World History 1 124 - 8.1.1 Populating the Americas

About eighteen thousand years ago, the last glaciation period was entering its peak stage, and sea levels globally were far lower than they are today. It was likely during this period that the first Homo sapiens reached the Americas, crossing the then-existing land bridge between modern Alaska and Russia known as Beringia. Beringia has since been consumed by rising waters and now lies under the Bering Strait. But then it was a low-lying land of sand dunes and spotty vegetation. It is possible that Homo sapiens had lived there for thousands of years before venturing into North America, but solid evidence for that theory has not yet been found.

Regardless of how long humans lived in Beringia or when they crossed, they began spreading farther south into the Americas as the glacial ice retreated. They made their way through a corridor between two melting ice sheets and spread out in waves into what is now the continental United States. Some made their way to the western coast. Others migrated into the northeast and southeast regions. Still others made their way through the center of the continent into modern Mexico, Central America, and South America. By around fifteen thousand years ago at the earliest, human populations had reached as far as the tip of South America and were living throughout the Western Hemisphere (Figure 8.4).

A map of North and South America is shown, with the North Pole at the top. The Pacific Ocean is labeled in the west, the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and the Arctic Ocean in the north. A red arrow indicating “Land route” begins in Asia at the top left and heads south through North America along the western coast. In the middle of North America the line splits off in three directions. One line heads along the western portion of North America stopping along the coast before the middle of the two continents. The second one heads into South America where it splits off in three directions – east, southeast, and south. The third line heads southeast in North America and splits off in three directions – northeast, southeast, and south. A purple arrow indicating “Maritime route” is shown beginning in Asia in the water in the top left corner of the map and heading south along the western coast of North America in the Pacific Ocean and then along the coast of South America.
Figure 8.4 While the precise method of migration is unclear and still debated, it seems certain that by around fifteen thousand years ago, human populations had expanded throughout both North and South America. This map shows land and coastal routes they might have taken. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

Dueling Voices

Who Was Kennewick Man?

When two young men discovered a human skull along the Columbia River near Kennewick, Washington, in 1996, they assumed it was old. After an archaeologist retrieved the rest of the skeleton and analyzed it, however, people were shocked to realize just how old. Carbon dating revealed that the person now called Kennewick Man had lived nine thousand years ago.

The discovery of one of the oldest humans ever found in the Americas was just the beginning of the long and contentious history of Kennewick Man. Analysis of the remains revealed he was likely related to Asian groups that currently live in Japan and Polynesia. This startling finding caused a reevaluation of migration theories about the earliest Americans. It also stirred controversy and legal debate.

On one side were Native Americans who claimed Kennewick Man was one of their ancestors and should therefore be buried according to tribal custom. The Umatilla tribes of the Pacific Northwest insisted, “Our elders have taught us that once a body goes into the ground, it is meant to stay there until the end of time. If this individual is over nine thousand years old, it only substantiates our belief that he is Native American.”

On the other side were scientists. Although they understood the argument made by Native Americans, they maintained the find was so important to efforts to understand the past that they should be able to continue studying it. Anthropologist Elizabeth Weiss wrote in 2001, “Consider having dedicated a large part of one’s life to unearthing the materials that are now being examined. Even casts and other important works—such as videotapes, photos, and excavation records—are in increasing danger of confiscation. Some scientists have expressed fear that their federal grants would be in jeopardy if they objected too openly to current policies. Under such circumstances, most scientists do not even begin ‘high-risk’ projects.”

Despite scientists’ claims, Native Americans stood firm and began a protracted legal battle over the remains. In 2016, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers resolved the issue in their favor with a DNA analysis that confirmed the remains demonstrated a sufficient genetic relationship with them. In 2017, the bones were buried according to tribal custom at an undisclosed location in Washington State.

  • What do you think further analysis of Kennewick Man might have revealed about his origins?
  • Do you support the decision to allow the Native American groups to rebury the remains? Why or why not?

There are aspects of the migration we may never fully understand but can be fairly certain happened. It is very likely, for example, that some populations moved down the west coast via a combination of land travel and coastal skirting by raft or canoe. Solid evidence has not yet been discovered, however, because at that time the coast extended a number of miles west of its current location. As sea levels rose following peak glaciation, the water covered these routes in the same way it covered Beringia. Yet we do have evidence for later coastal travel along similar routes. And these 10,000-year-old sites, discovered on high ground in coastal Alaska and Canada, have convinced many that similar and older evidence may now be beneath the sea.

