We’ll start this chapter going way back into ancient “pre-historic” times — partly to provide a backdrop to colonial American history and partly just because deep history is interesting and something you should be aware of as an educated citizen. The text includes places, names, dates, and intricate details just to orient you, but you don’t need to memorize these. Your task is to read actively after going over the 1301 Learning Objectives for this chapter (found under the Chapters-LO’s drop-down above). Also, this is a good time to double-check what class you’ve signed up for. If you’re in 1302 stop reading and start in with the 1302 first chapter on Industry & Technology. Strap on your thinking cap and remember to get up from time-to-time to stretch and drink some water.
America’s Pre-Columbian era — the 95% of its history that transpired before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492 — is shrouded in mystery, providing fertile ground for interdisciplinary studies combining history, paleoanthropology, archaeology, genetics, and linguistics (archaeogenetics combines these). The big question is: how did humans migrate from Asia to America? That question is premised on the idea that humans didn’t originate in America and migrate the other direction or evolve independently in two spots (polygeny). The latter is theoretically possible but exceedingly unlikely given the near-identical DNA of humans everywhere combined with the extreme unlikelihood of any one species coming into being in the first place. If we can safely dismiss that possibility, what about the notion that humanity started in America then migrated to Eurasia? So far, archaeologists have yet to uncover any fossils in the Western Hemisphere remotely as old as those found in Africa, China, and Australia. American fossils only go back around 3% as far as those found in Africa and Africa is where we still find the most linguistic and genetic ethnic diversity, indicating that’s where people have been the longest.
Archaeologists and physical anthropologists search for ancient remains mainly in drier climates since fossils decompose in moisture. They often use stratigraphy to measure the soil around old skeletons rather than analyze the bones themselves because radiocarbon dating is only accurate back 50k years. Only a small portion of fossils survive worldwide, which is why it’s been so helpful that mitochondrial DNA contains a sort of historical record of our past, with traces of early mutations. Computers, in turn, allow for sequencing billions of fragments back into a recognizable double helix while separating it from contaminants like surrounding plant, insect, and bacterial DNA. As this list indicates, the earliest hominin fossil fragments date back 5-7 million years, with the nearly fully intact “Lucy” from 3.2 million years ago and some primate skulls showing enlarged brains from 3.6 million years ago. Archaeologists found most of these bones in the East African Rift, including Kenya and Ethiopia. Recently discovered footprints in nearby Tanzania indicate upright walking as far back as 2.5 million years.
Many archaeologists think that, before humans emerged in their modern form, bipedal hominins migrated from Africa to Asia and Europe ~ 1.8 million years ago (mya), mixing with even earlier Neanderthals (in Europe) and Denisovans (in Asia). Archaeologists call this “Out of Africa 1.” Some archaeologists think these upright men, or Homo erectus (H. erectus), gradually morphed into modern humans, while most think that modern humans migrated out of Africa later as a distinct species. There was some interaction with Neanderthals and Denisovans, though. White blood cells draw their powers of immunity from all these archaic human “cousins” — the more variety the greater the immunity against infections. Geneticists describe inter-breeding as an evolutionary “shortcut” to acquire traits faster than the natural process of mutations.
What about “us?” The earliest African spears and A000 Y-chromosome DNA go back ~ 200k years. Those dates are compatible with the oldest known Homo sapien fossils, discovered in Morocco in 2017, that date to ~300k years ago. Prior to this find, the earliest known fossils were the “Herto Man” bones found in Ethiopia in 2003 that traced to 154k-160k years ago. While these human ancestors weren’t as fast, strong or well-clawed as much of the game they hunted, they could surround and outlast other animals through teamwork, endurance, and persistence hunting. Sweating gave mostly hairless human hunters an endurance advantage, since animals with fur need to rest, panting to release heat and avoid overheating. Ostrich eggs could have provided ancient humans with natural canteens of water, just as they do for modern (African) San hunter-gatherers. Humans can also dive underwater to fish longer than most other mammals. While increasingly large brains and opposable thumbs led to inventing stone tools, stone tools and early fish hooks, in turn, provided meat that helped brains grow. The development of symbols in language and art helped humans communicate with each other and pass down knowledge about how to hunt and fish and which poisonous plants and animals to avoid (especially shellfish, reptiles, and insects).
Like their earlier hominin ancestors, Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa into the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, in their case ~ 100k years ago. Anthropologists call this wave Out of Africa 2. They might have crossed the Sahara Desert by following the Nile River or other now-extinct rivers to the Sinai Peninsula in modern-day Egypt or crossed the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between modern-day Djibouti/Eritrea and Yemen, likely to escape drought or follow game. In the 1930s, English archaeologists Dorothy Garrod and Dorothea Bate found ten human fossils in caves on Mt. Carmel, Israel that were over 100k years old — to date, the oldest Homo sapien skeletons found outside Africa.
