Introduction to US History/United We Stand:The History of the United States of America/America Before Columbus
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American history does not begin with Columbus's 1492 arrival in America. In actuality, America was settled long before the first European set shore on the continent. The beginning of civilization in America occurred during the last ice age, some 10 to 20 thousand years ago. At that time, huge ice sheets occuppied northern lands and consequently sea levels was much lower creating a land bridge between Asia and North America called the Bering land bridge. A gap in two large ice sheets would create a connection from lands near present day Alaska, though Alberta and into the continental United States.
Nomadic Asians following herds of wild game traveled into the continental United States. A characteristic arrow point was found and first described near the present day town of Clovis, NM. Specialized tools and common burial practices have also been described in many sites found throughout North America and into South America.
Clovis man could be considered one of Americans earliest civilizations. It is not clear whether the Clovis people were one unified tribe or whether there were many tribes related by common technology and belief. Their nomadic trek across 2000 rugged miles in one of the great feats of pre-historical man. The Clovis culture disappears dramatically from the archaeological record 12,900 years ago. There is widespread speculation about what caused their disappearance. Theories range from the extinction of the mammoth to sudden environmental changes caused by a comet impacting or earth or the break of a massive freshwater lake, Lake Agassiz.
There is considerable controversy about Pre-Clovis settlement of North and South America. Comparative culture and linguistics offer evidence of influences of early America by several different contemporary cultures. Some genetic and time-dating studies point to the possibility that ancient Americans came from other places and arrived earlier than Clovis sites in North America. Perhaps some ancient settlers to the hemisphere traveled by boat along the seashore, or arrived by boats from the Polynesian islands
As time went on, many of these first settlers settled down and began to farm and domesticate animals. Groups of people formed stable tribes and formed a common language until more distant relatives could no longer understand them. Comparative linguistics, or the study of languages of different tribes show fascinating diversity with tribes showing similarities between tribes hundreds of miles apart, yet startling differences with neighboring groups.
At time, tribes would gain regional importance and dominate large areas of America. Empires rose across the Americas that rivaled the greatest ones in Europe. For their time, some of these empires were highly advanced.
When referring to these empires, historians have difficulty, as the native people did not have a unified name for themselves. At first, Europeans called natives "Indians". This term came from the belief by Christopher Columbus that he had discovered India. Despite Amerigo Vespucci ascertaining that the Americas were not actually India, Indian continued to be used as the de facto name for native inhabitants until around 1960. Starting in the 1960s, the term "Native American" was used. One concern critics have with this term is that anyone who is born in America can be considered a Native American, making it too vague to use as a descriptor for a particular group of people. In addition to Native American, there is also "American Indian". In Canada, the term "First People" is used. All these terms for the native people of America show just how diverse Pre-Columbian America was and the disagreement that continues between scholars today about this period.
Early Empires of Mesoamerica and South America
Meso-American civilizations are included in some of the most powerful, and advanced civilizations of the ancient world. Reading and writing was widespread throughout Meso-America, and each of these civilizations achieved impressive political, artistic, scientific, and architectural accomplishments. Each of these civilizations gathered the political, and technological resources to build some of the largest, most ornate and highly populated cities in the ancient world.
The aboriginal Americans settled in the Yucatan peninsulas of present-day Mexico around 10,000BC. By 2000BC, we see a complex culture called the Mayan society emerge. The Mayans developed a strong political, artistic and religious identity amongst the highly populated Yucatan lowlands. The classic period (250-900AD) witnesses a rapid growth of the mayan culture and it gains dominence within the region and influence throughout present-day Mexico. Large independent city-states were founded and become the political, religious, and cultural centers for Mayan peoples.
Rather than a political unification, Mayan society was unified by a deeply developed religion. Their religion was highly influenced and supported by careful observations of the sky. The Mayans were one of the foremost astrologers (and astronomers) of the ancient world. Extremely careful observation of the heavens led to a very sophisticated measurements of time and a great awareness of the movement of stars through the sky; especially of the bright planet Venus which alternately visits the morning and evening sky. Mayan art is also considered one of the most sophisticated and beautiful of the ancient New World.
