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North America Civilization

By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

North America Civilization

The area that became the United States and Canada developed very differently from Latin America. Pre-Columbian North America had no unified empires, no cities, no writing systems, and no palaces. Instead, it had a number of small civilizations that survived by hunting, gathering, farming, and a minimal amount of trading with one another. Society remained largely tribal. These early North Americans adapted themselves to the local climates, developing a wide variety of cultures, languages, styles of dress and architecture, and belief systems.

These early cultures lacked many of the key ingredients of civilization. They were not literate, they did not develop money economies based on trade, and they were subsistence farmers and hunters. However, they developed complex belief systems and created impressive and beautiful examples of art and architecture. For example, the southwestern Anasazi used adobe bricks to build what resemble modern apartment buildings, such as the famous Cliff Palace in present-day Mesa Verde, Colorado. They also dug large, shallow pits and built domed log roofs over them; these kivas were used for ceremonial gatherings and important meetings. The Pueblos built small adobe towns around central plazas that looked to the invading Spaniards exactly like their own small towns—pueblos —at home. To this day, the Pueblo are renowned for their beautiful pottery, of which many ancient examples still exist in museums.

The first Americans developed a variety of belief systems. The Pueblo religion was largely based on prayers for a good harvest—crucial to survival in the harsh Southwestern climate. Pueblos worshipped kachinas —spirits of ancestors who return to earth in the forms of plants, animals, or people. They held kachina dances to honor these spirits, believing that they had the power to heal the sick and to bring rain.

The early Navajo and Apache were hunters who used bows and arrows to hunt and harpoons to spear fish. They followed the herds on which they depended for food. Over time, the Navajo turned more and more to farming and grew more and more settled. The Apache, on the other hand, did not abandon their nomadic warrior culture until they were forced to by the encroachment of the United States government on their lands in the nineteenth century. Unable to survive on hunting alone, the Apache often raided settled villages, stealing food, livestock, and other supplies. In Apache culture, the courage and skill it took to make a raid successful were highly valued.

The Mound Builders of the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys are named for the structures they built. Among the first people to settle in this fertile area were the Adena, who arrived in the valley about 2000 BC. The Adena built mounds of dirt over the graves of their leaders and chiefs, burying bodies close together and adding another layer to the mound with each burial. Archaeologists have found copper, silver, and mica ornaments, jewelry, pottery, and pipes in these graves. The Adena and their descendants, the Hopewell, were famous for their artistic skills.

Not all mounds were built to honor the dead. The Great Serpent Mound, built two thousand years ago and still standing in Ohio, is in the shape of a snake uncoiling itself, showing its wide jaws and sharp teeth. The Adena and Hopewell built many mounds to honor animals or animal spirits. The Mississippi people, who settled farther south, built temple mounds as well as burial mounds. Some of these earthen pyramids reach a height of 100 feet. Archaeologists have found many tools and ornaments made of clay, shell, marble, copper, and mica inside the pyramids, with decorative motifs such as skulls, bones, weeping eyes, and images of death. The Mound Builders died out in the seventeenth century; historians speculate that crop failure or war were the most likely causes.

The Iroquois of present-day New York State are historically remarkable for the Iroquois Confederacy—probably the world’s earliest example of an inter- national (or rather intertribal) peacekeeping organization. The Iroquois are a nation that comprises several tribes, including the Mohawk, the Onondaga, and the Huron. Unlike most tribes, the Iroquois often fought among them- selves; their common language and culture and their geographical proximity frequently led to conflict over territory or hunting grounds.

Historians are not certain of the exact founding date of the Iroquois Con- federacy; most agree on a time frame of AD 1450 to 1600. Hiawatha of the Onondaga and Deganawidah of the Huron envisioned a council of elders and chiefs from each Iroquois tribe; the council would discuss issues of importance to their people and settle disputes. The tribal chiefs embraced the plan, agreeing to meet regularly under the Great Tree of Peace, which symbolized a healthy mind and body, compassion for others, and physical strength and civil authority. These principles would balance one another and bring about a stable and lasting peace.

Five Iroquois tribes participated: Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga, Oneida, and Cayuga. (The Tuscarora would join the confederacy later.) Each nation had its own council. The women of each tribe nominated the chiefs, taking polls among their relatives so that everyone’s opinion was heard. In effect, the chiefs, called sachems , were elected by popular vote. The sachems’ most important duty was to maintain peace within the confederacy, basing their decisions on the welfare of the people. Sachems were cautioned against losing their tempers or making hasty judgments. They could be removed from office if they committed crimes or missed too many council meetings.

The Mohawk and Seneca chiefs, called the Elder Brothers, were the first to debate any question that came before the council. They would reach an agreement, then explain their decision to the Oneida and Cayuga chiefs—the Younger Brothers. If they disagreed, the question would be taken to the Onondaga chief for a final decision. If they agreed, the Onondaga chief still had the power to adjust their decision to conform with the Great Law of the Iroquois.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

East Asian and American Civilization Practice Test

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