History of Precolonial North America


Migration to the New World

During the Upper Paleolithic period (ca. 50,000-10,000 BC), humans migrated to Alaska via the Bering land bridge and colonized the Americas. Genetic research has shown that all indigenous peoples of the Americas are descended from the same ancestral group except for the Arctic peoples (the Eskimo and Aleut), who descend from a second migrant wave.2


The Americas can be divided into four major regions: North America, Central America, the Caribbean (aka the West Indies), and South America. Although Central America and the Caribbean are both part of North America, they are often discussed as separate regions. Central America denotes the part of mainland North America south of Mexico, while "the Caribbean" denotes the islands of the Caribbean Sea.

Major Regions of the Americas

The Americas consist chiefly of sovereign nations; the largest exception is Greenland, a Danish territory. Numerous Caribbean islands are also overseas territories (namely British, French, Dutch, and American).

The term Mesoamerica covers a similar-sized territory as Central America, but lies somewhat farther north; specifically, Mesoamerica includes much of Mexico but excludes the southernmost Central American countries. While "Central America" is used in discussion of the present-day Americas, "Mesoamerica" is an historical term that covers the region in which the pre-colonial Mesoamerican civilizations (including the Aztec and Maya) flourished.

Impact of Colonialism

The colonial age began in 1492, with the arrival of Columbus in the Bahamas (see European Colonialism). Through a combination of violence and disease, the indigenous peoples of the Americas were decimated by the European invaders, who often formed alliances with some tribes in order to destroy others. Although the two mightiest indigenous American states (the Aztec and Inca Empires) fell within a few decades, the ensuing colonization of the Americas involved staggering violence against native peoples up to the early twentieth century.6,7

Even when the killing finally stopped, vicious persecution continued, as social and economic roadblocks prevented many indigenous Americans from sharing in the prosperity of the nations erected upon their soil. Indigenous culture endured a massive assault, in the form of direct efforts at cultural assimilation (e.g. prohibition of traditional languages and beliefs, forced education at boarding schools) and the tides of urbanization and modern technology. Despite significant progress in rectifying these historical cruelties, the dark legacy of colonialism persists.1,2,6


The pre-colonial Americas can be roughly divided into three zones according to subsistence method.

Lifestyles of the Pre-colonial Americas

In the Americas, settled agricultural life first emerged ca. 2000 BC, in Mesoamerica and Peru (see The Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages). Over the next two millennia, it spread across the pink and green regions noted on the above map. It did not spread to the blue regions, where hunter-gatherer life continued up to modern times.15,28,29

Urban life (civilization) developed in two regions: Mesoamerica and the central Andes (the pink regions on the above map). In regions characterized by non-urban agricultural life (the green regions), settlements did not grow large enough to be considered cities. While the populations of non-urban agricultural settlements were relatively small, the populations of hunter-gatherer groups (which dwelt in the blue regions) were usually even smaller. (The size of a hunter-gatherer group is primarily determined by the difficulty of finding food in the land it inhabits.)

Hunter-gatherer life has taken diverse forms throughout human history. Groups of hunter-gatherers may be nomadic (constantly on the move), semi-nomadic (shifting between seasonal settlements), or even permanently settled (if food is sufficiently abundant). Some hunter-gatherer societies supplemented their diets with small amounts of farming.

Culture Areas

Historical discussion of pre-colonial Mesoamerica and South America tends to be dominated by the urban civilizations of these regions (which covered the pink areas in the right-hand map provided below). For the purposes of Essential Humanities, this "urban-centric" approach is considered appropriate. Nonetheless, two general observations will be made about non-urban Meso/South America (the green and blue regions in the right-hand map).

Indigenous Culture Areas of Meso/South America

Firstly, while large villages flourished throughout the Caribbean and southern Andean regions, the Amazonian region was home to relatively small villages; this was largely due to the difficulty of rainforest farming, which requires constant slash-and-burn agriculture to enrich the nutrient-weak soil. The Caribbean region encompasses the islands of the Caribbean Sea, as well as some territory around the coast (including the northern Andes). The Amazonian region, which covers Brazil plus some neighbouring territory, included pockets of hunter-gatherers (many of whom fished the Amazon river).16

Secondly, South America's Far South region is a harsh, food-scarce land of desert and plains. Survival was therefore difficult, and social organization was limited to small bands of hunter-gatherers.16

The culture area of Mesoamerica consists mainly of central and southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. The Andean culture area spans the central Andes (Peru and western Bolivia) and southern Andes (Chile and western Argentina). Pre-colonial cities emerged throughout Mesoamerica and the central Andes; urbanization did not spread to the northern Andes (which, as noted above, form part of the Caribbean culture area) or southern Andes (which nonetheless do belong to the Andean culture area).

