Modern humans were on the move twenty thousand to fifty thousand years ago. This is when they arrived in Western Europe, Australia, Asia, and Siberia. We can be confident that it was in this period, too, that modern humans made their first forays into the Americas. Glacial expanses covered northern Europe, Asia, and much of what is now Canada. These conditions limited movement in some directions while enabling it in others.
Two principal human migration models are widely accepted. The first and most well entrenched is the Beringia land bridge thesis, which posits that the last major ice age drew so much water out of the oceans that the Bering Strait was exposed land (albeit much of it covered in ice). That means that 50,000 to 10,000 years BPE, humans and other fauna could have occupied various niches in Beringia, gradually and incrementally working their way east into the Americas. This was not a stampede, or at least it is unlikely to have occurred that way. There are reckoned to have been at least four distinct migrations of humans across Beringia, the last occurring around 11,000 BPE.
Archaeologists and anthropologists in the 1960s and ’70s pieced together a model of migration that involved an ice-free corridor to the east of the Rockies. This is the area where two major ice sheets—the Laurentide and the Cordilleran—met. If the ice sheets parted long enough, if food resources were sufficient, and if the landscape was passable for humans on foot, then this thesis would help explain the relatively early appearance of human-made artifacts in Tse’K’Wa (a.k.a. Charlie Lake Cave near Fort St. John, British Columbia) and Clovis, New Mexico. Increasingly, however, this theory has been challenged in two ways. First, the evidence that there were sufficient resources to sustain southbound human populations in the corridor is thin and, according to some, unconvincing. Second, while a study of bison populations shows that the genetic pools of northern herds from Alaska and the Yukon did in fact mix with those of southern herds—strong evidence of an ice-free corridor—that scenario offers an alternative possibility: perhaps humans followed the southern herds northward.
With these concerns in mind, a second theory has become more widely entrenched. Ice sheets posed no barriers to sea-borne peoples who, over generations, island-hopped from Asia to the non-glaciated coastal regions of the Americas (beginning roughly at the forty-ninth parallel). This explains the early appearance of human artifacts on the central coast of British Columbia and at Paisley Caves in Oregon. Once into the unglaciated regions, human migration accelerated and expanded eastward and southward, perhaps mainly continuing along the Pacific coast. Monte Verde in Chile has yielded evidence of human occupation dating back 12,000–14,800 years, although more recent data suggests an even older occupation date of 18,500 BPE. If these discoveries hold up, then it follows that humans were on the Northwest Coast long before they left footprints on Calvert Island.
These two models reflect what is sometimes called the “short chronology theory,” which argues that the earliest human migrations came after the greatest extent of the last ice age. A “long chronology theory” suggests that human migration occurred earlier still, as much as 40,000 years BPE. Bluefish Caves in the Yukon have yielded evidence of a human presence 28,000 years BPE, but these findings remain somewhat controversial.
What is perhaps most remarkable is the speed of this human movement. Scholars debate the motivations of early occupants of these continents: were they pushed or pulled into new territories? Were they fleeing bad conditions or drawn farther east and south by promising resources and better weather? The answer is probably a mix of all these factors, but—without underestimating the real magnitude of a thousand years here and a thousand years there—it seems clear now that modern humans had, by about 12,000 BPE, occupied many distinct and unique niches in what we think of as the Western Hemisphere.
Forty years ago, the consensus among scholars was that this settlement was perhaps half as old. Indigenous stories, however, consistently pointed further back in time and even pointed to specific locations. Archaeological finds move the academically-approved arrival date back every year or so, moving it ever closer to where Indigenous sources have planted their flag. The likelihood of archaeological science going much further must be increasingly slim. Some of the most promising sites for earliest occupation are submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean, compromised by other natural environmental changes, or paved over by modern settlements. For our purposes, however, the date does not need to be extended deeper into the past. Humans have been in the Americas for about fifteen thousand years, building communities, developing values and beliefs, naming things and forging languages, experimenting with economic activities and systems of government, and from time to time, moving about. We need to acknowledge, too, that for many thousands of years the Indigenous peoples of the Americas have been writing the history of Turtle Island in their memory.