The Mayan culture saw a decline during the 8th and 9th century. Although its causes are still the subject of intense scientific speculation, archaeologists see a definite cessation of inscriptions and architectural construction. The Mayan culture continued as a regional power until its discovery by European conquistadors. In fact, an independent, non-centralized government allowed the Mayans to strongly resist the Spanish conquest of present-day Mexico. Mayan culture is preserved today throughout the Yucatan although much of the inscriptions have been lost.
The Aztec culture begins with the migration of the Mexica people to present-day central Mexico. The leaders of this group of people created an alliance with the dominant tribes forming the Aztec triple alliance and created an empire that influenced much of present day Mexico.
The Aztec confederacy began a campaign of conquest and assimilation. Outlying lands were inducted into the empire and become part of the complex Aztec society. Local leaders could gain prestige by adopting and adding to the culture of the Aztec civilization. The Aztecs adopted cultural, artistic, and astronomical innovations from its conquered people.
The heart of the Aztecs power was an Economic Unity. Conquered lands paid a tribute to the capital city Tenochtlan, (the present-day site of Mexico City). Rich in tribute, the capital grew in influence, size and population. When it was Spanish arrived in 1521 it was the fourth largest city in the world (including the once independent city Tlatelco, which was by then a residential suburb) with an estimated population of 212,500 people. Its contained the massive Temple de Mayo, a twin towered pyramid 197 feet tall, 45 public buildings, a palace, two zoos, a botanical garden, and many houses. Surrounding the city and floating on the shallow flats of lake texcoco was enormous Chinampas, or floating garden beds that fed the many thousands of residents of Tenochtlan.
While many Meso-American civilizations practiced human sacrifices, none performed it to the scale of the Aztecs. To the Aztecs, human sacrifice was a necessary appeasement to the gods. According to their own records, one of the largest slaughters ever performed happened when the great pyramid of Tenochtitlan was reconsecrated in 1487. The Aztecs reported that they had sacrificed 84,400 prisoners over the course of four days.
Arriving in Tenochtlan, the Spanish would be the downfall of aztec culture. Although shocked and impressed by the scale of Tenochtlan, the display of massive human sacrifice would shock european sensitivity and the abundant displays of gold and silver would enflame their greed. The Spanish killed the reigning ruler, Montezuma in June 1520 and lay siege to the city, destroying it 1521. The aztecs were humbled by the Spanish alliance to a competeting tribe, the Tlaxcala.
The Inca civilization was the largest pre-Columbian empire in America. The empire with the accession of Manco Capac to emperor of a tribe in the Cuzco area of modern-day Peru around 1200.
The Inca civilization was ruled from by a powerful emperor. The 9th emperor of the Inca, Pachacuti undertook a ambitious campaign of conquest. The success of Pachacuti was brilliant military command (he is sometimes referred as the "Napolean of the Andes") and a brilliant political campaign of integration. Leaders of regions that he wanted to conquer were bribed with luxury goods and enticed by promises of privilege and importance. The Inca also had a prestigious educational system that extolled the benefits of Inca civilization. Much of the expansion throughout south american was peaceful.
At its height of power in the late 15th century, Inca civilization had conquered a vast patchwork of languages, people and culture from present-day Ecuador the whole length of South America to present-day Argentina.
Cuzco the capital city, was said by the Spanish to be "as fine as any city in Spain". Perhaps the most impressive city of the Inca was not its capital, Cuzco, but the city Machu Picchu.
This mountain retreat is built high in the Andes and is sometimes call the "Lost city of the Incas." It was intended as a mountain retreat for the leaders of Inca empire and shows great artistry - the abundant dry stone walls entirely built without mortar and the blocks cut so carefully that one can't insert a knife-blade between the massive blocks.
