United States History I & II
United States History I & II

United States History I & II

Lead Author(s): Sara Eskridge

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Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Average price of textbook across most common format

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Hardcover print text only


Per volume


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Constantly revised and updated by a community of professors with the latest content

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Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

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Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost

Only available with supplementary resources at additional cost


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

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Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform


Average price of textbook across most common format

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed

Up to 40-60% more affordable

Lifetime access on any device


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Hardcover print text only


Roark, Johnson, Furstenberg, Stage, and Igo, The American Promise, 2 Volumes, 8th Edition


Per volume


Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Visions of America, 2013


Digital only

Always up-to-date content, constantly revised by community of professors

Content meets standard for Introduction to Anatomy & Physiology course, and is updated with the latest content

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

In-book Interactivity

Includes embedded multi-media files and integrated software to enhance visual presentation of concepts directly in textbook

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition


Ability to revise, adjust and adapt content to meet needs of course and instructor

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

All-in-one Platform

Access to additional questions, test banks, and slides available within one platform

Top Hat

Sara Eskridge, U.S. History I or II, Only One Edition Needed


Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty, 5th Edition


Case, Fair, Oster, The American Promise, 2 Volumes


McConnell et al., Visions of America, 2nd Edition

About this textbook

Lead Authors

Sara Eskridge, Ph.DRandolph-Macon College, VA

Dr. Eskridge is a Professor of History at Western Governors University. She specializes in Civil Rights, Cold War, Southern, and Cultural History. She is the author of Rube Tube: CBS as Rural Comedy in the Sixties (University of Missouri Press, 2019) as well as several articles and book chapters on southern mediated images during the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War.

Contributing Authors

Andrew WegmannLoyola University

Michael CarverCalifornia Polytechnic State University

Michael FrawleyUniversity of Texas of the Permian Basin

Linda ClemmonsIllinois State University

Angela HessCameron University

Sam NelsonRidgewater College

Volker JanssenCalifornia State University

Lance JandaCameron University

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Chapter 1: The First Civilizations

Pre-Chapter Discussion

What images come to mind when you think of the landscape of the Americas before European exploration?

Chapter Overview

In 1492, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon what he called the “new world.” For native peoples, however, America was not a new world. It was their home, where they had resided for thousands of years and formed sophisticated cultures, religions, settlements, and economic systems. From present-day Canada and Alaska down to the southern tip of South America, native peoples lived and interacted with their communities and kin. They adapted their lives to extremely diverse environments in the desert, plains, woodlands, tundra, and rainforests. Ancestors of Native Americans manipulated and transformed their landscapes by building monumental public architecture (including artificial mounds that rivaled the size of Egyptian pyramids), road and irrigation systems, homes, and large settlements. Native peoples created sophisticated pottery, artworks made from stone, clay, wood, shell, and copper, and a vast array of stone weaponry. They hunted, gathered, farmed, and established trade networks across wide geographic regions.

Despite these achievements, and the fact that the post-contact period encompassed just over five hundred years, historians often gloss over the pre-contact period. They dismiss this period as unimportant, in part because European explorers and colonists viewed native peoples as primitive, barbaric, and unsophisticated. These negative evaluations of Native American abilities even led many Europeans to see the Americas as a pristine wilderness nearly empty of people. For example, the book Seeds of Change: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy argued that “pre-Columbian America was … a pristine natural kingdom. The native people were transparent in the landscape … [making] a barely perceptible human disturbance.”

A closer examination of pre-contact Native Americans, however, dispels the “pristine myth” that erased native peoples from the landscape and reimagined the continent as an empty wilderness. Archaeological research has revealed that pre-contact native peoples sustained large populations across the Americas. They also created sophisticated economic, political, and religious systems and manipulated their environments in substantial ways. This is not to say, however, that contact with Europeans was unimportant. The arrival of European explorers and settlers dramatically changed the lives of both Europeans and native peoples through trade, imported diseases, land loss, and conquest.

Chapter Objectives:

  •  Understand theories about the origin Native Americans
  •  Explain why it is difficult to determine the number of native peoples at the time of contact
  •  Understand the Paleo-Indian and Archaic Periods
  •  Explore nine Native American Culture areas
  •  Examine the encounter of Native Americans and Europeans from a Native perspective

The Origin of Native Americans

From the time of contact, Europeans like Columbus wondered about the origins of native peoples, much as native peoples pondered the strange Europeans who arrived on their shores. Europeans, and later Americans, offered many different theories to explain how native peoples came to live in the Americas, which were often situated within an explicitly Christian Biblical framework. In the early 16th century, Spanish missionary Bartolomé de Las Casas believed that Native Americans were part of the ten lost tribes of Israel; this theory continued to be influential into the early nineteenth century when Joseph Smith made the same claim in the Book of Mormon. Others argued that native peoples descended from a Welsh prince named Madoc who supposedly arrived in the Americas during the twelfth century. When faced with the mounds at Cahokia, some European explorers maintained that they had been built by Vikings or survivors of the lost city of Atlantis. At various times, native peoples’ ancestry has been traced to Asia, Europe, Polynesia, the Middle East, China, Japan, and most recently, Australia.

The debate over the origin of Native Americans continues into the present day. While no one denies that native peoples lived in the Americas at the time of contact with Europeans, exactly when and where native people originated are extremely controversial topics that still divide academic scholars (who offer scientific theories) and many Native Americans (who rely on oral traditions to explain their origin). This subject is passionately debated and has modern-day political and social implications.

The Bering Strait Theory

Scientists offer several different theories to explain how native peoples came to populate the Americas. The most commonly accepted theory is the Bering Strait Theory, which was first proposed in 1590 by José de Acosta and has been popular since the 1930s (Figure 1.1). According to this theory, the ancestors of Native Americans traveled from Siberia across the Bering Strait to present-day Alaska during the Ice Age. During this era, cold temperatures lowered water levels, which opened up a “land bridge” about one thousand miles wide. Around 15,000 to 11,000 years ago, the nomadic hunters crossed on this exposed land (called Beringia) following migrating herds of megafauna, and then traveled down an “ice-free corridor” that opened up toward the end of the last Ice Age Over the next several thousand years, movement continued south until some migrants eventually arrived at the southern tip of South America.

Figure 1.1: The Bering Straight Theory.​

Evidence to support this theory has come from many different disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology, molecular biology, genetics, and linguistics. For example, dental anthropologist Christy Turner examined the teeth of thousands of ancient and modern individuals. He determined that there were strong similarities in teeth between Native Americans and Asians, which supported the theory that native peoples migrated from Asia. DNA evidence also has been presented in defense of the Bering Strait theory. Although controversial and frequently contradictory, some scientists have found similar genetic markers between peoples from Asia and ancient and modern native peoples.

1.01 - Level 1

According to the Bering Strait Theory, which of the following are true?


The ancestors of present-day Native Americans rowed boats across the Bering Strait from China to get to the Americas.


The ancestors of present-day Native Americans crossed from Siberia to present-day Alaska on exposed land during the Ice Age.


After crossing the Bering Strait¸ people continued to move south¸ eventually arriving in South America.

Selected Challenges to the Bering Strait Theory

There are several problems with the Bering Strait Theory. First, archaeologists have found evidence that humans lived in the Americas before the supposed migration over the Bering Strait land bridge. This evidence includes artifacts unearthed at the Monte Verde site in southern Chile that date to approximately 14,600 years ago. Artifacts and remains that appear to have similar age as the Monte Verde artifacts have been found throughout North America, including in the Paisley Cave in south-central Oregon as well as sites in Washington State and Pennsylvania. Many scientists argue that these ancient artifacts illustrate that humans inhabited North America well before the last Ice Age, which places their arrival before the timing suggested by the Bering Strait land bridge.

Second, some scientists contend that linguistic evidence also contradicts the timing of the Bering Strait Theory. In 1990, linguist Johanna Nichols argued that it would have taken a minimum of 50,000 years for all of the American Indian languages to have evolved from one language, or 35,000 years if migrants had come in multiple waves. Thus, while she still supports the Bering Strait Theory, she places the time of arrival much earlier and posits multiple migrations.

Finally, some DNA evidence suggests that Native Americans arrived much earlier than the dates associated with the Bering Strait Theory, perhaps as many as 40,000 years ago. Sandro L. Bonatto, from the Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, described DNA evidence that “put the peopling of the Americas clearly in an early, pre-[Bering Strait Theory] time frame.”