The Clovis People

As long as thirteen thousand years ago, groups of hunter-gatherers had spread across North America south of the remaining ice sheets. Named after the site in Clovis, New Mexico, where the first evidence of their existence was discovered, the Clovis culture consisted of mobile bands of hunter-gatherers who camped at resource-rich locations in modest-sized populations. Since the earliest discovery in the 1920s, archaeologists have found many other sites traceable to Clovis culture in Texas, Virginia, South Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. Recent DNA analysis conducted on remains discovered in Central and South America suggest that the Clovis culture also extended far to the south.

The most striking artifacts the Clovis people left behind are the many finely worked, fluted stone points they made. They created these so-called Clovis points by chipping and shaping various types of high-quality stone into sharp-sided projectiles, which they attached to shafts that were probably made of wood (Figure 8.5). Once assembled, the tools could serve as spears or other types of thrown hunting tools like darts. These weapons were part of a larger Clovis toolkit that included hand axes and implements made of bone. Items that were small and portable were a necessity for a people regularly on the move.

A picture of an arrow-shaped pointy object. The bumpy object is orange at the top point, turns yellow in the middle and the back to orange at the bottom upside down “U” shape. At the top on either side is a notch with a piece sticking up. The edged are fluted and sharp.
Figure 8.5 Clovis points discovered in North America have a distinctive appearance and were highly effective tools for hunting big game. This point found in modern Utah is between 11,000 and 13,000 years old. (credit: “Clovis point” by “Daderot”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

As they migrated, the Clovis people hunted mammoths, mastodons, giant bison, and many small animals. They likely also fished in coastal waters and in lakes and rivers. The places where they did settle for long periods typically had reliable access to fresh drinking water, animals for hunting and fishing, and rocks for making their signature points. Archaeologists have even discovered burial sites that appear to have been carefully designed and decorated with red ocher, a native earth containing iron oxide, suggesting a spiritual belief that required occasional ritual burial.

The world in which the Clovis people lived held a great variety of large animals like giant sloths, bears, tortoises, lions, wolves, beavers, armadillos, and various types of large bison. Then, about the same time people began migrating and hunting across North America, these giant species all went extinct. Some have argued that overhunting by the Clovis likely caused the extinction. An alternate hypothesis, however, suggests that rapid temperature rise at the end of the last ice age was the primary culprit. Both theories have weaknesses, and the debate continues. However, it seems at least plausible that both human intervention and climate change were factors.

The Clovis culture that spread across North America around thirteen thousand years ago vanished after only a few centuries. Its people settled in a number of different areas and produced new cultures as they responded to the environmental conditions in which they found themselves. These groups were then joined by other waves of migrants spreading across the Americas and settling in different areas. Between 9000 and 2000 BCE, during what is called the Archaic period, a great many different cultural traditions existed across North America and Mexico, Central America, and South America. They adapted to their many geographical settings: the Pacific Northwest, the Great Plains, the Eastern Woodlands, the Southwest, the jungles of southern Mexico and Central America, and the Andes region of South America.

Peopling the Pacific Northwest

The groups that settled along the resource-rich Pacific Northwest developed into complex hunter-gatherer societies keenly adapted to the abundant marine life in the region. They likely migrated into the area by following caribou, which they hunted. Once they settled in the densely forested region, they learned to survive on beaver, elk, seals, birds, sea lions, and salmon and a great many other fish species.

Salmon were an important resource. When they migrated upstream in the fall to spawn, they were so numerous they could be easily captured with traps, crude dams, or spears. They were then eaten immediately or dried to preserve the food for later. Halibut was another important fish species the peoples of the Pacific Northwest made into a staple of their diets.

The landscape also provided a great many resources for tools. From bone, the hunter-gatherer peoples designed harpoons useful for hunting large marine mammals like whales. They polished the rocks from the region into woodworking tools and used them to carve dugout canoes from the available trees. They also perfected a sophisticated woodcarving technique for producing art, created special bone and wood fishhooks, and used certain types of tree bark to create cloth and baskets.

Because of the great abundance of resources along the Pacific Northwest coast, the groups that settled there could accumulate wealth far more easily than many other hunter-gatherer societies. We know they developed complex societies in which wealth and social status were connected. Evidence from the few discovered burial sites dating to around 2000 BCE supports the suggestion that wealth contributed to social differentiation even then. In the burial sites of the very wealthy, for example, archaeologists have found carved tools made of antler and other objects made from shells. As time went on, the graves of the wealthy came to include even more objects indicating their higher social status. There is also evidence of high population density in some areas, made possible by the large supply of food resources and the ability to accumulate and store them.

