The First Americans

The origins of the first Ameri

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cans
are still hotly debated in some

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cir

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cles, but the most widely a

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c

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cepted theory is that Asia's population expanded into North Ameri

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ca over the Bering Strait land bridge between 40, 000 and 10, 000 b.

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c. e. These Paleo-Indians relied on big game hunting, as well as gathering, and they probably lived more or less as equals in small bands that ranged over large areas. By 8000 b.

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c.e. however, many large game animals in

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cluding mastodons, mammoths, and

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camels had be

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come extin

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ct. Ar

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chaeologists debate whether

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climati

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c

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changes or overhunting brought about their demise. The habitable portion of North Ameri

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ca

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contained perhaps 100, 000 people during this period; it seems unlikely that su

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ch a small, dispersed population

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could hunt several spe

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cies to extin

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ction. (Of

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course, European Ameri

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cans
brought the passenger pigeon to extin

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ction rapidly by repeatedly killing off the youngest generation. )

By 8000 b.

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c.e. gla

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cial i

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ce was also no longer a fa

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ctor for most of North Ameri

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ca, and many of the lands

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cape's present-day physi

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cal features and animals were in pla

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ce. Paleo-Indians began to hunt smaller, less mobile

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creatures, su

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ch forest-dwelling deer or fish that repeatedly migrated to the same pla

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ce. Paleo-Indian population and population density rose dramati

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cally during this period (sometimes referred to as the Ar

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chai

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c period). People living in the Mississippi watershed also began to plant

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crops su

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ch as squash at roughly this time. Eventually, large, sophisti

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cated so

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cieties grew from these humble beginnings.

The Mississippian

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culture, with major

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cities at Cahokia (near present-day East St. Louis), Spiro, and Nat

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chez, dominated the eastern half of North Ameri

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ca. By 1100

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c.e. Cahokia was home to a

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complex, stratified so

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ciety of 20, 000 people. In the Southwest, by roughly 1250, a group

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called the Anasazi had planned and

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constru

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cted twelve large towns and hundreds more informal villages,

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constituting a formidable trading empire.

From 1400 to 1600, these large,

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centralized so

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cieties de

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clined and smaller, de

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centralized polities, often multiethni

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c and multilingual, repla

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ced them. These are the forerunners of the Native Ameri

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can

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communities that met Europeans in the fifteenth and sixteenth

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centuries. Native Ameri

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can so

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cieties were strikingly diverse, speaking hundreds of mutually unintelligible languages, subs

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cribing to widely varying belief systems, and inhabiting virtually every part of North Ameri

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ca's plains, forests, deserts, mountains, and grasslands. They are often divided into broad language groups like Algonquian, Iroquoian, Muskogean, and Siouan; many modern tribal names date from the period of European

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colonization.

It is important to re

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cognize that Native Ameri

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cans
were undergoing drasti

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c

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cultural shifts in the period leading up to their dis

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covery by Europeans. One of the most

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common mistakes in

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colonial history is to assume that native so

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cieties were stati

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c, simply waiting for Europeans to enter their land so that history

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could begin.

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