Other Scientific Theories of the Origin of Native Americans

To account for problems with the Bering Strait Theory, scientists have proposed additional routes by which humans first reached the Americas and sometimes placed the time of migration much earlier (Figure 1.2). Many scholars suggest a coastal route from Asia down the western coast of the Americas. One highly controversial theory argues that migrants to the Americas traveled by boat across ice floes over the North Atlantic; a similar claim has been made about travel by boat across the Pacific Ocean to the western coast. Many scientists now posit multiple migrations across several routes and eras. Others argue for a much earlier arrival time, or multiple migrations, while still arguing that the Bering Strait was the main path for travel.

Figure 1.2: In addition to the “Bering Strait Theory,” scientists have proposed additional routes that peoples may have used to reach the Americas. This map illustrates several of these possible routes.

1.02 - Level 1

The traditional Bering Strait Theory has been challenged based on which of the following kinds of evidence?







The Debate Continues

The debate over the origin of Native Americans continues among geneticists, archaeologists, and anthropologists. Almost daily, new information is published based on computer modeling, DNA analysis, and new information found in archaeological sites across the Americas. For example, in 2015, articles published in scientific journals Nature and Science studied ancient and modern DNA to help explain the peopling of the Americas. To the researchers’ surprise, they found that the DNA of some native Amazonians showed significant similarity to indigenous inhabitants of Australia and Melanesia. A recent article in Nature (2020) provided further evidence for a genetic link between ancient Polynesians and Native Americans. Scientists postulate the Native Americans traveled to several of the Pacific Islands, often thousands of kilometers from South America. Scientists also analyzed the DNA of an 11,500-year-old skeleton of a baby girl from Alaska. In 2018, they published their findings, suggesting that the girl’s lineage originated in Siberia.

1.03 - Level 1

In addition to the Bering Strait land bridge, what are some of the other theories of migration?


A coastal route from Asia


By boat across the Atlantic


By boat across the Pacific

Native Peoples Respond to Theories of their Origin

Many native peoples refute that they came across the Bering Strait, or that their ancestors were from Asia, Europe, or Australia. Instead they argue that they have always been in the Americas. They rely on creation stories and oral traditions to explain how and where their people came to reside. Each tribe has its own origin story that places their origin in their homeland, and not in some distant land. For example, Pueblo, Navajo, Mandan, Caddo, and Arikara origin stories tell of how their people emerged from under the earth. In southeastern North America, a crow pecked at shells, releasing humans to the earth. The first Iroquois fell from the sky. The Kiowa came into the world through a hollow log. The Ojibway/Anishinabe tell of how they originally migrated to the Great Lakes region from the East Coast.

Spotlight on Primary Source

This excerpt of the Navajo (or Diné) origin story which has been translated into English. The story explains how the Navajo came into the world; it also embodies their people’s history, morals, and values. Most important, it links the Navajo with the landscape and environment of the southwest.   

Please read Aileen O’Bryan, The Dine: Origin Myths of the Navaho Indians, “The Creation or Age of Beginning,” pages 1-13. Navajo Origin Story

Question 1.04

1.04 - Level 4

How do the Navajo believe that they came to live in the southwestern portion of the present-day United States? Why do you think that many Europeans rejected Native American origin stories?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.04.

Figure 1.3: Navajo First Man and First Woman painting [1]​

Many native activists do not like the fact that archaeologists and other scientists frequently dismiss native oral traditions in favor of the Bering Strait Theory and other scientific explanations of their origin and history. This is a very important topic because activists link the dismissal of their oral traditions with other issues, including land loss and cultural imperialism. They also argue that they (and their ancestors) have been treated as scientific specimens. In an interview, the late Lakota activist Vine Deloria, Jr. stated: 

 “Somehow it is presumed that scientists, and thus Europeans, know better than the Indians themselves how Indians got here and how they lived prior to Columbus. That attitude is patronizing at best. Instead of digging and analyzing, why don't researchers just ask the Indians? And then, having asked, why don't they take the answers seriously?”

Denying the antiquity of native origin stories not only denigrates native cultural and religious traditions, but also has political and legal repercussions. 

For example, in summer 1996, two young men enjoying a boat race on the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington discovered a human skull. After further excavation, a complete skeleton was unearthed. Scientists determined through analysis and carbon dating that the skeleton (now referred to as the Kennewick Man, or the Ancient One) was around 9,000 years old, which made the remains one of the oldest and most complete skeletons found in the United States. Because of its antiquity, archaeologists could not wait to study the skeleton. Scientists hoped that the skeleton would shed light on the origin of native peoples in the Americas. In fact, the first scientist to examine the skeleton believed that the Kennewick man did not look Native American; he argued that the skeleton had a European origin. Although this theory has since been dismissed, the race of the Kennewick man has remained contentious.

A coalition of five tribes from the region did not want scientists to study what they called the Ancient One. Armand Minthorn, a Umatilla spokesman representing the five tribes, explained their objections to the studies. “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.” He argued that “sacred remains should not be a product for data.” The tribes claimed the skeleton as their ancestor and sued, demanding that the bones be repatriated for reburial. Their legal argument for reburial rested on a federal law known as the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) which protected all Native American graves and other objects found on federal or tribal lands.

Scientists countersued to continue studies on the bones; they argued that they did not know if the Kennewick man was Native American and thus under the auspices of NAGPRA. Indeed, the archaeologists argued that the Kennewick Man could help to determine the origin of native peoples in the Americas. In August 2002, the court ruled in favor of the scientists, stating that the bones were not related to any living tribe; thus, NAGPRA did not apply. After the court’s decision, studies continued on the skeleton, especially dedicated to determining the Kennewick man’s origin. One theory suggests that the Kennewick man was the ancestor of the Ainu of Japan. If this is true, it would upend the Bering Strait Theory, which posits that the ancestors of Native Americans came from central Asia, and not Japan or Polynesia.

Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee) of the Morning Star Institute (a national native rights organization) summarized the importance of the Kennewick Man controversy to native peoples. First, she criticized the scientists for using the skeleton to further claims that Native peoples are not the original inhabitants of this land. Second, and equally disturbing for Harjo, was the idea that scientists “owned” ancient native skeletons. Scientists and Congress need to abide by and enforce NAGPRA. Finally, she argues that scientists should not use skeletal remains in an attempt to prove that Native Americans were from somewhere else; this could potentially be used to deny present-day land claims.

Although activists like Harjo and others argued that their oral traditions should be used to claim Kennewick man as their ancestor, scientists continued to conduct DNA research to try to scientifically prove this link. In 2015, an international group of geneticists, including researchers from Stanford and the University of Copenhagen, performed DNA analysis on a small amount of material taken from the skeleton’s hand. The DNA analysis showed that he was closely related to present-day Native Americans. A team at the University of Chicago also confirmed genetically that the Kennewick man was related to Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest.

On December 16, 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Water Infrastructure Act, which included brief section that finally repatriated the skeleton to the claimant tribes. In March 2017, the Ancient One was laid to rest in a private ceremony at an undisclosed location. While the coalition of tribes who sued for repatriation are pleased with the result, they believe that it should not have taken almost twenty years to resolve the dispute. Moreover, as Ruth Jim, a Yakama, stated we “don’t believe we [should] have to subject ourselves to DNA testing to prove who we are and how long we’ve been here.”  

1.05 - Level 1

Which of the following scholars would be the most likely to express skepticism about archaeological evidence for the peopling of the Americas?


Vine Deloria, Jr.


Sandro Bonatto


Johanna Nichols


Christy Turner

The Number of Native Peoples at the Time of Contact

Also controversial is the number of Indians residing in the Americas at the time of contact. Of course, pre-contact peoples did not record a census to determine the number of inhabitants of each region. Because of the lack of recorded information, reports of native populations at the time of contact with Europeans vary widely depending on the date in which the estimate was made (Figure 1.4).