The Spanish discovered the Inca during a civil war of succession and enjoyed great military superiority over the slow siege warfare that the Inca had employed against its enemies. Fueled by greed in having the opportunity to plunder another rich civilization, they conquered the Inca Emperor and had him put to death. The Inca empire fell quickly in 1533. A small resistance force fled to the mountains waging a guerrilla war of resistance for another 39 years.
The Meso-American Empires were undoubtedly the most powerful and unified civilizations in the new world. These cultures spread in power and influence far more then their counterparts in North America. Each of these civilizations built impressive urban areas and had a complex culture. They were as 'civilized' as the Spanish who conquered them in the 15 and 16th century.
Early Empires of the Southwest
In the southwestern continental United States, distinct civilizations began that had adapted to the harsh arid conditions. One prominent group were the Anasazi whom lived in the present day Northeastern Arizona and surrounding areas. The topography of this area is that of a flat arid, desert plain, surronded by small areas of high plateau, called mesas. Softer rock layers within the mesas eroded to form steep canyons and overhangs along their slopes.
The Anasazi culture used these cave-like overhangs in the side of steep mesas as shelter from the brief, fierce southwestern storms. They also found natural seeps and diverted small streams of snowmelt into small plots of maize, squash and beans. Small seasonal rivers formed beds of natural clays and dried muds. The Anasazi used hardened dry mud, called adobe, along with sandstone to form intricate buildings and were sometimes found high in the natural overhangs of the mesas. The Anasazi culture were also skilled at forming the natural clays into pottery.
Between 900 - 1130 AD a period of relatively wet conditions allowed the Anasazi people to flourish. Traditional architecture was perfected, pottery became intricate and artistic, turkeys were demosticated, and trade over long distances influenced the entire region. Following this golden period was the 300 year drought called Great Drought. The Anasazi culture was stressed and erupted into warfare. Scientists once believed the entire people vanished, possibly moving great distances to avoid the arid desert. New research suggests that the anazasi dispersed; abandoning the intricate buildings and moving towards smaller settlements to utilize the limited water that existed.
Borderng the Anasazi culture in the north, a separate civilization emerged in southern Arizona, called the Hohokam. While many native americans in the southwest used water irrigation on a limited scale. It was the hohokam culture that perfected the technology (all without the benefit of modern powered excavating tools). The ability to divert water into small argricultural plots meant that the Hohokam could live in large agricultural communities of relatively high population density. This was particularly true in the Gila River vally, where the Gila River was diverted in many places to irrigate large fertile plains and numerous compact towns. The bigger towns had a great house at its center, which was a large Adobe/stone structure. Some of these structures were four stories in size and probably were used by the managerial or religous elites. Smaller excavation or pits were enclosed by adobe walls and used as primary residences. Smaller pitrooms and pits were used for many different functions.
The successful use of irrigation evident in the extensive Casa Grande village. Situated between two primary canals, the Casa Grande site has been the focus of nearly 9 decades of archaeological work. The original town was built around a great house and incorporated open courtyards and cirular plazas. By the 10th century neighboring settlements had been built to accomodate a large highly developed region. The scale of this community can be seen in the results of one excavation of part of it in 1997. The project had identified 247 pithouses, 27 pitrooms, 866 pits, 11 small canals, a ballcourt, and portions of four adobe walled compounds.
The hohokam culture disintegrated as they had difficulty maintaining the canals in the dry conditions of the drought. Small blockages or collapses of the canal would choke the intricate irrigation networks. Large towns and extensive irrigation canals were abandoned. The people gave up their cultural way of life and dispersed into neighboring tribes.
Native Americans adapted the arid desert southwest. A period of relatively wet conditions saw many cultures in the area flourish. Extensive irrigation was delvoped that were among the biggest of the ancient world. Elaborate adobe and sandstone buildings were constructed. Highly ornamental and artistic pottery was created. Dry conditions neccesitated more a more minimal way of life and the elaborate accomplishments of these cultures were abandoned.
Early Empires of the Mississippi
The Anasazi were mainly destroyed by agriculture failures.
