100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 56


American Indian Life Prior to 1492



The first people to enter the Western hemisphere were the American Indians.* As the climate warmed, the glaciers blocking entrance melted and opened up a passage southwards. Animals such as the now extinct mastodons and mammoths, bison, moose, and elk also crossed in just as horses and camels had left it. Using the Bering Land Bridge, which existed from about 30,000 B.C.E. to about 9000 B.C.E., people crossed through from Siberia to Beringia, which they then occupied for some time, for it teemed with life and made a good home. By the time that Beringia completely flooded humans had roamed all through the Americas and had reached Tierra del Fuego. Probably some early southward migrations may even have taken place in boats. As they entered the New World, American Indians established settlements and paths to them that later European colonists built into cities. Native languages supplied words for dozens of place names. In the U.S. alone, twenty-seven states bear names from native languages, not to mention dozens of cities such as Seattle, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Omaha.

    American Indians first domesticated many of the world’s most important crops. Chief among these is corn or “maize,” arguably one of the most important crops in the world. By 1492, corn almost certainly supplied the Americas with more sustenance than all other domesticated plants combined. Two other significant crops that were added to world food production included tomatoes and potatoes. Additionally, they grew and supplemented the food pantry of humankind with many others: squash (pumpkins, zucchini, marrow, acorn squash, and butternut squash), the pinto bean, Phaseolus beans (including most common beans, tepary beans, and lima beans), cassava (aka manioc or yucca), chia, avocados, peanuts, cocoa beans (used to make chocolate), vanilla, strawberries, pineapples, peppers (species of Capsicum, including bell peppers, jalapeños, paprika, and chili peppers), sunflower seeds, cashews, maple sugar, chicle, coca (used in the production of cocaine), quinine, rubber, brazilwood, and tobacco. They also domesticated turkeys, llamas, and alpacas.

    Prior to 1492, numerous culture groups had developed, some of which became civilizations almost equaling the greatest of those found in the Old World. The greatest of these civilizations grew around the most heavily settled areas of Central America (Mexico to Panama and the West Indies) and the Andean region of western South America. American Indians left a legacy that European conquerors, for better or for worse, neglected, belittled, or actively attempted to destroy. Fortunately, enough survives of it for us to fully appreciate its many achievements.




Scholars use the term “Paleo-Indians” to describe the earliest inhabitants. They originated in NE Asia and shared many of the same characteristics and technologies with Siberians; current belief holds that they entered around 13,000 B.C.E. and brought with them a Mesolithic aka microlithic/microblade technology. This greatly increased hunting efficiency—it made use of light barbed spears that would create gashing wounds and result in copious bleeding, killing the prey faster and with lower losses of hunting equipment than the traditional spear. The result was an increase in the overall kill rate of mammoths, mastodons, giant bison, and smaller game animals. In addition to fish, they also subsisted on wild plants including nuts, fruit, tubers, and even seaweed, for they were accustomed to eating what was seasonally available in their surroundings.

    At Monte Verde, in southern Chile, archaeologists have discovered a site dating to 10,500 B.C.E. containing well-preserved artifacts including the remains of meat, bone, ivory, seeds, and leaves in addition to stone tools that are very dissimilar from those fashioned by the later more famous Clovis peoples. For some, these findings strongly suggest that the earliest inhabitants were descendants of a separate pre-Clovis movement—possibly one that journeyed down the Pacific Coast in boats.

    The best known of the Paleo-Indian cultures were the Clovis and the Folsom that developed from it. They lived in bands of about fifty highly nomadic individuals who camped in easily transported animal hide tents or other lightweight shelters. At their sites, the Clovis left behind one of the most distinctive artifacts—the Clovis point. They probably used these stone weapons, grooved on each flat side, as spear points as well as scrapers. This culture spread throughout the Americas and lasted from about 9000 B.C.E. to about 8800 B.C.E. The Folsom culture, which followed, lasted until about 8000 B.C.E. and related Paleo-Indian cultures continued to about 7000 B.C.E.