Figure 1.4: Selected Population Estimates of Pre-Contact North American Native Population​

The population estimates vary widely because of ideology rather scientifically determined numbers. For example, James Mooney, an ethnographer working for the Smithsonian Institution, attempted to offer a count of native peoples at the time of contact based on historical documents. Mooney’s early twentieth century study examined primary sources, such as missionary records, notes of explorers who encountered native peoples, and diaries of settlers. Based on these written sources, he made estimates that reflected the bare minimum in that region, and then (arbitrarily) further reduced that number. He decreased the number based on the common thinking of the time, which held that Indians were so primitive that they could not have sustained a large population. In The Invasion of America, historian Francis Jennings describes nineteenth and early twentieth-century Americans as believing that Indians were savage and “large populations were impossible in savage societies” (30).

As early as the 1960s, Mooney’s estimate of 1.15 million people north of Mexico was criticized for being exceedingly low. In the 1966, anthropologist Henry F. Dobyns estimated that the pre-contact population for North America north of Mexico was about 9.8 million; he later revised this to an even higher 18 million in 1984. In the 1990s, Cherokee historian Russell Thornton placed the number lower, estimating 7 million for North America (4.4 million for the United States and 2 million for present-day Canada). Most current estimates range between 2 and 18 million for the area north of Mexico.

1.06 - Level 1

After decades of study and controversy, what is the most current estimate of the native population north of Mexico before European contact?


Fewer than 1 million


2-18 million


20-25 million


1 billion

Population estimates of pre-contact native peoples have risen steadily over time for several reasons. First, historians and anthropologists no longer see Native Americans as primitive and incapable of creating large societies. Second, historians recognize that European-imported diseases drastically decreased the size of native populations after contact. In 1966, Henry Dobyns published an article discussing the devastating effect that European-imported diseases had on native peoples. He argued that these diseases let to a precipitous population decline in the post-contact period; this meant that pre-contact population numbers would have been much higher than previously determined from European-produced sources

Question 1.07

1.07 - Level 2

Why do scholars believe that they now have a more accurate estimate of the pre-contact Native American population numbers?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.07.

1.08 - Level 1

Rank the following scholars based on their estimates of pre-contact North American population sizes from highest to lowest.


Homer Aschrmann


Russell Thornton and Joan Marsh-Thornton


James Mooney


Henry Dobyns

In the 1970s, ethnohistorian Alfred Crosby further explored the effect of so-called virgin soil epidemics on native peoples. Native peoples had been isolated from European diseases like influenza, measles, and especially smallpox. As such, they had no natural immunity to the diseases that European explorers and colonists brought with them. Because of this, death rates from these diseases were extremely high for native peoples, sometimes reaching over 50-95% for infected communities. European observers therefore only reported what they witnessed, which were smaller populations decimated by disease. They would not have known the size of native populations before they arrived. More information will be provided about the devastating effect of virgin soil epidemics in Chapter 2.

1.09 - Level 1

What is the name given by historian Alfred Crosby to the process by which native peoples died from European imported diseases for which they had no natural immunity?

1.10 - Level 5

If we estimate that the post-contact population of Native Americans in North America was approximately 500,000 people, assuming that disease and conflict killed 95% of native peoples (a possibility for virgin soil epidemics), what would the initial pre-contact population have been?


10 million people


5 million people


1 million people


100 million people

Pre-Contact Civilizations

Paleo-Indian and Archaic Periods

Although the origin and number of Native Americans at the time of contact remains under debate, it is clear that native peoples developed extremely diverse, rich, and sophisticated civilizations prior to contact with Europeans. Native peoples hunted, gathered, and produced foods based on their environment, which in turn influenced their settlement patterns and political and social organization. Settlement and subsistence patterns then changed and evolved over thousands of years.

After arriving in the Americas, archaeologists discuss what they term the Paleo-Indian period (c. 15,000 BC-c. 7,000 BC). Paleo-Indians were nomadic hunters and gatherers who hunted large (now extinct) animals called megafauna, including mammoths, mastodons, and large ancestors of the bison and beaver. Paleo-Indians hunted over long distances on established annual circuits. Archaeologists believe that Paleo-Indians created base camps they returned to frequently, as well as shorter-term camps used on their hunting circuit. While they mainly traveled in small groups consisting of a few adults and children, archaeologists have found evidence of trade between peoples over large geographic regions; the bands could also unite into larger bands during the spring and summer.

1.11 - Level 1

Which of the following is a distinguishing characteristic of Paleo-Indians?


They were nomadic hunters and gatherers who tracked megafauna


They all grew crops


They built their homes along ridges and cliff sides


They all remained in one small area and did not travel long distances for fear of the elements and dangerous animals

Paleo-Indians hunted using spears topped with projectile points. Archaeologists have unearthed spear points at various sites across the present-day United States. One of the most common types of spear points was termed the “Clovis” point, which was named for the New Mexico town where the first examples were found in the 1930s. Since then, more than 10,000 Clovis points have been discovered, located in 1,500 locations throughout most of North America; they have also been found in South America. After discovering Clovis points in New Mexico, archaeologists searched for traces of them in collections of artifacts from Siberia, the supposed origin of the first Americans. None have ever been found, which led some to further question the Bering Strait Theory. Folsom points, similar to Clovis points, were discovered near Folsom, New Mexico (Figure 1.5).

In addition to hunting with spears, Paleo-Indians also may have worked together to herd larger game over cliffs, killing many animals at once. For instance, at the Bonfire Shelter site in Texas, archaeologists unearthed bones of about 120 buffalo which had stampeded over a cliff. They found evidence that the site had been used over a long period of time; the first jump occurred almost 11,500 years ago, and a second occurred more than 8,000 years later.

Archaeologists have excavated numerous Paleo-Indian sites across the present-day United States that provide continuing information on these early people. For example, archaeologists are currently excavating the Gault location (inhabited beginning around 13,000 years ago) in Central Texas. Although new information is still emerging, several tentative conclusions can be made based on over two and a half million artifacts that have been excavated at Gault site. First, the site was quite large (over 39 acres) and was continuously inhabited for thousands of years. Second, because of considerable debris that built up over time, archaeologists argue that Paleo-Indians clearly used the location as a major base camp, where they returned repeatedly and probably stayed for lengthy periods of time. Third, inhabitants at Gault hunted both small and large animals, worked wood, and cut grass in the region. Finally, they produced numerous Clovis points and engraved small stones with fine designs.

Figure 1.5: Clovis Points, from the Rummells-Maske Site, Cedar County, Iowa [2]

During the Archaic period (c. 7,000 BC to c. 1,000 BC), the smaller-scale Paleo-Indian bands transformed into larger and more complex societies as the Ice Age ended and the climate became warmer and drier. The large megafauna of the Paleo-Indian period also disappeared. As Paleo-Indians settled into different ecological zones, they split into separate groups, each adapting to their own unique environment. The end of the Paleo-Indian period marked the beginning of an enormous social, cultural, and linguistic diversity that characterized the next 10,000 years.

Archaic peoples utilized a wide variety of natural resources for food, depending on their environment. They hunted several animals that are common today, such as bison, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and rabbits. In addition, Archaic peoples gathered a wide variety of wild plants native to their particular region. In the late Archaic period, some groups even began to cultivate plants such as corn and squash, although the widespread and intensive adoption of agriculture would not occur until later. Archaic peoples hunted and gathered across smaller geographic areas than the Paleo-Indians. This allowed them to create different types of artifacts and living quarters depending on their region. They also developed different (and often more complex) cultural adaptations, trade networks, and technology as well as larger social groupings than their Paleo-Indian predecessors, who lived in smaller kin groups, hunted over larger areas, and did not have as many sophisticated tools.

1.12 - Level 1

Which of the following are the characteristics of Archaic Indians?


They developed more complex societies after the end of the Ice Age


They gathered plants native to their region


Some started to cultivate plants in the late Archaic period


They established trade networks

Native American Culture Areas

During and after the Archaic period, and until the time of contact with the first European explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Native American societies continued to develop strikingly different cultures, religions, and subsistence patterns based on their location and environment. In order to characterize and understand these societies, historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists often divide the present-day United States into culture areas (Figure 1.6). Native peoples in each cultural region tended to follow similar cultural and subsistence patterns.

However, these culture areas were not rigidly defined entities. Especially around the borders, people moved in and out of regions. Each region was very diverse and contained many different culture and subsistence adaptations. For example, although archaeologists and historians discuss California as a coherent culture area, native peoples within that region developed very different types of homes, subsistence patterns, and political systems depending on whether they lived on the coast, near a river, in the mountains, or in the Mojave Desert. Indeed, native peoples living in the southern region of California might have more in common with southwestern peoples than with other Californian peoples.

