sedentary in fertile coastal valleys, on the banks of the San Joaquin River, and along the shores of
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 23
Tulure Lake. Networks of alliance and exchange linked peoples across different
regions. In many areas, acorns were the staff of life. Fifteen different types of oak
trees grow in California, and it is estimated that Native Californians harvested as
many as 600,000 tons of acorns a year at the time Europeans first arrived. Gathering, pounding, and processing acorns was labor intensive but produced plentiful supplies of nutritious food, which could be stored. Everyone assisted with
the harvesting, but the women did the processing while men returned to hunting
and fishing. Bountiful acorn harvests supported large populations. By the time
Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo reached present-day Santa Barbara in
1542, some 15,000 Chumash people inhabited the coast and islands of the region,
many in permanent villages of several hundred people. They developed hunting
and gathering to a high level and paddled the sea in canoes (first constructed
from bundles of tule reeds for inshore fishing) and later in more substantial and
maneuverable planked vessels known as tomols. When Spanish missionaries and
explorers arrived in the coastal region of southern California in 1769, Chumash
chiefs received them with lavish feasts.16
On the Northwest Pacific Coast, from northern California to Alaska, people
built a maritime way of life and developed a deep relationship with the ocean.17
Seagoing peoples were harvesting rich marine resources five thousand years ago.
Men fished with harpoons and nets from canoes, and villages accumulated reserves
of dried fish and sea-mammal meat. People built large villages of communal
rectangular plank houses in sheltered coves and, in time, created prosperous and
stratified societies. Craftsmen developed specialized woodworking tools and skills,
producing seagoing canoes and ceremonial carvings. At Ozette on the Olympic
Peninsula of present-day Washington State, Makah Indians occupied an ideal
site for sea-mammal hunting. The village was inhabited for at least two thousand
years before a massive springtime mudslide engulfed it- probably around 1700 –
preserving its contents like a North American Pompeii.
Columbia Plateau Fishers
On the Columbia Plateau, between the Cascade Mountains on the west and the
Rocky Mountains on the east, salmon were central to Indian life and culture. Huge
and fast-flowing rivers like the Fraser, the Columbia, and the Snake provided a regular harvest for people inhabiting their banks. At The Dalles, a site at the upstream
end of the Long Narrows where the Columbia River rushed for miles through a
rocky channel, Indian people harvested salmon runs more than seven thousand
years ago. Men caught the salmon with harpoons, dip nets, weirs, and traps; women
butchered, dried, and stored the catch. Fish were dried or smoked on racks and
packed in baskets for eating or for trading, and fishing stations became sites of
social and ceremonial activity. Described as “the finest salmon fishery in the world”
and located where Chinookan-speaking peoples from downriver met Sahaptianspeakers from upstream, The Dalles became one of the largest trade fairs in western
North America, linked to trade routes that extended south to California, east to
Yellowstone, and, ultimately, all the way across the continent. 18
24 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
â™¦ Indian people fishing at Salmon Falls, Oregon
This image shows Native Americans fishing for salmon on the Columbia River as they had
done for centuries. Men used spears, traps, and dipnets to catch the fish; women dried and
stored the catch. Fishing sites became centers of social and ceremonial activity when the
salmon were running. bauhaus1000/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images.
Rituals accompanied the start of the spring salmon runs, and only after the ceremonies were completed was the fishing season open. People threw salmon bones back
into the water to allow the spirit of the salmon to return to the sea, thus ensuring that
the cycle of abundance would continue. Taboos limited women’s contact with salmon
and water, especially during menstruation when their blood had the power to offend
the salmon and jeopardize the run. ‘
9 Earthquakes and landslides occasionally blocked
salmon runs on the Columbia River, and changes in water temperature and mineral
content could discourage the fish from returning to their spawning grounds – events
explained and retold in Native stories handed down across generations.
Great Basin Foragers
In 2013 archaeologists studying rock art at the dried-up Winnemucca Lake in the
Nevada desert determined that the carvings were between 10,500 and 14,800 years
old- the oldest rock art in North America by several thousand years. This art was
found within the region known as the Great Basin, an area of some 400,000 square
miles between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada that embraces tremendous environmental and topographical diversity, and where ancient inhabitants
exploited a broad range of food sources to survive. They knew how to live in a
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 25
hard land: between ten and twelve thousand years ago, lakes in the region shrank,
rivers dried up, and the lusher vegetation retreated to higher elevations and to the
north. Temperatures rose until about 4000 or 3000 B.C., and hot, arid conditions
continued to characterize the region into historic times. Then, between about
A.O. 900 and 1400, a series of droughts struck the American West. The diverse environments of the Great Basin underwent constant change, and populations moved
regularly to take advantage of unevenly distributed arid often precarious resources.
