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American Indians

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American Indians

I. Origins of American Indians

All human societies have versions of their own origins, and the American Indians are no different. Stories of natural or supernatural creation in the Americas or emergence from another world exist among all Indian tribes and, like the biblical narrative in Genesis, are regarded as matters of faith.

Apart from them, and not competing with them, is what is known from the evidence of science and scholarship. Since no remains of a pre-Homo sapiens type have ever been found in the Americas, it is assumed that humans did not evolve in the Western Hemisphere but entered it after the development of modern humans. It is also generally agreed--from the findings of archaeology in Mongolia, Siberia, and North America and studies in physical anthropology, linguistics, and other disciplines--that they came from eastern Asia in one or more migrations, crossing a land bridge that from time to time during the Ice Age connected Siberia with Alaska.

The time of the first arrivals is still in question. During the Wisconsin glacial stage, the last seventy thousand or so years of the Ice Age, the periodic formation of glaciers caused the sea levels to fall as much as three hundred feet. At such times, the retreating waters exposed a vast, flat landmass of tundra and grass (which scholars call Beringia) that extended north and south for up to a thousand miles across the area now covered by the Bering Strait and adjacent seas and provided passage between Asia and North America to migrating animals and humans. Conversely, during periods when the glaciers melted and withdrew, the seas rose again, covering the land bridge and preventing movement by land between the continents.

It is believed that the bridge existed sometime between seventy thousand and thirty thousand years ago; again, continuously, from twenty-five thousand to fifteen thousand years ago; and, once or twice, between approximately fourteen thousand and ten thousand years ago. At any of these times, it is presumed that small hunting bands from Asia, pursuing migrating herds of Ice Age megafauna across Beringia or along its coasts, could have reached Alaska. Whether these first Americans came at one time or in separate migrations at different periods during the Ice Age, once in Alaska, they and their descendants continued to pursue the Pleistocene big-game animals, following them along ice-free routes on the Alaskan coasts, up the Yukon and other river valleys, and gradually south through corridors that existed from time to time between the Laurentian and Cordilleran ice sheets. Eventually, south of the glaciers, the hunting bands spread to the Atlantic Coast and through Central and South America.

From archaeological discoveries, it is certain that human beings were living in almost all parts of North and South America by at least twelve thousand years ago. Still controversial, though gaining increasing acceptance, are various finds from Alaska and the Yukon to Brazil and Chile and from California to Pennsylvania that suggest that humans were present thirty-five thousand years ago or earlier.

Although population at first was sparse, here and there bands undoubtedly met one another, combined, divided into new groups, or drove one another into less hospitable and accessible areas. Until the end of the Ice Age, about ten thousand years ago, the people on both continents lived essentially by hunting mammoths, mastodons, outsized bison, and other now-extinct animals and by fishing and gathering wild foods. After the disappearance of the big Pleistocene fauna, deer and other small game were hunted, and the gathering of nuts, berries, grass seeds, and wild vegetables and fruits became more important.

With the passage of time, physical and cultural variations began to appear as people adapted to the different environments in which they lived. Population increased, and weapons and tools became more sophisticated and varied. A basic Clovis-type, chipped-stone spear point, named for the New Mexican site in which it was first found but used by big-game hunters in many parts of the hemisphere about eleven thousand years ago, was succeeded by numerous specialized regional and local types.

In the millennia following the Ice Age, evolutionary processes and continued migrations within the Americas accelerated the differentiation among the peoples and their developing cultures. Those living along the coasts developed maritime-oriented cultures with economies based largely on harvesting fish and collecting shellfish. In the eastern half of the present-day United States, vigorous Woodland cultures of hunters, gatherers, and fishers emerged, and in the arid West, gatherers of wild foods developed a long-lived Desert Culture. At the same time, more arrivals from Asia, including the ancestors of the Eskimos and Aleuts, seem to have reached North America by crossing the open water in boats.

Less likely, but not to be ruled out, is the possibility of accidental contacts from the Old World--boats blown by winds or carried by ocean currents from Japan, China, Polynesia, Africa, or the Mediterranean. No proof has yet been offered of such an occurrence or of its influence on American Indian cultures. More fanciful claims that Indians are descendants of the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Welsh, a Lost Tribe of Israel, or refugees from the lost continent of Atlantis can be dismissed.

The invention of agriculture in the Western Hemisphere--occurring separately in Mexico and the Andean and the northern lowland regions of South America about nine thousand years ago--led to the settling down of the horticultural peoples to tend their gardens. Spreading through large parts of both continents, the growing of corn, squash, beans, manioc, and other crops allowed the storage of surplus food, the concentration and growth of populations, the stratification of societies under religious and secular leaders, and a flourishing of arts and crafts.

The last three thousand years before the arrival of Columbus saw the rise of advanced, agriculturally based Indian civilizations, with true urban centers, monumental public works, and ruling classes. Many, like the civilizations of the Mayas in Mesoamerica and the Chacoan peoples in the present-day American Southwest, fell before the Europeans came. But some, including the empires of the Aztecs and Incas and a few towns of the resplendent temple mound-building Mississippians in the U.S. Southeast still existed in 1492.

II. Societies and Cultures

During the period of European colonization, Native American societies within the present continental United States varied markedly. Despite this diversity, however, almost all the tribes were integrated through interconnecting political,

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