Indigenous societies have their own accounts of the beginnings of the human presence in the Western Hemisphere. These stories are both historically grounded and contemporarily relevant; they describe real lineages and places, albeit usually with the use of metaphor. These stories link Indigenous communities directly to the places they occupy, and sometimes to places their ancestors abandoned.
Most of these traditions contain similar—and familiar—elements. Typically, they start with a first woman or man, sometimes with a first couple. Oftentimes, these progenitors arrive out of the natural world, brought forth by animals or elements like the sky or water. While it is common to find the natural world making a conscious effort to produce the first humans, it is less often the case that an omniscient “creator” crafts humans who are separate from the rest of the world; there is rarely a division in these tales between humans and nature.
These elements are so widespread and so similar across the Americas as to constitute a tradition in their own right: humanity is an extension of the natural world—of flora, fauna, and even geology—rather than something new that was imposed on nature (as is the case in the Judeo-Christian tradition). In many of these sagas, humans interact and cooperate with animals (some of them capable of adopting different forms) and elements like the sea or the sky; in a few accounts, humans are very much beholden to and taking direction from animals and elements. All of these stories point to a very different understanding of the human relationship to “nature” or, more broadly, the whole environment when compared with the views held by Christians and many Asian belief systems.
For example, the first Iroquoian—in the form of Kanien’kehá:ka (the name used by the Mohawk)—fell from the sky. An elderly couple of great virtue survive various trials to give birth to the peoples of the Earth, according to the Mi’kmaq. Animals play important roles in these stories as well. In the creation story of the Haida, Raven arranges things nicely and then releases the first humans from a clamshell. The Cree tell of the Earth mother’s offspring/agent Wisakedjak (a shape-changing and benign trickster whose name is widely mispronounced as “Whiskey-Jack”), who peoples the world. And there are stories that involve a singular creator, such as the Niitsitapi (a.k.a. Blackfoot) figure Napi, who moulds the world and everything in it from a lump of mud. The oral traditions of the Lenape/Delaware and Iroquoian peoples, along with records from the Anishinaabe Midewiwin scrolls, refer to “Turtle Island,” a useful convergence of origin tales that has acquired broad acceptance among Indigenous peoples since the 1970s.
These origin stories encapsulated and shaped the worldview of each group, establishing their people’s purpose in this world as well as their relationship to the spirits and the world around them. In other words, origin stories are key to establishing a group identity and a deep connection with the region the people inhabit. It is also the case that these stories are invoked by Indigenous peoples as sufficient to their needs as regards history. Perhaps carbon dating can prove that ancient peoples crossed Beringia or paddled in proto-kayaks along the West Coast, but these stories retain their importance as allegories of cultural birth on an island of mud at a time beyond memory.
The Archaic and Woodland Periods
From 10,000 to 9000 BPE, Earth’s climate began to warm, and the North American environment changed. A warming world created opportunities for plants to thrive and diversify. Huge lakes began to form as glaciers and ice caps melted. About eight thousand years ago, Hudson’s Bay began to take shape beneath the last major glacier. As a result, the northern coastline across what is now Nunavut was the last to take its recognizable shape. The disappearance of ice across the northern half of the continent allowed humans to reach the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of the St. Lawrence in increasing numbers. About 5,000 years BPE, the Arctic Archipelago emerged and humans began to make their mark on the far north, especially around the Beaufort Sea, but also in Nunavut. It was in this era as well that a human presence is detectable in what is now Ontario, along both the Great Lakes and the Shield. Over the next six thousand to seven thousand years, Indigenous cultures developed and diversified during the and the , 10,000–3000 BPE and 3000–1000 BPE, respectively.
