The First Peoples in the Settlement and Colonization
Archaeologists believe that the first people to settle the Americas came here from Asia, walking across a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. These Asian nomads followed herds of animals on which they depended for food. Eventually, these people settled all habitable regions of North and South America and the Caribbean islands. Groups were small and widely scattered, and each one eventually developed a tribal identity, language, and culture all its own.
No one knows when these first Americans arrived. The oldest human bones ever found in North America are 13,000 years old, but other archaeological evidence suggests that human habitation goes back much farther than that. Archaeologists continue to gather and study the evidence.
This map shows human settlement in North America at the time the first Europeans began to explore the continent. You can see the diversity of America- Indian tribes and the places where they settled.
The early American cultures had two major characteristics: diversity and unity. Both characteristics were related to the land, the climate, and natural forces.
Across all America Indian tribes, culture was dictated by the climate and natural resources in the area where the people settled. Native Americans hunted local animals, ate local fruits and vegetables, and made their houses of whatever natural materials were easily found in the area.
Except for nomadic tribes, America Indians did not travel very far beyond what they considered to be their own territory. Tribes of the Mississippi delta, for instance, would never journey upriver to communicate or trade with tribes at a distance. Therefore, cultural exchange among Native Americans remained at a minimum, and tribal identities remained distinct and individual.
All Native-American cultures were (and remain) united by certain shared characteristics. The most important was respect for the physical environment. American Indians depended entirely on the land for their food, clothing, and shelter, so they treated it with care. Native-American religious rituals for many tribes involved prayers for good weather, harvests, and hunting. American Indians believed that nature was not to be mastered, but to be served and maintained.
Compared to Europeans, American Indians were not technologically advanced. They made everything they needed, but they did not invent machines. The tools and weapons they made were relatively crude and unsophisticated, because their needs were simple. Ancient American-Indian pottery and woven baskets remain both beautiful and functional to this day.
Politically, most North American Indian tribes were democratic. Because tribes were small groups of people, it was easy to consult everyone’s opinion and consider it in making decisions. Most Native-American cultures were matriarchal; the women of the tribes held important positions as heads of families. However, chiefs were male, and in theory if not in fact, councils of men made most tribal decisions.
Tribes that lived near one another communicated and traded on a regular basis. These groups of tribes formed nations—tribal associations based on similar linguistic, religious, political, and cultural characteristics. Democracy in pre-Columbian America reached its most sophisticated form among the tribes of the Iroquois Nation of the Northeast. The Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawk tribes were prone to quarrel. During the 1400s, tribal leaders agreed that it was time to form a regular council in which conflicts could be settled peacefully. They agreed to form a confederacy. Elders and chiefs chosen by popular vote from each of the five tribes would meet to discuss issues of importance to their people. The founders of the council agreed that all decisions were to be made based on the welfare of the people. Chiefs could be removed from the council for committing crimes.
A sixth nation, the Tuscarora, joined the Iroquois Confederacy during the 1700s. In the colonial period, the Confederacy provided a powerful bulwark against British expansion. Although its power to affect national policy waned after the American Revolution, it continues to meet to this day.
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