Between 65-125k years ago this early human population shrank dramatically during what’s called the Great, or Long Bottleneck, with survivors only in Africa. While DNA and fossil evidence support such a contraction, the Bottleneck’s exact timing and cause are still unknown. One popular but unproven theory is the Indonesian Toba supervolcano of 75k years ago causing a near-extinction. This led to another, later migration out of Africa, when humans spread across Europe, Asia, and Australia during the Late Stone Age, or Upper Paleolithic, taking language, tools, and fire with them. Neanderthals still existed in Europe and interbred with humans, leaving most modern humans with ~ 2% Neanderthal DNA, but Homo sapiens might have had more developed weapons or brains (sapiens means “wise” or “with mind”). More genetic diversity exists today among West African ethnicities left behind than among everyone else who migrated (haplogroup BT), with the physical traits that differentiate all of us being fairly superficial and recent. Take a moment to study the map at the top of the chapter to get a feel for the overall framework and scope of African migration.
Historians think that civilization — if narrowly defined by writing/record-keeping, organized religions, governments, and cities — emerged with agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, especially Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), somewhere between 7-10k years ago, with the first written records ~ 5k years ago. Other agricultural societies grew along the Indus (India), Yellow (China), and Nile (Egypt) rivers. It’s possible, but not proven, that religion and politics may have overlapped insofar as religious sacrifices, especially of bread and beer, morphed into taxes that, in turn, funded early governments. Wheels emerged ~ 3-4k years ago when Bronze Age smelting allowed for the metal chiseling of precise joints between the wooden wheel and axle. By then, a Proto-Indo-European language was developing from which most Euroasian languages evolved. Much later, groups that domesticated wild horses spread their genes, languages, and diseases at a disproportionate rate.
While historians of the ancient world focus on early writing and hieroglyphic records, archaeologists, paleoanthropologist, geneticists, and linguists rely on artifacts, fossils, soil, DNA and language to uncover how early humans fanned out of East Africa onto the rest of the planet. It’s unclear exactly how far back Paleo-American history goes or, beyond these early “Indians,” who else visited America without settling in the centuries prior to Christopher Columbus’ voyages to the Caribbean in the late 15th century. Scholars agree, though, that humans weren’t in the Western Hemisphere prior to 20k years ago and that figure is way on the high end.
Colonial Americans saw the physical affinity between Indians and Asians — one of the reasons they mistakenly named them Indians — but didn’t know how they arrived in America. Jesuit scholar Jose de Acosta was on the right track as far back as 1590 when he suggested that North America’s proximity to eastern Russia might have provided the vital link to Eurasia. The dominant theory of the past century was that Asians migrated across the Bering Land Bridge (aka Beringia) between Russia and Alaska sometime toward the end of the last Ice Age, roughly 11-12k BCE (before the common era). Ice ages happen periodically because Earth’s elliptical orbits around the Sun contract and expand in Milankovitch Cycles. Cold climates provide a precarious existence but have their advantages. Freezing temperatures allowed humans to cross relatively long distances on sledges and nature’s open-air refrigerator allows hunters to kill lots of game at once if they’re lucky enough to corner a herd. One key historical development was the needle, allowing humans to stay warm by making clothing/shoes and tents out of animal skin. Hide could even be used instead of wood in boats. Sub-arctic humans also domesticated grey wolves for pulling dog sleds, an early form of transportation that predated the wheel by 5k years and contributed gradually to the evolution of “man’s best friend.”
There was near consensus on the Beringia theory as of the 1960s. However, most historians and archaeologists now think that people came by multiple means in multiple waves from different places. Beringia Theory hasn’t been overturned in recent decades but rather complicated and elaborated on. Some studies indicated that the 8.9k BP (before present) Kennewick Man found along the Columbia River in Washington in 1996 and 9.4k BP Spirit Cave Mummy found in Nevada in 1940 more closely resemble the Moriori of the Chatham Islands (southeast of New Zealand) or the Jōmon and Ainu of Japan and eastern Russia, respectively, than they do modern American Indians, at least as far as their skull and bone shapes. Danish scientists who examined the Kennewick skull in 2015 disagreed, arguing that it was most similar to modern American Indians.
Scholars now suspect that hunters didn’t actually cross a sheet of ice on the Bering Land Bridge but rather an ice-free corridor that opened as the ice retreated. That corridor is now underwater because ocean levels rose when much of the ice worldwide melted. Moreover, Paleo-Americans didn’t necessarily have to come by land. They might have skirted the coastline in primitive boats along a nearly continuous “kelp highway” or even sailed the open ocean in good weather. A new “Beringian Standstill” theory posits that people may have lived in Beringia for thousands of years before migrating further to the Western Hemisphere (first along the coast of British Columbia), perhaps as far back as 15-25k years ago.