Peopling the Great Plains

Within the expansive Great Plains region in the center of the North American continent, settlers hunted large bison herds that grazed on the short grasses growing there. Unlike the animals hunted by the Clovis people, the bison were able to adapt to the warming climate conditions and flourished in the plains. The groups that followed and lived off them practiced a seminomadic lifestyle requiring relatively few belongings; thus, their culture had far less social stratification than existed in the Pacific Northwest. Hunting bison was dangerous and required keeping a distance in order to not startle the animals or allow them to grow reflexively fearful of human presence. We know from archaeological sites in central Canada, Texas, Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado that as long ago as 8000 BCE, hunters used a strategy of driving herds of bison over cliffs to their death. Once the animals had been killed or immobilized in this way, sometimes by the hundreds, the hunters could carefully process the carcasses for their meat, bones, and hides. Other strategies included cornering the bison herds in a way that allowed the hunters to approach them with spears.

In addition to bison, the plains peoples also hunted antelope, deer, and small animals like rabbits and birds. Hunting birds sometimes required the use of bird decoys designed with feathers to allow hunters to approach and make the kill. The hides of some animals, especially soft ones like rabbit, could be used for clothing when stitched together with plant materials. Edible plants included various types of seeds, berries, nuts, acorns, and tubers like yampa and biscuit-root, which could be unearthed with digging sticks. People carried and stored these foods in coiled baskets made of plants or bags made of leather.

Peopling the Eastern Woodlands

To the east of the Great Plains lie the wetter and lusher Eastern Woodlands, extending from the Mississippi River basin to the Atlantic coast. The groups that lived there found a great variety of plants and animals to feed on and exploit. The many rivers and lakes of the region provided fresh water that encouraged settlement along their shores. The same was the case with the oxbow lakes, U-shaped pools created as river courses stabilized in the warmer conditions. These locations also served as excellent hunting and fishing grounds for catfish, deer, birds, rabbits, and many others. Edible plants included nuts from oak, chestnut, and beech trees. Near coastal areas, there was access to saltwater marine life.

Not only was there less need for mobility here, so that settlements could be sustained, but populations also began to rise around 6500 BCE, and people constructed large earthworks in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. The oldest discovered, Watson Brake in northern Louisiana, dates from around 3900 BCE and includes several human-made earth mounds as high as twenty-five feet and set in a circular formation. Archaeologists believe the site was likely used by hunter-gatherers on a seasonal basis. While no burial remains have been found there, large cemeteries from the period have been discovered in many other woodland locations including Illinois and Tennessee. Some sites include the remains of more than a hundred individuals, some with personal items like weapons and art. They are evidence of not only rising populations but also an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Peopling Mesoamerica

To the south and west of the Eastern Woodlands, the climate is much more arid and less green. This desert scrubland extends down the center of Mexico to the tip of the Central Mexican Plateau. South of there, in the region often described as Mesoamerica, the environment is warmer, greener, and wetter. The formerly large-game-hunting peoples settled there after around 8000 BCE as the game disappeared and the bison followed the retreating grassland north. Evidence of Archaic peoples in this area has been found in several coastal sites along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean, as well as in the Tehuacán Valley south of modern Mexico City. They lived largely in small groups and hunted and gathered over large areas. During the dry season, they relied mostly on wild game like lizards, snakes, and insects, and edible plants like the agave. During the rainy season, they ate avocados, nuts, various types of fruit, and small game, like rabbits.

Beginning around 8000 BCE, some groups of hunter-gatherers began periodically occupying a site known as El Riego Cave in the Tehuacán Valley. Excavations there have uncovered numerous stone tools, woven baskets and blankets, and even elaborate burial sites. These burials suggest the existence of a complex spiritual practice. Other evidence in the Tehuacán Valley indicates that by around 5000 BCE, the settlers’ earlier reliance on wild game had given way to a more plant-based diet that included beans, squash, maize (corn), and bottle gourds. By 2600 BCE, the gathering of wild plants had waned considerably as groups adopted agricultural practices, cultivating maize, beans, and squash.

