Indigenous Americans Before Columbus

(The College Board considers this material “world history” rather than “US history.” You probably won’t need to know this material for any questions on either the SAT II or the AP United States History tests, though it could turn out to be useful for an AP essay. Most teachers spend a class or two on it for these reasons.)

The Short Story

The ancestors of the Indians, the original inhabitants of North and South America, migrated into the Americas from Siberia during the Ice Age. Because such a huge diversity of cultures lived in the Americas, it's better to use more specific labels--Aztec, Iroquois, Cherokee, Sioux, and so on--whenever possible. The Indians' susceptibility to Eurasian diseases was the most important factor that enabled Europeans to enslave them and seize their lands. The Indians of Mesoamerica developed complex civilizations based on maize agriculture, which spread into North America.


This page is about the people who lived in North and South America before Europeans arrived. I once taught a student who did not know that "white people" had not always lived in North America! Instead, white people came from Europe much later, and the original inhabitants of the American continents were people we usually call either "Indians," "Native Americans," or "Indigenous Americans."

There is some controversy about what label to use for them.

For a long time, they have been called "Indians." That term has a few problems: first of all, the original "Indians" were people from India. Columbus, when he arrived in the Americas, thought he was near India, so he called the people "Indians," and the lable stuck even after people realized that the Indians of India and the Indians of the Americas are completely different. Secondly, the term "Indian" feels racist to some people. So maybe we should consider other terms!

One popular option is “Native American,” a relatively new term that hasn’t actually caught on very well among “Native Americans.” In fact, as far as I know, most of them prefer to call themselves “Indian” or “American Indian.” (This is true in the United States and even more true in the rest of the Americas.)

So I'm going to use the term "Indian" as well, but only when I am not talking about more specific groups.

Long before the Europeans arrived and started calling them things like “Indians” and “Native Americans,” the inhabitants of the Americas were already very diverse. They did not and usually still do not recognize themselves as a single “kind of person.” The only thing that the Apache, Aztec, Carib, Cheyenne, Hopi, Huron, Inca, Inuit, Iroquois, Navajo, Taíno, and Yaghan peoples--and that is a very small selection of the many peoples of the Americas--ever had in common is that they were people and that they lived on two continents that that Europeans didn’t know about until Columbus’s voyage. They absolutely did not consider themselves a single sort of people: they had no concept of themselves as “Indians” or “Native Americans” or anything like that until long, long after the Europeans arrived. (In fact, arguably, they still don’t consider themselves a single people. For example, people of Mayan ancestry in Mexico and Central America have very little in common with the Aleuts of Alaska, and they usually don’t think of themselves as the same “kind of person.”)

So it's really best not to group them into a single label unless you really need to. You will understand both the contemporary cultures and their ancestors better if you think of specific groups whenever possible, so I will use more specific labels as often as I can, and you should do the same.

(Also, you might want to know that when someone from India immigrates to the United States, they become an “Indian American.”)

American Indians built some of the greatest and most interesting civilizations in the history of the world, and we can’t cover them in the detail they deserve. However, I take pride in teaching my students more about them than most American history students learn (which really doesn’t take much). Besides trying to do a little justice to such an important and fascinating topic, I believe that understanding the American Indians’ part in American history gives my students a very big advantage on the AP test, besides enabling them to think about issues like race, colonization, nationalism, and historiography in more realistically complex and subtle ways.

Also, watch out for two popular myths about the Indians. First, there is a very popular, romantic myth that the Indians lived at peace with nature and each other. You might’ve seen the Disney movie Pocahontas, which is, like many recent movies that portray Indians, an excellent example of this myth. But, like everything about the movie Pocahontas, this myth is almost completely false. The truth is that, like humans anywhere else, Indians often fought fierce wars against each other, built oppressive empires when they could, enslaved each other when they could, sometimes practiced human sacrifice. They sometimes exhausted the land they farmed, they sometimes set forests on fire intentionally, and they sometimes hunted animals to extinction. The most famous example is the wooly mammoth, but there are many others, including giant beavers and miniature horses. So get that Pocahontas nonsense out of your heads!

Of course Indians weren’t worse than anyone else either! European colonists often considered Indians “savages,” people without "civilization," even as devil worshippers. This myth, much older than the romantic one, describes Indians as more violent and perhaps less intelligent than other people in the world. This myth used to be very popular because the European colonists ruthlessly killed and enslaved many Indians, and this myth helped them justify their actions to themselves: the truth is that Europeans could be pretty savage themselves. In fact, humans all over the world throughout human history have done terrible things to each other, and even though we tend to imagine that we’re morally superior to our ancestors, we’re still doing a lot of that stuff right now. This second myth is less popular now than it used to be, but you can still find it.

