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Native Americans

An Overview

Native Americans, wrongly known as Indians, were the original inhabitants of the Americas. Anthropologists agree that they are descended from people who traveled to America from Asia. They originally formed small wandering groups, hunting for food and living off the land. Later they formed larger groups. The type of food they hunted and the ability to store food for coming years is thought to be one of the main reasons for the cultural differences between the groups.

The first people to live in North America are called Native Americans. When Christopher Columbus first landed in the Americas, he thought he had landed in India, and so he called the people Indians. The name is totally wrong, but it stuck. Later still, a Swedish man decided that the Natives should be given a proper name, and so he called them Americans or the Red Race. This didn't help much, as people then started calling them Red Indians or American Indians. Only recently have they been given their proper title, that of Native Americans.

Although all Anthropologists agree that people from Asia were the original inhabitants, they cannot agree on when the migration happened. These original descendants of Native Americans crossed from what is now Siberia into Alaska sometime between 40,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Gathering Food

At first they lived in small groups. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers. This means that they moved around in search of food, hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants to survive. This type of living can only support small groups. People living like this build small shelters, from animal skins and poles that can be moved easily. They may also build using poles, branches and grass, and just abandon their homes when they move on. They tended to move southwards, in search of food, as food was more plentiful in warmer climates.

Growing Food

As some groups moved further south, they found that they were able to grow their own crops. These groups were agrarian, meaning they planted and harvested their own crops. The ability to grow crops meant that there was enough food to support a larger group. The groups became larger and more permanent. Homes became more elaborate, and less movable, and small villages started appearing. At this stage, they were still unable to store much food. This meant that in years when they had a bad harvest, they didn't have enough to eat. Two or more years of bad harvests following each other meant they had to move again, or face starvation.

As the groups became larger, and moved further south, they learned valuable lessons on the way. Not everyone moved south. Those who stayed remained in fairly small groups, or tribes, and were able to support themselves with the farming and hunting methods they already used. Most of the tribes who remained in North America had less than 1000 people in each group. The size of the group depended on the availability of food. In some areas, where food was plentiful, the groups were much larger.

Storing Food

As the groups neared Central America, they learned how to irrigate crops. They found ways to bring water to their fields. This meant that they could grow more crops, and even store food for years when the harvest didn't supply enough food. They also learned how to terrace and fertilize, growing much more food over a small area. These groups were able to support a much larger number of people. They built permanent homes, and eventually very elaborate civilizations grew up, with towns and cities.

The Native Americans from these areas are known as the Nuclear Americans. They lived in the southern part of North America, Mexico and Central America. From these groups the Aztec, Mayan and Inca civilizations grew.

It seems that the groups that continued on to South America did not take with them the agricultural knowledge of the Nuclear Americans. Or perhaps they chose not to use it, or it was unsuitable to the areas they lived in. It is also thought that a second migration of Asians, this time from South East Asia, may have reached South America 6,000 years ago. The groups in South America were again small groups of hunter-gatherers. They tended to settle in one area, but remained in small groups who did not need to move in search of food. Their groups were small enough, and food plentiful enough, that they were able to stay in the same region. They built permanent but very simple homes.

Small groups were formed of immediate family members, usually ruled by the oldest male. Larger groups or tribes were also built around family, but a much wider family. These groups usually had one branch of the family that ruled, the rule being passed down to the next generation of the same branch. The much larger civilizations of the Nuclear Americans had complex societies with levels and classes.

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