After completing this chapter, you should be able to:
- Explain the various interpretations, scientific and religious, of the origins of indigenous peoples in the New World.
- Describe the political, cultural, and social differences between the major eras of the prehistoric United States.
- Describe the political, cultural, and social differences between the groups of the major regions of the prehistoric United States.
The history of the country that will eventually come to be called the United States begins long before the birth of the nation. Native Americans first inhabited the North American continent some 14,000 years ago, if not earlier. This earliest era is known as the Paleo-Indian era; it is closely identified with one of the most famous archaeological artifacts in the Americas, the Clovis point, which was used to hunt megafauna, the giant animals of the Pleistocene era, such as mammoth or mastodon. The eras following, the Archaic and Woodland, were marked by the development of plant domestication and incipient agriculture, one of the most important developments in human history. Two of the earliest centers for plant domestication were in Mesoamerica and the modern-day Southeastern United States. Finally, the period just before European contact is characterized by the development of many rich and diverse cultures. In the region that was to become the United States, there were some 500 groups, each with its own language, culture, and religion.
- 1.1: Origins
- When Columbus first encountered the Western hemisphere in 1492, it was inhabited by millions of people. Establishing a firm estimate of the population is troublesome; often such estimates are tinged with the ideological viewpoints of the authors, their cultures of origin, and the eras in which they wrote.
- 1.2: The Paleo-Indian Era Through the Agricultural Revolution
- This earliest period, from the time that humans entered the Americas until about 8,000 BCE, is known as the Paleo-Indian period. During this time, humans spread throughout the Western hemisphere, supporting themselves with similar subsistence patterns and technologies. PaleoIndians, including the Clovis culture, were nomadic hunter/gatherers. They moved as frequently as once or twice a week, hunting the big game of the Paleolithic: the megafauna.
- 1.3: The Pre-Contact Era (1000-1492 CE)
- During the Pre-contact Era (1000-1492 CE), more than 500 identifiable groups emerged in North America. Although tremendously diverse, the groups within each region of the continent shared many commonalities. Similarities included subsistence strategies, kinship relations, political structure, and material culture.
Thumbnail: Ancient shell gorget from Fains Island, Tennessee, depicting a spider. Author: Gates P. Thruston Source: The Antiquities of Tennessee