Also, for many people the stereotypical Indian is a man on a horse with a headdress of feathers. There were some Indians like that, but the truth is that hey dressed in many different ways and had many different lifestyles. In fact, Indians did not have horses until the Spanish colonists brought them from Europe. Most Indians in North, Central, and South America practiced some form of agriculture.

The point is, then, that the Indians were neither romantically at peace with nature and each other, nor were they brutal savages in contrast with enlightened European colonists. The Indians were regular people, as complex and diverse as people in the rest of the world: they could be cruel or kind, naive or cunning, wise or foolish, puzzled or insightful. Watch out for stereotypes!

Where did the Indians come from?

According to archaeological and genetic evidence, human beings, the ancestors of all of all of us, first evolved in Africa, and about fifty thousand years ago some of them migrated from Africa into Eurasia and Australia. No one lived in North or South America yet. But eventually, around twelve thousand years ago, people from Siberia crossed the Bering Strait into Alaska, becoming the first Americans. Even though they couldn’t have known that they were moving onto a new continent, their migration was the real beginning of American history.

That first crossing from Siberia to North America occurred during the Ice Age, when the ocean was lower, so both animals and people could just walk across the Bering Strait “land bridge.” The first Americans were probably following the animals they hunted, such as the woolly mammoths.

That was the only ancient migration from Asia into the Americas that we learned about when I was a student. But by studying language families and genes, recent archaeologists, scientists, and historians have identified two more: a second migration occurred between 10,000 and 8000 years ago; some of the descendants of this migration became the Navajo and Apache peoples. A third migration began about 5000 years ago, and really never stopped, because even in recent times the Yupik and Aleut peoples have crossed the Bering Strait in either direction whenever they wanted. (These peoples as well as the Inuits all used to be called “Eskimos,” but some of them don’t appreciate that label.)

As with all of history, the evidence is still debated and future archaeologists may have different ideas! Only twenty years ago a lot of this information was completely unavailable because we didn’t know how to read the DNA evidence yet.

This illustrates a very important lesson about history: historians still research and debate the evidence, and future archaeologists and historians will probably know more than we do now, and they’ll definitely interpret it differently. They might even invent entirely new ways of thinking about history—-this has happened so many times in the past that there is even a field of study known as historiography: the study of how people have thought about and studied history.

So, as you should with any subject, remember that I’m not telling you absolute, unquestionable truths. I’m surely wrong about something, wikipedia is wrong about something, your textbooks are wrong about something, and even the greatest scholars of our time are wrong about something. Someday, if you become a historian, you will probably be able to tell us something new and interesting. And even if you personally don’t, someone else will. (On the other hand, historians have been carefully analyzing and fervently debating the evidence for generations, so hopefully none of this is completely wrong!)

What were Indians like?

Once people got into the Americas, they rapidly filled up North and South America. I don’t know how diverse the groups that initially crossed the Bering Strait were, but in the Americas they rapidly diversified. By the time Europeans began crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Indian groups spoke thousands of distinct languages, and they had thousands of distinct cultures, and each of those languages and cultures was changing constantly (as all human cultures do).

But they did have some things in common. Probably the most important for you know about is that until Europeans arrived, Indians enjoyed exceptionally good health compared to people in Africa and Eurasia.

One reason for that is that most of the parasites and germs that bothered Africans and Eurasians could not survive the cold climate of Siberia and Alaska, and so the first Indians brought very few diseases with them into the Americas.

But then, during the thousands of years that Indians were living so healthily, many terrible new diseases evolved in Eurasia, spreading to humans from animals such as rats, and especially from domesticated animals like pigs and chickens. Eurasian peoples suffered from many plagues because of these diseases—the Black Death is the most famous, but there were many more, and over time Eurasians evolved a degree of immunity to these diseases. (Everyone too susceptible to the disease died without having children, so modern Eurasian peoples have descended from people who had better immunity to those diseases, and have inherited their immunity. That is evolution!)

But the Indians, isolated by oceans from those Eurasian diseases, never suffered from plagues like the Black Death, and never evolved any immunity to them. So when the Europeans did arrive, the Indians caught their diseases, and died in staggering numbers. (We’ll discuss this further when we study The Columbian Exchange.)

On the other hand, the Indians did not find many animals to domesticate in the Americas. (The llama is the most notable exception. The llama. So: not very many.) They brought dogs with them from Asia, but evidently not many diseases have spread from dogs to people.

