The First Americans

11.04.2018 |

Episode #4 of the course Human history and the first civilizations by Brian Fagan


Hello again. It’s time to visit the Americas.

When Europeans first arrived in the Americas, they encountered a remarkable diversity of Native American societies. Some hunting groups lived in small bands. Other hunters and fishers exploited rich coastal, lakeside, and river environments, where they developed much more permanent settlements and more elaborate societies.

Then there were the farmers, who cultivated a broad range of crops, among them two staples: maize and beans. These small-scale village societies paled alongside the great cities and civilizations of the Aztec and Maya of central America and the Inca and other societies in Peru.


Theories of First Settlement

Speculation about the first Americas began soon after Columbus arrived in 1492. Where had they come from? In 1590, a Jesuit missionary, Father José de Acosta, theorized that small groups of immigrants had arrived in America from Asia, with “only short stretches of navigation.” This was 150 years before Russian explorer Vitus Bering discovered the northern strait that bears his name.

Speculation continued into the 19th century, when settlers discovered spectacular burial mounds and earthworks across the Midwest. Imaginative writers wrote of a “lost race” of white Moundbuilders, who had colonized North America before Columbus. These theories were debunked when archeologists found tools made by Native Americans in the earthworks.

In 1924, finds of stone spear points with the bones of extinct animals like bison and mammoth on the Great Plains proved that Native Americans had settled in the Americans thousands of years ago. Today, thanks to meticulous excavations and radiocarbon dates, we know that people first crossed into the Americas at least 15,000 years ago.


Who Were the First Settlers?

The first Americans were Ice Age hunter-gatherers from extreme Northeast Siberia, who moved onto the low-lying Bering land bridge that connected Asia and Alaska during the low sea levels of the Late Ice Age. Significant numbers of them lived in this bitterly cold landscape before 15,000 years ago.

They did not colonize Alaska until rising sea levels and warming conditions began to flood the land bridge. Tiny bands of hunters were living there by 12,000 to 13,000 years ago. However, a few groups had moved southward by about 14,000 years before present. At the time, vast ice sheets covered North America as far south as Seattle and Great Lakes. Most likely, the earliest settlers hunted and fished their way southward along a Pacific coastline much lower than today.

They moved fast and in very small numbers. This makes it hard for archeologists to find their small, temporary camps. Everyone lived by hunting, foraging, and fishing. Initially, big game like mastodon and now-extinct camel-like animals were occasional prey. But as conditions dried after 10,000 years ago, smaller game, fish, and plant foods, as well as shellfish, became the staples of the diet.

The first Americans adapted rapidly to a broad range of environments, everything from Arctic landscapes to open plains, deserts, woodland, and tropical forests, as the climate warmed up and landscapes changed dramatically with warming.

We can trace these “Paleo-Indians” as early as 14,000 years ago in coastal California, in parts of the Midwest, and far to the south in coastal Peru and northern Chile. But traces of human occupation remain sparse until after 10,000 years ago.

Then Paleo-Indian populations rose gradually, with the appearance of the Clovis people over North America. These were people who relied on carefully made stone spear points. They hunted and foraged all kinds of animal and plant foods. As human populations rose, so an even greater diversity of hunting and foraging societies developed through the Americas.

The densest populations flourished along coasts like the Pacific Northwest, California, and estuaries in eastern North America, also along the Peruvian coast. Some of these hunting bands settled down, more-or-less permanently, in larger villages.

Over many centuries, they slowly developed much more complex societies with powerful kin leaders and developed elaborate rituals and far-flung trading contacts. This increased complexity laid some of the foundations for the farming societies and more elaborate states that developed after 5,000 years ago.

In the next lesson, we’ll discuss how farming and animal herding changed the course of human history in inexorable ways.


Recommended book

The First Americans by J.M. Adovasio and J. Page


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