Main Article

Culture Areas

Since North America did not experience the rise and fall of empires, Essential Humanities does not survey the history of this region in a linear fashion; instead, summaries are provided for each of North America's ten indigenous culture areas. A "culture area" is a region whose population features a distinct culture (e.g. subsistence methods, tools, religious beliefs); although many unique cultural groups may be found within a given culture area, these groups are united by broad commonalities (just as the modern United States is united by a common American culture, even though the nation may be divided into many sub-cultures). Since culture is influenced by geography and climate, culture areas often feature distinct natural environments (see Climates and Biomes).

Four of North America's indigenous culture areas developed settled agricultural life, while the other six retained a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The hunter-gatherer zone can be divided into the food-scarce regions (Arctic, Subarctic, Plateau, Great Basin), where subsistence was a constant challenge, and the food-abundant coast (California, Northwest Coast), where subsistence was relatively easy.

Indigenous Culture Areas of North America
agricultural life Northeast Woodlands
Southeast Woodlands
hunter-gatherer life food-scarce regions Arctic
Great Basin
food-abundant regions California
Northwest Coast
Indigenous Culture Areas of North America

The harshest culture area is the Arctic, a tundra realm inhabited by the Eskimos (in the Canadian, Alaskan, and eastern Siberian Arctic) and Aleuts (a much smaller group in the Alaskan Arctic). The Eskimo language family has two main branches: Inuit and Yupik. The Inuit people live in Greenland and Arctic Canada, while the Yupik are found in Alaska and eastern Siberia. (In Canada and Greenland, the term "Eskimo" is often deemed offensive; "Inuit" is used instead.)15

During the winter, Arctic peoples traditionally dwelt in domes of snow or earth, living on fish and sea mammals. In summer, they moved inland to hunt caribou (which migrated northward in summer for grazing) and lived in skin tents. The dogsled and kayak (animal-skin boat) were both essential to Arctic life.2,3,15

Arctic People (Inuit family)
Arctic Building (Inuit igloo)
Subarctic Buildings (Dogrib Teepees)
Subarctic Clothing (Innu Caribou Skin Coat)
Subarctic Art (Athabaskan beaded hide box)
Great Basin Woman (Datsolalee, famous Washo basket-weaver)
Great Basin People (Washo women)
Plateau People (Flathead family)
Plateau Art (Yakama bag)
California Woman (Yoruk author Lucy Thompson)
California Woman (Kumeyaay woman)
Northwest Coast People (Kwakiutl)
Northwest Coast House (Kwakwaka'wakw plank house)
Northwest Coast Boat (Kwakwaka'wakw canoe)
Northwest Coast Boat (Kwakwaka'wakw canoe)

The Subarctic culture region, covered mainly in coniferous forest, encompasses most of Alaska and Canada. Subarctic peoples hunted various animals (notably caribou, aka reindeer) and fished; in winter, many navigated the frozen landscape with snowshoes and toboggans.15 Most of the Cree and Athabaskan peoples are native to the Subarctic region.

The other two food-scarce hunter-gatherer culture areas are hemmed in by mountains: the Rockies to the east, smaller ranges to the west. The Great Basin is the harsher of the two, being mainly desert; its native inhabitants (which include the Washoe and Ute peoples) lived on seeds, nuts, and small animals. The Plateau region to the north (home to the Okanagan, Flathead, and Yakama peoples) was more forgiving, containing grassland and forest in addition to desert, as well as two major rivers (the Fraser and Columbia) that provided a modest salmon fishery.15

Life in the two food-abundant hunter-gatherer regions was quite different. In the California culture area (a mix of forest, grassland, and desert), edible plants, game, and seafood were plentiful. This allowed small villages to flourish, despite the absence of agriculture. A common staple was acorn bread, prepared by grinding acorns into pulp and extracting their poison before baking.15 The Pomo and Wappo are two well-known California peoples.

On the forested Northwest Coast, food (especially salmon) was overwhelmingly plentiful. This allowed the Northwest peoples (including the Tlingit, Haida, and Chinook) to thrive in large villages, and to become the world's only highly stratified hunter-gatherer society (including slaves, commoners, and multiple levels of nobles). Central to Northwest culture were sea-going cedar canoes and a fantastic style of wood-carving, most famously in the form of totem poles (see North American Art).1,15

The remaining four culture areas of North America made the transition to settled agricultural life (though not necessarily universally; some peoples in these areas retained hunter-gatherer life). Settlement population size varied, with the second-largest villages emerging in the Southwest, the largest in the Southeast Woodlands.