The mound-building people was one of the earliest civilization to emerge in North America. Beginning around 1000BC cultures developed that used burial mounds for religious and burial purposes. These moundbuilding people are categorized by a series of cultures that describe dinstinctive artwork and artifacts found in large areas throughout present-day eastern United States.
The burial mound was the principle characteristic of all of these societies. These large structures were built by piling baskets of carefully selected earth on top of a mound of earth. Sometimes built on top of them were small buildings. Some of these mounds were quite large. The Grave Creek Mound in the panhandle of present day West-Viginia is nearly 70 feet tall and 300 feet in diameter. Other mounds have even been shown to be oriented in a way that allows for astronomical alignments such as solstices,and equinoxes.
Mound building cultures spread out in size and importance. The first culture, The Adena lived in present-day Southern Ohio and surrounding areas. The succeeding cultures united into an impressive trade system that allowed each cultures to influence each other. The Hopewell exchange included groups of people throughout the continental Eastern United States. There began to be considerable social stratitication within this people. This organization predates the emergance of the tribe as a socio-political group of people that would dominate later eastern and western native american civilization.
The climax of this civilization was the missippian culture. Groups had become progressed to social complexity comparable to Post-Roman, Pre-Consolidationa Tribal England. Mounds became numerous and some settlements had large complexes of mounds. Mounds were pyramid shaped with truncated tops. Structures were frequently built on top of the mounds. Institutional social inequalities existed such as slavery and human sacrifice. Cahokia, near the importance trade routes of the Missippi and Missouri rivers became an influential and highly developed east to the Atlantic Ocean. community. Extensive trade networks extended from the Great lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and
Cahokia was one of the great centers of Missippian culture and its largest settlement of missippian. The focal point of the settlement was the ceremonial mound called Monk's Mound. Monk's Mound was the largest mound ever constructing by mound-building people and was nearly 100 feet tall and 900 feet long. Excavation on the top of Monk's Mound has revealed evidence of a large building - perhaps a temple - that could be seen throughout the city. The city was spread out in a large plain south of Monks mound.
The city proper contained 120 mounds at a varying distances from the city center. The mounds were divided into several different types each of which may have had its own meaning and fuction. A circle of posts immediate to the monks mound marked a great variety of astronomical alignments. The city was surrounded by a series of watchtowers and occupied a diamond shape pattern that was nearly 5 miles across. It its height, the city may have contained as many as 40,000 people making it the largest in North America.
It is likely the missippian culture was dispersed by the onslaught of viral diseases such as smallpox that was brought by the european explorers. Urban areas were particularly vulnerable to diseases and Cahokia was abandoned in the 1500's. The dispersal of tribes made it impractical to build or maintain mounds and many were found abandoned by European explorers.
Native Americans in the Eastern Continental United States developed and share mound-building cultures early in North American History. Groups of native americans would become more stratified as time went on and develop into tribes. These tribes participated in long networks of trade and cultural exchanges. The importance of trade routes developed urban cities of great importance.
Contact with European Culture
European contact brought immediate changes in many tribes of North America. One of the most significant changes to all indian tribes was the introduction of viral diseases and epidemics. Smallpox was probably the single biggest scourge to hit North America. Infected contagious indians spread the plague far inland almost immediately after early encounters with european settlers. Historians estimate that over 80% of all native americans died from diseases soon after first contact. The effects traumatized many powerful and important cultures. Urban areas were particularly vulnerable and native american culture adapted by becoming more isolated, less unified, and with a renewed round of intribal warfare as tribes seized the opportunity to gain resources once owned by rivals.
On the other hand, Europeans brought superior technology and invasive plants and animals. The horse was re-introduced to america (as original paleo-american populations of wild horse from the bering land bridge was extinct) and quickly adapted to free range on the sprawling great plains. Tribes of Nomadic Native Americans were quick to see the horse's value as an increase in there mobility; allowing them to better adapt to changing conditions and as a valuable asset in inter-tribal warfare.