The culture areas were also dynamic rather than static. Many European observers (and subsequent historians and anthropologists) have characterized native peoples as static (unchanging and not evolving) until after contact with Europeans. However, as each culture area illustrates, the culture, social organization, and economy of each region constantly evolved and changed over thousands of years. For instance, ancient peoples cultivated corn in several regions, but droughts and other climate changes led them to abandon large settlements and relocate into smaller farming villages. Thus, the cultures that Europeans encountered when they first arrived in the Americas in the fifteenth century were not the same as those that had existed thousands, or even hundreds, of years previously.

Finally, European observers characterized Native Americans as possessing unsophisticated economic, political, and cultural systems. However, across each of the culture areas, indigenous peoples exhibited an extremely diverse and sophisticated range of languages, economies, religions, gender roles, and subsistence patterns. Pre-contact North Americans also traded and interacted with each other across broad geographic regions. Tribes shared material culture, labor, and cultural and religious practices. Political and economic alliances also arose and declined over long periods of time. Intermarriages between groups cemented alliances.

Information about each culture area during the pre-contact period mainly comes from archaeological research. While archaeologists are currently excavating sites across the United States, most of their work has historically focused on the Southwest and Eastern Woodlands regions. For this reason, there is more information available about these specific culture areas. As more sites are excavated, additional evidence will emerge about the other culture areas that will enrich knowledge about all of pre-contact America.

Despite the unequal nature of the evidence, culture regions are a useful way to conceptualize and summarize very diverse regions. The summaries of the different culture regions offered below generally focus on the era after the Archaic period, but before the time of colonization with Europeans. Also included are examples of trade and interaction within and between many of the culture regions. Indeed, multiple trades often allowed products to be exchanged across thousands of miles.

Question 1.13

1.13 - Level 5

What are some of the problems historians confront when defining culture areas?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.13.

Figure 1.6: Native American Culture Areas

Similarities Between Culture Areas

All of the culture areas were similar in several key ways. First, perhaps counter-intuitively, all culture areas were united in their diversity. Because each region differed in terms of topography, climate, and the availability of natural resources, native peoples adapted their homes, subsistence patterns, and even culture and religion to their environment. Peoples living in the Rocky Mountains faced different challenges and opportunities than those living near the Pacific Ocean or on the Great Plains; these challenges and opportunities dictated their societies’ social, political, and economic organization. In sum, no culture region was the same. Each area developed different gender roles, kin relations, ceremonies, and recreations based on factors unique to their region.

Second, while no culture region was the same, all native peoples had an intimate knowledge of their environment. They knew the animals and plants indigenous to their region, where to hunt and gather these plants and animals, and how to process food unique to their region. Many tribes not only hunted and gathered, but also actively manipulated their environments to increase yields through setting fires, spreading seeds indigenous to their region, or planting crops.

Third, all regions developed trade relations with other culture areas. Second and third re-trades allowed materials to move across thousands of miles, far from their original sources.

Fourth, all native peoples constantly adapted to new situations, such as droughts, scarcity or availability of animals, climate change, and warfare. Native peoples were never static; their societies, cultures, religions, and economies constantly developed, changed, and evolved over time.

Finally, all of the culture areas challenge European assumptions that native peoples were unsophisticated and incapable of creating large, developed societies. Far from being a pristine wilderness untouched by humans, pre-contact Native Americans manipulated, transformed, and used their environments in sophisticated and intensive ways.

Summaries of Culture Areas


Native Californians utilized rich resources found near their settlements. Depending on their location, men fished, collected shellfish, and hunted small mammals. Women gathered plant resources available in their region, especially acorns, which were ground into meal for bread and other uses. California natives preferred certain kinds of acorns and would sometimes travel long distances to collect a favored type, even if less desirable trees were located closer to their settlements. The amount of acorns collected across California was astronomical, reaching perhaps 600,000 tons a year. Women also produced woven baskets for use in their acorn production (Figure 1.7). Some areas cultivated tobacco, although native Californians did not otherwise rely on crops.

Figure 1.7: Chumash baskets. Utilized for the collection, production, and storage of acorns. [3]​​

While California natives did not cultivate crops, archaeologists believe that they manipulated their environment by deliberately setting fires. They started the fires to protect their acorn trees. Burning the dense growth underneath the oaks reduced the risks of naturally occurring fires started by lightning. The burns also helped to promote a larger deer population and more edible plants. Natives of California who lived near the ocean also invented technologies that allowed them to exploit water-resources, including fish dams, deep-sea fishing nets, and canoes.

Question 1.14

1.14 - Level 3

Why did Native Californians set fires in local forests?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.14.

This diverse economy permitted native Californians to create permanent-year round villages. It also allowed the population to grow quite large. Before Europeans arrived in the Americas, perhaps as many as 300,000 native peoples resided in California, divided into over 200 tribes and speaking as many as 90 languages. This made California one of the most densely populated regions in the area that would become the United States. The fierce competition for acorns and other resources also led to the formation of social hierarchies, led by hereditary chiefs who oversaw trade, diplomacy, and warfare.

Northwest Coast

Further up the Pacific Coast, native peoples tended to settle on river banks, islands, or on the shores of the ocean. Because they lived near water, they utilized numerous aquatic resources, such as fish and marine mammals including whales and seals. They hunted deer, elk, and bear and gathered plants and seeds from the forests. Similar to their Californian neighbors to the south, the native peoples on the Northwest coast established large permanent villages because of the year-round availability of food. The villages were made up of rectangular plank homes constructed from cedar. Craftsmen also created large canoes, elaborately carved wooden masks, and totem poles. The totem poles represent the people’s oral traditions and histories. While the old adage “lowest person on the totem pole” implies that the bottom figure was the least significant, the lowest figure actually represented a position of honor in Pacific coast cultures (Figure 1.8).

Question 1.15

1.15 - Level 2

What factors allowed natives in present-day California and along the northwest coast to establish large permanent villages?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.15.

Figure 1.8: Totem pole depicting Raven and his wife, Alaska [4]​

The abundant resources and settled villages of the region encouraged the development of a three-tiered social system. At the top of society were the chiefs, who came from wealthy and leading families and controlled their villages; below them were the commoners, and last, the slaves (generally war captives). The elite chiefs were responsible for coordinating work within their villages as well as distributing food, supplies, and other forms of wealth from the top of society down to the bottom.

An important ceremony that focused on the distribution of wealth was the potlatch (loosely translated as “to give”). Elite (and sometimes common) families staged potlatches to commemorate life-changing events, such as marriages, births, or deaths. At the potlatch, the host distributed large amounts of food and gifts. The potlatch reaffirmed the status and wealth of the individual who held the ceremony, but it also redistributed wealth to less prosperous families, which in turn strengthened the community overall.

1.16 - Level 1

What was the name of an important northwest regional ceremony where food and gifts were distributed?

Columbia Plateau

Lying to the east of the Pacific Northwest region, native peoples of the Columbia Plateau fished, hunted, and gathered in various seasons. Their main source of food was salmon, which the men caught and the women processed, dried, and stored for the winter. In addition to salmon, the peoples of the Columbia Plateau hunted deer, elk, and bear, and gathered berries, roots, nuts, and other plants. However, they did not need to travel long distances for hunting and gathering due to the large amount of salmon that they caught and stored.

Their homes were linked to the changing seasons. In the winter months, they resided in semi-underground structures called pithouses, situated in large villages near major rivers. These permanent fishing villages were the center of social and ceremonial activities. During the remainder of the year, they lived in semi-permanent camps as they hunted and gathered. These semi-permanent camps consisted of movable tipis covered with mats rather than the animal hides common on the Great Plains.

Unlike the stratified social system in the Pacific Northwest, families in each village were considered to be relatively equal in status. The men chose their political and religious leaders on the basis of their abilities and operated by consensus. Plateau artists painted rocks with pictographs, generally depicting game animals and human hunters. Women wove baskets, blankets, mats, and clothing.

