The first Americans: 30,000 – 5000 years ago
During the most recent Ice Age, lasting from 30,000 to 10,000 years ago, an undersea ridge between Siberia and Alaska emerges from the sea. Known as the Bering Land Bridge, it lies partly south of the ice cap. It develops a steppe-like ecology of grasslands, grazed by large animals such as horses, reindeer and even mammoth.
Gradually, in many separate incursions, the hunter-gatherers of the Siberian steppes pursue their prey across the land bridge and into America. When the melting ice submerges the bridge, about 10,000 years ago, these northeast Asians become isolated as the aboriginal Americans.
The Siberian hunter-gatherers probably make their way south along the north coast of Alaska and down through the valley of the Mackenzie river. Archaeological evidence shows that by about 15,000 years ago the central plains of America are widely inhabited. Traces of human activity at this time are preserved in the remarkable La Brea tar pit in Los Angeles. The glacial conditions further north mean that the plains are at this time cool and moist.
During the next 5000 years, while the glacial period continues, humans penetrate as far as the southern tip of South America.
The retreat of the ice caps, beginning about 10,000 years ago, makes northern regions increasingly habitable both for large animals and for the humans who prey on them. By 8000 years ago hunter-gatherers have moved up the eastern side of the continent into Newfoundland and the prairie provinces of Canada.
From about 7000 years ago human groups adapt to the conditions of the northern coast of Canada, living mainly as hunters of sea mammals. They spread gradually eastwards along the edge of the Arctic Circle, eventually reaching Greenland. These hardiest of all human settlers survive today as the Eskimo (or, in their own name for themselves, inuit – meaning simply ‘the people’).
The first American farmers: 5000 – 2500 BC
The cultivation of crops in America begins in the Tehuacan valley, southeast of the present-day Mexico City. Squash and chili are the earliest plants to be grown – soon followed by corn (or maize) and then by beans and gourds.
These are all species which need to be individually planted, rather than their seeds being scattered or sown over broken ground. This is a distinction of importance in American history, for there are no animals in America at this time strong enough to pull a plough.
At first these crops merely supplement the food produced by hunting and gathering. But by 3000 BC the people of this area are settled agriculturalists. In this development they are followed by the hunter-gatherers of south America and then, considerably later, by some in the northern part of the continent.
The earliest known settled community in south America is at Huaca Prieta, at the mouth of the Chicama river in Peru. By about 2500 BC the people here have as yet no corn, but they cultivate squash, gourds and chili. They also grow cotton, from which they weave a coarse cloth.
The first American civilizations: from 1200 BC
The earliest civilization in America develops in the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico. Dating from around 1200 BC, it is the achievement of the Olmec people. Their culture is contemporary with Mycenae and the Trojan War, with the spread of the Aryans through northern India and with the Shang dynasty in China. At approximately the same time the Hebrews are moving from Egypt through Sinai towards the promised land of Canaan.
The Olmecs represent the beginning of civilization in central America. They are followed, about three centuries later, by the earliest civilization of south America – the Chavin culture of Peru.
These two first American civilizations, in Mexico and Peru, set a pattern which will last for more than 2000 years. A succession of highly developed cultures, all strongly influenced by the traditions of their predecessors, follows in the same two limited regions of the continent – in central America (also known as Mesoamerica) and in the strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific.
Archaeology provides evidence of these various cultures, but the only ones known about in any great detail are those surviving when the Spaniards arrive – to marvel and destroy. These are the very ancient Maya, and the relatively upstart dominant cultures of the time, the Aztecs and the Incas.
The people of north America: 1500 BC – 1500 AD
The original people of north America live in a wide range of environments. On the east side of the continent there are woodlands, where they kill elk and deer. On the grass plains of the midwest they hunt to extinction several American species, including the camel, mammoth and horse. In the desert regions of the southwest human subsistence depends on smaller animals and gathered seeds. In the Arctic north, where there is very much more hunting than gathering, fish and seals are plentiful.
The first trace of settled village life is in the southwest, where by the 2nd millennium BC gourds, squash and corn (or maize) are cultivated.
The natives of this region derive their crops from the more advanced civilization to the south, in Mexico. The same cultural influence brings a custom eventually shared by many of the tribes, that of mound building. From about 1000 BC great burial mounds begin to be constructed around tomb chambers of log or wood.
The earliest burial mounds in north America are those of the Adena culture of the Ohio valley, closely followed by nearby Hopewell tribes. The period of greatest activity is from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD, by which time a vast number of mounds have been built throughout north America.
During and after this period two regions of North America develop quite advanced farming societies – the Mississipi valley and the southwest. Farming, accompanied by village life, spreads up the east coast, where fields are cleared from the woodlands for the planting of maize. But in most parts of the continent the tribes continue to live a semi-nomadic existence, in the traditional manner of hunter-gatherers, even though they lack the one animal which makes movement on the plains easy.
