Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History
by Alan Axelrod
Who’s on First?
(50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S)
Look at a map that shows the north Pacific Ocean. You’ll find the Bering Sea, an arm of the Pacific bounded on the east by Alaska, on the south by the Aleutian Islands, and on the west by Siberia and the Kamchatka Peninsula. Near the north end of the Bering Sea is the Bering Strait, which, lying between Alaska and Siberia, connects the Bering Sea with the Chukchi Sea of the Arctic Ocean. At its narrowest, the strait is only 55 miles across, the shortest distance between the continents of North America and Asia. Fifty-five miles in icy cold water is a long swim, but not much of an ocean voyage. Historians believe that once upon a time, there wasn’t even that 55 miles of water between the continents.
A Stroll Across the Bering Sea
Several times during what paleontologists call the
45,000 Years of American History (Abridged Version)
The trek across Beringia was not really an evening’s stroll. It must have consumed thousands of years. By 9000 B.C., it’s likely that the former Asians reached Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America. In between, in the area that is the present-day United States, the population of what we now call
These Native Americans, thinly distributed over a vast area in bands of a hundred or even fewer individuals, lived for thousands of years on the ragged edge of subsistence. They didn’t develop great cities, but, as nomads, wandered, hunted, and foraged together. Then, perhaps 9,000 years ago, some bands began to domesticate plants in order to supplement foraged and hunted food. By the beginning of the 16th century, when Europeans first made contact with Native Americans, they were cultivating maize, beans, and squash, as well as manioc, potatoes, and grains.
Agriculture fostered a more stable lifestyle than hunting and gathering, and the horticultural groups lived in tribes. Along with relatively stable sources of sustenance and substantial populations came more or less permanent houses organized into villages, usually led by a recognized
Living at a subsistence level, it’s not surprising that, within the area of the United States, the Native Americans left little material evidence of their ancient cultures. In the Southwest, archaeologists have identified a people they call the
The Mound Builders
In the meantime, to the east, in a vast area stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the eastern, edge of the prairies, and from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, other Native Americans were building cultural monuments of a different kind. From about 1000 B.C. to after A.D. 1500, many different Indian societies constructed earthworks that modern archaeologists classify as burial mounds, platform or temple mounds (which served as the foundations for important public and private buildings), and circular and geometric ceremonial earthworks. Archaeologists further recognize two traditions among the mound-building cultures: the
The Woodland mounds were built in eastern North America from about 1000 B.C. to the beginning of the 18th century. The earliest were simple, enclosing only a few burials, but later mounds often reached 80 feet in height, took many years to construct, contained numerous burials, and even included log tombs. The largest and most elaborate of the mounds was built in southern Ohio by people of the