For instance, on the shores of Pyramid Lake and Walker River in Nevada, people
lived in sedentary communities for most of the year, supplementing a staple diet of
fish with game and plants. In other areas, people harvested wild plants and small
game, a subsistence strategy that required intimate knowledge of the land and its
animals, regular movement to take advantage of seasonal diversity and changing
conditions, and careful exploitation of the environment. Amid these adaptations,
however, hunting and gathering endured for ten thousand years.2Â°
Trade, too, was a part of Great Basin life: shells from the Pacific coast and
obsidian -volcanic glass- from southern Idaho, which may have been present in
the Great Basin as early as seven thousand years ago, were traded over vast areas
along with food, hides, and other perishable items. Surviving and subsisting in this
harsh and changing environment demanded innovation, adaptation, and advance
planning. Successful hunter-gatherers did not live hand-to-mouth or move aimlessly across the landscape, as many people assume. ‘J\ncient residents of the Great
Basin were travelers in an endless cycle, always thinking about their next move
to another spot, where they would find the things they needed to survive:’21 In
summer, they prepared for winter; they stored caches of food in anticipation of
future need, and they cached hunting gear, duck decoys, traps for snaring rodents,
baskets and basket-making tools, fishing gear, and other equipment in places they
knew they would return to. Rediscovered, such caches have given archaeologists
glimpses into seasonally mobile hunting-and-gathering lifestyles that persisted for
more than eight thousand years until Euro-Americans arrived.
About two thousand years ago, horticultural communities began to emerge
in Utah, eastern Nevada, western Colorado, and southern Idaho, growing corn,
making pottery, and living relatively sedentary lives. Called “Fremont Culture”
by archaeologists and anthropologists, this way of life proved short-lived in Great
Basin terms – a mere 1,300 years.
First Buffalo Hunters of the Plains
Life in ancient America was varied and changing, but nowhere did Indians wearing
feather headdresses hunt buffalo from horseback; the horse-and-buffalo culture of
the Plains Indians developed much later, a by-product of contact with Europeans.
The way of life that popular stereotypes depict as typical of all Indians at all times
never existed in most of North America and was not even typical of the Great Plains
until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Between about 12,000 and 8000 B.c., Native American peoples of the Great
Plains hunted on foot for big game- mammoths, mastodons, and bison. Over
26 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
time, these people, known as Paleo-Indians, worked increasingly lethal projectiles,
such as Clovis points flaked on both sides, to produce stone spear points bound
into split wooden shafts. Experiments by Wyoming archaeologist George Frison
demonstrated that hunters using Clovis point spears could inflict mortal wounds
on animals as large as African elephants.22 As Paleo-Indians refined their hunting
tool kits, they also developed more effective methods of hunting large game, such
as buffalo drives and corrals:These communal hunting techniques required greater
degrees of social organization. At Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump in Alberta-the
largest, oldest, and best-preserved buffalo drive site in the western Plains –
Indians hunted and slaughtered buffalo for more than seven thousand years. Many species of large animals became extinct – mastodons, mammoths, giant beaver and bear,
saber-toothed cats, and American lions, camels, and horses; the demise of the large Ice
â™¦ Pecos Pueblo around 1500
One of the easternmost Pueblo communities, Pecos functioned as a trade center and
rendezvous point between the farming peoples of the Rio Grande valley and the hunting
peoples of the Great Plains long before the Spanish arrived. This 1973 painting by Tom Lovell
depicts a harvest-time trade fair at Pecos. The inhabitants of the pueblo trade corn, squash,
pottery, and other items to visiting Plains Apaches, who have transported the products of
their buffalo hunt on dogsleds. Later, Spanish seizures of Pueblo food surpluses disrupted
these long-standing trade relationships, while access to Spanish horses increased the Apaches’
mobility and military power. Horses also enabled the Indians to transport larger tipis. Dogs
would have been hard-pressed to transport tipis of the size depicted in this picture. Courtesy
of Abell-Hanger Foundationand of the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, Library, and Hall of Fame in
Midland, Texas, where this painting is on display.
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 27
Age mammals was a worldwide phenomenon, most likely the result of climatic change
rather than relentless human predators. By 8500 B.c.most Paleo-Indians were hunting
bison. Bows and arrows- a major innovation in hunting and warfare-spread south
from the Arctic and were in use throughout the Plains by A.D. 1000.
