We rarely think of the North American continent, prior to the arrival of the Europeans, in political terms, and we never think of it as an international system in its own right. What we have here are instead native Americans — “Indians” — who chase buffaloes, live in tipis, and engage in various “savage” forms of warfare. Since they are made up of hunters and gatherers, these societies are “stateless” by definition; they lack fixed territorial boundaries and have no political or administrative institutions. In fact, the very notion of “history” is sometimes said to be inapplicable to societies such as these. Life in North America, before the Europeans arrived, was frozen in time. As historians conclusively have demonstrated, however, these are prejudices with little evidence to back them up. In North America too there were plenty of sedentary societies, agricultural kingdoms and large states which grew rich from trade conducted in far-flung networks which included the entirety of the continent. There are indeed impressive monuments left by their activities. The fact that we know very little about these societies is our fault, not theirs.
The first societies identified by historians are those belonging to the so called “Woodland period,” which comprises the two millennia from 1000 BCE to about 1000 CE, and a geographical area which stretches from what now is eastern Canada down along eastern United States to the Gulf of Mexico. The people of the Woodland period were hunters and gatherers and they used spears, bows and blowguns in order to catch deer, elk, turkey, grouse, beavers and raccoons. But they did not hunt buffaloes. There were indeed enormous herds of buffaloes grazing further out west, but there were no horses in the Americas and buffalo hunting became economically important only in the course of the eighteenth-century. As for gathering, the people of the Woodland period collected nuts, acorns, mushrooms and wild berries, and some rivers provided a continuous supply of fish and shellfish which allowed them to sustain sedentary societies throughout the year. They worked leather, made tools and used pottery very widely. Over time an increasing number of hunters and gatherers turning to farming, slashing the trees, burning them, and planting seeds in the ashes. They grew gourds, beans, sunflowers, squash and, as always in the Americas, corn. The land cultivated in this fashion was highly fertile but deteriorated after a few years and the farmers had to move on to new land.
One main center during the early part of the Woodland period was known as the Adena culture, consisting of a number of societies in today’s Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia which shared a number of cultural practices, above all the tradition of building conical mounds which were used as burial sites and for ceremonial purposes. The dead were buried with various goods, including copper bracelets, beads and cups. The people of the Adena culture also produced various ritual objects used by shamans who sought to transform themselves into birds, wolves, bears and deer.
The societies of the Adena culture were gradually replaced by the so called Hopewell tradition, 200-500 CE, located further inland, in today’s states of Ohio and Illinois. The Hopewell societies continued to build conical mounds, but the most distinguishing feature was the very widespread trade in which they engaged. Historians have talked about the “Hopewell exchange system,” which, judging by the many exotic products discovered, must have connected much of the North American continent. These societies were not part of one state, but instead parts of an interrelated network based on trade. Hopewell societies were more complex and made distinctions between social classes. They seem to have been ruled by “big men,” leaders noted for their ability to attract followers and distribute goods and favors. Artists made use of the teeth from grizzly bears and sharks, fresh water pearls, copper and silver, in order to made decorative and ritual objects. Pipes for smoking tobacco, made from bone engraved in the form of otters, have been found dating from this period, which might have been employed in shamanic rituals. Tobacco, with mild intoxicating effects, was a way to induce transcendental states in their users.
Although the societies of the Hopewell tradition began to decline around 500 CE, the mound building tradition continued in the societies that flourished on the southern shores of the Great Lakes and in the Mississippi river valley between 800 and 1600 CE. Here there were large urban settlements, of which the city of Cahokia, in today’s Illinois, was the largest. On top of the pyramid mounds, wooden structures were erected which served as temples, burials, and centers for political administration and in some cases domestic buildings. The people of Cahokia were farmers, growing corn, but there were sizable classes of craftsmen too, and here too many engaged in trade, again with far-flung parts of the North American continent. Cahokia was a chiefdom with sharp social distinctions, inequality, and political and religious power was in the hands of a small elite. The Great Serpent, with wings and horns, is the most conspicuous symbol left on artifacts from this period. The Great Serpent belonged to a pantheon which included the sun, the moon and four stars. The falcon was another common symbol, understood as an avatar of a warrior and worn as an amulet that could longevity, a healthy family and many children.
Far further west, in today’s New Mexico and Arizona, in southwestern parts of the United States, we find the so called “pueblo culture.” Pueblo means “village” in Spanish and the village-like structure of the settlements was the first thing that struck the Spanish when they first came here in the sixteenth-century. The houses, consisted of apartments in adobe and stone, with numerous rooms and courtyards built very near and on top of each other. In addition to creating a very closely connected community, the pueblos served as defense against robbers and roving bands.
The most elaborate pueblo settlement was that of Chaco Canyon in today’s New Mexico. Its main construction contained some 700 rooms in five stories and may have housed as many as 1,000 people. This was the largest built structure in North America until the nineteenth-century. The people of Chaco Canyon built kivas, circular pits where used for ceremonial purposes, possibly as a way of symbolizing the emergence of spirits from the underworld. The number of kivas was proportional to the number of people who lived in a settlement. The Great Kiva of Chaco Canyon rival the temples, churches and mosques built in other parts of the world. Chaco Canyon was abandoned already in the twelfth-century, possibly as a result of environmental change.
There are today some 5 million people in the United States and maybe 1.5 million in Canada who count themselves as native Americans, corresponding to less than 2 percent of the US population. There are 562 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States. These “reservations” govern and police themselves and collect their own taxes. Only about a fifth of Native Americans live on reservations. There are 21 surviving and still inhabited pueblos in the south-western United States, including popular tourist destinations such as Pueblo Taos. The Natchez people of Oklahoma maintained their traditional Mississippi culture, including mound-building and other religious practices, until they were defeated by the French in the 1730s and sold into slavery in the Caribbean.