Throughout most of this period and across almost all of North America, humans were dependent principally on food they could hunt or gather. The disappearance of megafauna created greater reliance on bison on the Plains and in most other parts of the continent as well—including the valleys of the interior of British Columbia. Indigenous peoples also made increased use of plant materials and, from about 9000 to 7000 BPE, West Coast societies started organizing themselves around salmon fishing and sea mammal hunting. The Nuu-chah-nulth of Vancouver Island, for example, began whaling with advanced long spears at about this time in their history. On the opposite coast, subarctic sea-mammal hunting got underway around the same time, enjoying a solid run to about 3500 BPE. Along both the Pacific and Atlantic, longhouses appeared as communities became sedentary (at least seasonally) and eager to take full advantage of ocean and foreshore resources.
It was, as well, during the Archaic and Woodland periods that the peoples of the Americas began to domesticate plants, leading to one of the most important transformations in human history: the development of agriculture. Conventional accounts describe Mesoamerica (the area between Central Mexico and Costa Rica) as the cradle of agriculture, but evidence exists for multiple sources. It is agreed, however, that the most complex farming societies first appeared in Central America and coastal Peru in the Norte Chico (or Caral-Supe) civilization. (In this regard, the original Indigenous farmers of the Americas were roughly contemporaneous with farming breakthroughs in China, the Middle East, and the Nile Valley.) There were many elements to this transition, one of the earliest being the growing of squash, attributed to peoples around Oaxaca, Mexico. Vines were tended so that the hard fruit could be used as containers. Eventually, more tender forms of squash became a food source. Following the domestication of beans, around 6000 BPE, Mesoamerican peoples became more sedentary. Finally, (a.k.a. corn) was domesticated sometime around 5500 BPE. All of these crops were managed and selectively grown so as to improve their appearance and output. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the enormous variety of maize that appears across North America in the last three thousand years or more.
These three plants—corn, beans, and squash—constitute the “three sisters” at the heart of almost every truly agricultural Indigenous society, and were a mainstay of North American farmers. These are complementary crops in that their nutrients work well together in the human diet (although corn can be hard on the teeth), and they support one another in the fields. Maize stocks give beans a pole to climb, and the beans recharge the soil with nitrogen—which maize would otherwise exhaust on its own. Squash vines cover and cool the ground, preventing dehydration of the other sisters and fighting back competitor plants; their leaves compost naturally, assisting the work of the beans. Additional crops—tomato, potato, sunflower, tobacco, strawberries—were developed over thousands of years, several of them apparently showing up first in North America.
Indigenous peoples experimented with the domestication of animals, but there were few good candidates in the Americas. Turkeys and dogs were notable exceptions in Mesoamerica and further north. Horses, a species that may have originated in the Americas, disappeared along with the megafauna some eight thousand years ago. The remaining options were few. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep are fiercely recalcitrant creatures and almost impossible to contain, let alone domesticate. The Americas provided ample herds of bison, deer, and caribou, but no equivalent of African cattle to turn into a placid source of milk, meat, and hides. Most significantly, perhaps, there were no pigs or even boars to pen up and dine on. Turkeys were domesticated and they have the advantage of size and ease of capture, but they do not produce eggs (and thus offspring) as prodigiously as chickens.
The ramifications of having few domestic animals are significant to the history of Indigenous peoples. The absence of large draught animals meant that land had to be cleared and prepared by human energy alone. Soil exhaustion could be mitigated to some degree by composting or using fallow field practices, and the ploughing methods used in Eurasia and Africa were much harder on the earth than the manual planting approach found across the Americas. But Indigenous farmers lacked access to the sort of fertilizers that cattle- and chicken-rearing peoples could exploit. The inability to secure a farmed source of meat-protein meant that Indigenous diets necessarily relied more heavily on wild game and fish for protein than was the case in much of Europe, Asia, and Africa. In urbanized places like the Valley of Mexico, deer and comparable prey were, not surprisingly, hunted to their limits. In more northerly territories, one strategy that was widely adopted was to become more nomadic or semi-nomadic so as to exploit scattered wild herds and distant spawning grounds; that mobility itself worked as a constraint against large-scale and concentrated populations. Mobility, as well, afforded the advantage of being able to avoid dependence on environmentally-vulnerable crops; against that, mobile foraging strategies imply smaller units of hunters and their families. Even the successful farming communities of the North were obliged to augment their agrarian economy with wild meat and fish, which is a much more time-consuming task than slaughtering hogs, regardless of the dietary advantages. Further, the lack of dairy animals precluded women from weaning their infants onto cow, goat, or sheep’s milk, which meant that infants were breastfed longer, and that, in turn, limited a woman’s lifetime fertility. Finally, the absence of domesticated animals meant that Indigenous peoples were not exposed to cross-species infections and epidemics. For fifteen thousand years or so this was a good thing, but after contact with Europe, Africa, and Asia it was disastrous.