Were ancient people capable of oceangoing navigation? We know that medieval Polynesians were, as shown by those intrepid explorers who settled Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and Easter Island. In 1947, Norwegian anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated how a small rudimentary craft could cross the Pacific with his Kon-Tiki voyage, even though historians reject his claim that Polynesia was settled east-to-west by American Indians rather than west-to-east. But even without Heyerdahl’s experiment, Pacific Islanders had long since demonstrated their navigational expertise in currents, swells, and stars (more below).
Whoever the first Americans were, and wherever they came from, they are known collectively as Paleo-Indians, Paleo-Americans, or sometimes Clovis People after the ancient bison found near Clovis, New Mexico in 1929 with an arrowhead lodged in its bones. Cowboy and ex-slave George McJunkin discovered the fossil outside Clovis after a flash flood. Ancient bison (Bison antiquus) were about 30% bigger than modern buffalo and similar projectiles have been found in mastodons (more similar to elephants) and wooly mammoths, another extinct animal. The Clovis arrowhead (or projectile) proved the existence of human hunters in America at least 11k years back since that’s when the last incarnations of ancient bison went extinct. Arrowheads don’t carve themselves. Here physicists and chemists have provided a boost to archaeologists and historians: the advent of radiocarbon dating after 1949 made it easier to date bones and artifacts within the last 50k years.
After the discovery of several more Clovis Points, archaeologists theorized about the frozen land bridge between Russia and Alaska and looked for new sites. A trove of arrowheads with trademark Clovis fluting (grooves) was discovered outside Bozeman, Montana in 1968, dating to 13k BP. The remains of an infant boy, later named Anzick-1, were near the Bozeman Clovis Points. Subsequent research revealed a mixture of 33% Siberian-66% East Asian DNA that can no longer be found in Asia, only America, and that Anzick dated to 12.5k BP. The remains of a female skeleton named Naia found in an underwater cave off the Yucatan Peninsula date back 12-13k years. In 2011, researchers from Texas A&M’s Center for the Study of First Americans re-examined a mastodon rib found near Sequim, Washington in 1977, confirming an earlier study that the animal was nearly 13.8k years old, with a projectile point embedded in it that DNA and protein analysis showed came from another animal. A controversial archaeological site called Monte Verde in northern Patagonia (Chile) dates to 13.5-14.8k BP (some say older), challenging the “Clovis First” 12-13k theory that some scholars still irrationally adhere to. Animal matter and DNA extracted from fossilized human excrement in the Paisley Caves of eastern Oregon date back 14.3k years. Another mammoth tusk found next to a knife along Florida’s Aucilla River (the Page-Ladson Sink) in the 1980s was 14.5k years old. A site in Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, discovered in 2019, dates back 15k years. Artifacts from the Buttermilk Creek Complex north of Austin, Texas date back 15.5k years, at least according to a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) that measures how long it’s been since sunlight hit the soil around artifacts. Charcoal also dates well, making firepits useful. The Meadowcraft Rockshelter in Pennsylvania could go back 16-19k BP. Research into ancient America is ongoing and you don’t need to get bogged down in the details, but you get the basic idea. Also remember that the oldest known sites don’t mean that there aren’t yet older, still undiscovered, sites.
Archaeologists are also exploring an Atlantic land bridge to America similar to Beringia. Digging below the Clovis layer, they discovered tools near Cactus Hill, Virginia similar to Neolithic projectiles being carved in Solutrean Europe (17k-22k BP). These could be examples of convergence: two things, especially simpler objects, being made independently that happen to look the same or operate in the same way. Arrowheads, after all, aren’t complex. Still, the same ice ages that created land bridges from America to Asia could have frozen a bridge between America and Europe, connecting Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, and Nova Scotia. That’s led some archaeologists to entertain the Solutrean Hypothesis of ancient European migration to America. Other artifacts found in the Chesapeake Bay suggest the same. It’s a politically volatile theory because American Indians today would be reluctant to embrace the idea that Whites ever inhabited the Americas prior to the Vikings in the Middle Ages. In other words, Indians’ claim to being America’s first inhabitants is the political subtext of the scientific debate. You’ll find as we move through the course that subtexts fuel many scholarly debates and virtually all debates the public feels passionate about. In this case, Indians needn’t worry. Archaeologists haven’t discovered the remains of any ancient Caucasians in eastern North America and tool evidence is weaker than Pacific theories, with far fewer European-style arrowheads and none lodged in mastodons, mammoths, or ancient bison.
Who Came Next?
We’ll now shift far, far up the timeline from the Stone Age history of thousands of years ago to the past 500-1000 years. Long after Paleo-Indians first arrived in America, who came next? One of the intriguing things about early American history is the soft and circumstantial evidence for Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact: stories of people who arrived before Christopher Columbus and the Spanish colonized the Caribbean. They point to purported African, (modern) Asian, and European influence in the Americas prior to 1492. Most of these theories aren’t persuasive enough to convince a broad audience, but collectively they suggest that we might not know all there is to know. Some of these theories are fodder for late-night documentaries, while others are academic but haven’t attained a consensus view. Recent books have argued for Chinese explorations of the Americas in the early 15th century and African exploration of eastern South America in the late Middle Ages. Scholars are skeptical about the Chinese theory. Early Ming Dynasty-Chinese had the technological wherewithal in the early 15th century for trans-Pacific voyages, but their famous commander Zheng He made no mention of America in his otherwise thorough navigational writings. Diffusionist scholars point to similarities between ancient African art and that of certain American Indians like the Olmec.
Other theories are seemingly fables from popular culture or driven by political agendas. Ancient Welsh and Irish legends tell of trips across the Atlantic in the Middle Ages. Mandan Indians of the upper Missouri River supposedly shared some language and physical traits with the Welsh and even built similarly styled boats. At least that was the theory of Brits making claims to the West that predated Spanish claims, including Welshman John Dee, an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I. Some theorists connected a mysterious tower in Newport, Rhode Island to the medieval Scottish Knights Templars (affiliated with Freemasons), but carbon dating suggests it was built in the 17th century, after Puritans came to New England. One pattern you’ll pick up on if you investigate fringe theories is that the Knights Templar and Masons seemed to have their hand in everything. Other theorists connect Templars and 14th-century Scottish/Norwegian nobleman Henry Sinclair to North American Expeditions (including Oak Island) and point to the striking similarity between the Templars’ flag and that of the Mi’kmaq Indians. Finally, the Book of Mormon tells of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel coming to the Americas and being wiped out by Indians; however, there’s no archaeological evidence to suggest that. Someone in ancient times mined large amounts of copper from the Great Lakes region and some theorists suggest that Europeans mined it to combine with tin to make bronze. However, there’s no evidence from Europe indicating that they came to America during the Bronze Age and more recent scholarship shows that Indians mined the copper themselves for their own use.
The Kensington Runestone a 19th-century Minnesota farmer purportedly hit with his plow had Norse inscribed on it, meaning, if authentic, that Scandinavians explored as far inland as the Midwest (the legend held enough water, at least, for Minnesota’s NFL team to name themselves the Vikings). The Newberry Tablet found in Michigan in 1896 was another such purported artifact, in that case with (Greek) Minoan symbols. In 2010, amateur archaeologists pulled a 500-pound rock carving from the Arkansas River near Tulsa, Oklahoma with an Apis bull on it similar to those etched in ancient Egypt. Nearby caves contain Ogham carvings. Ogham is a Celtic Irish dialect used from the 4th-10th century CE (Common Era). Drawings in the Anubis Cave on the Oklahoma Panhandle are either a hoax or an important early Celtic-American ruin. They exhibit shadow plays during the seasonal equinoxes. A state history museum in Lansing houses over 3k Michigan Relics of purported Near Eastern origin “discovered” from 1890-1920 that academic scholars deem as hoaxes.
Recently, explorers discovered a Runic tombstone with 12th-century English characters in a cave in the Mustang Mountains of southern Arizona. Like the other artifacts, it doesn’t reveal obvious, telltale signs of being a hoax, but there’s no solid evidence from Welsh, Minoan, Celtic, or medieval English history of overseas explorations. There are some hints of Welsh explorers sailing across the Atlantic from Wales, but nothing definitive. It’s probable that Irish explorers made it to Iceland, but no further. Whatever happened in the Middle Ages, it seems the Indians of North America were unfamiliar with European civilization when the Spanish arrived on the American mainland in the early 16th century. It’s plausible that some Europeans or Africans sailed to the Western Hemisphere earlier and just never returned to report what they discovered, but that’s pure conjecture. As it stands now the aforementioned pre-Columbian theories are suggestive or entertaining but count as fringe theories or pseudo-archaeology. Some of them might pan out later, but let’s don’t confuse them with scholarship that relies on more stringent standards of evidence. Be open-minded but not soft-minded.
Better evidence suggests that Polynesians (and possibly Japanese) visited the western coasts of the Americas and that Vikings fished off the northeastern coasts of what’s now Canada. DNA analysis of Chileans and Ecuadorians shows some common traits with Japanese, supporting an earlier theory based on similarities between Andean and Jomon (medieval Japanese) pottery. The Zuni language of Arizona has traits similar to Japanese.