Archaic Culture


The Archaic culture developed from the Paleo-Indian, probably because of changes in environmental conditions, and lasted from about 7000 to 2000 B.C.E. Archaic peoples adapted by inventing many new technologies. One such invention was the atlatl or spear-thrower, a short, hooked rod that enabled a hunter to throw a dart/spear accurately with a large force a great distance. Woodworking tools were also developed. About 3000 B.C.E. they invented the earliest examples of metalwork—cold hammered pure copper used in making tools and weapons.

    With all these new tools and weapons Archaic peoples throughout the Americas hunted, fished, or gathered an extensive variety of foods and enjoyed a steady diet based on these activities. The Inuit of the Arctic hunted migrating herds of reindeer (aka caribou) and used fish to supplement their diets in the summer. Outside of summer, they hunted marine mammals: seals, sea otters, walrus, and whales. Some of them settled along coastlines year round hunting marine mammals. Farther south, American Indians hunted a plethora of game animals: deer, elk, moose, reindeer, antelope, bison, bear, rabbit, mountain goat, beaver, squirrel and other rodents, raccoon, waterfowl, turkeys, snakes, and lizards. To this, they netted, harpooned, or trapped the plentiful fish of the streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans of which the Americas teemed. They caught, where available, oysters, clams, mussels, crabs, whales, seals, otters, and porpoises. To supplement their diets even further they gathered thousands of wild plants: berries, roots, tubers, bulbs, leaves, seeds, fruits, nuts, grains, and sap. Some cultures essentially remained in this stage of providence even as their neighbors adapted to an intensively agricultural lifestyle.


Traditional Cultures prior to 1492


Late Archaic cultures began to experiment with agriculture and thereby heralded the beginning of the traditional cultures. This transition may have taken from a few hundred to a few thousand years. These people lived more settled lives, and protected their farming communities with walls or embankments. They also developed technologies to aid in the cultivation, harvesting, and processing of food including inventing milling stones, dams and canals for irrigation, and pottery, which first appeared in this period perhaps to store the new surplus of food. Many farming cultures developed hierarchical societies in which a class of priests or chiefs had authority over one or more classes of commoners.

    Nowhere was agriculture more successful than along the highland belt from Mexico to Chile. Here food production increased creating large surpluses that catalyzed the developed of complex civilizations; populations dramatically escalated and left people time to devote to the arts, architecture, science, and commerce. The local cultures organized into diverse states, with royal families, governmental administrations, and legal/court systems. Ultimately, they became great empires of vast size, wealth, and complexity. The greatest of these were the Mayan, the Aztec, and the Inca Empires.


Geography and ethnicity


Far from serving as a unifying element, language varied widely: North America alone had from three hundred to five hundred distinct languages; Central America had about eighty and South America had at least five hundred. These languages were rich in vocabulary and intricate in structure, but only the Maya developed a true writing system.* Mayan scribes produced thousands of codices that were prepared from either tree bark or animal hides. These codices documented their religious beliefs, various political dynasties, military victories, and other significant matters. The Spanish conquistadors destroyed them in the conviction that they were an impediment to the conversion of the natives to Christianity. Their decipherment in the second half of the 20th century greatly advanced our understanding of the many inscriptions discovered on extant Maya buildings, monuments, and ornaments. Other Central and South American peoples kept records utilizing knotted cords, known as quipus, which maintained tallies of populations, animals, goods, and perhaps recorded literature. Some of these are extant and offer scholars a different information source. North of the Rio Grande, American Indians used pictographs until Europeans arrived.

