The diverse and complex history of North American peoples before Columbus is a story that is under-remembered; it deserves its place in American history.
Early European colonists in North America often thought that Native Americans and their works were products of the “Lost Tribes of Israel” or other migrants from the known world of Europe and the Mediterranean. Until relatively recently, the writers of American history only mentioned them in passing as a supplement to the founding of the United States and its expansion across North America.
This “Whig” history, as it is known, (the first U.S. historians were “Whigs,” people who supported the revolution against Britain), dominated American history well into the twentieth century and can still be found in some circles today. This is a very ethnocentric history; which is to say, it is written from a viewpoint that sees cultures other than the expanding, white male-dominated, Anglo-Saxon culture of the early republic using the value-system of that culture.
Indian cultures, (the name itself reflects European ignorance), were seen as inferior because they did not have institutions familiar to the Europeans. Colonists used a “description-by-deficiency” when they wrote of indigenous Americans. Ethnocentrism, then, is looking at other cultures and using one’s own culture to evaluate it, thus creating what many scholars have come to call, “The Other.”
Since the late nineteenth century and the rise of the science of anthropology, scholars have made greater efforts – albeit painstakingly slow – to see indigenous peoples on their own terms. Cultural Relativity is a term that means using a culture’s own value system to analyze it.
For example, some indigenous Americans, when gathered together on special occasions like holiday gatherings of extended families at, say, the Sundance Ceremony of the northern plains, prepare dog meat for special ceremonial dinners. This is not unlike the practice of eating a turkey at Thanksgiving among the dominant culture. People born into this dominant culture would likely be repelled by the practice of eating dog meat. But the practice cultural relativity would mean asking if there is a particular reason why dog meat is consumed.
By reaching across the cultural gap and trying to understand what is happening within the unfamiliar culture, one would learn that it is traditional in indigenous American societies to assume that the traits of the animals one eats are imbued to those who eat them. What might one imbue from eating a dog in this context? One of the primary traits dogs exhibit is loyalty. So when an extending family comes together on a special holiday they eat food that imbues loyalty among the group, a characteristic that can be appreciated by all humans.
The Prehistory of North America
The effort to see history through culturally relative eyes has resulted in a clearer understanding of the richness of indigenous American culture before colonization. Anthropologists and archaeologists have found solid evidence that human beings came to North America at least 15,000-20,000 BP (Before Present), and some evidence suggests much further back than that, perhaps up to 50,000 BP. Certainly, since the Pleistocene Era (Ice Age) has subsided (ca. 12,000 BP), humans have been flourishing in the Americas, building sophisticated societies and pursuing continent-wide trade.
The Pleistocene Era saw the advance and retreat of the polar ice sheet into North America numerous times. The last time it advanced roughly to the southern edge of the Great Lakes is known as the Wisconsin Glaciation which ended roughly 12,000 BP. With all of this water tied up in the ice sheet, sea levels were lower, and there was a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia scholars refer to as “Beringia.”
The archaeological evidence shows that by this time there was a cultural group anthropologists refer to as the “Dyukhtai” that could be found in both modern-day Siberia and Alaska. This was the cultural group that began a migration from the Old World to the New by way of Beringia. Scholars generally consider this to be the primary route for the original discoverers of America.
As the ice sheet retreated, these people followed large animals, or megafauna, southward down the High Plains just east of the Rocky Mountains where an ice-free corridor had formed. They found their way to the lands south of the ice sheet, spread out and modified their cultures to meet existing conditions. As North America gradually warmed up, these cultures became increasingly diverse in response to the increasing variety of environmental conditions south of the ice sheet.
These differences are both complex and vague because we have only the archaeological record and techniques such as dendrochronology to acquire and evaluate evidence. But a general picture emerges that can be broken down into a kind of chronological map of cultural evolution in North America.