Paleo Indian (Lithic stage) 16,000 BC-8000 BC
Clovis Culture – 13,500 BC to 11,000 BC
Dalton Period – 8500-7900 BC
Archaic Period 8000 BC to 3000 BC
Woodland Period 3,000 BC to 1670 AD
Mississippian 1000 to 1520 AD
North American archaeology divides the history of pre-Columbian North America into a number of periods from the earliest-known human habitation through the early exploration of the New World by Europeans.
While the phrase “pre-Columbian” literally refers to the time preceding Christopher Columbus’s voyages of 1492, in practice, the phrase is also used to denote the entire history of indigenous American cultures until those cultures were extinguished, diminished, or extensively altered by Europeans, even when this happened long after Columbus. This era is also called precontact, pre-colonial, or prehistoric America.
The Americas are thought to have been first inhabited by Asian nomads who crossed the Bering Land Bridge, now the Bering Strait. At the end of the last Ice Age, the land bridge was exposed due to low sea levels. Exactly when the first group of people migrated into the Americas is subject to much debate, but genetic findings suggest that people migrated from southern Siberia and crossed over to America about 18,000 years ago. Further archaeological evidence shows that by 15,000 years ago, humans had made it south of the Canadian ice sheets. Over the course of the next millennia, people spread to all parts of the continent but it would be several thousand years before the first complex civilizations arose. These people are referred to as living in the Paleo Indian period. Within this time frame, several cultures and traditions have been identified including the Clovis Culture and Folsom and Dalton Traditions.
These early inhabitants of the Americas were hunter-gatherers, and even after the emergence of advanced civilizations, such hunter-gatherer societies inhabited most of the continents’ area until the 18th century.
Artifacts have been found in both North and South America which have been dated to about 14,000 years ago, and humans are thought to have reached Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America by this time.
As time went on, many Native American groups began an agricultural way of life, dating back to perhaps about 7000 BC and numerous pre-Columbian societies became sedentary, such as the Pueblo peoples, Mandan, Hidatsa and others, and some established large settlements, even cities, such as Cahokia, in what is now Illinois. Some of these groups also built civic and monumental architecture, major earthworks, and complex societal hierarchies.
Many of these civilizations had long ceased to function by the time of the first permanent European arrivals in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, and are known only through archaeological evidence and native oral history. Other civilizations were contemporary with the colonial period and were described in European historical accounts of the time.
Before the development of archaeology in the 19th century, historians of the pre-Columbian period mainly interpreted the records of the European conquerors and the accounts of early European travelers.
It was not until the 19th century that the work of archeology and scientific methodologies began to be used. Because the first Native Americans kept no written records, historians analyzing this time period must rely upon artifacts and search for clues in order to better understand the lifestyles of these earliest Americans. Historians often divide history into two segments: prehistory and history. Prehistory is defined as the period of time in which no written documents existed.
Although not all experts agree on the exact dates for each period, the classification of prehistoric life into distinct ages helps historians emphasize the features shared by cultures during given periods.
©Kathy Weiser-Alexander, January 2020.