The Americas, Origins Of American Societies
Author: Stearns, Peter N
Date: 2001

Origins Of American Societies

Most archeologists agree that the Americas were originally populated by
peoples from Asia, who moved during the period of the last Ice Age when the
level of the oceans fell. Possibly due to increasing population pressure, Homo
sapiens sapiens in Europe and Asia had been able to move onto the northern
steppes and tundra by about 20,000 B.C. and by that time were hunting large
game, wearing clothes, and living in small groups. These people moved across
the land bridge that formed in the present Bering Strait between Siberia and
Alaska. During the last period of the Pleistocene, or Ice Age (Wisconsin
glaciation), the capture of great quantities of water in the ice lowered the
level of the oceans and made it possible to cross from Siberia to Alaska on
dry land.

Perhaps one-third of the earth's surface was under ice during the
greatest extent of the expanding glacial sheets. The land bridge itself was
not covered with ice but was probably a grassy tundra. The mammoths,
mastodons, ancestors of the bison, and other large game probably followed this
route, and the hunters followed after. A subsequent rise in the world's
temperature about 10,000 years ago caused the ice to melt and eventually
raised the level of the oceans so that the land bridge disappeared and the
land migrations from Asia stopped. The last migrations by the ancestors of the
Inuit (Eskimos) and Aleuts were probably made in boats or across the polar

The Ancient Hunters

These migrations took place over a long period between about 20,000 B.C.
and 8,000 B.C. The earliest definite archeological evidence of people in the
Americas dates from about 9500 B.C., but many scholars believe that occupation
is much older than that. Some evidence from South America points to human
presence by at least 20,000 B.C., but that leaves unexplained the lack of such
evidence farther north along the track of the supposed migration. How long it
took for the area of the American continents to be occupied is open to
question; it may have taken thousands of years, but one scholar has estimated
that from a group of only 25 original migrants that doubled every generation,
a population of 10 million would result in 500 years. A population of 10
million, or about 1 person per square mile, seems reasonable for these peoples
given what we know about more modern hunting societies, but other scholars
have estimated the whole world's population before agriculture at only 10

The earliest migrants may have had a technology that did not include
projectiles (spears) since the only evidence of their tools are small stones
used for scraping or cutting. Crude spearheads, associated with the remains of
animals that became extinct about 12,000 years ago, document the presence of
hunting bands in the Americas. By about 11,000 years ago stone tools and
simple spear points (with short side channels or flutes allowing them to be
bound onto shafts) associated with these early hunters were widely dispersed
over North America. Originally discovered at Clovis, New Mexico, these
projectile points demonstrate widely shared techniques of production.

Other tool traditions followed, some of them relatively localized. In New
Mexico between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago, Folsom points were beautifully
crafted with a flute that ran the length of the blade. These are usually found
in conjunction with the bones of the ancestor of the bison. By about 6000 B.C.
a longer, well-crafted point was in use for hunting not only the ancient
long-horned bison, but also antelope and the modern bison.

As the climate became dryer and warmer, the ice began to melt. The great
mammal herds diminished and some of the species disappeared. The ancient
Americans seem to have been particularly successful hunters, and it has been
argued that the disappearance of animals such as the mammoths, the ancient
horse, the camel, and the giant anteater was, at least in part, due to the
hunters' skills. After all, the climate changed in Eurasia as well, but
nowhere else in the world did the number of mammals that became extinct equal
that of the Americas, especially North America.

Little is known about the society of these early Ice Age hunters. Most
likely, they lived in small groups or bands of 20 to 25 people, following the
game in a seasonal pattern. Sites where the bones of the hunters' kills are
found indicate that these people probably hunted the mammals in large groups.
Kinship provided the basis of social organization, and there was little
specialization or hierarchy in society. Age and gender were the main
determinants of a person's roles and what he or she contributed to the group.

[See Early Spearheads: Early spearheads indicating the presence of human
populations in the Americas by 10,000 B.C. were discovered at Folsom (2nd from
right) and Clovis (center), New Mexico. Folsom points found in 1927 in
conjunction with extinct bison species changed scientific thinking about the
timing of human occupation in the New World.]