The Last Four Thousand Years
When we speak of “civilizations,” we typically mean, first and foremost, the appearance of complex social orders that include social stratification (political elites, lower or commoner classes, and usually an official spiritual cadre of some kind), a significant concentration of population and households, and some specialization of labour (such as artisans, healers, engineers/builders, preparers of food, warriors, or spiritual leaders). In the Americas, the first such civilization arose on the Peruvian coast sometime around 3500 BCE: Caral-Supe or Norte Chico. About two thousand years later, the first major North American civilization—the Olmec—appears along the Gulf Coast in what is now southeastern Mexico. The Olmecs produced monumental stone sculptures and appear to have devised the first written language in North America. They may, too, have pioneered the Long Count calendar that was used and modified for thousands of years by different cultures across Mesoamerica. Olmec influence was extensive, and elements of it show up in almost all successor civilizations across Mexico and Central America.
Mayan centres began to appear around 1800 BCE and developed a strong agricultural and temple-building tradition, along with Olmec-style city-states. By 250 CE, the Mayan civilization entered into a long phase of stability and sophistication, which continued for another 600+ years. This makes the Maya one of the longest-lasting civilizations in human history. Independent Mayan centres survived until the late 1600s and, although subjected to colonial oppression, there are reckoned to be some six million Mayan people today, many of whom continue to nurture elements of their ancestral cultures and economies.
Contemporary with the classical Mayan civilization, the city-state of Teotihuacan in the Valley of Mexico rose to prominence as one of the largest cities on Earth. Its foundations were laid around 300 BCE, and roughly seven hundred years later it reached its peak with a population estimated between 150,000 and 250,000 people. This put it into the top ranks of the largest cities in the world. Cosmopolitan and commercially dynamic, Teotihuacan—with its two massive pyramids—had a powerful influence on Mayan civilization at its peak, despite being a younger development. It was an important hub of trade, with goods arriving from both the Caribbean and the Pacific coast, as well as from what is now northern Mexico.
Teotihuacan collapsed around 600 CE for reasons that remain unclear. Other civilizations would pick up the slack in Mesoamerica, culminating in the Aztec/Mexica Empire (1428–1521 CE), which was centred on the massive city-state of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). This was part of a wave of Nahua migrations from northern Mexico, an area strongly associated with the cultivation of beans and other forms of dryland agriculture. The Mexicas’ predecessors—including the Toltecs—had established powerful warrior-states and theocracies, a trend the Mexica copied and evolved still further. A theocratic empire based on tribute from its provinces, the Nahua/Mexica (still often referred to as Aztec) had an enormous range of influence at their peak. It is worth recalling, as well, that they originated somewhere close to what is now the American southwest, and so had connections that extended well to the North.
Remote though these Mesoamerican giants might be from the sub-Arctic and northern maritime regions of North America, their experiences point to some important long-term patterns. First, these were civilizations with staying power. Teotihuacan flourished for about seven hundred years; Mayan centres of worship, learning, administration, and commerce were around for nearly two thousand years.
Second, these were not stagnant or isolated communities. They engaged in trade, and their belief systems evolved, deformed, reformed, and changed—repeatedly. And they engaged in both warfare and diplomacy with their neighbours (near and far), developing complex systems of authority. The history of the Nahua in particular points to dramatic migrations of Indigenous peoples: they moved more than 1,000 km to set up their town—which became a massive city—in the Valley of Mexico. Indigenous peoples in North America—as per these examples—cannot be said to be either sedentary or persistently mobile: their civilizations both set down roots for millennia (as was the case on BC’s central coast) and relocated in search of better prospects. An illustration of long migrations is provided by Athabascan-speakers who headed south from the Chilcotin Plateau to establish the Diné (a.k.a. Navajo) and Apache societies.
