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HIST 1301

Topic One: Pre-Columbian America, ca. 50,000 BCE to 1492 CE


The history of America did not start in 1492. The people who lived on the American continents before the arrival of the Europeans were a varied and complex array of cultures, ranging from intricate tribal societies to vast sophisticated empires. These were NOT primitive "Indians", not savages on horseback (there were no horses in the Americas before 1492), nor were they jungle-dwelling spear throwers. These first Americans, like their Asian, African and European counterparts, evolved from a hunting and gathering culture to the practice of settled agriculture. Some went on to build civilizations that lasted centuries, decayed, and were the foundations of a new civilization that arose on the remains of the old.

Before we go on, we need to ask ourselves a basic question. What is civilization? How do we classify a society or culture as a "civilization"; that is, what are the defining characteristics of a civilization? Think of what you know, or think you know, about the civilizations of Pre-Columbian America: the Aztec and their temples, the Mayan and their calendar (well-played Mayans), the Inca and their road system.

This leads to another point. Much of what modern Americans think they know about these "natives" is learned, not from scholarly sources, but from Hollywood, television, pop culture, and Mel Gibson (ok, I'm kidding about the last one...maybe). The point I'm trying to make is that the image we have about these natives is exceedingly one-dimensional. When you consider that the first wave of migrants set foot on the American continent around 50,000 BCE and the Europeans arrived in 1492 CE, the cultural, economic, political and social history of the first Americans is bound to be diverse and dynamic.

Beringia and the Paleo-Natives

Strictly speaking, historians do not examine this period of time (that is why it is called prehistory). The study of the past is interdisciplinary in nature, however, and a variety of social scientist explore the prehistorical world. Much of the information we have about the Paleo-Natives, those Americans who lived on the North and South continents from ca. 50k BCE to ca. 3000 BCE, comes from biologists (DNA), archaeologists, anthropologists, geologists, even botanists and chemists.

The DNA evidence suggests that these paleo-natives were related to modern Asians and that there was not one, but several, migrations that occurred between ca. 50k BCE and ca. 10k BCE. The migrations took place during ice ages when a land bridge opened between what is today Siberia and Alaska. The Bering Sea emptied of water during the various ice ages, making travel between Asia and the Americas possible. This land bridge was/is called Beringia. You might have images of frozen sheets of ice covering Beringia, but in actuality the landscape varied from grassland prairies to forests to frozen tundra.

These nomadic, tribal groups probably crossed Beringia because of population pressures. Of course, they didn’t know they were crossing onto a new continent (no GPS back then). These paleo-natives were simply following the game herds that migrated also. During the times that Beringia was open…remember, ice ages don’t last for a few weeks…these hunters/gatherers not only crossed into North America, but they also travelled back to Siberia. When the last ice age ended around 10k BCE, the individuals who found themselves on the North American continent we...

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