The Columbia Plateau region served as a crossroads for an extensive trade network that linked peoples from distant geographic regions. This trade system is often called the Columbia River Trade Network. Centered around present-day The Dalles and Celilo Falls, Oregon as well as the Columbia and Snake Rivers, people came from hundreds of miles to trade items specific to their region (Figure 1.9). The trading site itself likely arose because of the large supply of salmon that was dried and traded for other materials and goods. From the south, traders brought obsidian (a dark glass formed by the cooling of lava), turquoise, and nuts; from the northwest coast came fish oil, shells, and baskets; and from the Plains came pipestone, buffalo meat, and robes. Once traded, these goods were brought back home and often re-traded. In this way, goods moved across the entire continent, even arriving as far away as the Mississippi River Valley. Prior to leaving the trading center, people also socialized, shared information, and created economic, familial, diplomatic, and political bonds.

Figure 1.9: This map illustrates the Columbia River Trade Network. Tribes from multiple culture areas traveled to present-day The Dalles and Celilo Falls, Oregon to trade items specific to their region; they brought back trade items that they could not obtain from their own area.

Great Basin

The Great Basin was an extremely large, diverse, and often harsh region located between the Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because of the challenging environment, native peoples were very flexible and utilized a broad range of resources for food. Depending on the region, men fished and hunted small and large animals including rabbits, antelope, and deer. Women gathered pine nuts, berries, roots, and other plants to sustain them through the winters. In some areas of the Great Basin, native peoples grew maize, but droughts frequently destroyed crops. As such, even if they grew plants, most of their sustenance came from hunting and gathering.

Because the people followed a seasonal round and traveled long distances, they resided in temporary, easily constructed structures known as wikiups. Wikiups were made of brush and willow poles and could be quickly taken down and rebuilt (Figure 1.10). Their social organization also reflected the challenging environment; groups were flexible and their leadership was informal. At various times during the year, small groups would come together for ceremonies and socialization. Great Basin craftspeople produced tools for processing seeds, pottery, and woven baskets. Like their counterparts in California, some peoples in the Great Basin deliberately set fires to manage their environments by encouraging the growth of certain plants and also providing better feed for deer and other game. They also may have scattered native seeds to encourage greater yields for gathering.

Question 1.17

1.17 - Level 3

Why was it necessary for the natives of the Great Basin to live in structures that could be quickly taken down and rebuilt?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.17.

Figure 1.10: Wikiup structure​ [5]


Figure 1.11: This map illustrates the three main cultural areas of the southwestern cultural region. These three southwestern cultures rose, and declined, at different times during the pre-contact period. Despite differences in timeframe, they were linked together by a similar climate and subsistence patterns.

Archaeologists divide the Southwestern culture area into three main cultural areas. First, the Mogollon culture (c. 250 BC to c. AD 1450) arose near the Arizona-New Mexico border and into northern Mexico. Archaeologists believe that they began as hunter-gatherers, but over time the Mogollon people began to grow corn, beans, and squash using irrigation. They initially lived in pithouses, but as agriculture developed they constructed multi-room adobe structures that could reach three or four stories high. These structures also contained ceremonial rooms called kivas. Mogollon culture declined during the twelfth to fifteenth centuries (depending on the source), possibly due to drought.

Second, the Anasazi culture (c. AD 1 to 1400s) developed in the four-corner region of the southwest (present-day states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico). Like the two other southwestern cultures, the Anasazi grew corn, beans, and squash. They also developed large settlements. For example, archaeologists estimate that Chaco Canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, had a population as high as 15,000. Chaco Canyon contained several large towns with as many as two hundred outlying villages. Each town had apartments, storage rooms for food, trade, and ceremonial goods, and circular religious structures known as kivas (Figure 1.12).

Figure 1.12: The remains of a kiva at Chaco Canyon [6]​

Chaco Canyon probably served as a trade center, as illustrated by the 400 miles of roads that connected Chaco Canyon with its outlying villages and beyond. Some of the roads were up to 40 feet wide with low stone walls on either side, while others were simply cleared vegetation. Archaeologists have argued that the roads allowed trade goods, and especially turquoise from Mesoamerica, Colorado, Nevada, and California, to move to and from Chaco Canyon. Archaeologists have also found pipestone from Minnesota and the Great Lakes region.

1.18 - Level 1

"Kivas" were used by natives in the southwest as ________.


Ceremonial/religious structures


Food storage


Living quarters


Ball game courts

The Anasazi also constructed the famous “cliff dwellings” of Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado (Figure 1.13). In addition to their master work as architects, the Anasazi created baskets and pottery, made sophisticated astronomical observations, and used calendars. Like other peoples in the southwest, the large Anasazi settlements dispersed beginning in the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, perhaps due to drought and other natural disasters. Scholars also have argued that religious upheaval, political conflict, or warfare may have contributed to the dispersal of Anasazi settlements.

Figure 1.13: Mesa Verde cliff dwellings. Photographed by Gustaf Nordenskiöld, 1891.​ [7]

1.19 - Level 1

What did the video teach you about the initial archaeological exploration of the Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colorado?


The Cliff Dwellings were found by scientists looking for discoveries in the area


A Swedish man (Gustaf Nordenskiöld) was arrested for stealing artifacts from Mesa Verde and attempting to ship them back to Europe


At the time of the discovery of the cliff dwellings¸ no laws were currently in place to protect the objects so Gustaf Nordenskiöld was allowed to ship the items to Europe

The Hohokam culture (c. AD 400 to 1500) flourished in present-day central and southern Arizona, reaching as far south as the Mexican border. Hohokam peoples grew corn, beans, squash, and even cotton. They built a sophisticated irrigation system that consisted of hundreds of miles of canals, some of them up to ten feet deep and fifty feet wide. They also dug wells and built ponds and dams for rainwater. Interestingly, in the 1920-30s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs constructed irrigation systems in the southwest; it turned out that the ancient systems were far superior to the newly constructed federal irrigation projects. Some of the original canals created by the Hohokam peoples have been refurbished and are currently in use in the Phoenix area. Overall, southwestern peoples irrigated more land than is cultivated today in the same region.

Because of their sophisticated irrigation systems, the Hohokam peoples produced enough food to create large permanent settlements. These settlements consisted of rectangular, single-dwelling homes, generally organized in a circle around a central plaza. They also constructed ball courts, where they played a game with a rubber ball and hoops that likely originated in Mesoamerica. The Hohokam were also involved in long-distance trade, which brought macaw and parrots as well as shells and turquoise, to the region. Drought may have led to the Hohokam’s decline around the twelfth to fifteenth centuries.

After dispersing, none of the southwestern peoples disappeared. Instead, they resettled in smaller villages. For example, the Anasazi resettled into Pueblo communities that still exist today. Many believe that the Hohokam are the ancestors of the present day Tohono O’odham peoples. While the other cultures dispersed, Athapaskan speaking Apaches and Navajos (Diné) migrated to the northern region (although the Navajo’s origin story describes their emergence from under the earth) and settled in or near some of the recently abandoned villages. As such, the southwest region illustrates the dynamic nature of native societies prior to contact with Europeans.

1.20 - Level 1

Put the following Southwest cultures in chronological order, from earliest to latest.


Hohokam culture


Anasazi culture


Mogollon culture

Great Plains

Native men on the plains hunted buffalo well as other game, such as deer and mountain sheep. They initially hunted using spears, and later bows and arrows; they also herded buffalo over cliffs. Contrary to popular belief, they did not rely on horses in their hunts, as the animal was not indigenous to the Americas. Horses were brought over by Europeans beginning in the late 1400s. Women gathered plants and seeds to supplement the meat. Plains hunters lived in small family-based groups that moved frequently in search of game. Over time, farming (corn, beans, and squash) also developed in the central and eastern plains. Those tribes who adopted agriculture lived in larger settlements of earthen homes. Some of these settlements grew very large, occasionally numbering up to a few thousand people.

For thousands of years, many different peoples moved in and out of the Great Plains. For example, Athapaskan-speaking peoples moved south from Canada into the northwestern plains (especially the Black Hills of present-day South Dakota). People also moved east from the woodlands onto the plains, settling in major river valleys and bringing corn planting with them.