American Diversity

Over the long period of the migrations, different peoples of different
physical types and languages came out of Asia. Some of the first migrants came
into the Western Hemisphere prior to the predominance of the Mongoloid peoples
in Asia. Consequently there were Caucasoid and Australoid genetic features in
the ancestors of the first Americans, or what are sometimes called the
Paleo-Indians. The fact that all Indians of South America are of blood type O
while in Asia type B predominates indicates the diversity of physical types
involved in the migration and perhaps the early date of the migration prior to
the creation of the present genetic situation of Asian populations. The
Eskimos (Inuit), who genetically are most like contemporary Asians, were
probably the last group to migrate.

While there was considerable physical variation among the American Indian
populations, the genetic and physical similarity among them is very strong.
This indicates a large degree of common ancestry and a relative isolation from
other human populations. The variations among Indians can be attributed to
adaptations and localized natural selection.

American Indian languages also display considerable diversity. There were
over 2000 languages spoken in the Americas when Europeans arrived in the 16th
century. While scholars differ in interpreting linguistic data, there is
general agreement that there were a number of language groups or parent
language stocks. People of related languages may have shared cultural elements
at one time, but peoples of widely differing cultures sometimes spoke similar
languages. For example, the nomadic Utes and the city-dwelling Aztecs spoke
related tongues.

Language, however, can be used to trace the movement of peoples. The
Navajo and Apaches of the American Southwest speak Athapascan languages
related to the speech of the inhabitants of northwestern Canada and Alaska,
and quite unlike that of their Pueblo neighbors. It is assumed that they were
later migrants who split off from their linguistic relatives to the north.

Outside Contacts?

The problem of later contacts with the Americas across the Pacific or the
Atlantic continues to fascinate archeologists and cause heated debate.
Definite mysteries and gaps in the history of pre-Columbian cultures remain
unresolved. Artistic motifs and styles similar to those of Shang China and
Southeast Asia seem to indicate contact. Early pottery found at Valdivia on
the coast of Ecuador seems remarkably like Japanese Jomon-period ceramics.
Plants, such as cotton and bottle gourds, seem of definite Old World origin
and their presence in the Americas suggests diffusion by human agents. While
many scholars admit the possibility of sporadic transoceanic contacts with
Chinese, Phoenicians, Polynesians, and others, the evidence is still mostly
circumstantial. No identifiable Old World object has ever been positively
identified in a pre-Columbian archeological site, and if Phoenicians or
Chinese introduced pottery or writing to the Americas, why they failed to
introduce the wheel or bronze at the same time remains an unanswered question.

The biological and archeological records indicate that the peopling of
the Americas had taken place long before the beginnings of agriculture in the
Old World and that, with the disappearance of the Bering land bridge, this
population had lived in comparative isolation from the rest of humankind.
While some archeologists have argued that the invention of agriculture and
pottery may have taken place only once and then been diffused all over the
world, most scholars believe that the peoples of the Americas developed
agriculture, domestication of animals (except perhaps the dog), weaving,
ceramics, complex societies, urbanism, numerical systems, and religious ideas
- in short, their cultures - independently of the Old World. Still, occasional
contacts were possible and the introduction of ideas and material things from
elsewhere into American Indian cultures certainly may have taken place.

The processes of cultural development and the growth of Indian
civilizations were long and complex, and they gave American Indian societies
and cultures great resilience and an ability to survive even the shock of
conquest. This independent development and relative isolation also had some
negative results when American Indian populations came into contact with the
peoples of Europe, Africa, and Asia. The development of a technology that did
not include the wheel, the plow, or iron tools and weapons put American
Indians at a disadvantage. Dogs, turkeys, and the guinea pig were
domesticated, but with the exception of the llama in the Andes, the lack of
large mammals, cattle, and horses was also a disadvantage in terms of diet,
transportation, and power. With the exception of a limited area in the high
Andes, pastoralism, so important in the Old World, was not a way of life in
the Americas. Most importantly, the relative isolation of American populations
from the disease environment of the larger Old World populations left the
inhabitants of the Americas with no immunities to a number of diseases that
became endemic in Asia, Europe, and Africa. This would prove disastrous after
permanent contact was established.

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