That means very few new human diseases evolved in the Americas. The most important exception is syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that probably originated among the Indians of the Caribbean. Syphilis was no joke, and it played a huge role in modern European culture until the development of antibiotics, but it wasn’t nearly enough to slow down European colonization of the Americas.

This is a very important point: the Indians’ susceptibility to Eurasian and African diseases may be the single most important factor in the history of the Americas for the past five centuries. It is almost entirely due to these diseases that Europeans so easily colonized the Americas and other places, like Australia, where the indigenous peoples also lacked immunity to Eurasian diseases. No place in Africa or Eurasia was colonized so easily, and the reason for the difference is disease. (In fact, tropical Africans had their own disease advantages: Europeans succumbed more quickly than Africans to diseases like yellow fever and malaria, preventing them from colonizing such areas until they had invented drugs to fight those diseases.)

Indian susceptibility to Eurasian diseases has been interpreted differently in the past. Historians haven’t always understood very much about how disease and immunity work, so they had to find some way to explain why the Indians were so vulnerable to Eurasian diseases. For example, the earliest European settlers, and the English in particular, often believed God was blessing them by killing off the Indians! More recently, the famous author Paul Johnson wrote that Europeans had “learned to” cope with smallpox and other diseases. But that didn’t begin to be true at least until the Turks (not Western Europeans) invented smallpox inoculation several centuries after Indians began dying of Eurasian diseases. Johnson’s guess betrays a sense that the Indians were somehow intellectually inferior to Europeans—as if Indians just couldn’t “learn to” cope with smallpox the way Europeans had. Watch out for stuff like that!

In other ways the conditions of Indian life were more typical of people everywhere. For example, Indian religious traditions were similar to many religions in other parts of the world. Generally music and dance were important parts of their rituals; they sometimes experienced spirit possession or visionary journeys to other worlds. Traditions of that sort are sometimes labeled “shamanism.”

Europe had similar religious traditions, but during the period of American colonization, they considered these traditions witchcraft or devil worship, so when Europeans witnessed Indian religious rituals, the Europeans concluded that the Indians were worshipping Satan. (You can see this portrayed in The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials: the girls ask an Indian woman to teach them some magic that the other characters consider witchcraft.) The Indians were not familiar with the idea of “Satan,” and at least initially they wouldn’t have understood what the Europeans were thinking.

Most Indians also believed that many aspects of nature—such as trees, animals, the weather, the soil, and so on—had spirits (or gods). This belief is sometimes known as “animism.”

So when you learn about Indian religious traditions, you’ll often see the words “shamanism” and “animism” used, but the most important thing to remember is that there were many varieties of religious traditions in the Americas, and that they had a lot in common with human religious traditions everywhere else.

Just as the Indians didn’t find many animals to domesticate, they didn’t find any plants very suitable for agriculture either—-none as ready for domestication as wheat in the ancient Near East, or as productive as rice in Asia. But through thousands of years of artificial selection, they managed to turn a wild native grass, teosinte, into maize, which we now call corn. (“Corn” is a complicated word: in English it used to refer to any grain, but now it almost always only refers to maize. Anyway, to avoid confusion in history class, “maize” is better.)

Maize became the staple crop, or main food source, for many Indian cultures in Central and North America. The other main crops in their diet were beans and squash, which are still the main ingredients in Mexican food. In South America, the Incas built a complex civilization depending on the potato, which was also difficult to domesticate, and may even have originally been poisonous. Other important American crops included the sweet potato, beans, and squashes (like pumpkins and zucchini).

The most important condition for the development of agricultural states (“civilizations”) is having a productive staple crop. The difficulty of domesticating maize (and potatoes) is the main reason large states appeared thousands of years later in the Americas than similar states in the Middle East, which had productive varieties of wheat thousands of years earlier. Agricultural states also appeared a little later in China than in the Middle East, and for the same reason. It is a big mistake to think this had anything to do with anyone’s intelligence: it seems that people everywhere domesticated about everything they could as soon as they could—European migrants to the Americas or Australia haven’t domesticated anything there that Indians hadn’t already domesticated: the llama is still the main animal, and all the crops that spread out of the Americas had already been domesticated by Indians. If living in agricultural states is a good thing, then some peoples were simply lucky to have lived near a lot of good things to domesticate.