    Scholars have classified the Americas into fifteen culture areas. Each culture borrowed from its neighbors and in turn influenced them. The farthest northerly of the fifteen traditional cultures was that of the Inuit/Aleut language group of the Arctic. They are more closely related to peoples from Asia than are other American Indians. Moving southerly, we come across the Athabaskan and Algonquian speakers of the Subarctic, then to the south of them the Northeast culture group that include southern Algonquians and Iroquoian tribes. Further south are Muskogean speakers who occupied the present-day Southeast U.S. To the west of the Mississippi river were found the Plains tribes who belonged to several language groups: Siouan, Algonquian, Uto-Aztecan, Caddoan, Athabaskan migrants, and Kiowa-Tanoan. The Great Basin culture occupied all of present-day Utah-Nevada as well as parts of Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and California. Most of them spoke Numic languages. Uto-Aztecan, Penutian, Yokutsan, and migrant Athabaskan speakers occupied part of California. The Northwest Coast culture included peoples speaking Athabaskan, Tshimshianic, and Salishan languages. To the east of them was the Columbia Plateau culture, which traditionally spoke Salishan, Sahaptin, Kutenai, Modoc, and Klamath languages. In the Southwest culture, they spoke either Hokan, Uto-Aztecan, Tanoan, Keresan, Kiowa-Tanoan or Penutian languages. The Navajo and Apache, relative newcomers to the area, spoke Athabaskan languages. South of the Rio Grande, in Mesoamerica, the people spoke either, Mayan, Oto-Manguean, or Uto-Aztecan. The Caribbean culture had tribes that spoke Macro-Chibchan, Arawakan or Cariban languages. In the Andean culture, that of the Inca, the chief language was Quechua. More American Indians lived in the Andean culture than in any other region of the New World. The Amazonian culture consisted of peoples speaking Arawakan, Cariban, and Ge. Parts of eastern and southern South America where farming was difficult on the poor agricultural plains are termed the Cono/Southern region; these groups spoke Wichi, Vilela, Lengua, and Ayoreo. To summarize, each culture group had its characteristic language(s), foods, art forms, musical styles, educational methods, clothing, shelter, social/political systems, and spiritual/philosophical beliefs that was shaped by its unique environment.

    Despite a multiplicity of languages and ethnicities there were far more similarities than differences amongst American Indians prior to 1492. For example, trading was an important activity. They learned much from one another as they exchanged goods and shared ideas and experiences. Traded goods travelled along routes that existed thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. In North America, people transported flint from Ohio and southern Canada, obsidian from the Rocky and Cascade mountains, copper from Lake Superior, mica from North Carolina, and shells from the coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf of Mexico. In both North and South America, people traded tobacco wherever it could not be grown. Salt was widely exchanged in agricultural areas. In Central and South America, precious metals and gems were important items of trade. While no proper money existed prior to European contact, they used several items as mediums of exchange: dentalia on the Northwest Coast, clamshell disk beads in California, beaver furs in the Subarctic, and amongst the Aztec cacao beans, or standardized lengths of cotton cloth called quachtli. By the 16th century in the Northeast several tribes made use of wampum, strung together cylindrical seashell beads. Now and then they wove pictographs—designs that symbolized figures or other shapes—into these wampum belts. Through this trade, a web of mutual influences and cultural practices thus bound the New World.


Food Sources


Farming played a major role in the food supply of most traditional American Indian cultures, for it is what defined it. At some point American Indians almost everywhere made the conceptual leap from gathering wild plants to sowing them, hence domesticating them, and in the process giving birth to agriculture in the New World.