Despite the many different tribes, intertribal warfare was relatively rare in early periods. However, by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, conflict became common, perhaps due to the same drought that led to the dispersal of the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi peoples in the southwest. Archaeologists have found evidence of violence and warfare, especially along the Missouri River in the Dakotas. In 1978, archaeologists excavated a mass burial site at Crow Creek in present-day central South Dakota. Scientists found 486 bodies dated to 1325. Many of these individuals had been scalped, decapitated, and dismembered. The bones also showed evidence of severe malnutrition; scientists postulate that this stemmed from competition for food due to overpopulation and drought.

1.21 - Level 2

Which of the following are true about pre-contact plains tribes?


They hunted buffalo on horses.


There is no archaeological evidence that tribes fought each other; Indians always lived in peace until Europeans arrived.


Some tribes farmed on the central and eastern plains.


Plains men gathered plants and women hunted.

Question 1.22

1.22 - Level 3

What evidence suggests that warfare broke out among Great Plains tribes in the 13th and 14th centuries?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.22.

Eastern Woodlands

The Eastern woodlands section of the present-day United States is a very diverse region In the northeastern woodlands (lower Great Lakes region), people hunted, gathered, fished, and farmed depending on their specific environment. Some tribes—although not all—formed strong alliances in this region. For example, the ancestors of present-day Hurons and Iroquois moved from scattered settlements to fortified villages over the course of several centuries in response to warfare. Threats from other tribes also led to political consolidation. Somewhere between the twelfth to fifteenth centuries (depending on the source), the five Iroquois nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) formed into a confederation that lasts even today (with the addition of the Tuscarora in the eighteenth century). The Iroquois Confederation also has a constitution, which some historians argue served as a model for the much later United States Constitution. Likewise, in the Chesapeake region, tribes formed confederations under powerful leaders known as weroances whose position often was inherited matrilineally, or through the mother’s line. Multiple generations lived together in longhouses (Figure 1.14).

Figure 1.14: Iroquois longhouse [8]

1.23 - Level 1

Which of the following tribes is not a part of the Iroquois Confederation?













1.24 - Level 1

The "weroances" are ________ in Chesapeake tribal societies.




Tribal leaders


A type of crop grown in the Chesapeake region


The name of native homes in the Chesapeake region


Prisoners of war

Further south and west in this region, hunter-gatherer peoples established large, complex communities throughout the lower Mississippi River Valley, known as Poverty Point communities (2200 BC to 700 BC). People living in these communities constructed large earth mounds and embankments. One of the best-known examples of Poverty Point culture is located in northeastern Louisiana on the Mississippi River (Figure 1.15). This site, also called Poverty Point, features five mounds, six concentric semi-circular earthen ridges, and a central plaza. Although the society was pre-agricultural, Poverty Point served as the center of a trade network that connected settlements across a wide geographic region. Today, Poverty Point is a World Heritage site, a special designation indicating its universal value to world culture and history. Other sites include East Africa’s Serengeti, the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and the Baroque cathedrals of Latin America, among many others.

Figure 1.15: An aerial view of Poverty Point [9]

The Adena culture (c. 1000 BC to AD 100) also constructed large mounds and earthworks in southern Ohio (about 300 sites) and neighboring regions in Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania (about 200 sites). The Adena lived in small villages and hunted, fished, gathered, and planted small gardens. They built mounds to bury their dead, as well as small, circular earthen enclosures that surrounded an open space, perhaps used for religious ceremonies. Archaeologists speculate that Adena societies were probably egalitarian, because goods found in grave sites do not illustrate social distinctions.

The Hopewell culture (c. 200 BC to AD 400) arose across the Midwest from the Ohio Valley to the Illinois River Valley. Hopewell peoples supported themselves by hunting, fishing, gathering, and planting some indigenous seeds such as sunflower, squash, and may grass. However, agricultural products did not become a primary food source until later. In addition to their subsistence patterns, archaeologists define Hopewell communities by their extensive trade network. Trade routes connected communities across long distances, as evidenced by materials from many different regions found at Hopewell sites, including copper from the upper Great Lakes, mica from the Carolinas, shells from the Gulf of Mexico, and obsidian from Yellow Stone Park, Wyoming, over 1,500 miles away. Archaeologists also have found shark and alligator teeth. Craftspeople constructed intricate objects from these materials and often buried them with elite members of society (Figure 1.16).

Figure 1.16: Hopewell pot with bird design [10]​

Like the Adena, the Hopewell built mounds for ceremonies and burials. The mounds varied in shape and size, but could be quite large, with walls up to 12 feet high and geometric figures more than 1,000 feet across. Some conical mounds were up to 30 feet high. The most elaborate Hopewell earthworks are located in southern Ohio (especially in present-day Chillicothe) and Indiana.

Finally, another mound-building culture, known as the Mississippians (c. 1000 AD-1300 AD) emerged in the Mississippi Valley and the southeastern region. The Mississippians had many of the same adaptations as the Adena and Hopewell cultures, but built larger and more elaborate settlements and mounds. They also relied on agriculture as their main form of sustenance, cultivating maize as their principle crop in addition to beans, squash and pumpkins. The Mississippians built large towns, which were surrounded by smaller outlying villages that produced additional food for the large centers. The large towns contained a central ceremonial plaza, temples, other buildings, and earthen mounds. Mississippians had a stratified social structure, placing chiefs from elite families at the top and commoners below. The communities also participated in a wide-ranging system of trade that brought shells, salt, quartz, copper, and mica to the region from far-off areas.

The best example of a large Mississippian settlement was Cahokia, located across from present-day St. Louis. At its height, Cahokia had a population of around 20,000, which rivaled the population of London at the time. In fact, it was the largest city north of the Rio Grande until surpassed by New York City in 1775. In addition to its size, Cahokia was an elaborate city, with large public plazas, temples, residences for elite families, and over 120 mounds. The logistics of constructing these mounds was staggering. Monk’s Mound, for example, covered sixteen acres, and was the largest pre-Columbian earthwork in North America; its base is larger than the Great Pyramid at Giza and it was over 100 feet high. Archaeologists estimate that it took around 400,000 days to complete, with workers moving 21,700,000 cubic feet of earth in woven baskets to the site (Figure 1.17 and 1.18). Portions of Cahokia were also surrounded by two miles of fortified walls with intermittent guard towers. They constructed five “woodhenges” out of cedar that they used to make astronomical calculations; they also served as a calendar.

Figure 1.17: 1891 drawing of Monk's Mound by William McAdams [11]

Figure 1.18: Monk's Mound in the present day [12]​

Archaeologists have excavated numerous mounds of Cahokia. One of the most interesting finds occurred in a site known as “Mound 72.” Archaeologists found over 270 skeletons in Mound 72, including what they assume was a man of great importance within the Cahokia community. The man was buried on top of a platform and surrounded by approximately 20,000 marine shells arranged in the shape of a falcon. Next to this skeleton, archaeologists found a number of other skeletons, including those of 53 young women, who some scientists argued were sacrificed. They also excavated numerous grave goods, including several hundred arrowheads and copper artifacts. These findings show that trade goods were brought to Cahokia from as far away as Oklahoma, Tennessee, southern Illinois, and Wisconsin.

Cahokia reached its peak during the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. By end of the 14th century, the population had dispersed into small farming villages. Many different theories have been offered to explain Cahokia’s decline, including drought, political instability, and most recently, a major flooding of the Mississippi River. Others argue that diseases may have led to the decline of Mississippian cultures like Cahokia, as large concentrated populations led to deteriorating sanitation and health conditions.

Several centuries later, European explorers traveling down the Mississippi River were awed by the mounds. Because the area was currently inhabited by Native Americans living in small farming villages, and because the explorers viewed Indians as primitive and incapable of such vast construction, they believed that other peoples, including early Spanish settlers, Vikings, migrating Hindus from India, and even survivors of the lost city of Atlantis had constructed the mounds. In the late nineteenth century, scientists speculated that Mayan and Aztec civilizations had built the mounds, again arguing the ancestors of present-day Native Americans could not have performed such amazing construction. It was not until the turn of the twentieth-century that archaeologists accepted that Native Americans had constructed the mounds.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, treasure hunters and farmers destroyed many of the earthworks and mounds across the Midwest. As farmers plowed the mounds, they uprooted human remains and burial goods. This led to looting, and many of the artifacts were sold to private collectors. Over the years, weather and erosion also have imperiled the mounds. Several of the mounds, however, are protected and open as tourist sites, including Poverty Point (Louisiana), Hopewell sites at Chillicothe (Ohio), and Cahokia (Illinois).