Diverse if limited evidence indicates Polynesian contact with the Western Hemisphere. As mentioned above, we know that medieval Pacific Islanders sailed over a vast portion of the ocean around the 11th-13th centuries CE. They could even tack into the wind on long dugout canoes with outriggers and eventually sailed with double-hulled catamarans. Some archaeologists think Polynesians first settled Hawaii as far back as the 3rd c. CE while most think it was later, around 1200 CE. The last island Polynesians settled was Easter Island in the southeastern Pacific. If they could make it from Marquesas Islands-Tahiti-Bora Bora-Raiatea to Hawaii and Easter Island, Polynesians could’ve reached the Western Hemisphere — what medieval Hawaiians called the “land of mist and frogs.” Easter Island is just 2k miles west of Chile. For perspective, Easter Island (109°22′W) is east of Phoenix, Arizona (112°04′W).
There is genetic, nutritional, archaeological, and linguistic evidence that Polynesians reached the Western Hemisphere. Polynesian DNA has shown up among the Mapuche of Chile and Argentina and a now-extinct Brazilian tribe. Geneticists caution that contact may have occurred later among slaves captured from different parts of the world. But Polynesian-South American contact would also explain how the sweet potato arrived in Hawaii and Easter Island and why the Hawaiian word for the vegetable, Kumara, is so similar to that used in Ecuador and Peru: Kumar. Likewise, archaeologists unearthed Polynesian chicken bones in South America. Recently, geologists matched a Hawaiian obsidian arrowhead with rock from Pachuca, in southern Mexico. Around the 13th century, the Chumash of southern California started using Polynesian fish-hooks and building distinctly Hawaiian-style canoes. There’s scattered but mounting evidence, in sum, for pre-Columbian contact between Polynesia and South America.
The first Europeans we can definitively say came to the Western Hemisphere were Scandinavian Vikings, who fished off what’s now the northeastern coast of Canada in the Middle Ages. Vikings traded as far south as Asia Minor (Turkey) and conquered much of northern Europe and Britain (above). They settled Iceland and a smaller group of a couple thousand farmed and hunted for valuable walrus tusk ivory in the southern part of Greenland from ~ 900 to 1500 CE, disappearing for reasons archaeologists still debate (they’d already hunted walruses into extinction on Iceland). King Olaf I of Norway (r. 995-1000) sent “Leif the Lucky” to Greenland to spread Christianity. According to the 13th and 14th-century Sagas of Icelanders, Bjarni Herjólfsson sighted North America in 986 CE when lost and he might have visited Baffin Island (Nunavut Territory), where archaeologists found masks and paintings depicting Caucasians along with Viking tools and yarn fragments. Vikings named and perhaps even mapped Markland (southern Labrador), Helluland (Baffin Island), and Vinland (probably Novia Scotia). According to the Sagas, Leif Erikson — son of Erik the Red, whom Greenlanders banished on multiple murder charges — settled Vinland in the late 10th or early 11th c. CE, so named because they found wine grapes there.
These Viking settlers and explorers were illiterate, explaining the lack of primary sources dating from the 10th and 11th centuries. Yet the same 13th-century Sagas stories appeared first in German-born Adam of Bremen’s Deeds of the Bishops of Hamburg (1073-1076). For years, historians considered the Deeds and Sagas mythological tales but they’re both told in a matter-of-fact tone, with no sense that the authors are spinning what they consider an extraordinary tale or accomplishment. Then, in 1960, archaeologists uncovered a small Viking village on the northern tip of Newfoundland. The sod longhouses Vikings built at L’Anse aux Meadows (pronounced Lance-a-Meadows) used the same construction and nails as those Vikings built in Iceland and Greenland around 1000 CE. The blacksmith who made the nails used an iron smelting furnace built in the same circular fashion lined with clay as those in Iceland and Norway. Indians didn’t forge iron or make the kind of Viking armor discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows. There’s too much detail there in common with Viking technology for it to be an example of (coincidental) convergence.
Vikings abandoned L’Anse aux Meadows after a few months, though the controversial and unauthenticated Vinland Map (above) purchased by Yale University in 1957 and carbon-dated to 1450 CE suggests that Vikings settled somewhere in Vinland for over a century and were acknowledged by the Catholic Church that even sent a bishop to America — the same Church that backed Columbus’ claim to discover America. The Sagas also say that Vikings explored the coast and built at least one more settlement at Vinland, but Indians they called Skræling (likely Mi’kmaqs) repulsed them and they left. But other than the disputed Kensington Stone, there’s no evidence that Vikings settled further inland, let alone anything as far west as Minnesota. And most scholars think that Yale’s Vinland Map, despite the age of the paper, is a forgery based on its ink, an overly accurate outline of Greenland (the northern coast of which hadn’t been explored by the 15th century), and the fact that Europeans didn’t seem to have any clue about America prior to Columbus mapping the Carribean in 1492. Future archaeological digs, aided by satellite infrared photography, might tell us more about the extent of Viking settlements in North America.