When the first Spaniards ventured onto the “vast and beautiful” southern
Plains in the 1520s, they saw huge herds of buffalo. They noted that the Indians of
the region “live upon them and distribute an incredible number of hides into the
interior:’ 23 Nomadic hunters traded with farming groups on the edges of the Great
Plains, but they did not yet travel by horseback. The Plains hunters had improvised other ways to transport their belongings and goods. In 1541 Spaniards on the
southern Plains encountered peoples who traded each winter with the Pueblos0
in the Rio Grande valley and who “go about like nomads with their tents and with
packs of dogs harnessed with little pads, pack-saddles and girths:’ 24
First Farmers of the Southwest
For virtually the entire span of human life on Earth, people have survived as hunters
and gatherers, living on wild plants and animals. Then, beginning about ten thousand years ago, many hunters became farmers at various places around the world.
Within the relatively short period of about five thousand years, people began cultivating domesticated plants in Southeast and Southwest Asia, China, South America,
Mesoamerica, and parts of North America. As long as seven thousand years ago,
Indian farmers in Mesoamerica crossbred wild grasses and created maize, or com,
which has become a staple food throughout much of the world; over time, corn cultivation spread north into what is now the United States. The transition to agriculture involved more than simply developing a new food source; it entailed a changed
relationship with the environment. Ultimately it produced new social structures and
organizations,0 as people cleared lands, cultivated and stored foods, adopted new
technologies for farming, and lived in more populous and sedentary communities. 25
The ancient inhabitants of the southwestern United States developed agriculturally based societies approximately three thousand years ago. About two
thousand years ago in the highlands of the Arizona-New Mexico border and in
0 The name Pueblo comes from the Spanish term for a town and was applied by early Spaniards
to the people they met living in multistory adobe towns in New Mexico and Arizona. At the time
of first contacts with Europeans, the Pueblo Indians lived in many communities and belonged to
eight different language groups. Then, as now, most Pueblo communities – Taos, San Juan, Cochiti,
Acoma – nestled in the Rio Grande valley, but the Zunis of western New Mexico and the Hopis of
Arizona are also regarded as Pueblo Indians.
Â° Contrary to assumptions that a transition from hunting to farming constituted “progress; there
is evidence that hunting-and-gathering lifestyles in areas of abundant resources provided a more
nutritious diet with less work than did agriculture. In rich and temperate areas like California and
the Eastern Woodlands, plant, animal, and fish resources were so abundant that people were able to
live in sedentary communities before agriculture became important. For many Indian peoples, the
transition to agriculture was an option, not a necessity.
28 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
+ “Their Sitting at Meat”
A Coastal Algonquian man and
woman eat a meal that includes
corn. The Flemish engraver
Theodor de Bry provided some of
the earliest depictions of Native
Americans and their ways of life,
many of them based on the watercolor paintings of the English
colonist John White. This image
was published in Thomas Hariot’s
book A Briefe and True Report of
the New Found Land of Virginia
(1588). Â© Historical Picture Archive/
CORBTS/Corbis via Getty Images.
northwest Mexico, Mogollon people grew corn and squash. They first lived in pit
house villages but later built multi-apartment structures above ground. Southwestern peoples began making clay pots by about A.D. 200, and pottery was widespread
by A.D. 500, improving methods for preparing and storing food. Mogollon potters were making distinctive black-on-white Mimbres-style pottery more than a
thousand years ago, although their culture went into decline after about 1100.
For a thousand years, from about 450 to 1450, the people archaeologists call
the Hohokam lived in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. Ancestors of the
Akimel O’odham, or Pimas, and the Tohono O’odham, or Papagos, the Hohokam
not only subsisted in a harsh environment but also made the desert agriculturally productive. They built sophisticated irrigation systems to tap sources of precious water and created a network of nearly three hundred miles of canals that
transported water from the Gila and Salt rivers, engineering feats that required
expending huge amounts of coordinated labor. Freed from dependence on the
unpredictable Gila River, the Hohokam people grew corn, beans, squash, and cotton. They also devised ways of modifying soil texture and chemical properties to
increase agricultural productivity.26 They were able to store crops and traded extensively across the Southwest, and they developed larger and more permanent communities. They built villages of adobe houses, earthen platform mounds, and ball
courts. Snaketown, near present-day Phoenix, had three to six hundred inhabitants
and was continuously occupied for twelve hundred years. Droughts, floods, and
increased soil salinity may explain the decline of Hohokam culture by the 14oos.27
Hohokam territory is now largely covered by the city of Phoenix.