Eurasia in particular developed faster because of its size and orientation: domesticated plants and animals spread from east to west very easily because the climate doesn’t change too much, but things don’t spread from south to north as easily because the climate changes. When the Europeans first arrived in the Americas, their culture depended on wheat originally from the Middle East, chickens originally from Southeast Asia, and so on. Their technologies had also been developed across Eurasia—gunpowder and the compass from China, the astrolabe from the Muslims, and so on. Due to geography alone there was no chance at all for American civilizations to develop as quickly as Eurasian ones. This is why historians sometimes say, “Geography is destiny.”

Mesoamerican Civilizations

Here is an example of a head carved by the Olmec. Three thousand years old, it's over two meters wide and nearly three meters tall.

This is the seal of Mexico, which also appears on its flag.

We shouldn’t forget about the Incas and other South American civilizations, but now we will focus on the Mesoamericans because they influenced the Native Americans of North America. Like humans in other parts of the earth, once they had a sufficient food supply (because of maize), they built large states, beginning with the Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Olmec, Mayans, and Aztecs.

Today we remember the Olmec primarily for the giant heads they carved; you can see one of them on the right.

After the Olmec, the Mayans flourished primarily in what is today southern Mexico, including the Yucatan Peninsula, but their civilization declined in the centuries just before the European arrival, perhaps due to soil exhaustion.

Today we generally remember the Mayans for their giant pyramids, their mathematical knowledge, and their calendars. (Although the Mayan calendars are interesting, they didn’t predict that the world would end in 2012. If you remember the excitement over that, get it out of your head now!) Here, for example, is the Mayan pyramid at Tikal:

About the same time as the Mayan decline, a little further north in what has become central Mexico, a group we call the Aztecs rose to power. They were evidently originally migrants from further north. (The Aztecs did not call themselves Aztecs: they called themselves “Mexica.” Thus, “Mexico.”) Their capital city, Tenochtitlan, which has become Mexico City, was the center of a huge empire. According to legend, they chose the spot by finding an eagle eating a snake on a cactus on an island in a lake, which is now portrayed on the seal and flag of Mexico.

The Aztecs learned a lot from prior civilizations, especially the Mayans. They worshipped many of the same gods, such as the “feathered serpent.” The religion of the Aztecs had one very fascinating unique feature—a belief that their rain god required war captives to be tortured and sacrificed as painfully as possible. When that belief caught on, the style of Aztec war changed: rather than primarily trying to kill their enemies, they primarily tried to take captives in order to find victims for their sacrifices.

Later, the Spanish conquerors emphasized the brutality of Aztec religion in order to help justify their conquest of the Aztecs and to motivate support for missionary work. Even later, some scholars suspected that the whole thing was an invention of the Spanish. But archaeological evidence and the Aztecs’ writings show that the Spanish witnesses were at least somewhat reliable sources on the Aztec cult of human sacrifice.

We’ll return to the Aztecs when we get to the Spanish conquest and colonization of Mexico. But now let’s look at what was happening north of Mesoamerica. While the Mesoamerican civilizations like the Olmec, Mayans, and Aztecs were growing and flourishing, their crops very slowly spread northward. Of course this process was slow because the crops had to adapt to different climates on their way north.

Maize farming moved northward by two routes. First, it spread from the Yucatan peninsula to the Caribbean islands, and from there to the eastern part of North America. All those Caribbean islands once had maize-farming Native Americans! Some of them were the Carib people, whose name was given to the Caribbean Sea and its islands, and also is the root of the word “cannibal.” However, they apparently weren’t actually cannibals—that probably is just Spanish legend.

Maize farming flourished—if you’ve had world history and you think about it, you should be able to predict this—in the Mississippi River Valley, giving rise to fairly complex hierarchical civilizations by about 800 AD (the time of Charlemagne, the Umayyad Empire, the Tang Dynasty, and the Unified Silla Dynasty). The Mississippi River valley was the most densely populated part of America north of Mexico. This civilization is known to modern archaeologists and historians as “the Mississippians” and also as “the Mound Builders” because they built large mounds—in fact, Cahokia, the third largest pyramid in the Americas, was in the Mississippi valley. Another famous structure they built is “Serpent Mound.”

Culturally, the Mississippians were fairly similar to the Mesoamericans. Not only did they depend on the same foods (maize, beans, and squash) and build large pyramids, they probably also practiced human sacrifice. This might be evidence that the Mesoamericans influenced the Mississippians, but there is no proof. Like the Mayans, the Mississippians suffered from overpopulation and environmental destruction, and declined from their peak in the eleventh century (about the time of the Vikings, the Abbasids, the Song Dynasty, and Goryeo Dynasty). In the southern part of the Mississippi Valley, however, the civilization was still vibrant in the sixteenth century when Spanish explorers first passed through the region. (We’ll learn more about that soon.)