Spotlight on Primary Sources

Many European observers stereotyped pre-contact Native peoples as primitive and unsophisticated, and thus unable to create complex economies, structures, cultures, or religions. The Cahokia settlement in present-day Illinois challenges these preconceptions. Explore the images of the artist reconstructions of Cahokia. What do these images teach you about Cahokia society? 

Explore images of Cahokia Mounds on the timeline.

Question 1.25

1.25 - Level 5

What did you learn about Cahokia buildings, crafts, and trade from the images? Europeans and then white Americans often stereotyped Native Americans as “primitive” and “uncivilized.” How do the images found here challenge these stereotypes?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.25.


The Southeastern area is difficult to define culturally and geographically. For example, some scholars discuss part of this region in conjunction with the Mississippian culture. However, several distinctions set the region apart. In present-day Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, for example, native people followed many of the same cultural and economic adaptations as their Mississippian counterparts. They farmed, established concentrated settlements, and constructed mounds. Their populations, however, tended to be smaller than that of Cahokia. Also, while Cahokia and other northern Mississippian societies dispersed, some of their counterparts in the southeast continued to exist as settlements into the post-contact period. The Natchez of Mississippi practiced portions of the Mississippian culture until the eighteenth century.

Other southeastern peoples organized their societies into extensive chiefdoms. In present-day Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, native peoples constructed villages surrounded by log stockades and enclosures. The women farmed, gathered, and produced pottery while the men hunted. They divided social groups according to status and rank, although they may have been more egalitarian than Mississippian settlements.

The Apalachee and Timucua tribes of Florida lived in permanent settlements and planted and harvested two crops per year. Other tribes in Florida, however, did not plant crops, instead relying mainly on hunting, fishing, and gathering for their sustenance because of the bounty of the region (Figure 1.19). Florida natives lived in villages under the control of chiefs and religious leaders. Commerce with Indians outside Florida brought copper, iron ore, and maize seeds in exchange for Florida freshwater pearls and shells. As such, natives in Florida participated in the wide-ranging system of trade that linked them with peoples to the north and west as well as into the plains and beyond.

Figure 1.19: Timucuans from northeast Florida obtained much of their food from the water.​ [13]


On the Aleutian Islands, off the tip of Alaska, Aleuts followed a seasonal rotation. In the summers, they lived in small coastal encampments with access to the sea, hunting marine mammals and fishing for salmon. The women also gathered wild plants such as berries. During winter, they moved further inland, where they hunted caribou and other small mammals. In their winter villages, they lived in semi-subterranean homes called barabaras (Aleut: ulax̂) (Figure 1.20). Barabaras were very roomy, containing multiple rooms for up to fifteen people from extended families. People entered the homes through a hole in the roof and climbed down into the interior of the structure using a ladder. These settlements could be quite large (up to 1,000 people), with dozens of households forming a village. Aleut society had a ranked system of hereditary classes consisting of nobles and commoners; leaders came from the noble class.

Figure 1.20: A barabara (Aleut: ulax̂), the traditional Aleut winter house, 1928. [14]​

In Alaska and across Canada, Inuit peoples close to the ocean hunted sea mammals such as seals, walruses, and whales using ivory harpoon heads and large skin boats known as umiak; they also used single-person kayaks (Figure 1.21). Inland, they hunted caribou, musk oxen, and other arctic mammals using sleds pulled by domesticated dogs. In the tenth century through the fourteenth centuries, some Inuit peoples traded with Norse explorers and colonists who had settled in southwestern Greenland. Inuit peoples acquired metal goods from the Europeans in exchange for ivory or animal hides. Disputes often arose between the Inuits and Norse settlers over trade and land.

Figure 1.21: An umiak​ [15]

Native Americans Encounter Europeans

For thousands of years, native peoples created civilizations, extensive trade networks, and sophisticated economic, architectural, and cultural adaptations. Large population centers like Chaco Canyon and Cahokia had risen and dispersed; other culture areas, communities, and villages across what would become the United States had also changed and evolved over long periods of time. Native peoples had met and incorporated new peoples into their societies through migration, trade, diplomacy, and intermarriage. Thus, the first Europeans who arrived in the Americas encountered a diverse, dynamic, and adaptive population of native peoples.

This vast pre-contact history is often ignored, however, instead starting American history in 1492 with the arrival of Columbus. While one-sided, and ignoring thousands of years of history, this makes sense from a European culture that privileges written records. Europeans left copious writings discussing the native peoples they encountered and their explorations of the “new world,” while Native Americans recorded their history through oral traditions. For centuries, Europeans and subsequent historians dismissed native oral traditions in favor of written records. This has led scholars to ignore native histories and perspectives and repeat European stereotypes and misinformation about native peoples. The “pristine myth” that described the Americas as a pristine, untouched wilderness devoid of substantial human population has been especially long-lived.

When looking at the encounter from a Native American point of view, scholars need to change their geographic focus. From a European colonial perspective, the encounter with native peoples moved from east to west (British), from south to north (Spanish), and from north to south (French). The native perspective, however, faces in the opposite direction. Historian Daniel Richter’s book Facing East from Indian Country, which examines Native American interaction with the colonial British, argues that scholars need to change their orientation and “look east” to understand the native perspective. He also challenges historians to not limit themselves to the European “discovery” of America, but to see early colonial history as an era when which Native peoples also discovered Europeans and both groups struggled to make sense of a new world.

The creation of this “new world,” of course, happened to different tribes at different times. Native peoples living in the Caribbean islands had the first extensive contact with Europeans; exploration and settlement then moved to Mexico and South America. With regard to the current United States, the first sustained contact occurred with tribes near Mexico, ocean coasts, or major waterways such as the St. Lawrence or Mississippi Rivers. For several centuries, natives living in more distant interior regions avoided extensive interaction with Europeans. Even in these interior areas, however, natives likely had knowledge of, and indirect dealings with, Europeans long before sustained contact. This knowledge likely influenced how they reacted to Europeans once they actually arrived. Moreover, diseases such as smallpox moved faster than the Europeans themselves, which introduced Native Americans to European pathogens before they actually encountered European explorers or settlers.

1.26 - Level 1

During the post-contact period, Native Americans encountered Europeans at different times depending on the proximity of both to oceans and interior waterways.





Question 1.27

1.27 - Level 5

What benefits do you think students of history might gain from viewing North American history from the natives’ perspective?

Click here to see the answer to Question 1.27.


In his book Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial America, ethnohistorian James Axtell recounted the oral history of the first encounter between the Montagnais and the French. In 1633, a young Montagnais recalled his grandmother telling him about the arrival of a French ship. His grandmother and the rest of the villagers were awed by this “moving island,” but prepared wigwams for the strangers according to their custom. Once the French disembarked from the ship, the sailors gave the villagers biscuits and wine, based on their own rules of hospitality when encountering strangers. The Montagnais, however, were appalled that the French “drank blood and ate wood” and threw the tasteless biscuits into the river (35).

The oral history of the initial meeting of the French and Montagnais provides insight into the first encounter between Europeans and Native Americans in general. First, both groups approached the encounter based on their own cultural, religious, and historical frameworks. Second, both had met and interacted with “strangers” throughout their history, and this influenced how they viewed and treated each other. In this story, both sides obviously valued treating new people with hospitality and gifts. Third, despite initial examples of hospitality, later interactions between Europeans and native peoples frequently degenerated into misunderstandings, attempts to achieve dominance over the other, and even violence. The next two chapters examine these problematic and conflicted encounters between Europeans and Native Americans in further detail: Chapter 2 discusses native interaction with the Spanish, French, and Dutch, while Chapter 3 focuses on English colonization of the Americas.

Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Class Discussion 1.01

Class Discussion 1.01 - Level 3

Why do some native groups reject the Bering Strait Theory (and other scientific theories explaining the origin of native peoples)?

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Class Discussion 1.02

Class Discussion 1.02 - Level 5

Discuss the twenty-year long court case over the Kennewick Man skeleton. Should the archaeologists and anthropologists have been allowed to study the skeleton? Why or why not? How was the case finally resolved?