In the Four Corners region of the Southwest where the present states of Utah,
Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet, Ancestral Pueblo culture emerged
around A.D. 900 and reached its height between 1100 and 1300, about the time of
the Crusades in Europe (Map 1.3). The Ancestral Pueblos- often called Anasazi,
although the name is not preferred by modern Pueblos – grew and stored corn,
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 29
UTAH COLORADO I
~ COLORADO ::::>
â€¢ J. â€¢
MEXICO <( MEXICO
~o I 50 100 miles G’,,..,,,,o.: TEXAS
o 50 100 kilometers ”
MEXICO â™¦ Selected sites
â™¦ Map 1.3 Southwest Civilizations and Chaco Canyon as Trade Center, c. 900-1200
Structures like the cliff dwellings at the town of Pueblo Bonito and Mesa Verde (see pages
58 and 59) show that the ancient Southwest was a region of remarkable activity and lasting
achievement. Pueblo Bonito sat in Chaco Canyon, itself the center of a series of communities
in the San Juan River basin and a focus of trade in which turquoise was exchanged for goods
from as far away as Mexico, California, and the Rocky Mountains. The dots on the detail map
(right) locate some of the outlying settlements. The lines show straight ancient roads, some
stretching four hundred miles, that have been documented by either ground or aerial surveys.
Informationfrom Tracy Wellman in Brian M. Fagan, Ancient North America (New York: Thames and
wove and decorated baskets, made pottery, studied the stars, and were master architects. In Chaco Canyon, in New Mexico’s San Juan River basin, they constructed a
dozen towns and perhaps two hundred outlying villages. D-shaped Pueblo Bonito,
one of many such structures in the canyon, contained hundreds of rooms and could
have housed hundreds of people;0 it has been described as “the largest apartment
building in North America until New York City surpassed it in the nineteenth century.” But it also contained thirty-six kivas (underground ceremonial chambers),
and many scholars now believe that it functioned as a ritual center rather than
a population center, with relatively few permanent residents. Chacoan farmers
Â° Chaco Canyon’s population may have exceeded ten thousand, but such estimates have to be revised
downward if, as some scholars have asserted, Pueblo Bonito and other “great houses” were monumental ritual centers or elite residences rather than the homes of Chacoan people.
30 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
inhabited a world where rain was scarce, where their “lives revolved around agriculture and religion, where the performance of ritual, of dance and chant, was as
important as tilling the soil:’28
With more than four hundred miles of straight roads spoking out from it,
Chaco Canyon was a center of trade linked to many outlying settlements in the
San Juan Basin. But the purpose of the roads remains something of a mystery. Many
of them seem to lead nowhere and they may have had symbolic meaning, connecting Chaco to other communities or to sacred places, rather than facilitating
the movement of people and goods. 29 The people of Chaco Canyon imported corn
and exchanged turquoise with distant peoples, obtaining seashells from the Gulf of
California, exotic birds and feathers from Central America, and minerals and ores
from the Rocky Mountains. Recent chemical analyses of organic residues in fragments of pottery from Pueblo Bonito reveal theobromine, a biomarker for cacao.
This earliest evidence of cacao drinking in North America-possibly for ritual
purposes – indicates that Chacoan people were exchanging with cacao cultivators
in Mesoamerica between A.O. 1000 and 1125;people may have been drinking chocolate in North America for a thousand years.30
Most Ancestral Pueblo villages housed a few families and were located on mesa
tops, but people also built impressive cliff dwellings, especially in times of drought
and competition for resources. At Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado, people
occupied more than two hundred rooms in a multitiered fortress-like cliff dwelling
that provided defense against enemies. (See Pueblo Bonito and Mesa Verde images,
pages 58-59.)3 1 The lifestyle of the Ancestral Pueblos began to change in the mideleventh century, however, when natural disaster and climatic change altered their
lives and locations. In 1064 or spring 1065, Sunset Crater volcano, near present-day
Flagstaff, Arizona, erupted, filling the sky with fire and smoke and causing dramatic shifts in patterns of settlement. Beginning in the twelfth century, a severe
and prolonged cycle of droughts hit the American Southwest. A major drought that
began around 1139and lasted fifty years seems to have caused many people to abandon Chaco Canyon, and there appears to have been another huge drought between
1276 and 1299 that further damaged the settlement. Soil erosion, crop failure, and
increased competition for farming lands intensified social tensions and generated
new levels of violence.32Ancestral Pueblo people began to disperse into smaller, less
stable settlements. Many people migrated south from the Mesa Verde region. Some
joined the Zunis and Hopis in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. The rest
moved east and mingled with Pueblo communities that had developed in the Rio
Grande valley, causing a dramatic population upsurge in that area. Some scholars believe that a new religion -what they call the Kachina phenomenon – drew
people eastward to the Rio Grande. In a period of drought, southwestern farming
peoples may well have placed more faith in kachinas, the spirits that brought rain.