Peopling the Andes Mountains Region

The Andes Mountains run along the western side of South America, rising to more than twenty-two thousand feet in some areas and punctuated by arid deserts and dozens of rivers. It is unclear when the first humans reached South America. At the Monte Verde site in Chile, archaeologists excavating a peat bog recovered remnants of shelters, butchered animal remains, and even scraps of clothing made from hides. Testing dates these to about 12,000 BCE, well before the arrival of Clovis culture in the north. It is unclear exactly what this information means, and it leaves the story of how the Americas were populated incomplete. But whenever they came, the first hunter-gatherers who arrived appear to have spread quickly down the continent, likely because its unique geography encouraged north–south rather than east–west migration (Figure 8.6).

A topographical map of South America. Along the western coast the land is brown and white along the southern portion of the coastline. An orange arrow runs from the western top of the map in the blue area, down along the western coast to almost the southern tip.
Figure 8.6 The Andes Mountains hug the west coast of South America, creating a narrow coastal passage that runs north–south. Scholars have hypothesized that this narrow passage enabled early American migrants to spread quickly down the length of the continent on its western side. (credit: modification of work “South America - Blue Marble orthographic” by Blue Marble by Reto Stockli, NASA/GSFC/Dave Pape/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The earliest hunter-gatherer groups reached as far as southern Chile and often camped near streams to hunt llamas, guanacos (similar to llamas), and deer. By 8000 BCE, some had begun regularly occupying certain sites. One such site is Guitarrero Cave, located at an altitude of 8,500 feet near the small town of Mancos in central Peru. There, archaeologists have recovered projectile points, modified bone and antler, and textiles. Those who lived in and around Guitarrero Cave likely survived by hunting animals and gathering beans, peppers, and a variety of tubers. In the narrow, low-lying areas along the Pacific coast, people relied on marine resources like fish and mollusks. The site called Quebrada Jaguay in coastal southern Peru may have been used by fishers as early as 10,000 BCE. There, archaeologists have discovered what are believed to be cord and fishing nets as well as the remains of fish and other exploited marine life. Obsidian found at the site, originating about one hundred miles away, is even more surprising; it suggests that long-distance trade may have been occurring in the region many thousands of years ago.

Beyond the Book

The Chinchorro Mummies

The Chinchorro settled in coastal Chile and southern Peru around 5800 BCE. They were largely fishers who left evidence in the form of fishing hooks and harpoons. However, their most striking cultural feature was their practice of mummifying the dead. Indeed, the oldest mummies known so far were those created by the Chinchorro, predating Egyptian mummies by at least two thousand years (Figure 8.7).

A picture of a black, cracked mask on a wooden body in an old, cracked and splintered piece of wood that surrounds the head up the sides and lies below the body is shown. Shallow eye wells can be seen on the mask as well as the outline of a nose and mouth. The body is painted blue and pieces of reeds are strewn along the torso. A brown tag on a string lies next to the object. The body and the wood are laid on a speckled blue and white surface in a wooden box.
Figure 8.7 The earliest Chinchorro mummies, from about 5000 BCE, were painted black, though later mummies were painted red or left unpainted. (credit: modification of work “Cultura chinchorro año 3000 AC” by Pablo Trincado/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

The organs of the dead were removed and replaced with reeds and clay to help dry the bodies and complete the mummification process. Once dry, the bodies were painted and adorned for burial. A clay mask was placed over the faces. The oldest Chinchorro mummy discovered dates from about 5000 BCE and was painted black before burial. Around 2500 BCE, the Chinchorro began painting their mummies red and using different methods for removing organs. They also appear to have aided drying by heating the bodies with hot coals. By around 2000 BCE, the process changed again, and the mummies were left unpainted.

The Chinchorro have not left records to explain why they created mummies, so scholars study more recent Andean mummification practices to try to understand. For example, we know from Spanish records that on certain festival days, the Inca, who ruled Peru thousands of years after the Chinchorro, decorated the mummified bodies of their old rulers and displayed them publicly, feeding them cups of corn beer. Scholars believe these ceremonies were intended to help the deceased transition to the afterlife. Might the Chinchorro mummies have served a similar purpose?

Some Chinchorro mummies had clay face masks with open mouths. It is possible these aided in feeding ceremonies, not unlike the later Inca rituals. Evidence also suggests the Chinchorro mummies were occasionally repainted and repaired, leading some to conclude they were a type of religious art form and possibly used to communicate with the afterworld or to celebrate certain gods or ancestors.

We may never fully understand the mummies’ significance for the Chinchorro. But it seems clear the process was somehow related to spiritual practices, possibly an indication of ancestor worship or even belief in an afterlife.

  • How does the Chinchorro mummification practice reflect a connection between culture and environment?
  • Why do you think the process for painting and preparing the bodies of the dead changed over time?

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax