In this episode I discuss the people that lived in the Americas before Europeans arrived, how they arrived, and what their legacy is.
2018 population estimates place the Alaskan Native and American Indian population to be about 6.9 million, which is about 2% of the US population estimated in 2018.
In the late 1400s it’s estimated that the indigenous population was 6 million and upwards of 10 million in North American. How did the population decrease over 500 years?
The UK’s population went from 4.1 million in 1570 to 67 million last year. Between 1492 and 1776, North America lost population because the Native Americans were dying faster than colonists were arriving and will get to all the reasons why.
The exact date is debated by archaeologists, but several thousand years ago there was an Ice Age. It is estimated that the sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today because so much of it was contained in large masses of ice at either poles of the earth.
It revealed a land bridge from the eastern end of Siberia to the western end of what is now modern day Alaska. It is what we now call the Bering Strait.
As the Ice Age came to a close and the climate started to change, their food source started to change as well and it became easier to traverse further and further south in pursuit of better lands and new sources of nutrition. It was imperative that these indigenous peoples sought out new lands and new ways to sustain themselves.
It is estimated that these groups lived in communities of a few dozen. The fewer number of people in your group, the easier it is to travel. Most archaeological sites have been discovered near rivers, lakes, and other sources of fresh water. These have been referred to as the Paleo-Indians.
Horticulture really took off and some tribes were able to develop hybrids to create more productive plants. Maize, beans, and squash became the Three Sisters that dramatically increased the population and started a move away from hunting and gathering in some areas.
One well known example is the ancient capital of the Aztec empire, Tenochtitlan, which is modern day Mexico City. At its height it is estimated that this city was close to 400,000 people. Ruled by Montezuma, Tenochtitlan was nearly five square miles at it’s height, housed the emperor’s massive 300 room palace, included hundreds of temples, and had quite a nice market where it wasn’t uncommon to find 60,000 buyers and sellers on market day.
The Maya are an ancient people dating back to around 9,000 BC who lived in the present day Yucatan and Southern Mexico into Northern South America. It is a well agreed upon notion that the Maya survived primarily off of their farming. Farming became an important factor in their survival due to the increase in population.
Some scholars suggest that the initial type of farming method used by the Maya was the swidden technique, but this soon was unable to support the growing population. Swidden farming, pejoratively called the “slash and burn” technique, essentially is a crop rotating system where they would farm annual crops for 1-2 years, and then let it remain fallow for up to 20 years, during which they would only cultivate perennial crops.
One of the major cities for the Maya was a place called Tikal, located in northern Guatemala. It is believed to have been constructed as far back as 1,000 BC but really began to rise in importance around 100 AD. The city contains over 200 buildings. many made of limestone which you can go see today. It had a central plaza, several pyramids, temples, and a ballcourt where they played the ball game.
The Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was the largest city of it’s day, but it was inspired by another city called Teotihuacan, which is about 31 miles north east of Mexico City. The city was built on a grid pattern facing 16 degrees east of north, had suburbs, sections where foreigners would be housed in, temples, pyramids, and a population of about 200,000 up until the year 600/700 AD.
For some reason the city fell around 750 AD but when the Aztecs stumbled across it hundreds of years later, they named it Teotihuacan, which means “place of the gods.” It rises to 216 feet tall and is 720 x 760 feet at the base consisting of 1,000,000 cubic yards of material.
North America, there are a few settlements that should be noted. A couple of people group known as the “Hohokam” and the “Anasazi” developed in the American southwest starting around the year 300 AD. The Hohokam, residing in what is now southern Arizona in the Salt and Gila River Valleys, built over 500 miles of irrigation canals to water their squash, beans, and maize.
The Anasazi, “which means ancient outsiders,” lived among the canyons and cliffs, and would catch and retain winter rainwater in reservoirs and use it during the spring and summer to water their crops through what was essentially an aqueduct system.
The Mississippians people built large towns the surrounded a central plaza where a pyramid typically sat. The chiefs of the towns would stay in wooden temples that topped the earthen pyramids. Their chiefs were quasi-gods who they believed to be related to the sun, which was the main focus of their worship.
Mound Builders is the name given to these groups of Indigenous tribes because well, they built mounds. These large mounds were burial sites that consisted of hundreds of tons of dirt. The largest one know was 900 feet in circumference and 70 feet tall.
Starting on, the east coast and moving westward, there are a few geographic areas, called cultural regions, that the indigenous tribes have been categorized into due to shared nature of their lifestyle and resources available and what not.
They are the Eastern Woodlands, which was Illinois over to the Atlantic essentially and up to Maine. There was the Southeast region, encompassing Virginia down to Florida and over to Louisiana. The Great Plains as you can imagine cover the middle of the US: the Dakotas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, parts of Texas and Montana.
There was the Southwest, which is Arizona, New Mexico, Parts of Texas and down into Mexico. The Great Basin includes modern day Colorado, Utah, Nevada, parts of California, Idaho, Oregon, and Wyoming. The California region is Western and Central California down into Baja. The Northwest region is coastal Oregon and Washington up along the coast of Canada, And finally the Plateau region covered the rest of Oregon and Washington up into mainland Canada.