Pre-Columbian North America – Stages of Cultural Evolution


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.

A term meaning “Old Stone,” the Paleolithic Stage of cultural development characterizes human activities for the vast majority of our prehistory. This stage features simple tools like clubs, throwing sticks, spears of sharpened wood, the use of fire, clothing of animal skins, and simple and small social structures. The Dyukhtai cultural group was paleolithic, and this stage of cultural development can be found in North America up to about 7,000 BP.

Paleo-Indian Stage

This stage of cultural development emerged from and existed alongside the paleolithic culture. It is in the Paleo-Indian Stage that one finds the development of stone points; most notably the Clovis and Folsom points so well-known throughout North America. These points were affixed to spears or darts and aided in hunting. During this period, the megafauna like Mastodons and Wooly Mammoths began to disappear as their habitat disappeared with the shrinking ice sheet.

Archaic Stage

This stage emerged out of the previous two and made a leap forward in terms of complexity and efficiency. Tools such as fish hooks, nets, snares, as well as pottery were developed. Comprising the span from roughly 8,000 BP to 2,000 BP, Archaic peoples practiced both hunting and gathering, using hand-operated stone mills like metates (meh-tah-taze) and mortar and pestles to grind the wild grain the gathered.

Other cultural developments are found as well. Taking an example from the Great Plains Plano-Plainview culture, where millions of bison provided an abundance of protein for these foragers, one development was the buffalo jump. This was a cliff of sufficient height to disable any large animal that went over it, and people started stampedes of bison directed at the cliff. When the animals in the front of the stampede saw the cliff and tried to stop, the momentum of the stampede pushed them over.

At the bottom, a contingent of the human group waited to dispatch and process the meat, bone, and hides of the animals. This was a very efficient way of obtaining a lot of protein in a relatively short time. It enabled archaic peoples to have time to dedicate to taking care to create utilitarian artistic objects like the pottery they used or decorated clothing, etc. Another example among plains peoples during the middle Archaic (7500-4500 BP) was the use of the dog travois.

This was simply a pair of long poles tied over the back of a wolf or dog that had been domesticated, and used to pull a load in their seasonal migrations. This was also the earliest domestication of animals in North America below the arctic region.

Loss of Disease Resistance

Historians who study such things have determined that resistance to Old World diseases among the descendants of New World immigrants had dissipated by about 3,500 BP. Diseases like smallpox, measles, mumps, cholera, and others were not present in the New World. This absence was a boon to the immigrants for thousands of years, but losing the resistance the seemingly no longer needed came with a heavy price.

When Europeans began arriving from the east in 1492, they inadvertently brought diseases with them – diseases to which the indigenous Americans now had no resistance. The results were devastating. For upwards of 400 years, epidemics broke out among indigenous populations as a result of the absence of disease resistance.

Scholars estimate that as much as ninety percent of the indigenous population of the Caribbean, Central and South America died during the first century of Spanish colonization alone. In North America, the numbers were not that high, but it was common for a series of epidemics to wipe out over half of an indigenous population in a given area over the course of a few years. Obviously, this made the conquest of indigenous lands much easier for the newcomers, and they used it to their advantage.

The Formative Stage, or “Golden Age”

This encompasses the period from 2,000 BP to contact with Europeans which, of course, took place at different times in different places. The practice of agriculture made its way up from central Mexico by this time, and peoples of the desert Southwest were the first in the future United States to practice agriculture. Not only were they closer to the source of early agricultural practices in the Americas than people living in other environments, but they had a need to control their source of food.

Peoples of the Ohio Valley, for example, did not regularly practice agriculture for several centuries after it was a part of the southwestern cultures. Agriculture amongst indigenous North Americans typically took the form of the “Three Sisters.” In this system, hills were raised in a field that remained in grass, not plowed up as with European-style agriculture. In the middle of each hill, typically with much ceremony and ritual, farmers planted a few maize (corn) seeds.

Around these, they planted beans that would climb the cornstalks over the course of the growing season. Surrounding the corn and beans were squash plants, whose large leaves supplied shade that held in moisture and provided a kind of mulch for the entire micro-environment of the hill. In this way, people on the Great Plains could pursue their protein source – usually bison – in the summer while the crops matured. Indigenous cultures in the east and southwest developed great ceremonial traditions around the life-cycle of the corn plant that were central to their experience. Also during this period, the domestication of dogs and turkeys became widespread in North America.

Pre-Columbian Cultures

A number of cultural groups stand out in a survey of this time and place, and while there are too many to include in this context, a sampling will give the reader an idea of the diversity and scope of indigenous peoples in North America. In the Southwest, one of the most remembered Pre-Columbian cultures is the Anasazi.

These were the ancestors of the modern-day Pueblo peoples. They inhabited cliff dwellings and practiced rainwater irrigation — channels carved out of the dry desert soil, some of which are still in use today. The ruins found at Canyon de Chelly and Mesa Verde are two excellent examples of Anasazi towns. Taos Pueblo, a still thriving community near modern-day Taos, New Mexico, served as a trading center between the Great Plains cultures and the Southwest.

Further east, beyond the Great Plains into the Eastern Woodland cultures of North America, one finds the moundbuilding cultures. In the Ohio Valley, the Adena peoples were those who lived along the Ohio River and its tributaries before the development of agriculture. They built hundreds if not thousands of mounds for purposes not altogether clear today, but certainly for the purpose of interring their dead leaders.

Numerous of these mounds are still found today, like the Grave Creek Mound in West Virginia or the Great Serpent Mound in southern Ohio. After the arrival of agriculture in the region, a group known as Hopewell cultural complex spread through the Ohio River drainage and across the Mississippi up the Missouri River as far as the modern-day Kansas City region and northeast Oklahoma. Also moundbuilders, the Hopewell cultural group is believed to have had some influence on Great Plains peoples during the Archaic Period.

Also in the region of the “Great American Bottom,” near where the Ohio, Missouri, and Mississippi Rivers run together, the Mississippian cultural group inhabited river valleys south from the upper Mississippi south to the Gulf Coast. The Mississippians’ mounds are quite prevalent as well, must notably in the ancient city of Cahokia, which flourished from roughly 800-1200 AD.

Located just across the river from modern-day St. Louis, Cahokia was both a trading center and a flourishing cultural center where numerous mounds were erected over the course of these centuries. It is thought that a sort of high priest or central ruler lived atop the largest mound, known today as Monk’s Mound, a square mound that covers an area larger than one of the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

In excavating numerous of the Cahokia mounds, archaeologists have found shells, from the Gulf Coast, wampum beads from the Northeast, turquoise from the desert Southwest, obsidian from the Northern Rockies, and amulets and other ornaments of copper from the shallow deposits around Lake Superior. In other words, Cahokia was at the heart of a continental trading network — a network into which Europeans plugged themselves when they arrived in North America.

The result of practicing cultural relativity in the study of North American prehistory has resulted in findings of which this essay is only the most cursory treatment. In every state of the United States, much has been gleaned from treating this history seriously and acknowledging the validity and effectiveness of these cultures.

Indeed, as land-hungry Europeans and Euro-Americans encroached on indigenous peoples with their attitudes of superiority and the biological allies (disease), it is truly amazing how resilient these indigenous cultures were in the face of the witting and unwitting onslaught some historians have called the “conquest of America.”