Neither Vikings nor anyone else who came from (modern) Asia, Africa, or Europe made a significant impact on the Western Hemisphere. Spanish colonization starting in 1492 signaled the disruption of Pre-Columbian America when conquistadors settled the Caribbean and mainland stretching from Peru to the present-day American Southwest. We’ll cover that in Chapter 3 but, for now, let’s examine what Europeans of all nationalities encountered when they landed in the New World and vice-versa.
Europeans didn’t encounter indigenous Americans that defined themselves as a single group, but rather thousands of different tribes with different names, languages, religions, clothing, economies, and traditions. In fact, if Indians had been a single group, they could’ve easily warded off the (initially) small number of European invaders even without advanced weaponry. Instead, many tribes defined themselves in opposition to each other and many along the coast initially viewed Whites, if warily, mainly as potential trading partners.
Historians know little about the Indians who inhabited America before 1492 because so much of their history was lost or disregarded and most of their buildings were biodegradable. Most lived in oral cultures that passed on stories and religions but nothing in the form of written evidence. Consequently, the study of pre-Columbian America has come more under the rubric of anthropology/folklore studies and archaeology than history, because historians tend to prefer written evidence. The best histories though, in this case, are oral.
Smaller nomadic groups traveled seasonally, hunting game, while larger, farming societies built monuments and cities rivaling those of the “Old World.” Despite this diversity, some general trends held across the Americas. Most religions were polytheistic, meaning that Indians worshiped multiple Gods, similar to many societies around the world (including Classical Greeks and Romans), but different from the monotheism of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Native American religions revered all living things along with the sky, wind, and stars — a form of pantheism. Many tribes cast teenage boys into the wilderness, where sensory deprivation caused by hunger, cold or narcotics created a hallucinatory state in which the dreamer encountered his spiritual identity. The spirit purportedly took the form of an animal or an inanimate object like a rock, tree or lightning. The young man would take a new name from this Manitou, as the Algonquians called it, and pray to it at important or transitional times such as war, big hunts or marriage.
Oftentimes the most revered religious figure in a tribe was either a shaman (medicine man) or, among farmers, an astronomer, who was responsible for keeping the calendar critical to survival for planting and harvesting. The field of archaeoastronomy studies the way people around the world marked the heavens to keep time and the Americas include several good sites. In New Mexico, Chaco Canyon’s Great Kiva marks solstices, equinoxes and eclipses, and several of Chaco’s buildings orient to solar, lunar and cardinal directions. Central American cities also aligned geographically so as to underscore their inhabitants’ relationship with the cosmos.
Most farming societies were in the fertile area of Mesoamerica, especially the areas around modern Mexico (the Toltec, Maya, and Aztec) and Peru (Inca). Native American farming laid the foundation for modern American agriculture as Indians grew increasingly better strains of corn (maize) and potatoes over centuries that Whites later adopted. In the last century, archaeologists have discovered similar, if smaller, mound-building cultures in the present-day U.S., in the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. Most prominent among these is Cahokia, a settlement south of present-day St. Louis that had around 10k inhabitants. Currently being excavated with the help of drones, Cahokia was aligned with the movement of the Moon and Sun and included dozens of plazas, markets, sports fields, and religious sites.
What confused early explorers and later historians was that the most densely populated Indian villages were the ones most likely to have been wiped out by European diseases before Whites ever saw them. These diseases moved along trade routes, passed by Indians who contracted them from Europeans along the coasts. Smaller nomadic bands, on the other hand, sometimes dodged epidemics and survived to meet Whites when they later made their way inland.
Humans were not all that crossed the Atlantic during the Age of Exploration. Diseases, plants, and animals all transformed both hemispheres so dramatically that neither would be recognizable today in its pre-Columbian form. These transactions are known as the Columbian Exchange, after the title of a 1972 book by University of Texas historian Alfred Crosby. Scholars now call the broader world version the Great Exchange.
Starting in 1492, biology wove its way into history as profoundly as the actions of politicians, theologians, and generals. American Indians, being isolated from Europeans, Africans, Middle Easterners, and Asians for thousands of years on separate continents, hadn’t built up immunities to alcohol and most Old World illnesses (including smallpox, measles, cholera, typhoid, malaria, Bubonic plague, influenza, and common colds). Consequently, they suffered their effects at a disproportionate rate. Some estimates are as high as 60-90% of native populations killed in the centuries following Columbus’ arrival, but we’ll probably never know even a rough approximation of the New World population in 1491.