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Class Discussion 1.03

Class Discussion 1.03 - Level 5

Should Monk’s Mound, Poverty Point, Chaco Canyon, and other pre-contact sites be preserved? Why or why not? Should all sites (such as the earthworks across the present-day Midwest and into the south) be preserved? Which site that is currently preserved would you most like to visit? Why?

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Class Discussion 1.04

Class Discussion 1.04 - Level 4

Compare and contrast three of the nine culture areas that were described in this chapter. Did learning about these culture areas overthrow any stereotypes that you personally may have held about pre-contact Native Americans?

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Class Discussion 1.05

Class Discussion 1.05 - Level 5

Discuss native oral traditions. Why did many Europeans (and subsequent scholars) reject them as valid sources? How would you evaluate them as sources?

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Referenced Readings:

Axtell, James. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Callaway, Ewen.  "Ancient voyage carried Native American DNA to remote Pacific Islands," Nature, 8 July 2020.

Denevan, William M. “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82:3 (1992): 369-385.

Ewen, Alex. “Bering Strait Theory, Part 6: DNA, Blood Types, and Stereotypes,” Indian Country Today, 16 July 2014.

Ewen, Alex. “How Linguists Are Pulling Apart the Bering Strait Theory,” Indian Country Today, 19 March 2014.

Harjo, Suzan Shown. “Kennewick Man – The Greatest Show Unearthed.” Indian Country Today 3/22/06.

Jennings, Francis. The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.

Seeds of Change: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy (Smithsonian Institution, 1991)

Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Thornton, Russell. “Native American Demographic and Tribal Survival into the Twenty-First Century.” American Studies 46:3/4 (Fall-Winter 2005): 23-38.

Yong, Ed.  "Ancient Infant's DNA Reveals New Clues to How the Americas were Peopled." The Atlantic, 1/2/18.

Suggested Additional Material 

Calloway, Colin. First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012.

Edmunds, R. David, Frederick E. Hoxie, and Neal Salisbury. The People: A History of Native America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.

Fagan, Brian M. Ancient North America. Thames and Hudson, 2005.

Hurtado, Albert, Peter Iverson, William J. Bauer Jr., and Stephen Kent Amerman, eds. Major Problems in American Indian History: Documents and Essays. Centrage Learning, 2015.

Mihesuah, Devon A., ed. Natives and Academics: Researching and Writing about American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998.

National Museum of the American Indian. Do All Indians Live in Tipis? Questions and Answers from the National Museum of the American Indian. New York: Collins: 2007. 

Answers to In-Chapter Discussion Questions

Answer to Question 1.04

The Navajo believe that they started out underground and moved up through five worlds until they arrived in their current home, the present-day American southwest. There is no mention of crossing the Bering Strait to reach the southwest.

Europeans (and subsequent historians) often denigrated oral histories as invalid sources because they were not written down. Over time, some scientists also have criticized the Navajo origin story as “superstition” because it does not state that the Navajo came across the Bering Strait.  

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Answer to Question 1.07

First, historians and anthropologists no longer see Native Americans as primitive and incapable of creating large societies.

Second, scholars now know about the devastating results of European-imported diseases on native populations.

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Answer to Question 1.13

  •  Culture areas were not rigidly defined; people moved in and out of each area especially on the borders.
  •  There was diversity within each discrete region depending on the climate/soil/terrain.
  •  Culture areas were not static or fixed in time; each region changed and evolved over long periods of time.
  •  Historians confront stereotypes that portray native peoples as unsophisticated; however, the peoples in each culture area were diverse, sophisticated, and interlinked by trade.
  •  Unequal information is available about the culture regions.

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Answer to Question 1.14

To protect their acorn trees; to foster a larger deer population; and to increase the growth of edible plants.

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Answer to Question 1.15

The year-round availability of food and a very diverse economy.

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Answer to Question 1.17

They followed a seasonal round that focused on hunting and gathering over long distances.

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Answer to Question 1.22

Possibly due to overpopulation and drought.

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Answer to Question 1.25

  •  The images illustrate complex buildings, mounds, and a wall around Cahokia. All of these took tremendous ingenuity, knowledge, and time to construct
  •  The images also illustrate extensive trade and the production of complex pottery and crafts
  •  They established a complicated, hierarchical political system with chiefs at the top
  •  They constructed a “woodhenge” which they used as a calendar and to follow the seasons
  •  All of the images described above illustrate that the Cahokians were anything but “primitive” and “uncivilized.” They had a complicated political, economic, and social system and produced complex structures and mounds.

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Answer to Question 1.27

Students may offer multiple responses to this question. Answers could include: challenging the “pristine myth” and other stereotypes associated with both pre- and post-contact native peoples.

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Answers to Pre-Class Discussion Questions

Answer to Class Discussion 1.01

Many native peoples refute that they came across the Bering Strait, or that their ancestors were from Asia, Europe, or Australia. Instead they argue that they have always been in the Americas. They rely on creation stories and oral traditions to explain how and where their people came to reside. Each tribe has its own origin story that places their origin in their homeland, and not in some distant land.

Many native activists do not like the fact that archaeologists and other scientists frequently dismiss native oral traditions in favor of the Bering Strait Theory and other scientific explanations of their origin and history. This is a very important topic because activists link the dismissal of their oral traditions with other issues, including land loss and cultural imperialism. They also argue that they (and their ancestors) have been treated as scientific specimens.

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Answer to Class Discussion 1.02

A coalition of five tribes sued to halt scientists from studying the skeleton of the “Kennewick Man.” In August 2002, the court initially ruled in favor of the scientists, stating that the bones were not related to any living tribe; thus, NAGPRA (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) did not apply. After the court’s decision studies continued on the skeleton, especially dedicated to determining the Kennewick man’s origin.  In 2015, DNA evidence indicated that the skeleton was related to present-day Native Americans in the region.  In 2016 an unrelated law included an order to repatriate the Ancient One; reburial occurred in 2017.

Scientists argued that the skeleton was an extremely important scientific find and should be studied to help determine the origin of native peoples in the Americas. Native activists did not want studies for various reasons; for example, the skeleton should not be used to undermine native origin stories or potentially to deny present-day land claims.  

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Answer to Class Discussion 1.03

All of these sites are from the pre-contact period and have been extensively studied by archaeologists. Monk’s Mound is located at the Cahokia site in present-day Illinois; Poverty Point in Louisiana; and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Archaeologists have learned much about pre-contact culture and economies from these sites. Answers should reference some of these important findings and if these findings (and future findings) are important enough to preserve these sites for now, and in the future.

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Answer to Class Discussion 1.04

The nine culture areas include: the Subarctic; Northwest Coast; California; Columbia Plateau; Great Basin; Southwest; Great Plains; Eastern Woodlands; and Southeast. Students should have referenced three of these areas on their response.

Responses will vary, but could mention the sophisticated economies and widespread trade within the between regions. They also might mention that mounds that were constructed in the present-day Midwest or the roads that radiated out from Chaco Canyon in the Southeast.

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Answer to Class Discussion 1.05

All Native American tribes tell stories that explain their origin, history, deeply held values, and core beliefs. These stories are passed orally from elders to children. The process of learning and then transmitting these stories is a very formal and rigorous process.

Europeans gave preference to written history. They said that oral traditions could not be accurately remembered or passed down accurately despite the vigorous process children underwent to learn their tribes’ oral traditions.

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Image Citations

[1] Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 163 in the Public Domain.

[2] Image courtesy of Bill Whittaker under CC BY-SA 3.0.

[3] Image courtesy of Howcheng under CC BY-SA 3.0.

[4] Image courtesy of Leonard Kaplan under CC BY-SA 3.0.

[5] Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Edward S. Curtis Collection, [LC-USZ62-101173].

[6] Image courtesy of the National Park Service in the Public Domain.

[7] Image by Gustaf Nordenskiöld in the Public Domain.

[8] Image by Wilbur F. Gordy in the Public Domain.

[9] Image by Junius B. Bird courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History in the Public Domain.

[10] Image courtesy of debplatt under CC BY-SA 2.0.

[11] Image courtesy of  William McAdams in the Public Domain.

[12] Image courtesy of Emily Dickinson under CC BY 2.0.

[13] Image courtesy of Jacques Le Moyne in the Public Domain.

[14] Image courtesy of the National Park Service in the Public Domain

[15] Image courtesy of Gchacon under CC BY-SA 3.0.