Americas, Peoples To The North

Civilizations Of The Americas, The Peoples To The North
Author: Adas, Michael
Date: 1992

The Peoples To The North

Archeologists have been able to distinguish various stages of Archaic
culture, from Alaska to northern Mexico, among the ancestors of the North
American Indians. We cannot deal in detail with the many cultural traditions
which evolved from those Archaic period cultures, but there are two broad
regions in North America that merit special attention because of the complex,
sedentary agricultural societies that developed there: the eastern woodlands
of what is now the southern United States and the arid Southwest.

The Mound Builders

In the valleys of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, people began to
practice agriculture by 2000 B.C., and by 700 B.C. a society that combined
hunting and agriculture had begun to emerge. The Adena culture, which
developed in southern Ohio and neighboring areas, was characterized by large
earthen constructions and mounds. Some of the mounds were defensive while
others served as places for burials. These burials contain pottery, pipes
(indicating the use of tobacco), jewelry, and copper objects that indicate
long-distance trade from as far away as Michigan. The Adena tradition may have
been spread by migrants or by trade contacts to places, such as New York State
and Maryland, where it lasted as late as A.D. 700. In Ohio and southern
Illinois, however, Adena was then already being replaced by a more complex

The Hopewell culture (c. A.D. 200-500) introduced new levels of scale and
complexity. Elaborate mounds, some of great size and often organized into
groups, were characteristic of this mound-builder culture. Some of the mounds,
such as Serpent Mound in Ohio, were built as effigies of animals. Burials
contained jewelry, personal items, weapons, and religious symbols of copper,
quartz, galena, and mica. Conch shells and shark teeth indicate long-distance
trade to the Gulf coast, and other materials were brought from as far away as
the Rocky Mountains. Hopewell artisans worked in stone and clay and produced
beautiful luxury items of pottery, pipes, and effigies, many seemingly
designed specifically for the cult of the dead. By about A.D. 400 the main
centers of Hopewell culture had ceased the large-scale construction of mounds,
and the trade network had begun to break down.

After a hiatus of about 400 years, the Hopewell culture was succeeded by
a new complex that spread widely throughout the Mississippi valley. Between
A.D. 800 and 1300 very large towns and ceremonial centers, such as Moundville
(Alabama) and Cahokia (Illinois), flourished throughout the southeastern
region. Mound building here was not only for burials or effigies, but also for
fortification and large pyramid platforms. Cahokia had one temple mound over
30 meters high, containing over 600,000 cubic meters of earth. These
Mississippian centers were surrounded by large populations and other smaller
towns. For example, at least 50 communities seem to have been under Cahokia's
influence. Except for the absence of stone architecture, Cahokia seemed to
parallel the urban development of Mesoamerica.

The rich variety of artifacts of excellent workmanship indicates social
divisions within this society, but in fact we know little about its social
organization. The best clues come from the 18th-century observations of the
Natchez Indians who carried on the Mississippian tradition. They were
organized as a powerful chiefdom under a ruler known as the Great Sun, who
ruled a society composed of four distinct social classes, the lowest of which
were called the stinkards. The Natchez were the last remnants of a culture
that had mostly disappeared by A.D. 1400.

One explanation for the rise of Mississippian culture was the
introduction of new strains of maize from Mesoamerica and the adoption of the
maize-beans-squash complex developed there. Mississippians depended more fully
on agriculture than their Hopewell and Adena predecessors. Mississippian
populations were larger than those of previous cultures, and the search for
new agricultural lands seems to have been a motive for political expansion.
The large towns and urban centers, temple complexes, pyramid mounds, religious
symbols, and crops appear to reflect a strong Mesoamerican influence, but no
identifiable Mesoamerican artifacts have been found in Mississippian sites.

The Desert Peoples

Across the American Southwest a different cultural tradition developed
with considerable local variation. By around 300 B.C. settled communities
developed in this region, living first in pit houses partially beneath the
ground and later living in stone structures. Irrigation was used to grow
maize, beans, and other crops, and by A.D. 600 ball courts and temple mounds
suggest the influence of Mesoamerican cultures. Distinctive pottery developed
in each cultural region, and there seems to have been trade between these
areas and with Mexico. In southern New Mexico by about A.D. 1000 multiroom
stone dwellings were being used.

Perhaps the most famous of the southwestern regional traditions is that
of the Anasazi (Navajo for "the ancient ones"), who lived in the Four Corners
region of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. Settled in the region from
about 200 B.C. they began to live in large, multistory adobe and stone
dwellings by A.D. 700. Apparently, pressure from hostile neighbors caused them
to construct these groups of buildings in protected canyons or in cliffs where
access is difficult. The existing cliff-dwelling ruins at Mesa Verde and
Canyon de Chelly are excellent examples of Anasazi settlements. A
characteristic feature of these villages and towns is the circular pit or kiva
used for religious meetings by the men of the community. This structure may
still be found today among the Pueblo Indians of the region.

Kivas are also found in another type of Anasazi settlement. The ruins of
about 125 towns in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, and surrounding areas are
remarkable for their planning and the care of their construction in stone or
adobe. Many of these towns were connected by an extensive system of what seem
to be roads or ritual lines that linked the city to celestial or natural
phenomena. The Anasazi produced excellent pottery without the potter's wheel
and they had trading contacts with Mesoamerica, where the turquoise of their
region was traded for items such as parrots, valued for their feathers.

A long period of drought in the late 13th century seems to explain the
decline of the Anasazi and other southwestern traditions. This, followed by
pressure from nomads, such as the Navajo and Apache, eventually led to the
abandonment of the towns, but many scholars believe that the traditions of the
Anasazi continued on in the culture of the modern Hopi and other Pueblo
Indians of the American Southwest.

Among the ancient peoples of southwestern United States the contacts with
Mesoamerican civilization are clearer than in the eastern woodlands. Both
regions, however, demonstrate the diffusion of many aspects of civilization
and the development of settled, agricultural societies throughout the

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