Third, the Mesoamerican civilizations towered over dozens of other civilizations and perhaps hundreds of smaller but significant cultural centres. Productive and complex communities were the rule, not the exception.
Fourth, collapse and renewal is an important theme. The Mexica/Aztec clawed their way to the top of a competitive league table of warrior and theocratic states. It wasn’t all peace amid the cornfields prior to ca. 1500. Indigenous civilizations cycled through infancy, maturity, decay, and collapse, and this was something that was known to their citizens. The Mexica, with their cyclical and fatalistic view of the cosmos, knew that their meteoric rise would end in a fall.
Finally, the spread of Mesoamerican agricultural knowledge throughout North America tells us something about the connectedness of these communities. Whether directly and suddenly or through a more incremental process of diffusion, the major civilizations around the Caribbean appear to have had an influence on much of the rest of North America in terms of agriculture and civic organization. The Mississippi River and its tributaries were to play a key role in this process.
An Era of Plenty in the Centre of North America
Agricultural communities spread through the centre of North America from about 200 BCE to 500 CE. These are associated with what is called the Hopewellian tradition. The Ohio Valley, the western Hudson Valley, and the lands draining into Lake Michigan are all candidates for the earliest expressions of this culture. It consisted principally of trade in goods, and is marked by an elaborate network of commerce along river systems. A trademark feature, as well, is ceremonial or burial mound building. These features can still be found in areas north of the Great Lakes. The Laurel Complex is an example. It extended west to east from central Manitoba across northern Ontario to southern Québec. This culture is expressed in archaeological remains dating back as much as 2300 years before the present (ca. 300 BCE), and it lasted until about 900 CE. Clusters of mounds near the north shore of Lake Superior along the Rainy River at Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung (now a National Historic Site) are a reminder of this presence in the heart of what became Anishinaabeg territory. Linked to an important river corridor leading north and west, this cluster of villages would have been an influential and prosperous marketplace.
Roughly contemporaneous with the Laurel Complex is the Point Peninsula Complex, a trade network also strongly identified with elaborate ceramics traditions. Ceramics—both in Point Peninsula and in Laurel settings—tell us that these societies were becoming increasingly sedentary. Any kind of pottery, even the surprisingly thin kind produced in this area north of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes is—unlike tight-woven baskets—heavy and fragile and difficult to transport. Ceramics, however, are not necessarily evidence for year-round sedentism, although some permanent or at least semi-permanent villages were likely emerging at this time. Ceramic containers were used across the sub-Shield region for storing harvests of wild rice and other food products that precede the cultivation of maize in the North. As in the Laurel Complex, Point Peninsula sites contain burial mounds, including the Serpent Mounds at Keene, Ontario. These cultural complexes both declined around the time that full-time agricultural societies were making their appearance throughout the Hopewellian network zone.
Gathering and tending or encouraging plant growth was clearly well established across the northern half of North America by the time of Laurel and Point Peninsula. Elements of northern agriculture—specifically the cultivation of squash—have been dated at 2300 BCE. Maize first appears in the archaeological record around 500 BCE. Its arrival in the North is connected to the diffusion of the triad along the continent’s main river corridors. Theculture (ca. 500–1400 CE) fostered the spread of farming and extended—and expanded—the Hopewellian mound-building tradition. This was a large cultural complex that took in the Ohio drainage basin and all of the lower Great Lakes, and reached the southeastern-most points of North America.
The Mississippian civilization is marked by several important developments. These involve substantial urban centres, a stratified social order including a hierarchy of chiefdoms and spiritual leaders, a cadre of specialized artisans, and extensive commercial range. Matrilineality was another feature of the Mississippian culture, meaning that descent—and status—followed the mother’s family. Not all matrilineality in North America has its roots in this culture, but the Mississippian civilization ensured that matrilineality would become the dominant practice throughout the centre of the continent. In terms of their spiritual lives, the Mississippians developed a ceremonial complex that took root across the Eastern Woodlands. Some of the largest mounds were evidently dedicated as temples to spiritual activities. For most of their nearly nine-hundred-year history, the Mississippians built cities and towns without fortifications. This is noteworthy precisely because fortifications became increasingly common after about 1300.