From there, maize farming also spread even further north, into the Great Lakes region. Remember that maize had to adapt to different climates as it spread north, so that process took some time. In the Great Lakes region, the agricultural societies had not yet grown very large or dense when the Europeans arrived, but they were expanding. Later, we’ll learn about the Iroquois League, which formed in that area.

The Iroquois League (also known as “the Iroquois Confederacy”) was probably the most impressive Native American organization in eastern North America. The Iroquois League was led by a sachem, a man who was elected by elderly women from each Iroquois tribe. As we’ll see, Americans learned a few things about how to run a republic from the Iroquois example.

The Five Tribes of the Iroquois League were the Mohawks, the Oneida, the Onandaga, the Cayuga, and the Seneca. The Huron were once part of the league, but later they left it. According to Iroquois tradition, before the formation of the Iroquois League these tribes had suffered unending “mourning wars” in which a tribe tried to replace the people who’d died in wars by kidnapping people from another tribe. Of course, during a mourning war more people died, and they also needed to be replaced by further mourning wars, so it was an unending cycle of warfare.

Then the Iroquois League was formed by a prophet named Deganawid¬a and his disciple Hiawatha, religious leaders who persuaded the Iroquois to stop fighting each other and to organize themselves into a cooperative league, which then began to attack external enemies, especially the Algonquians. We’ll learn more about the Iroquois League later.

Though the Native Americans of eastern North America (including the Mississippians and the Iroquois) generally farmed maize, squash, and beans, they also hunted and gathered food.

Maize farming also spread north from Mesoamerica along a totally different route in the west, through northern Mexico into the desert southwest of what is now the United States (Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and parts of Texas and California).

Two famous maize-farming cultures arose there, which contemporary scholars call “Hohokam” and “Anasazi”—we don’t know what they called themselves. Building complicated irrigation networks for their crops, they flourished from about 300 AD to about 1100, and are most famous for the villages they built, known as pueblos, out of adobe brick and stone. These cultures also show extensive Mesoamerican cultural influence, building temple mounds: they even had similar ball games.

The largest Hohokam village is known as Snaketown, and the largest Anasazi village is at Chaco Canyon. The most famous feature of their villages are the circular structures for religious rituals, known as kivas. Here is one of the larger kivas at Chaco Canyon:

Like the Mayas and the Mississippians, the pueblo civilization declined in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries due to environmental degradation. The descendants of the Hohokam are the Pima Indians; the Anasazi became the Acoma, Hopi and Zuni peoples (and others less famous). Their building material, adobe, is still used throughout the Southwest. (For instance, Stanford University has some famous adobe buildings.) Here is an example from Santa Fe, New Mexico:

Native Americans along the Pacific coast from California up through Canada did not adopt maize farming. Instead, they flourished by hunting and gathering in the rich environment, including salmon fishing. Their cultures are most famous for constructing totem poles, but their custom of “potlatch” is also well-known. In a potlatch, the rich and powerful men competed for status by giving away as much as possible—whoever could give away the most food and material possessions would be the most respected. (Obviously they didn’t stay rich that way, but evidently they preferred being respected to being rich.)

That’s a good, sound introduction to the Native American peoples and their cultures. I want to mention the Polynesians too, because today Hawaii, Guam, and American Samoa are part of the United States. The Polynesians are not usually considered “Native Americans” because they spread through the islands of the Pacific Ocean. They too had a variety of cultures and languages.


Key Concepts

Key Terms

Jonathan's Guide to US History: AP Track
Indigenous Americans before Columbus European Exploration and African Slavery before Columbus →
Native American Background a. homogeneity → very diverse b. savages → empires, agriculture, writing i. justification for European conquests & colonization c. timeless → constantly changing, adapting new technologies, migrating d. romantic noble savage → fought wars, built empires, enslaved each other, human sacrifice, transformed their environments i. relationship to environmentalism e. controversies about origins: the Bering Strait “land bridge” i. mass extinctions of large mammals → lack of archaeological support (~climate change) ii. DNA, language families, & more archeology → at least 3 migrations (maybe an earlier one) f. ~ historiography 3. Mesoamerica: Aztecs (Mexica), Tenochtitlan 4. (Yucatan: Mayas; Andes: Incas) 5. Maize, beans, squash 6. Mississippians, Mound Builders, Serpent Mound, Cahokia 7. Pueblo, adobe, Anasazi, Apache, Navajo 8. the Iroquois Confederacy = the Iroquois League (sachem, Hiawatha, longhouse); mourning wars, the Huron 9. animism, shamanism

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides