|Migration Patterns of The Americasn|
Native Americans inhabited every region of the Western Hemisphere, from arctic North America to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. There are more than 500 distinct Native American tribal groups or nations in North America alone. Native people showed a remarkable ability to adapt to the different physical environments throughout North America.
They organized themselves into communities, governments, and cultures that were adapted to their local environment and were recognized as distinct tribes or nations by the people within the tribe as well as by the other Native nations. Native Americans’ own stories of how they arrived in their homelands are as varied as the tribes themselves.
There are some common themes, however, to these creation stories and oral traditions. All tribes have a creation story; most tell of humans being brought up from the ground by spiritual powers, and each culture tells of its own tribe as being the original people. This is usually a positive story, with humans being brought into this world with joy, companionship, and laughter.
Native cultures have a strong sense of distinct male and female powers and principles in the universe, and often these creation stories tell of the male spirits of the sky and Sun bringing humanity up from the female counterpart, the womb of Mother Earth. Sometimes these stories tell of the women pushing the men to venture out of the earth (or up from a lake or to embark on a long journey) to find the new world in the light.
Some tribes’ creation stories tell of their people emerging from the earth directly into their homeland. But many of them tell of a long migration: The people emerge and travel a great distance to their eventual homeland. Some tribes’ creation stories contain both subterrestial and terrestrial journeys.
The San Juan Tewa tribe of New Mexico tells of human beings first living in Sipofene, a dark world beneath a lake far to the north. The first mothers of the Tewa, Blue Corn Woman and White Corn Maiden, directed a man to travel to the world above the lake, where he eventually obtains the gifts that allow the Tewa to live in the terrestrial world.
The Potawatomi of the southern Great Lakes are another example. The Potawatomi are culturally, politically, and linguistically linked to the Ojibwa and Odawa people in the northern Great Lakes, and many stories link the Potawatomi to the Great Migration of the Ojibwa from the Atlantic seaboard to the Great Lakes.
But Potawatomi creation stories also tell of the original people arising from the St. Joseph River southwest of Lake Michigan. Native creation stories always carry a sense that it was a journey of great distance to arrive at the homeland, whether it was a journey from underground or a journey over land. And the goal is always to arrive at a distinct homeland for the original people.
This is a question that puzzled the European immigrants and settlers, beginning with the early explorers (once they realized they had not reached Asia as they had expected). Some Europeans speculated that the Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel cited in the Bible.
The Jesuit missionary José de Acosta in the late 1500s proposed the theory that the Native Americans traveled from Asia following the great herds of animals that they hunted. Anthropology grew as a science in America in the 1800s, focusing on Native cultures and their origins.
Most contemporary evidence points to a migration of the Native American people from Asia, coming from north-eastern Siberia into Alaska sometime between 25,000 to 11,000 years ago. But there is still much debate about the exact time of this migration and whether it was one migration by a single group of people or different migrations by different groups.
The geological record points to an ice age that occurred from 40,000 to 11,000 years ago. There are two factors that would have influenced this migration. First, tying up so much of the earth’s water into ice would have resulted in a drop in the level of the oceans.
About 60 miles of water presently separate Alaska and Siberia, but in the last ice age, the ocean would have been low enough for these two landmasses to be connected, permitting easy migration from Asia into North America.
Studies of the fossil record indicate that this type of migration has occurred among the great herding animals. Caribou, mammoths, elk, and moose apparently traveled from Asia to North America, and horses and camels migrated the opposite way.
Secondly, the scarring of rock strata indicate that the ice sheet covering North America in this time period was vast, stretching south to the Canadian Pacific coast and across to the Atlantic Ocean. While migration from Asia into Alaska was feasible as early as 25,000 years ago, the ice sheet would have blocked further overland travel into the interior of North America until 14,000 years ago.
Some scientists argue that travel would have been possible along the Alaskan and Canadian coastline, but no evidence has been found as yet to indicate boats or a fishing-based culture in this region prior to 11,000 years ago.
Anthropologists have applied modern language theory and biological techniques to the question of migration. There are more than 1,000 Native American languages, and the North American languages are commonly recognized as falling into eight large, related groups.
Anthropologists have attempted to determine migration patterns tribes based on the dispersion of these language groups. Most agree that three or more migrations occurred, with the first beginning more than 11,000 years ago. The largest language group, the Amerind, links many languages in all regions of North America and is believed to be the earliest.
This migration was then followed later by the Na-Dene group, which is found in the U.S. Southwest and Northwest Coast (some 9,000 years ago), and still later by the Inuit and Aleut speakers of the Arctic (less than 8,000 years ago). Studies of dental traits and blood-group traits among Native Americans also tend to support the concept of three large migration events.
Once Native Americans did become established in central North America, they began to spread out to every region of the continent, and cultures and lifestyles began to evolve and adapt to the various regions. Scientists refer to these earliest cultures as Paleo-Indians. One artifact common to these people is a distinctive flint spear point referred to as the Clovis point.
A number of archaeological sites along the Great Plains have been dated to 11,000 years old, and they show evidence for the use of the Clovis point for hunting the great herds of mammoth, bison, and other animals. Other studies indicate that use of the Clovis point spread throughout North and South America as far north as the Yukon and as far south as the Andes.
Gradually, the climate warmed in North America. The huge herd animals of the ice age, such as the mammoths and mastodons, died out, the vast lakes in the U.S. West dried out and turned to desert, and deciduous forests became widespread in the East.
Native Americans adapted to their new environments and established new ways of life different from their Paleo-Indian ancestors. This second wave of cultures is referred to as the Archaic Tradition.
Archaic-period cultures developed more specific, regionalized characteristics. People of the western deserts utilized the lowland seasonal marshes and rivers for their sustenance or became hunter-gatherers in the foothills and mountains. People of the Northwest developed into great ocean and river fishers.
California Archaic people developed hunting-foraging cultures utilizing the abundance of resources in their region and practiced controlled burning to encourage plant and animal populations, particularly for oaks and acorns. The people of the Great Plains developed a greater reliance on the bison.
Eastern groups began to adapt to the growing woodlands. One particular cultural group is referred to as the Poverty Point culture. This group was first studied based on the Poverty Point earthworks in Louisiana, dated between 4,000 and 2,000 years old.
Poverty Point includes several earthen mound constructions, with the largest taking the form of a bird with outstretched wings. Artifacts uncovered at Poverty Point reveal trade materials originating as far away as the Great Lakes. Clay figurines, stone beads, and other ornaments are distinctive to the Poverty Point culture.
The Woodland culture was the next stage to develop. This term as used by archaeologists refers to a specific Native American cultural pattern that became common about 3,000 years ago and spread from the edge of the Great Plains to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Woodland culture had three main characteristics: a distinctive style of ceramics, community-based agriculture, and the construction of burial mounds. Mound building is perhaps the most recognized Woodland culture feature. Mound structures from this stage have been discovered from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and from the southern Great Plains to Ontario.
The Woodland groups again were not a single vast tribe or nation but instead were distinct communities that centered on local village or city sites often with mound structures. The mounds were usually burial structures but also frequently served ceremonial and political purposes.
The Woodland culture showed local variations, but certain practices were common to all. Trade was extensive throughout the network of mound communities, and a certain commonality of cultural practices likely served to unite these communities and help maintain the trade routes.
Elements of both the Archaic and Woodland stages existed in Native cultures up to 1600 c.e. For example, the Archaic fishing cultures of the Northwest and the hunter-gatherer-fishers of California inhabited some of the richest regions on the face of the earth.
Their life-styles never experienced any pressure to change their cultural practices. The early Spanish explorers reported city-states of the Woodland mound culture in the 1500s. The Iroquois tribes in New York are also organized on Woodland culture patterns.
The size of the Native population prior to 1492 is also subject to much debate. Scientific studies in the early 1900s relied on the reports and estimates of the European explorers and American settlers from the 1500s forward. These studies generally agreed on a figure of about 1 million Native Americans north of Mexico at the time of European contact.
More recent studies have begun to take into account additional factors, particularly the effect of Old World diseases. Diseases such as smallpox, chicken pox, the plague, and measles did not exist in the Native American population prior to 1492.
The disastrous effect of these diseases in Mesoamerican and Central and South American Native populations was well documented by the Spanish conquistadores in the 1500s. Given the existence of the extensive Native trade routes and the virulence of these diseases, it is reasonable to assume that these diseases had a similar devastating effect in interior North America as well.
More recent population studies, taking into account the effects of disease and the estimated carrying capacity of the various regions of the continent, have revised the Native American population estimate upward. Some studies have ranged as high as 18 million, but most recent estimates project Native population in North America prior to 1492 as closer to 5 million people.
The indigenous people of North America, their governments, and cultures were incredibly varied, with great adaptation to their respective regions, and they showed a great awareness of and respect for their physical environment.
Native American cultures were not static and had been undergoing cultural changes independent of and prior to European contact. But by 1600 a radical transformation had begun resulting from Old World immigration. At that point disease had begun to decimate Native populations, and this would be one of the key factors in opening the Atlantic seaboard to English colonization in the 1600s.