    By far the three most important crops were corn, beans, and squash—the Iroquois even termed them “the three sisters.” One may think of them as triplets—where you found one you usually found her sisters! Corn stalks propped up the vines of bean plants, which acted as nitrogen-fixers for the soil, while the broad-leafed squash plants deterred the growth of weeds. Consumed simultaneously, the three sisters presented a diet abounding in protein and carbohydrates. In the Northeast, they planted the three sisters, pumpkins, and gourds. They also tapped the sugar maple and boiled the sap to make sugar. In the Southeast, the leading crops were the three sisters. Plains tribes grew the three sisters, and added sunflowers. Some Great Basin tribes sporadically farmed along rivers, while those in the Southwest used the Colorado River, amongst other rivers, to almost entirely provide all their food through irrigated farming. These people planted the three sisters and cotton. Periodically their farming communities experienced raids when other Southwest hunter-gatherer tribes suffered a dearth in food. This is a truism of world history! South of the Rio Grande, the Mesoamerican culture pioneered the use of chinampas i.e. artificial islands built up above the surface of a lake using mud from the lake floor. These served as a rich bed for planting crops of which the three sisters were the most important, but also included chili peppers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, cotton, tobacco, cacao, pineapples, papayas, peanuts, and avocados. The sap of the century plant was fermented and made into various alcoholic beverages, one of which was called pulque. They also domesticated birds (ducks, geese, quail, and turkeys). In the Caribbean, slash-and-burn techniques were employed. This resulted in abundant food harvests without great effort and was environmentally sound. They raised cassava, corn, sweet potatoes, and beans and in some locales cotton. In the Andes amongst the Inca Empire peoples, intensive agriculture provided an ample food supply that included the three sisters, potatoes, quinoa, sweet potatoes, cassava, peanuts, cotton, peppers, tobacco, coca, and dozens of other plants. They also domesticated the llama, used for transportation, the alpaca, for its wool and as a source of meat, and the guinea pig as a source of meat. Llama and alpaca manure provided fertilizer. They also fermented a beverage called chicha from corn, cassava, or fruit. Amazonian tribes practiced slash-and-burn techniques; those tribes living along the Amazon River had the best soil and they intensively exploited it. These natives raised the three sisters, cassava and other tubers and roots, and tropical fruits and vegetables. They also fermented a beverage very similar to chicha called cauim. Cono/Southern groups were semi-nomadic but practiced some agriculture too.




Here American Indian skills best demonstrated themselves. They built tools, weapons, and utilitarian objects that at times rose to the level of art simultaneously beautiful and useful.

    The most common form of land transportation was on foot. People carried handcrafted backpacks in which they transported everything from babies to market commodities. In the Arctic they crafted sleds and toboggans. In the Andes, some favored groups, such as Inca nobles, traveled on wooden frames carried by servants. Inca roads included handcrafted suspension bridges prepared from natural fiber rope that spanned the more hazardous Andean rivers.

    Travel by water was the most common means of transportation and native ingenuity displayed itself in many types of canoe—itself an American Indian word. Plains Indians stretched bison hides over a round frame to make a bullboat. Others made light reed boats. Even more made bark canoes, which were light and easy to carry. Dugout canoes constructed from huge hollowed-out logs were widespread. Some were as long as twenty-one meters, carried as many as sixty people, and were not without aesthetic qualities. This was the principal method of transportation in the Caribbean whose inhabitants were skilled navigators who journeyed in big, ornately decorated, seagoing dugouts outfitted with sails that were used to carry on a steady sea trade. Arctic peoples developed kayaks and umiaks, some with marine mammal intestines as sails, to wage a daily war on prey.

    War, of course, required handcrafted weaponry. The bow and arrow was probably the most common weapon. Some South American tribes put poison on their arrowheads. Many fought with spears and war clubs; they developed in the Northeast a special type of club known as the tomahawk. One Aztec weapon consisted of pieces of obsidian stuck into a wooden club. South American Indians also made blowguns and slings. In the Cono/Southern region, the most lethal weapon was the bola with which they could kill an enemy or in later times to quickly bring down a horse and its European rider.

    Almost all groups made baskets that were used to store and carry food. California Indians, who considered superbly made baskets as objects of wealth, made several of the most treasured ones; the Pomo of California were probably the finest basket makers in the Americas. They sometimes decorated them with shells, feathers, and beadwork. Pomo baskets were woven so tightly that they could hold water.

    Akin to basketry, perhaps born of it, was the art of pottery, and American Indians created a great variety of beautiful pottery. They made most of their pottery by the coil method in which pieces of clay are rolled into slender strips and laid on top of one another in spiral fashion. Artists sometimes kept the coils on the pottery as decoration but often scraped the surface smooth. Inca potters made some of the finest pottery while the Maya and Aztec painted some of their pottery with scenes of religious ceremonies. In North America, the early Indians of the Mississippi Valley made fine bowls and jars, many in the shape of animals.

    Carving, particularly woodcarving, was a common skill in virtually all regions. The Inuit prized driftwood for its use in their arts, particularly for carving the detailed wooden masks that played a significant part in their ceremonies and festivals. They also carved parts of marine mammals for use as tools, weapons, sacks, decorations, and ritual items. Walrus tusks supplied ivory, an excellent substance for the handles of weapons and tools, and they frequently ornamented these with geometric forms and other patterns. The Northwest Coast Indians made ceremonial wooden masks that had movable parts. They also carved house posts, grave markers, totem poles, ritual canoes, and ornate serving bowls for potlatch feasts. Mesoamericans created elaborate carvings including large sculptures used to decorate ancient Maya and Aztec structures or placed alongside them as monuments. They also carved jade, onyx, quartz, and other materials.   

    Large-scale metallurgy never arose in the Americas although numerous groups worked meteoric iron and some refined copper, silver, and gold into useful and decorative objects. In the Lake Superior region and the Northwest Coast, people hammered copper to form tools and weapons, or cut hammered copper into decorative or ritual objects. In the Southwest, archaeologists have recovered copper bells created through a procedure known as the lost-wax technique.* Dated to about 900 C.E., instead of being a local creation archaeologists suppose them to be something acquired in trade from Mexico where the metalworking technology had appeared from South America some years prior. Even though the Caribbean Indians produced fine pieces of gold work, the Andeans excelled all others in metallurgy. They knew how to make bronze and how to cast, solder, and gild metals. They utilized gold and silver items such as models of llamas, alpacas, and humans, as offerings in the Inca rite of voluntary child sacrifice, a practice that astonished the Spaniards when first seen.




Clothing demonstrated the ingenuity of American Indian peoples. First of all footwear ran the gamut from light moccasins to heavy boots. In the Arctic, they kept warm by turning animal hides and furs into parkas. Subarctic Indians made most of their clothing from moose and reindeer hides. In the Northeast and Southeast, tribes made extensive use of buckskin. The Plains Indians also used buckskin but utilized bison hide much more. In the Great Basin, bark aprons and breechcloths, rabbit hide robes, and other animal hides were worn. On the Columbia Plateau people typically wore a bark breechcloth or apron and a bark poncho.

    Weaving was common south of the Rio Grande but did occur elsewhere. In the Southeast they wove plant fibers so well that the early white settlers thought the material was actually cotton cloth; additionally, they used the inner bark of the mulberry tree as a raw material for making thread, rope, and textiles. On the Northwest Coast, the fiber from the inner bark of the cedar, in addition to mountain-goat hair, served as a raw material for making garments and beautiful blankets. Because of the mild climate California peoples wore little clothing; women typically wore a short skirt made of animal hide or woven plant fibers, men wore a breechcloth. They traditionally wore clothing in the Southwest made of animal hides and woven plant fibers. The Pueblo wove cotton cloth before the arrival of Europeans. The Navajo took up wool weaving later and became famous for their blankets and rugs. In Mesoamerica, commoners wore simple clothing woven from agave plant fiber or maguey, and the upper classes wore brightly colored cotton garments that they often lavishly dyed and decorated. In the Caribbean, clothing was of woven cotton; men wore a breechcloth and women wore a short skirt. In the Andes, the Inca people wore garments made of woven cloth, usually wool (alpaca, llama, and vicuna) or cotton. The weaving was so fine that it has not been improved upon—even with power looms. Most Amazonian tribes went nude preferring to adorn themselves with jewelry and colorful headdresses made from bird feather; when they did wear clothing it was of woven cotton tunics, skirts, and belts. In the Cono/Southern region, Indians used yarn spun from native cotton/palm fibers that were woven by hand. Additionally, American Indians also wove fibers into mats and wall coverings, hats and sandals, and fish traps.