Conversely, syphilis and tuberculosis might have made their way from America onto the Eurasian continent for the first time, killing millions over the succeeding centuries before penicillin and other cures were developed. Recent research from Pompeii, Italy indicates that European syphilis might have pre-dated American contact. Syphilis is difficult to track because it went by so many names. The English called it “French Disease,” the French called it “Naples Disease,” and Russians called it “Polish Disease.” Syphilis, it seems, was a disease most often contracted when away from home. New diseases had hit Europeans before, when the opening of the Silk Road to Asia (Chapter 2) brought plague-carrying fleas west.
During the Columbian Exchange, Europeans introduced horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep into America, themselves incubators of infectious diseases (e.g. pigs carry influenza). In the case of horses, they were re-introduced, since they’d existed in America up until around 10k years ago. Horses might have migrated across the same Bering Land Bridge as humans, except in the opposite direction. Lack of horses was why Mesoamerican empires like those of the Incas and Aztecs were smaller geographically than Old World counterparts like the Roman, Greek (Alexandrian), and Chinese (Mongol).
Buffalo, rattlesnakes, llamas, and catfish had never been seen in Europe while rats, bees, cats, and earthworms made their way to America for the first time. Crops went back and forth across the Atlantic, transforming American, Euro-American, African, and European agriculture. Corn became prominent in Africa, for instance. The Incan potato found its way to Germany, Russia, and the British Isles. Peanuts, pumpkins, squash, avocados, pineapples, strawberries, zucchini, and chili peppers were new to Europe, among dozens of other staples now taken for granted. Tomatoes, first cultivated by Aztecs, made their way most famously to Italy.
The Irish grew dependent on a single potato strain while under English occupation, and roughly a fifth of their population starved to death in the 1840s when blight infected the crop during the Potato Famine – the worst natural disaster in modern history. Another fifth migrated to America. The English unnecessarily allowed one million Irish to perish without feeding them surplus crops in order to not disrupt commodities markets, even requiring that livestock, oats, and barley be exported from other parts of Ireland to England. They fed some that were willing to drop the Mc-prefix from their sir name or convert from Catholic to Protestant Christianity. Finally, they sent some corn, but the Irish didn’t know how to grind it into flour or cook it. Most of the aid that arrived in Ireland came from the Ottoman Empire, Quakers, and American Choctaw Indians familiar with such hardship from the Trail of Tears. Irish-Americans never forgot England’s callousness. As they worked their way into the American Democratic Party, Irish immigrants stayed committed to the idea that governments are responsible for the welfare of the disadvantaged. This is just one of many examples of how biology overlaps with human history.
Tobacco and sugar are other examples. Slave-grown Tobacco made its way to western Europe for the first time and laid the foundation for the southern British colonies in what became the United States, as we’ll explore in more detail in Chapter 5. Mediterranean sugar arrived in the Caribbean, where planters transformed it into rum and combined it with South American cocoa to create chocolate, a new European obsession. Before making its way to the Mediterranean, natural cane migrated from the South Pacific (New Guinea) to the Middle East in the 13th century, to Europe. It was grown in the Levant, Spain, Sicily, and Cyprus. Traders valued sugar, previously only found in fruit and honey, on par with precious gems. Dutch-style windmills with British cranks and shafts crushed the husks while West African slaves laboriously boiled cane juice down to brown sugar that British dropped in their tea from China. Later, refineries in London and Glasgow, Scotland (aka “sugaropolis”) leached out the molasses and vitamins and minerals altogether, producing the long shelf life, powdery “white gold” we’ve come to know and love. Humans had long since evolved to seek out sugar in nature, but mass production made it too readily available. It was a relatively safe way to stimulate the brain’s pleasure zones, but overuse could lead to diabetes and rotten teeth. Black teeth like those of Queen Elizabeth were so trendy in England as a sign of wealth that some people colored their teeth. Europeans’ newfound love for chocolate and tobacco drove the slave trade, as millions of kidnapped Africans involuntarily crossed the Atlantic to work on plantations.
Europeans & American Indians
Indians and Whites traded tobacco as a kind of default currency, along with furs. White traders coveted pelts as fur coats, robes, and hats became popular in Europe while American Indians preferred European guns, iron (axes, nails, saws, kettles), wool, and alcohol. Some tribes over-hunted beaver and other pelt-bearing animals like deer, bears, ermines (white-coated weasels), or skunks. Colonial American muskets weren’t long for accuracy (they were often bent anyway), but rather because Whites swapped them for beaver pelts equaling the gun’s length. Pushing west in pursuit of more fur brought Indians into more conflict with other tribes, exacerbating traditional military rivalries and causing an accordion effect of migration. As we’ll see in Chapter 23, the traditional Plains Indians Euro-Americans encountered who hunted buffalo with guns on horseback weren’t really that traditional. Guns and horses didn’t exist in pre-Columbian America and many of the tribes that inhabited the Plains supplanted previous tribes after having been pushed out of hunting grounds around the Great Lakes. Lakota Sioux, for instance, displaced Kiowas and Crows in the Black Hills in the 18th century.
