Olmec head carved in stone, from San Lorenzo.
Courtesy of Wikimedia.
in New Mexico in the 1920s evidence was discovered near Folson New Mexico of people dating back to around 10,000 BCE. Additional discoveries at Clovis, New Mexico, resulted in a name for the first Americans – Clovis – and dated their habitation there as around 9,500 BCE. Since then, DNA studies have led to the theory that people populated the Americas in three waves from Siberia – not just a single migration. Writes Nicholas Wade in the New York Times (July 11, 2012), One of the migrations "became the ancestors of today's Eskimos and Aleutians and another by people speaking Na-Dene, whose descendants are confined to North America." Wade draws from the journal Nature.)
An article in the July 12 issue of the New York Times, by John Noble Wilford, describes stone spearheads and human DNA found in Oregon caves as the oldest directly dated remains of people in North America. "They also show that at least two cultures with distinct technologies – not a single one, as had been supposed – shared the continent more than 13,000 years ago."
Studies of people of the Americas indicate that hunting and gathering as a way of life was at times more healthful and pleasant than farming. With hunting and gathering there might be occasional leisure. But with the ups and downs in the availability of game there was also occasional hunger. Births keeping up with the availability of food also kept people on the verge of hunger. It was likely hunger that motivated people to take up the additional work of growing food. Births probably kept up with this additional food, until communities were absolutely dependent on farming. And this dependence left them more vulnerable than hunter-gatherers had been – hunter-gatherers never having been threatened by drought or insect infestations. By increasing their numbers during their transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, people had defeated the purpose of growing more food. Examination of the skeletal bones of early farmers in the Americas indicate episodes of malnutrition during childhood, and the average height of early farming populations have been estimated to be shorter than that of hunter-gatherers, probably because of worsening nutrition and a reduction of protein in the diet. And with the denser populations of agricultural communities came unsanitary conditions and the spread of diseases rare among hunter-gatherers.
From before 5000 BCE, people living in the Tehuacan (Tehuacán) Valley around what is now Mexico City were collecting wild plants such as beans and amaranth, which they ate with chili peppers. They lived out-of-doors except during the rainy season, when they lived in caves. They ground seeds for food, and they grew squash. Between the years 5000 and 3500 BCE, these people grew beans and an early variety of corn, which, with their squash, amounted to about ten percent of their food, the rest of their food having been acquired through hunting, fishing and gathering plants. In this span of 1500 years, their population increased ten times. After 3000 BCE, they began to grow around thirty percent of what they ate, roughly half of this corn from a larger cob, and they began to raise turkeys. And by around 2500 they were growing much of what they ate, and they built villages next to their fields, with small pit houses similar to those of Shang civilization.
People in the Tehuacan Valley did not have goats, sheep or cattle to domesticate. The bison, antelope and mountain sheep of North America had not migrated into Mexico. People there had no animal to pull a plow. People farming in central Mexico continued using the digging stick. They planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Their beans and corn did not provide enough protein for young children or lactating women. Needing game to supplement their diet, in the summer they hunted jackrabbits and in the winter they hunted the deer that descended then from the hills.
The beginnings of civilization in the Americas came around 1500 BCE, roughly when Shang civilization began in China. It came in the lowlands in what is now southern Mexico, along the humid coast of the Gulf of Mexico, centered at a site today called San Lorenzo. There a people belonging to a culture called Olmec had a well-developed agriculture and a denser population than other societies in the Americas. They lived in villages, had monumental architecture and commanded a trading network to other peoples. They dominated peoples as far south as Tazumal, in what is now El Salvador, and as far northwest as Chalcatzingo (about 50 miles south of what today is the center of Mexico City).
The spirits that Olmecs saw in themselves they attributed to moving things around them, especially animals, and the reverse: they saw everyone as having an animal spirit. The made the same assumptions as did others of their time, and, like others of their time, religion was an integral part of their daily life. They worshiped a variety of gods, among them a god of fire, god of corn, god of rain, and a god in the form of a feathered serpent. Their major god took the form of a jaguar and a human infant. But the Olmec did not necessarily make the jaguar a symbol as some have assumed. More likely the Olmec saw the jaguar as a spirit that was actual – a spirit of power and ancestral, with no differentiation between spirit and force.
As with others, basic to their religion was the belief in magic. Their religion was conducted by shamans purporting to perform magic. It was believed that the shamans could heal the sick. And seeing similarity between smoke and clouds they assumed that smoke produced rain.
Anthropologists have found evidence that Olmecs practiced human sacrifice, including that of infants. Human sacrifice was evident also among those who followed the Olmecs in Central America: the Maya. And evident also among those who rose to prominence after the Maya – the Aztecs and, in South America, the Inca.
Traces of Olmec culture survived into modern times in the form of their monumental sculpture, small jade carvings and complex pottery. And they left behind evidence of mathematics and writing – created without influence from European or Asian civilizations.
The earliest known people in North America belonged to a stone-age culture called Clovis, which dates back to around 9500 BCE. These people lived on the plains and gathered food, fished and hunted with a flexible wooden spear with a stone tip, which they threw with a lever for increased speed, similar to that used by Australian aborigines and the Inuit of Alaska and Greenland.
In what are now Illinois, Alabama and Missouri, people lived in caves and foraged for food. West of the Rocky Mountains, people gathered wild seeds and plants. And those in the west who lived in oak forests learned how to take the acid out of acorns and turn it into flour. Where they found fish in rivers they invented traps and nets for catching the fish, and they made smoking equipment for preserving their catch. And gradually these people learned to assist plants in their growth. They began burning undesirable vegetation to make more room for the growth of that which they could eat and to create meadows for herds of deer.
As early as 2500 BCE, some people in what is today the United States were cultivating plants that most likely came from Mexico: gourds and squash. By around 800 BCE, small-scale farming was taking place in the Ohio River valley.
On the continent of South America, people were hunting game and gathering wild foods as early as 9000 BCE. The population was sparse but grew denser in the Andes mountains, where, in what today is Peru, people were growing plants many centuries before 3200 BCE. It was around 3200 BCE that corn is believed to have reached the northern Andes, in what is today Ecuador. By 2500 BCE, people in the central Andes were also growing potatoes and raising animals called llamas. Also by 2500 BCE, people in a narrow strip of lowland along the coast of Peru were weaving cotton into textiles and eating fish, shellfish, sea mammals, beans and squash. As many as a hundred village communities existed along this coast, each with a few hundred people, and between 2500 and 1750 BCE the population along this coast increased substantially. Then, for some unknown reason, these coastal towns were abandoned and people migrating inland and to higher elevations alongside rivers.
By around 1200 BCE, the population increased around Lake Titicaca in the Andes and towns appeared. Here people herded llamas, grew potatoes and fished.
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