Shelter varied with geography. Most Arctic peoples spent the winter in well-insulated houses built partly underground or in temporary snow houses called igloos. In summer, they lived in lighter animal hide tents. In the Subarctic, they lived in small, animal hide or birch bark covered, conical tents with a pole frame that vented smoke at the top. The shelter of choice In the Northeast was the dome-shaped wigwam. However, the Iroquois were famous for building longhouses of wooden poles and bark sheets that could house up to ten families. In the Southeast, they built circular winter houses with cone-shaped roofs or rectangular dwellings with sloping thatched roofs. On the Plains, the dwellings were mostly portable tepees, or dome-shaped earthen lodges. Each household employed a dog to haul a travois after they had fastened their tepee and additional possessions firmly to it. The poles of the travois also functioned as the main poles for the tepee. Great Basin tribes traditionally built two types of shelter: in summer they used semi-circular brush windbreaks; in winter they built domed wigwams covered with brush, bark, grass, or reed mats. Northwest Coast Indians usually made their houses from red cedar wood found in forests, whilst their neighbors on the Columbia Plateau built pit houses or mat-covered surface houses. The pit house had a circular form and a pit 1-2 meters deep. Over it, the smoke hole also served as the entrance. They formed the mat-covered house by leaning together poles and covering them with grass or tule mats; this eventually superseded the pit house. The typical house in California was cone or dome-shaped consisting of a pole frame covered with grass, brush, bark, or mats of tule. In the Southwest, the Pueblo lived in villages of apartment houses built of stone and adobe. Other Southwest tribes had houses with log frameworks covered with wattle and daub or thatch. In Mesoamerica, houses in the villages were made of upright poles, sometimes covered with mud or brush with thatched roofs. Virtually all dwellings in the Caribbean had palm-thatched roofs and walls of thatch or adobe. Amazonian houses were made of log frames covered with palm leaves or grass. In the Cono/Southern region, people used caves for shelter if they were available, or constructed domed huts that had a bent wooden pole framework with stitched hides positioned over it which were covered with bark or brush. A typical house in the Andes was small, rectangular, and built of stone or adobe. In higher elevations, they had gabled roofs to keep the rain off. And in the end, that’s all that’s required of any shelter.


Social Organization


The most important group for the American Indian was the family. Several families gathered as a clan and these aggregated into bands. Bands lived, worked, and traveled together. Frequently they discussed matters around a fire in a powwow. A tribe comprised a number of bands or neighboring villages. Ties of kinship, language, and cultural traditions usually linked members. A number of tribes dubbed themselves after animals and claimed descent from animal totems that symbolized their mythological history. Generally, tribes had at least two chiefs.

    Highly socially stratified tribes with only one chief became chiefdoms and contained at least three ranks.* First came a supreme ruler encircled by a small upper class of priestly-warrior elites, assumed to be endowed with miraculous powers, who guided religious and political life and sustained armies. Secondly, a middle class of governmental bureaucrats, lower ranking religious administrators, healers, architects, engineers, and merchants. Thirdly, a vast commoner class of army regulars, handicraftsmen, farmers, miners, laborers for the construction of public works, and war captives/debtors who often formed the lowest ranking slaves. These societies often taught the young in formal schools. Most children pursued their parents’ professions, but talent anywhere, as in any society, would always ascend to its level of incompetence.

   When one chiefdom conquers another, the state is born. Two cultures eventually grew into larger and more complex states/empires: the Mesoamerican and the Andean. Here huge food surpluses freed many workers from farming and reallocated them to the government, military, religious institutions, or the arts and crafts. Centralized authorities controlling masses of workers embarked on enormous public projects such as the construction of major irrigation systems, lengthy roads, bridges, forts, temples, or giant monuments—precisely as in the Old World. Significant mini-states consisted of the Olmec, Zapotec, Teotihuacán, and Toltec states of Mesoamerica; and the Chavín, Nazca, Moche, Tiahuanaco, and Chimú states of the Andean culture. The principal and most celebrated of the major states were the Maya, and the Aztec of Mesoamerica, and the Inca of the Andes. Each expanded and conquered neighbors becoming empires through a combination of military might and an official state religion.




Most American Indians believed in a supernatural force that pervaded all nature. Many also held animist beliefs in which certain people—shamans—had a special ability to communicate with these spirits and manipulate them. The shaman entered into a trance to contact a personal spiritual guide for help in healing or in foretelling the future. From controlling the weather, bringing success in warfare, locating food, or easing childbirth the shaman was constantly consulted. However, it was healing the sick that formed their primary duty. American Indians intertwined an individual’s physical wellbeing with spiritual forces; religious traditions played a significant part in preserving and reestablishing health in addition to a pharmacopeia of herbal medicines.

