Twenty thousand years ago, the earth was enshrouded in the last great Ice Age. The average global temperature of the time is estimated to be 59 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than today’s average. So much of the oceans’ waters were trapped in vast ice sheets that sea levels were more than 300 feet lower than today. This is the environment in which the very first Native American people reached the continent.
There is little archaeological evidence describing what life must have been like for the hunter-gatherer peoples crossing the land bridge spanning the Bering Sea from what is now Siberia to Alaska. Evidence found later, dating from 8,000 years ago and forward from that time, suggest rapid diversity of life and culture of these Native American peoples.
As temperatures rose, the Native American hunter-gatherers migrated further south, and new lands were settled. Cultural diversity of these Native Americans was influenced by the geography and the indigenous plant and animal species discovered by the Native American peoples.
Permanent Native American settlements were established about 4,500 years ago and cultural differences become more evident. The style of architecture employed in these settlements reflected the environment – long houses of the Pacific Northwest tribes, pueblo dwellings in the Southwest, circular houses at Iddins, Tennessee, and mound complexes at Poverty Point, Louisiana.
Native American tools became more complex and utilitarian as cultures diverged. Craftsmanship in tool making was expanded to include the manufacture of jewelry, pottery, and works of art. Native American rituals and ceremonies were developed that reflected the spiritual beliefs of these peoples.
The Native American Adena culture, along the Ohio River valley, is thought to be the first in the Midwest to establish burial mounds, which contain the remains of tribesmen both interred and cremated. Widespread evidence of the practice of medicine, even surgeries, by the Native Americans is dated at 3,000 to 4,000 years ago.
The spread of the Native American peoples brought about miraculous advances in everyday living but the population of the Americas is not without tragedy. The high level of skill shown by the Native American hunters led to the extinction of a number of species, including the long-gone mammoth. There is evidence in certain locations that indicate the horrors of tribal warring and conquest among the Native American peoples, too.
Perhaps the greatest tragedy to befall the Native American peoples is found in recent history, with the arrival of the “white man” from Europe about 500 years ago. The once-flourishing cultures of the North American continent faced new and deadly challenges they were simply not able to overcome.
Some of these lethal challenges to established Native American culture were technological – the railroad and the rifle. Others were medical – smallpox, measles, firewater. Still others were moral or ethical – land ownership, materialism.
Today, almost half of the Native Americans in the United States live on Indian reservations while most of the remaining half live in cities.