According to one account, Pueblo people had a rather different explanation.
They said that the Ancient Pueblo people “kept a great black snake in the kiva,
who had power over their life:’ They fed him the fruits of the hunt- deer, rabbits,
antelope, bison, and birds – and he gave them corn, squash, berries, yucca, cactus,
and all they needed to wear. Then one night he left them. They followed his track
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 31
until it disappeared in the water of a big river, the Rio Grande. So they gathered up
their things and moved to the river, “where they found another town already living.
There they took up their lives again amidst the gods of that place:’33 Some Navajo
and Hopi teachings attribute the decline of the Ancestral Pueblos and the drought
that drove them away to societal decay, even to hubris that angered the gods, and
they see the rise and fall of these ancient societies as a warning for the future. 34 The
depopulation of the Ancestral Pueblos’ settlements is one of the great mysteries of
American archaeology, and scholars continue to debate its causes and timing, finding new evidence and attaching varying weight to climate change, environmental
degradation, social problems, and conflict.35
Whatever the causes, over the next 150 years, a period known as the Great
Migration, Ancestral Pueblo people abandoned their sophisticated towns and
moved away to be amalgamated with other established peoples. No new Chacoan
buildings were constructed after 1150, and by 1300 the canyon was abandoned. Great
cliff dwellings that had once echoed with the sounds of human activity became
empty and silent. At about the same time, other movements of peoples altered the
human landscape. Nomadic Athapaskan peoples, ancestors of the Apaches and
Navajos, who had migrated from far northwestern Canada, began to arrive in the
Southwest.36 Looking back over the centuries, the abandonments and migrations
may appear sudden and suggest dramatic and catastrophic causes, but relocating to
more hospitable environments in response to changing climate conditions was also
a regular part oflife in the Southwest.37
Long before Europeans arrived in America, Ancestral Pueblo civilization had
emerged in the Southwest, flourished for centuries, and declined. The Pueblo
cultures and communities the Spanish invaders encountered in the Southwest
in the sixteenth century were descendants of ancient civilizations that stretched
back thousands of years. People had migrated, scattered, and regrouped and were
able to survive and often flourish in a challenging and sometimes harsh environment. The Hopis, for example, succeeded in growing crops on the arid lands of
northern Arizona by farming near major rivers and streams or through the use
of canal irrigation; in archaeologist Stephen Lekson’s words, the Hopis “wrote the
book” on desert agriculture. 38 When a Spanish expedition reached the Hopi town
of Wal pi in 1582:
More than one thousand souls came, laden with very fine earthen jars containing water, and with rabbits, cooked venison, tortillas, atole (corn flour
gruel), and beans, cooked calabashes, and quantities of corn and pinole, so
that, although our friends were many and we insisted our friends should not
bring so much, heaps of food were left over.39
Farmers and Mound Builders of the Eastern Woodlands
Indian women may have begun domesticating indigenous seed plants such as
sunflowers, squash, and marsh elder that thrived in the floodplains of the eastern