    Tribes used dances and other ceremonies to seek help from spiritual forces. Important ceremonies could last for many days and were usually preceded by fasting and prayer. All North American cultures as well as the Mesoamericans prepared for ceremonies inside a sweat lodge, a low dome usually constructed of willow saplings enclosed with animal hides or blankets. Here they poured cold water on a heap of scorching rocks to generate steam. Typically, a shaman intoned prayers to discharge moral and physical contaminants and aid in freeing the mind and body. To assist in these rituals almost everywhere they used tobacco for religious purposes, medicinal uses, and for relaxation. Occasionally groups mixed datura with it and imbibed it to try to produce visions, obtain a spirit helper, produce success on a hunt, or assuage illness. Numerous groups also used hallucinogenic plants to carry them into an intimate connection with the Great Spirit

    In Mesoamerica, the Caribbean, and Andean cultures temples and priests, who held political offices, were a religious mainstay. These skilled practitioners passed on their sanctified customs, and received their power from a codified body of rites studied from older priests who aided in their painstaking memorization and precise replication. As a result, priests obtained more formal religious training than did shamans, and often directed the ceremonies that commemorated major events in community life. These societies, similar to their Old World counterparts, worshiped the forces of nature as gods and grouped them into families with each one having a particular pecking order of priests. Additionally, state-level societies made sacrifices, or offerings, to gain favor from their gods. The Aztecs, who sacrificed thousands of people each year by offering their hearts to the sun god, descended to the nadir of this practice.

    Finally, American Indians endeavored to live with regard for others to achieve a full life and have an enjoyable afterlife. Most groups supposed that at death the soul sustained its existence.



Estimates vary significantly of the number of people living in the Americas prior to Columbus’s arrival. Guesses range from forty to ninety million for the entire Americas, with between two to eighteen million living north of present-day Mexico. Some anthropologists judge the peak to have happened around 1200 C.E. Archaeological data indicates that disease was already escalating in many areas in pre-Columbian times probably because of increasing population densities, inadequate diets, and poor sanitation.

    The arrival of Europeans marked the end of a centuries old way of life. European settlement radically diminished American Indian populations largely through exposure to microbial pathogens. Indigenous peoples had no immunity, and thus these diseases rapidly wiped out entire groups sometimes even before the arrival of a single European carrier. Other causes for the population declines included genocidal warfare, vast relocations/eliminations of American Indians from their homelands, and the obliteration of well-established ways of life. Their traditional means of providing a nutritious diet collapsed leading to malnutrition and an even larger vulnerability to disease. As waves of European explorers, fur traders, missionaries, and settlers swept across the New World, they left revolutionary changes in the native culture. Some American Indians became skilled at coexisting with Europeans by creating trade networks and embracing European technologies. These groups endured and, in some cases, even came back to their pre-1492 levels. Many others coped with generations of disorder and disruption as Europeans took land and tried to destroy their ways of life. However, by the twentieth century a resurgence of these once great cultures had begun.

* The term “American Indian” here used throughout is in deference to indigenous peoples’ own preferences as a collective term for them as a group.

* Additionally they had a complex calendar and extremely sophisticated mathematical methods. As early as the 1st century, the Maya developed the concept of zero—most likely pre-dating the Hindus.

* The artisan makes a model in wax, covers it with a mold of plaster or clay perforated at many points, then pours molten metal into the mold at the top till the metal fills all the space previously occupied by the wax, which runs out through the holes. He cools the figure, removes the outer mold, and files and polishes, lacquers or paints or gilds, the object into the final form.

* Ed. Note: Every complex society organizes itself into three distinct groups: a lower class forming the proletariat who work with their hands/tools, a middle class bourgeoisie of businesspeople and professionals who work with their minds, and an upper class aristocracy who work with their money/power.