In the (mainly desert) Southwest region, agricultural settlements thrived alongside rivers, especially the Colorado and the Rio Grande. Like other desert farming societies (e.g. Egypt), the Southwest tribes built networks of irrigation channels to multiply arable land.1,15 Southwest peoples include the Apache, Pueblo, and Navajo.

Southwest People (Navajo)
Southwest Village (Zuni village)
Southwest Clothing (Navajo woman in traditional dress)
Plains Man (Blackfoot chief)
Plains Buildings (Siksika Teepees)
Plains Clothing (Blackfoot shirt and headdress)
Northeast Man (Ojibwe)
Northeast Building (Ojibwe Wigwam)
Northeast Building (Iroquois longhouse)
Northeast Clothing (Ojibwe buffalo-skin coat)
Southeast Woman (Caddo)
Southeast Building (Caddo)
Southeast Village (Timucua village)

Peoples of the Plains region (which covers the central US and the southern portion of Canada's "prairie provinces") are famous for their buffalo-skin clothing and elaborate feather headdresses. Until the eighteenth century, they lived a settled farming life supplemented with buffalo-hunting. Plains life changed dramatically with the arrival of horses (from Spanish colonies to the south), which led many to abandon farming for a nomadic life of hunting from horseback; some Great Basin and Plateau peoples were also drawn into Plains nomadism.1,15 Plains peoples include the Blackfoot, Sioux, and Comanche.

The eastern United States (and a sliver of southeastern Canada), covered mainly in deciduous forest, is known as the Eastern Woodlands region.1 (This term encompasses both the Northeast and Southeast Woodlands culture areas.) Throughout antiquity and the medieval period, various cultures of this region erected large earthen mounds, including conical, flat-topped, and line-shaped mounds.26 Some mounds were raised over burial sites, while others served as platforms for great buildings.27

The Eastern Woodlands region is typically divided into north and south. The northern part, known as the Northeast Woodlands, was home to relatively small agricultural settlements. Deerskin clothing, birchbark canoes, wigwams, and longhouses are characteristic of this region.15 The Iroquois, Ojibwe, and Algonquin are all indigenous to the Northeast Woodlands.

The Southeast Woodlands gave rise to the largest settlements of pre-colonial North America. A typical Southeast village consisted of a town centre (where the nobles lived) surrounded by farms (where most of the commoners lived and worked); often, the village was dotted with mounds, which served as platforms for temples and houses.15 Southeast peoples include the Caddo, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw.

Agricultural settlements in pre-colonial North America reached peak size during the medieval period (ca. 500-1500). (Recall that agricultural life was limited to four culture areas: Southwest, Plains, Northeast Woodlands, and Southeast Woodlands.) This was largely due to relatively plentiful rainfall over these regions during the medieval era.15

In the Southeast Woodlands culture area, population growth during the medieval period was so strong that one settlement, Cahokia, actually exceeded 10,000 residents.23 (Thus, by the Essential Humanities definition of civilization, pre-colonial North America did experience civilization briefly, at Cahokia.) Cahokia was a settlement of the Mississippian culture (an umbrella term for the Southeast Woodlands peoples of the medieval era).

1 - "North American Natives", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
2 - "Eskimo", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
3 - "Eskimo", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
4 - "Aleut", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
5 - "Native American Languages", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
6 - "Native Americans of North America", Encarta 2004.
7 - "Native Americans of Middle and South America", Encarta 2004.
8 - "South American Natives", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
9 - "Middle American Natives", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
10 - "Mesoamerican civilization", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
11 - "Pre-Columbian civilizations", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
12 - "Mixtec", Encarta 2004.
13 - "Inca Empire", Encarta 2004.
14 - "Tenochtitlan", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
15 - "Native American", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
16 - "South American Indian", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
17 - "Origins of agriculture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
18 - "Native American art", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
19 - "Chavin", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
20 - "Huari", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
21 - "Pre-Columbian Art and Architecture", Encarta 2004.
22 - "Goldwork", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
23 - "Cahokia Mounds", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
24 - "Chimu", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
25 - "Mississippian culture", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
26 - "Effigy mound", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
27 - "Mound builders", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed June 2010.
28 – “Archaic culture”, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed June 2010.
29 – “Stone Age (anthropology)”, Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2009.
30 – “Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies”, Jared Diamond. W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.