The Story of the Land of Your Sojourn, Part V: A Whirlwind Tour of the Continent on the Eve of Contact
Last week we discussed how the ancestors of today’s Native Americans had to make drastic adjustments in light of the disappearance of megafauna. As these communities adapted to local environments, they produced a remarkable array of new ways of life. This doesn’t mean that these new local communities developed in isolation from reach other. We have evidence of continent wide trade networks crisscrossing North America during this time period. Nonetheless, the ancestors of today’s Native Americans showed remarkable ingenuity and creativity in adapting to new localized existences. Today, let’s take a whirlwind tour of the continent, so that you can get an idea of how the peoples of North America lived on the eve of contact with Europeans.
In the Pacific Northwest, Native American cultures mostly developed around the hunting of salmon and other marine life. Because of the overabundance of local food sources, intensive agriculture was not part of the life of these communities—though they certainly gathered local plants for their own purposes. Instead, they focused their efforts on “farming” the sea, developing cultures centered on rituals and ceremonies related to fishing and seafaring. Communities in the Pacific Northwest could grow as large as 2000+ members, leading to significant population density throughout the region.
In the Great Plains and Great Basin regions, communities tended to be nomadic or semi-nomadic. Vast buffalo herds provided a reliable food source. Meanwhile, unpredictable rainfall and periodic drought in the region make agriculture less reliable. Semi-sedentary farming communities did develop around the edges of these regions where rainfall was more predictable. These semi-sedentary communities helped connect the region to continental trade networks. The Great Plains, in particular, saw a great deal of newcomers in the few centuries prior to contact. The region was an obvious corridor of travel for groups like the Athabaskans (ancestors of the Dine (Navajo) and Apache) who would eventually end up in the Southwest, and its abundance of animal life also made it an attractive new home for many groups, such as ancestors of the Comanche and the Sioux. Of course, the reintroduction of the horse to the Great Plains and Great Basin regions not long after initial contact with the Spanish would bring revolutionary changes to how communities in this region lived.
Despite its arid environment, the Southwest saw the rise of multiple agricultural-based societies. The need to coordinate the immense amount of labor necessary to make the desert bloom led to some of the most complex and concentrated societies in pre-contact North America. Locations created by these communities still inspire today, such as Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, or Snaketown. Some of these locations, such as Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon provided ceremonial (and perhaps political?) oversight to communities hundreds of miles away.
Dependence upon agriculture that was the great strength of these Southwest societies also proved to be a great weakness. Over the centuries, each of these great sites came to be abandoned, probably as a result of severe drought and climate change. Chaco Canyon, the latest of these incredible sites was probably completely abandoned by during the late thirteenth/early fourteenth centuries. By the time Europeans entered the Southwest, the descendants of these societies lived scattered in small communities throughout what is now New Mexico and Arizona.
New crops (in particular, the Three Sisters discussed in the last entry) and new trade items help lead to the rise of large chiefdoms in what we call the Eastern Woodlands (roughly everything east of the Mississippi River). Chiefs maintained their power through food tributes required of smaller nearby communities, but also by controlling access to exotic prestige goods available through the new trade networks. Eventually these early chiefdoms led to three waves of mound building cultures that would dominate the Eastern Woodlands. On these mounds were temples, the house of important individuals, and other important public buildings. Mounds could also serve astronomical and religious purposes. Still other mounds are complete mysteries to us. Between probably 2500BC and 1700AD, when the last mound building culture ceased building them, tens of thousands of mounds were constructed in the Eastern United States.
Between 800AD and 1500AD, the last of the three major mound building cultures arose in the Southeast United States, which we refer to as the Mississippian tradition. Cahokia, the most famous of these communities probably peaks around 1100AD. For various reasons, the Mississippian culture was on the decline by the time contact took place. Eventually, it would give way to tribes like the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muskogee, and others that would continue to play a significant role determining the fate of the region for centuries. Meanwhile, mound building ended much earlier in the Northeast, probably around 550AD. Rather than mound-building chiefdoms, powerful regional confederacies came to dominate much (though not all) of the region. Two such confederacies – the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) and the Powhatan Confederacy – would do much to shape America’s early colonial and national history.
Wow! Did I give you whiplash speeding around the continent like that? Hopefully you at least got a small insight into the myriad ways in which Native Americans adapted to life on the continent prior to contact. Native Americans would continue to adapt to the new circumstances introduced by contact, just as Europeans would have to adapt to the challenges (and sometimes impossibilities) of trying to recreate European cultures, political and religious institutions, etc, while living an ocean away.
But before we get to contact, we still have some work to do! Next week, we’ll try to understand how Native American communities understood themselves and their world on the eve of contact. Then we’ll move across the Atlantic for a while to look at how events in Europe, Asia, and Africa were preparing peoples of the “Old World” for contact, just as we’ve seen events preparing the peoples of the “New World” these past few weeks.