United States as many as four thousand years ago.40 Some Indians in present-day
32 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
Illinois were growing squash by 5000 B.c. Corn was present in Tennessee about
350 B.C., in the Ohio valley by 300 B.c., and in the Illinois valley by A.D. 650.
Corn does not grow without human care and cultivation; Indian farmers
selected the seeds of plants that did best in their environments and developed new
strains for particular soils, climates, and growing seasons. Corn provided people
with food they could store. By about A.D. 1000 corn had become the major field
crop in the Eastern Woodlands and the core of society and economy. It was a staple
oflife that also reflected the rhythmic cycle oflife. Indian peoples developed a system of agriculture based on corn, beans, and squash – the “sacred three sisters” of
the Iroquois – supplemented with a variety of other crops. 41
“The only reason we have corn today is that for thousands of years humans
have selected seeds and planted them;’ says Jane Mt. Pleasant, an Iroquois agronomist who studies Native methods of cultivation and crop yields.42 When Frenchman Jacques Cartier visited the Iroquoian town of Hochelaga (modern Montreal)
in 1536, he found it inhabited by several thousand people and surrounded by extensive cornfields. The Hochelagans brought the French fish and loaves of corn bread,
“throwing so much of it into our longboats that it seemed to rain bread:’ 43 Huron
Indians north of Lake Ontario tried to grow enough corn each year so that they
had a two- or three-year surplus to guard against crop failure and enough left over
to trade to other tribes. Huron cornfields were so large that a visiting Frenchman
got lost in them. 44
More stable food sources and growing populations produced changes in living
patterns and made possible the construction of large towns and impressive structures. Over a period of about 4,000 years, Indian peoples in the Eastern Woodlands
constructed tens of thousands of large earthen mounds. They built mounds for
burials, mounds for ceremonial and ritual events, flat-topped pyramid-shaped
mounds on which sat temples and other important buildings, and effigy mounds in
the shape of birds, reptiles, and animals. Archaeologists have discovered a complex
of eleven mounds near the town of Watson Brake in northeast Louisiana that was
built between 5,000 and 5,400 years ago. It is the earliest mound-building complex yet found in America, predating other known sites by almost 2,000 years.45
More than 3,000 years ago at Poverty Point in the Mississippi valley in Louisiana,
between 2,000 and 5,000 people inhabited or assembled periodically at a town of
elaborate earthworks constructed in a semicircle surrounding an open plaza, with
a huge ceremonial mound (640 by 710 feet) in the shape of a falcon. The earthworks contained “nearly 1 million cubic yards of dirt and required perhaps 5 million
man-hours of sustained, coordinated effort” by people who dug with stone tools
and transported the earth in woven baskets. The site received its name in the
nineteenth century because it was considered a poor location for a modern plantation, but in its heyday around 1500 B.c. it was “the largest, most prosperous locality in North America;’ standing at a crossroads of commerce for the whole lower
Mississippi valley.46 It is now listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site (see
Map 1.1, “Native North America before Columbus: Selected Peoples and Key Sites”).
Trade for raw materials for ceremonial use, burial goods, and personal adornment connected peoples as distant as Florida and the Missouri valley. The Poverty
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 33
Point people seem to have exported stone and clay items and transported heavy,
bulky goods by dugout canoe; their imports ranged from copper from the Great
Lakes, flint from the Ohio valley, and chert (flaked stone) from the Tennessee valley
and the Ozarks to steatite (soapstone) from the Appalachians and galena (a lead
sulphide ore usually ground into a powder and used to make white body paint)
from the upper Mississippi valley and southern Missouri.
More than two thousand years ago in the Ohio valley, people of the Adena
culture built mounds that held their honored dead. The Hopewellian culture that
emerged from the Adena around the first century flourished for some four hundred
years. Hopewellian people built more elaborate burial mounds and earthen architecture and developed greater ceremonial complexity than the Adena. Their culture
spread through extensive exchange networks, and they obtained valuable raw materials from vast distances: grizzly bears’ teeth from the Rockies, obsidian for spear
points and blades from Yellowstone, silver from Ontario, copper from the Great
Lakes, mica and copper from the southern Appalachians, galena from the upper
Mississippi, quartz from Arkansas, and pottery, marine shells, turtle shells, and
shark and alligator teeth from the Gulf of Mexico (Map 1.4). Hopewellian craftsmen
and artists fashioned the raw materials into tools and intricate ornaments. Many of
the items were deposited with the dead in mortuary mounds; others were traded to
The Hopewellian culture went into decline around A.D. 300 and seems to have
disappeared by about 550. But the spread of corn agriculture throughout eastern
North America between 500 and 800 brought population increases and the emergence of more complex societies. For example, the Great Serpent Mound, a onequarter-mile-long, three-foot-high serpentine effigy in southwestern Ohio (and
the largest serpentine effigy in the world), was once thought to have been built by
Adena or Hopewellian people, but many archaeologists now believe that most of
the mound was constructed by people descended from Hopewell called the Fort
Ancient culture (c. 1000-1650). Some of the work has been dated to around 1070.
Beginning in the lower Mississippi valley around A.D. 700 and displaying
evidence of Mesoamerican influences, Mississippian cultures spread north to the
Great Lakes and east to Florida and the Carolinas, reaching their height between
1100 and 1300. Mississippian societies were typically stable, agriculturally based
settlements, close to floodplains, with relatively large populations and complex
ceremonial and political structures. Powerful chiefs from elite families collected
tribute, mobilized labor, distributed food among their followers, waged war against
neighboring chiefdoms, were buried with large quantities of elaborate goods, and
appear to have been worshipped as deities. Mississippian towns contained temples,
public buildings, and elite residences built atop earthen mounds that surrounded
open plazas where ceremonies were conducted and ball games were played.
The Mississippian town of Cahokia was a thriving urban market center.