The greatest of the Mississippian centres was located near to present-day St. Louis, Missouri. Cahokia began to emerge sometime after 600 CE and peaked about four hundred years later with a resident population reckoned to be between ten thousand and forty thousand people. This would make it on par with London ca. 1200–1300 and the largest city in the Western Hemisphere north of Mesoamerica. There were more than one hundred mounds, some of them enormous. The implication is that a considerable workforce would have been mobilized and directed in the execution of these projects, one of which was a 10-storey-high pyramidal mound.
The openness of the Mississippian cities and towns—of which there were many—reflects their dependence on trade. Goods reached Cahokia from the northern reaches of Lake Superior, and the influence of the Mississippians can be seen in sites as far afield as the Bow Valley in Alberta, the Tiger Hills in southern Manitoba, along the Wəlastəkw — a.k.a. St. John River — in what is now New Brunswick, and in the farming villages of the Eastern Woodlands that appeared two or three centuries before the Mississippian cultures went into decline.
The Mississippian culture and Cahokia in particular coincide with what is called the Medieval Warming Period from ca. 950 to 1250 CE. The end of that period of weather favourable to the development of agricultural communities probably contributed to the decline of the mound-building centres. The Mississippians may have, as well, over-harvested the local fauna; the environmental impacts of their large populations on forests and soil quality as well as other resources were probably additional considerations. In all likelihood, however, it was the advent of the “Little Ice Age” beginning in the late 1200s that led to famine and abandonment of the Mississippian cities and villages. (Notably, the evidence suggests that Wolastoqiyik (a.k.a. Maliseet) farming at Meductic persisted and survived through adaptation and a favourable microclimate.) Indigenous communities thereafter may have elected to keep their numbers in check so as to avoid a repeat of this crisis. Certainly, the desperate and violent conflict that took place between Iroquoian peoples of this period—and the peace-oriented confederations that were brokered soon after—has been ascribed to unsettled environmental and economic conditions.
- Jonathan C. Driver and Mariele Guerrero, eds., Archaeological Work at Tse’K’Wa (Burnaby: Simon Fraser University, 2015). ↵
- Beth Shapiro et al., “Rise and Fall of the Beringian Steppe Bison,” reproduced in Driver and Marielle, Archaeological Work, 107–8. ↵
- Terry Glavin, “What makes the Ice Age Footprints Found in B.C. so Remarkable,” Maclean’s, April 4, 2018, https://www.macleans.ca/society/north-americas-oldest-human-footprints-are-in-b-c-and-older-than-anyone-thought/. ↵
- Chickens were introduced to South America’s west coast in the early 1500s by Spanish ships sailing out of the Philippines. There is, however, tantalizing evidence that chickens reached Peru earlier via Polynesian routes before the Columbian era. Alice A. Storey et al., “Investigating the Global Dispersal of Chickens in Prehistory Using Ancient Mitochondrial DNA Signatures,” PLoS ONE 7, no. 7 (2012): e39171, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0039171. ↵
- On Wolastoqiyik/Maliseet agriculture, see Jason Hall, “Maliseet Cultivation and Climatic Resilience on the Wəlastəkw/St. John River During the Little Ice Age,” Acadiensis 44, no. 2 (2015): 3–25 ↵
- Early in 2019, researchers in England reported their findings on a study of the environmental impacts of a massive depopulation of the Western Hemisphere after contact. Their study supports the hypothesis that so many people died and so much land was thereafter no longer tilled that reforestation occurred across a huge territory, leading to greater carbon uptake and, consequently, colder global temperatures. The second trough in the “Little Ice Age,” then, may have been the result of virgin soil epidemics. Alexander Koch et al., “Earth System Impacts of the European Arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492,” Quaternary Science Reviews 207 (25 January 2019): 13–36, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2018.12.004 ↵