(MAYA, AZTEC, INCA and INUIT before COLUMBUS – continued)

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American Indians North of the Rio Grande

North of the Rio Grande (which today separates Texas from Mexico) were groups of people who varied in looks, language and habits. And they lived in different kinds of terrain: some in mountains, some in desert, or on grassland or woodland. In some places game was plentiful, or the soil was suitable for growing crops, or fish were available.

This part of the North American continent was less densely populated than were the rich, agricultural regions of Central America. The denser parts north of the Rio Grande were along the Pacific Coast in what are today California, Oregon, Washington, Vancouver Island, and spots along the Atlantic Coast in what are today Georgia and North Carolina. Some other areas in the east, including Florida, and places such as Wisconsin, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Kansas were as sparsely populated as Baja California.

Historical demographers have estimated the population of all of the Americas, north and south, to have been between 90 and 100 million at the time of Columbus' arrival in the Caribbean in 1492. Those living north of Mexico are estimated at 10 to 12 million. This is an estimate of more than 20 times the number of people of Indian ancestry who would be living in the U.S. in 1900. note41

Getting By Okay Economically

By the sixth century, Hopewell Culture in North America was vanishing. According to archaeologists, Hopewell Culture was replaced by Mississippi Culture, which had appeared around the Mississippi River, lower Ohio River and the Illinois and Tennessee Rivers around the year 700. By the 900s, people belonging to this culture were involved in agriculture. From the years 1000 to 1500, Mississippi Culture had spread, accompanied by an increased involvement in agriculture and a growth in population. Farming towns developed around ceremonial centers. New and more productive strains of corn were grown. The largest farming center was at Cahokia, Illinois. Other centers were at what is today Spiro, in Oklahoma, Moundville in Alabama, and Etowah in northern Georgia.

In southern Florida was the Glades Culture, which remained independent from Mississippi Culture and without agriculture. On the plains were people who came to be known as the Blackfoot and the Crow, and others. They hunted buffalo on foot. (Horses were to arrive with Europeans.)

From the forests of what would be called New England and across the Great Lakes to Minnesota were people of related cultures whose language was Siouan, Algonquian or Iroquoian. By the year 1200, some Iroquois were still doing little more than hunting, gathering wild food and fishing. They lived in "wigwams," similar to what has been called a "teepee." But other Iroquois were living in rectangular cabins, today referred to as "longhouses," and some were growing squash and beans in gardens next to their settlements or were cutting down trees, using the ancient slash and burn method of agriculture.

In what today are Arizona, New Mexico, southeastern Utah and western Texas were Navahos, Pueblo (Zuni and Hopi), Manso and others. In this relatively treeless area, people tapped into seasonal rivers and grew corn, beans and squash. They hunted rabbits, and they used rabbit fur and wove vegetable fibers for clothing and blankets. For tools and utensils they used chipped stone and wood. They were skilled at making baskets and sandals. From 1276 to 1299 a decline in rainfall and a lower water table made their agriculture more difficult, and the Pueblo dispersed to new areas in the southwest. They built new towns where water was available, and there they grew corn, beans and squash and prospered.

Along the misty Pacific Coast, between mountains and sea, from what today is northern California to Canada, people were hunting game that was abundant, and they gathered wild berries from their woods. Fish were available, and occasionally they took a whale from the sea. Their winters were mild. They lived in log cabins, made their clothing from shredded bark and they had plenty of time to develop an artistry in woodworking.

People in what today is the United States were without draft animals for pulling carts and had no use for wheels. Their use of the bow and arrow was increasing, giving them a greater range than the spear. The spear would no longer be in use by the year 1500.

Religion and Conflict

Like other ancient peoples, the people north of the Rio Grande saw the world as occupied by numerous spirits, and some believed in a spirit that was most powerful. People sought contact with the supernatural through dreams. Shamans were common, with their performances of magic. In religion, people north of the Rio Grande were more like the Australian aborigines than they were like those who had long been dependent on agriculture for food – for whom a failed harvest meant starvation. Among those who were predominately hunters, such as the Australian aborigines, sacrifice was rare, and people north of the Rio Grande did not practice human sacrifice, but among some tribes north of the Rio Grande human sacrifices did exist. Evidence exists that the Pawnee, in Nebraska and northern Kansas, occasionally sacrificed someone. So too the Iroquois, who are said to have occasionally sent a maiden to the Great Spirit. Human sacrifice and cannibalism are believed to have existed among people along the coast between Louisiana and Florida and up the coast to Virginia, where people grew their food and experienced the wrath of the gods more frequently in the form of extremely violent storms than did people in other parts of the country.

Peoples north of the Rio Grande had their conflicts and feuds. Small parties of four or as many as fifty men raided neighboring societies – larger armies among the Indians not appearing until after the arrival of the Europeans. In warfare, surprise attacks were used, and the supernatural was called upon. Feuds were common between societies that lived near each other but did not speak the same language. And sadism occurred, as in the story that was passed to the Spanish priest Le Jenune about Hurons torturing a male Iroquois prisoner. note42

In the northwest, raiding was done for revenge, plunder or for personal glory – the prize sometimes a canoe or two, food, fur or clothing. And in the northwest they fought over hunting territory. From Alaska south to the Klamath River of southern Oregon, raiding might include the taking of captives as slaves. Someone made a slave might later become free, perhaps by marrying a member of the group that had captured him or her. A slave might be ransomed to a relative. And in some instances in this part of the continent slavery was hereditary, the child of a slave becoming himself a slave.

Some north of the Rio Grande favored peace. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict, in her book The Patterns of Culture, described the Pueblo as unemotional, cooperative and peaceful, but she is accused of having overstated her case. The Pueblo are now thought to have been less warlike than their neighbors, but they had to fight to defend against predators. Pueblo villages had a war priest, and it was the war priest or his lieutenant who frequently led the Pueblo warriors into battle. note43


The Aztecs, by Michael E Smith, 2003

Daily Life of the Aztecs, by Jacques Soustelle, 1955

The Indian Heritage of America, by Alvin M Josephy, 1969

Indians of North America, Harold E Driver, 1961

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

A History of the Ancient Southwest, by Stephen H Lekson, 2009

Encyclopedia Wikipedia,

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