Founded around 700 near the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois
rivers and occupied for about seven hundred years, Cahokia at its height was the
contemporary of Chaco and had a population of between ten thousand and thirty
thousand, or about the population of medieval London.47 (See Cahokia Mounds
34 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
Major trade center
Areas where agriculture
Gulf of Mexico
â™¦ Map 1.4 Agriculture and Trade in Native America, c. 1450
Europeans often pictured Indians as nomadic hunters living in isolation. In reality, long
before European contact, much oflndian America was farming country crisscrossed by
well-traveled networks of trade and communication. For centuries, Indian people had been
developing and farming corn. Hunting people regularly developed reciprocal economic relations with farming people. Prized items were traded over vast distances, usually along river
systems, from community to community or by wide-ranging individual traders.
Information from The Settling of North America: The Atlas of the Great Migrations into North
America from the Ice Age to Ellis Island and Beyond by Helen Hornbeck Tanner, Janice Reiff. and John
H. Long, eds.
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 35
â™¦ Great Serpent Mound, Adams County, Ohio
Aerial view of the Great Serpent Mound, crawling along a bluff in Adams County, Ohio. The
world’s largest serpent effigy, the mound is 1,254 feet long. The oval at top right may represent
the snake’s head or eye, or an egg it is about to swallow. Georg Gerster/Science Source.
image, page 60.) Looming large over the Illinois prairie, Cahokia was the biggest
settlement to have existed north of the Rio Grande before the end of the eighteenth
century, when it was surpassed by New York and Philadelphia. Trade routes linked
Cahokia to distant regions of the continent, bringing shells from the Atlantic coast,
copper from Lake Superior, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and mica from
the southern Appalachians.
Archaeologists excavating the Cahokia site in the late twentieth century found
a planned city that included pyramid mounds of packed earth arranged around
huge open plazas, temples and astronomical observatories, and thousands of
thatched-roof houses. They also uncovered evidence of a society in which elite rulers claiming divine descent controlled the distribution of food and were buried
with shell beads, copper, and the bodies of sacrificial victims. In one mound, the
archaeologists unearthed two corpses, one lying below the other on top of a twoinch-thick layer of twenty thousand beads, the remains of a beaded cloak or cape
in the shape of a falcon or thunderbird. Around the two bodies lay the remains
of fifty-three mostly young women who had been ritually sacrificed. (Studies of
dentalia and diet suggest they were local girls, although they may have been slaves
taken in raids.) Nowhere else in North America has such stunning evidence been
found of mass human sacrifice and mortuary practices honoring dead rulers. The
36 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
â™¦ Two Faces of Cahokia
Sculptured figurines and effigy pots in human shape may have had both religious significance and trade value in Mississippian culture, symbolizing life, fertility, power, and people’s
place in the universe. These two effigies reveal different, and yet complementary, aspects of
Cahokian life. One, a bottle effigy from Cahokia, depicts a mother nursing a child. The other,
a pipe carved from soapstone and discovered at Spiro in Oklahoma, although thought by
scholars to have been traded from Cahokia, depicts a warrior beheading a crouching victim
or with a bound captive at his feet. (Left): Nursing-mother-effigy bottle, Cahokia Culture, Mississippian Period, 1200-1400 (ceramic)!American School/DETROIT INSTITUTE OF ARTS/St. Louis Museum
of Science & Natural History, Missouri, US/Bridgeman Images. (Right): Werner Forman/Universal Images
monumental architecture and the public killing of slaves demonstrate “the paramount importance of human labor” at Cahokia and the chiefs’ ability “to coordinate, control, and sacrifice if’ 48
The growing population of Cahokia seems to have exhausted the resources
needed to support it. Centuries of felling trees for fuel and building materials
and to clear land for agriculture produced deforestation, soil erosion, and floods.