Hunted to extinction in America, this useful creature will only become available again to the Indians through the event which destroys their way of life. The Spaniards arrive with horses.
Pre-Columbian Indians: before AD 1492
The arrival of Columbus in 1492 is a disaster for the original inhabitants of the American continent. The chief agent of their downfall is disease. With no resistance to new germs, tribes rapidly succumb to unfamiliar illnesses on their first brief contact with Europeans – in many cases vastly reducing the number of the Americans without anyone even firing a shot.
Where the tribes develop a closer relationship with the new arrivals, they are frequently tricked, tormented and massacred by their visitors. Two elements make the Europeans both strong and ruthless – their possession of guns, and an unshakable conviction in the rightness of their Christian cause.
The event of 1492, the biggest turning point in the history of America, has had the Eurocentric effect of defining that history in terms of this one moment. Historians describe the previous American cultures as pre-Columbian. And the original people of the continent become known as Indians, simply because Columbus is under the illusion that he has reached the Indies.
In recent years ‘native Americans’ has come into use as an alternative name. But it is a misleading phrase – meaning, but failing to say, aboriginal or indigenous Americans. In spite of its quirky origins, American Indians remains the more direct and simple term.
Post-Columbian Indians: after AD 1492
The fate of the American Indians varies greatly in different parts of the continent. The regions of the great American civilizations, in central America and down the western coastal strip of south America, are densely populated when the Spanish arrive. Moreover the Spaniards are mainly interested in extracting the wealth of these regions and taking it back to Europe.
The result is that the Europeans in Latin America remain a relatively small upper class governing a population of Indian peasants. From Mexico and central America, down through Ecuador and Colombia to Peru and Bolivia, Indians survive in large numbers through the colonial centuries and retain even today much of their own culture.
North America, by contrast, is less populated and less developed when the Europeans arrive. No part of the continent north of Mexico has reached a stage which could be defined as civilization. The breadth of the continent offers a wide range of environments in which tribes live as hunter-gatherers, or as settled neolithic farmers, or – most often – in any appropriate combination of the two.
In another significant contrast, the Europeans arriving in these regions (the French, the British, the Dutch) are primarily interested in settling. Much more than the Spanish, they want to develop this place as their own home. Their interests directly clash with those of the resident population.
When Europeans begin to settle in north America, in the 17th century, the tribes are spread thinly over the continent and they speak hundreds of different languages. The names by which the tribes are now known are those of their language families.
Each group of Indian tribes becomes prominent in the story of north America as the Europeans spread westwards and compete with them for land. The first to be confronted by the challenge from Europe are the Pueblo of the southwest, reached by Spaniards exploring north from Mexico; and two large tribal groups in the eastern part of the continent, the Algonquians and the Iroquois, whose lands are threatened by English and French colonists.
Secotan and the English: AD 1584-1586
The Indians with whom the English first make contact in America are from the Algonquian group of tribes. The first encounter is extremely friendly. Two ships sent by Raleigh on reconnaissance reach Roanoke Island in 1584. The local Secotan Indians welcome an opportunity for trade.
The Secotan offer leather goods, coral and a mouth-watering profusion of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. What they want in return is metal implements, for they have no source of iron. Hatchets and axes are handed over by the English. Swords, even more desirable, are withheld.
This first encounter reveals very clearly the interests of the two sides, mutual at first but leading soon to conflict. Many of the Indian tribes are friendly and welcoming by nature, but they also have a passionate desire for the material goods of the west – including, eventually, horses and guns.
The settlers at first need the help of the Indians in the difficult matter of surviving. Yet the newcomers are also a nervous minority in a strange place, armed with deadly weapons. In any crisis there is the likelihood that the Europeans will react with sudden and extreme violence.
Moreover there is a clash of attitudes in relation to land. The English settlers arrive with the firm intention of owning land. But the Indians of eastern America are semi-nomadic. During the spring and summer they live in villages to grow their crops. In the winter they hunt in the thick forests. Land, in the Indian view, is a communal space, impossible to own. The question of land leads eventually to appalling conflicts, with the Indians the inevitable losers.
By a happy chance we can glimpse an Indian community before these conflicts develop. When a second English expedition reaches Roanoke Island in 1585, a member of the party is a talented painter, John White.
White’s drawings give an enchanting picture of the Secotan Indians in their everyday lives. They are seen in their villages, fishing, cooking, eating, dancing. Beautifully engraved by Theodore de Bry, and published in 1590 in four languages (the English title is A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia), these illustrations rapidly provide Europe with an enduring image of the American Indian.
Unfortunately, owing to the effect on the Indians of the disease, alcohol, brutality and treachery associated with European expansion in America, the image lasts rather longer than the reality.