Imagine picking up a friend from the Springfield airport who is preparing to move to the region. As you start driving away, you notice your friend has their nosed pressed against the passenger window like a kid looking into a candy store. You don’t think too much of it; after all, this is a beautiful part of the country! But after another fifteen minutes of gasping, “ooh”ing, and “ah”ing, you finally ask your friend what’s going on.
“Look at this untouched country!” your friend exclaims. “We’re the first humans to ever live here!”
Hey, maybe you picked your friend up at some weird hour. Maybe they really had just gone fifteen minutes without seeing another human being. But there would be other evidence, right? Where did he think these streets, buildings, and landscaping came from?
I doubt that any of us are quite as silly as your hypothetical friend. We all know that North and South America were inhabited when Europeans arrived. But, like the hypothetical friend, we don’t often take seriously what previous occupation means for how subsequent events unfolded. If we’re not careful, we can think of the ancestors of today’s Native Americans as simply waiting around for “real” history to begin and “real” progress to arrive from overseas.
Yet the chapter of American history that most of us might be more familiar with – European exploration, conquest, and settlement – makes no sense unless we take seriously that the Americas were already occupied territories.
Europeans explorers encountered populations that had successfully adopted to their specific geographic regions—forming everything from nomadic communities to cities larger than some European capitals at the time. European conquerors relied on Native American guides, warriors, and resources – not always voluntarily provided, mind you – to claim control of the continent. European settlers lived off of “wild” plants carefully cultivated for generations. They planted in forest clearings made by Native Americans—often adopting native crops and agricultural techniques. They learned to hunt and trap from those who already knew local hunting grounds well. In some cases – such as the Pilgrims and the Jamestown colony – European settlers would literally not have survived without the aid provided by nearby Native American settlements. Some scholars even suggest that the Founding Fathers developed some of the ideas enshrined in the Constitution by looking west to the example of the Iroquois Confederacy (we’ll meet them again later!).
But I’m getting way ahead in the story! I just wanted to take a little extra time to explain why we are starting our story where we are, with the first shapers of the continent.
Two questions often come to mind when people talk about the peopling of the Americas. Where did the first peoples come from? And, how many were there at the time of contact?
It turns out neither question is particularly easy to answer.
Scientists used to be fairly certain that the ancestors of Native Americans arrived in North American 10,000-12,000 years ago across a land bridge that appeared between what is now Alaska and Siberia during the last Ice Age. They then slowly made their way south over thousands of years. Most likely, this is what you were taught in high school. However, this theory continues to be challenged by recent findings in the past few decades that suggest not only that people have lived in North and South America much longer than we supposed, but also that people may have already lived in this part of the globe well before the hypothesized migration across the land bridge. By the time I’m done with my teaching career, who knows what the textbooks might say?
It’s also worth noting that the traditional stories of many Native American peoples today suggest that their ancestors have always lived in this part of the globe. Scientists, anthropologists, historians, and other scholars have learned the hard way not to simply dismiss these stories as myths with no basis in reality.
Population estimates at the time of contact also vary wildly, as you might imagine. It’s not like we can time travel and count heads; we have to make estimates based on a number of factors. While this is not my area of expertise, I’m personally most comfortable with numbers that suggest roughly 54 million people lived in North and South America at the time of contact with Europeans, with roughly 8-9 million people living in what we today call the United States and Canada. Some estimates put hemispheric population at 112 million, with population above the Rio Grande as high as 18 million.
None of those numbers may sound particularly big to you, especially when there are over 300 million people living in the United States today. But remember, the world’s population used to be much smaller. Whatever numbers you choose, probably over a fifth of the world’s population lived in the Western Hemisphere at the time of contact with Europeans. Despite all of these numbers being estimates, there is one very important takeaway as we start working through US history: we have to start thinking in terms of a much smaller world for any future population numbers to make sense to us. We live in a world of over 7 billion people, and jumped to that number over a very brief period of time! Most population experts don’t put the world population at even 1 billion until the early to mid-1800s.
Why all this talk about numbers? Because how we think about early North American history – consciously or unconsciously – is heavily influenced by our conception of how many people lived here at the time of contact. Right or wrong, total numbers can affect how seriously we take the idea that Native Americans developed their own thriving civilizations, communities, and cultures prior to contact. It can also affect how we interpret the eventual conquest of the continent by Europeans and later Americans. To put it bluntly, being able to think in terms of a low body count can keep us from facing honestly the devastating impact that contact and conquest had on native communities and populations.
So we know that the ancestors of today’s Native American communities had a long history here, and that there was a thriving population of human beings in North and South America for a long time prior to contact. As I alluded to earlier, these large populations also had a significant impact in shaping areas of the continent for their own use.
Next blog entry we’ll take a whirlwind tour of the continent on the eve of contact, looking at many examples of how Native American communities learned to make sense of their lands and themselves before the arrival of strangers from across the ocean did much to shatter both European and Native American understandings of the world.