An earthquake struck in the thirteenth century. Climate change likely reduced growing seasons. Food shortages probably produced unrest within Cahokian society as
well as competition for diminishing resources with other societies; archaeological
evidence suggests increasing pressure from enemies. The once-thriving metropolis lay abandoned half a century before Columbus, but the remains of Cahokia’s
GLIMPSES OF PRECONTACT SOCIETIES 37
spectacular mounds can still be seen even after five hundred-plus years of erosionÂ
“[t]he great pyramid at Cahokia is greater in extent than that at Gizeh, in Egypt:’49
The Cahokia mounds offer impressive testimony to a civilization that developed
before Europe entered its Middle Ages, flourished longer than the United States has
existed as a nation, and declined before Europeans set foot in America.50
Focusing on indigenous urban centers like Chaco and Cahokia that rose and
fell before European invasion diverts attention from other kinds of societies that
did not disappear and whose power and presence both predated and survived
European invasion. Peoples living on the eastern edges of the Plains also began
cultivating corn and beans, as warmer climatic conditions between about A.D. 700
and noo fostered westward expansion of the tall-grass prairie. By the end of the
first millennium, eastern Plains peoples were living in earth-lodge villages, growing
corn and beans as well as hunting and gathering. In the twelfth
century, other farming peoples
moved into the middle Missouri
valley, although agriculture on
the Plains became more precarious by the mid-thirteenth century as the climate grew colder
and drier. Caddoan creation stories say that the people emerged
from underground, carrying
corn. Living in what is now East
Texas, Louisiana, and parts of
southern Arkansas and Oklahoma, Caddoan people by about
A.D. 1000 developed a thriving
culture and economy. They had
trade contacts with Cahokia,
but developed their own ways
of life, living in dispersed rather
than compact towns. Caddoan
trade networks and population
grew while Cahokia’s collapsed,
with Caddo population peaking
between 1500 and 1600. 51
Recent research at a Wichita
town site called Etzanoa near
Arkansas City, Kansas, appears
to confirm early Spanish reports
of a settlement of some twenty
thousand inhabitants before
European disease struck in the
â™¦ Caddo Creation Legend
In many tribal creation stories, the people emerged from below
ground. In the Caddo Creation as depicted by Creek-Pawnee artist
Acee Blue Eagle (1907-1959), the people carry corn and other plants
to sustain them in their new world. Northwestern State University of
Louisiana, Watson Memorial Library, Cammie G. Henry Research Center.
38 CHAPTER 1 AMERICAN HISTORY BEFORE COLUMBUS
Not everyone in the East became farmers. Many of Florida’s first peoples never
adopted agriculture. As did Indians in California, they inhabited an environment
rich in natural resources and sustained their lifeways by hunting, fishing, and
gathering – subsistence strategies that amply satisfied their needs and required less
time, labor, and organization than farming. About 350,000 people lived in Florida
at the time of European contact. 52
Emerging Tribes and Confederacies
The influences of the Mississippian cultures were still very visible when the
Spaniards invaded the Southeast in the sixteenth century. Chiefdoms and temple
mound towns were common. Moundville in Alabama, Etowah in Georgia, and
Spiro in the Arkansas valley of eastern Oklahoma were mound centers of population, trade, and artistic and ceremonial life. At the time of the Spaniards’ arrival in
northern Florida, the Apalachee and Timucua Indians lived in permanent settlements, planted two crops annually, and rotated their fields to keep the soil fertile;
the Spaniards sustained their campaigns by seizing the Natives’ corn supplies.53 But
following contact with the Spaniards in the sixteenth century, the great Mississippian chiefdoms that ruled in the South collapsed in the wake of escalating warfare,
epidemics, and slave raiding. The Natchez in the lower Mississippi valley continued
to display significant elements of Mississippian culture until they were effectively
destroyed by the French in 1731, but elsewhere the historic peoples of the SoutheastChoctaws, Chickasaws, Cherokees, and various tribes of Creeks – emerged from
the ruins of Mississippian societies.54 Cherokee traditions tell that their ancestors
originated in the southern Appalachians, in what is today the western Carolinas
and eastern Georgia and Tennessee, and that from time immemorial Cherokee
men hunted and Cherokee women farmed, planting and harvesting corn, beans,
and squash in the fertile valleys of the Appalachians. The Cherokees called themselvesAni-Yun Wiya, the Real People.
In the North, over the course of several centuries, the Iroquoian-speaking
Hurons, Petuns, and Neutrals moved from scattered settlements to fortified villages. Eventually, they formed loose confederacies numbering thousands of people.
Sometime before direct contact with Europeans, the Iroquoian-speaking peoples
of upstate New York, the Haudenosaunee, ended intertribal conflict and organized
a Great League of Peace. Europeans called it the League of the Five Nations (the
Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas), and, after the Tuscaroras
migrated from the South and joined in 1722, the Six Nations.
No one knows exactly when the league was formed. In 1900 a committee of
Six Nations chiefs estimated that it “took place about the year 1390;’ and some Iroquois assert that it was even earlier. One article argues that the league was founded
on the afternoon of August 31, 1142! Other scholars maintain that oral tradition
and archaeological evidence for endemic warfare indicate that the league could not
have formed before about 1450, and suggest that the confederation was probably
not complete until about 1525. 55 Whatever the date, Iroquois people already referred
to their league as ancient by the time they first met Europeans. “We, the five
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