Our President, if he wants another four years in the Oval Office, would do well to forget America First, and talk (tweet) about the First Americans. They are much more what our country is all about.
Time was – and it wasn’t long ago in geologic terms – when the vast territory of the Americas contained no people at all. A lush wilderness of prairies, mountains, and woodlands, sparkling with lakes and rivers, teeming with wildlife, the lands of North, Central, and South America were unmarred by humankind. Then the ancestors of the people later called Indians arrived – crossing from what is now Siberia to Alaska over a land bridge created by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. Those First Americans remain shadowy figures; their lives are mostly a mystery. The record they left must be stitched together from their tools, their bones, and the other fragmentary traces that remain of their existence. But in recent years, scholars and scientists have made discoveries that dramatically change the story of how humans first entered, explored, and populated the Americas. And the more we know about the First Americans, the more we must marvel at the monumental achievements of their many cultures. The First Americans arrived as nomadic, Stone Age hunter-gatherers, dependent for everything, including life itself, on the herds they followed and their success in killing and butchering such formidable prey as mammoths and giant bison. As the glaciers melted and the sea rose, their descendants were cut off from other cultures, with no knowledge of civilizations blooming in Africa and Asia. Over time, the First Americans adjusted to changing climates and environments and independently developed tools, weapons, and hunting techniques, improving on those that their ancestors had used. They learned to trade with other tribes, to farm and store food, to weave baskets and cloth, and to fire pottery. They moved vast quantities of earth to create irrigation systems and build sacred temples, monumental earthworks, and entire cities. They developed rich languages and used them to create myths, poetry, religions, systems of government, and political alliances. They created art that still has the power to dazzle and inspire. It’s a common misconception that the First Americans were little more than savages when compared with the great civilizations of China, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley – cultures that took root long after America’s first people arrived. In truth, men and women all over the world were living as nomadic hunter-gatherers until the first vestiges of agriculture made their appearance, and two of the six “cradles of civilization” had their origins in the New World. For at least 50,000 years, before people learned to farm, change was painfully slow. Generation after generation of hunter-gatherers lived the same lives, hunted the same prey with the same stone weapons, built the same flimsy shelters, and moved constantly in the quest for game. Then, about 9,000 years ago, things changed. Almost simultaneously, people in six regions around the world learned that if they stuck seeds into the ground, plants would grow and produce more seeds, which they could eat. At first, this was a haphazard business. They would plant in the spring, let the crop take care of itself, then collect whatever survived after three or four months. The results were marginal, and the fruits of their efforts could not have been more than a dietary supplement. But, slowly, people learned they could produce bigger crops if they tended the plants and defended them from weeds and pests. In time, they improved the quantity and quality of their crops by setting aside the seeds of the best plants to sow the following year. Farming forced the hunter-gatherers to settle down in permanent villages, where bigger crops and more leisure time led to the development of weaving, basketry, pottery, and other arts and crafts – and the slow evolution of religious, political, and social organizations. This process began, spontaneously and more or less concurrently, along the Nile in Egypt, the Yellow River in China, the Tigris and Euphrates in ancient Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley in South Asia – places we have come to call cradles of civilization. In the New World, two more cradles of civilization developed independently on roughly the same schedule: Norte Chico along the coast of Peru, and Mesoamerica in southern Mexico and Guatemala. Even after people first learned to farm, it took another 5,000 years – 250 generations of humans – for that change to give birth to true civilizations with complex cultures, cities, monumental architecture, and powerful dynasties. Details of the cultures differed from one cradle of civilization to the next: The people of Norte Chico never discovered ceramics, and although Mesoamericans knew about the wheel, it played no major role in their daily lives. But their accomplishments were nonetheless monumental. About 5,400 years ago, fully 1,000 years before the first pyramid was built in Egypt, people in Norte Chico were erecting huge earthen platforms rivaling the pyramids at Giza in size and scope. And the progress continued. In Mexico, the Spanish conquistadors arriving in 1521 were dazzled by the beauty and grandeur of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, a city with ten times the population of Madrid at the time. The vast canal system of the Sonoran people in the American Southwest irrigated tens of thousands of acres, and the grand Anasazi dwellings in Chaco Canyon stood as the biggest structures north of Mexico for hundreds of years after the Europeans arrived. And it wasn’t until Philadelphia grew to 40,000 people in the 1780s that any city in the United States surpassed the population, five centuries earlier of the mound builders’ great metropolis on the Mississippi, Cahokia. No single book can do justice to a saga dating back at least 15,000 years and encompassing such a range of challenges, crises, and accomplishments. This account will explore how the First Americans arrived and spread across the continents, and go on to detail four of the vastly different civilizations they created: the desert society of the North American Southwest, the mound-building communities of the Mississippi Valley, the whale-hunting culture of the Northwest Coast, and the dazzlingly complex city-states of the peoples of Central America.