At least Indians were acquiring useful items from Europeans. Axes improved Indians’ capacity to fell trees, kettles were easy to cook in over open fires, and wool dried quicker than other cloths or skins. In England, Quaker Abraham Darby I learned to coke-smelt pig iron in a blast furnace, making it cheaper, thinner, and more durable than cast-iron heated with coal. That innovation made his cooking pots ideal for loading on boats and trading in America, Africa or Asia. Europeans didn’t always swap useful items in return, though. Alcohol was a drug Indians hadn’t built up immunity to, making addiction and abuse even more common than among Europeans.
The sort of Indian battles shown by Hollywood over the last century happened, to be sure — if anything more brutal than normally depicted. But on a day-to-day basis, Whites and Indians more commonly crossed paths in trade, missionary work, and romance. Europeans killed more Indians accidentally by transmitting disease than through warfare. Intermarriage was common, especially in Latin America where few Spaniards or Portuguese brought wives and families with them to the New World. Likewise, French fur traders often married Indians.
More bizarre, Indians abducted Europeans to replace those who had died in combat against Whites. Indians had complicated rules of engagement in war, the subtleties of which often escaped newcomers. Sometimes they fought to kill, other times merely to mark their enemies, more similar to a sport. If Whites killed Indians during the wrong type of engagement, the latter usually wanted someone to replace the person whom they felt was wrongfully murdered. Indians didn’t share the common Judeo-Christian dichotomy of murder in civilian life being bad and murder in war being good; there were gradations in between.
White Captivity Narratives told of these abductees’ varied experiences and were the first type of American literature to sell in Europe. Captives were mildly tortured and/or initiated before being ceremoniously transformed into full-fledged members of the tribe, sometimes even being made to live with the deceased member’s wife and expected to raise his children. But once hazed and inducted, Whites were treated as equals and could even work their way up into positions of leadership. Most grown Whites found the adjustment difficult and tried to run away or be traded back. Many children, though, preferred Indian life and never wanted to return.
One young girl, Eunice Williams, was taken from her western Massachusetts home in the 1704 Deerfield Raid and didn’t return until over a decade later to greet her parents. She had to sleep outside because she hadn’t been in a structure with a low-hanging roof the entire time and the house made her feel claustrophobic. She no longer spoke English and told her parents through a translator that it was too late; she no longer knew them or had any desire to return to their society.
A fictional variation plays out in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), as John Wayne relentlessly hunts down his niece, who was captured by Comanches. The movie is loosely based on the life of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was captured in 1836 and rescued against her will by Texas Rangers. The filmmakers researched 64 cases of Indian child abductions in 19th-century Texas.
Such stories were surprisingly typical in colonial America and would be difficult to match today in terms of dramatic culture clash. Humans would have to meet aliens on another planet to reproduce the lack of familiarity then between Europeans and American Indians. Since women farmed in Indian societies, Whites noted how lazy Indian men were and Indians noted how feminine white farmers were. Since gold wasn’t scarce in the Caribbean, Indians there would trade chests full in exchange for trinkets, falconry bells, or mirrors that they saw as miraculous. Imagine how amazing a mirror would be if you’d never seen yourself. Indians on the East Coast scarcely knew what to make of the “smelly hairy people” who arrived on their shores (Indians did not grow facial hair), while Europeans conceived of Indians alternately as either brutal, backward savages or — usually from a distance — idealized children of the wilderness, uncorrupted by the degenerating effects of civilization. British called the latter, positive stereotype the noble savage, the French le bon sauvage. Interaction between Indians and Euro-Americans will play out over the remainder of our course and continues today.
Optional Reading & Viewing:
Texas A&M Center for the Study of the First Americans
Jennifer Raff Forbes Blog & Raff, “Rejecting the Solutrean Hypothesis,” The Guardian, February 2018
Fen Montaigne, “The Fertile Shore,” Smithsonian, January 2020
Douglas Preston, “The 9,000-Year-Old-Man Speaks,” Smithsonian, September 2014
Gary Gugliotta, “The First Americans,” Smithsonian, February 2013
Charles C. Mann, “1491,” Atlantic Monthly, March 2002
Glenn Hodges, “Tracking the First Americans,” National Geographic, January 2015
Elizabeth Culotta & Ann Gibbons, “Almost All People Living Outside Africa Trace Back To A Single Migration More Than 50,000 Years Ago,” Science, September 2016
Carl Zimmer, “Oldest Fossils of Homo Sapiens Found in Morocco, Altering History of Our Species,” New York Times (6.6.17)
Roberto Ferdman, “How Corn Worked Its Way Into Just About Everything,” Washington Post (7.14.15)