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American History


Culture Areas of North America



<> The culture areas of North America are
the Eastern Woodlands
the Southeast
the Plains
the Southwest
the California-Intermountain region
the Plateau
the Subarctic
the Northwest Pacific Coast
the Arctic.



Eastern Woodlands

The Eastern Woodlands culture temperate-climate regions of the eastern United States and Canada, from Minnesota and Ontario east to the Atlantic Ocean and south to North Carolina.

This land was, at one time, a forest.

When the eastern north american land was densely forested, it was first inhabited by hunters, including those who used what is called Clovis spearpoints.

About 7000 BC the climate began to get warmer. During this time an Archaic culture developed.

The peoples of this area became increasingly dependent on deer, nuts, and wild grains.

By 3000 BC human populations in the Eastern Woodlands reached cultural peaks that do not appear to be reached again until after 1200 AD.

The cultivation of squash was first learned in Mexico.

In the Midwest sunflowers, amaranth, marsh elder, and goosefoot and related plants were also farmed.

All of these were grown for their seeds, which-except for those of the sunflower-were usually ground into flour.

Fishing and shellfish gathering also became a major food source.

In the western Great Lakes area, copper was surface mined and made into blades and ornaments, and throughout the Eastern Woodlands, beautiful stones were carved into small sculptures.

In the Midwest, however, beginning in around 200 BC groups of people organized into wide trading networks and began building large mound-covered tombs for their leaders and for use as centers for religious activities.

These peoples, called the Hopewell, raised some maize, but were more dependent on types of foods also used during the Archaic period.

The Hopewell culture declined sometime after about AD 400.

By 750 a new culture developed in the Midwest.

Called the Mississippian culture, it was based on intensive maize agriculture, and its people built large towns with earth platforms, or mounds, supporting temples and rulers' residences.

Across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis, Missouri, the Mississippians built the city of Cahokia, which may have had a population of 20,000.

Cahokia contained hundreds of mounds.

Its principal temple was built on the largest, a mound 30 m (100 ft) high and roughly about 110 m (about 360 ft) long and about 49 m (about 160 ft) wide (the largest such mound in North America, now part of Cahokia Mounds State Park, Illinois).

The presence of Europeans in the Eastern Woodlands dates from at least AD 1000, when colonists from Iceland tried to settle Newfoundland.

Throughout the 1500s, European fishers and whalers used the coast of Canada.

European settlement of the region began in the 1600s. It was not strongly resisted, partly because terrible epidemics had spread among the Native Americans of this region through contact with European fishers and with Spanish explorers in the Southeast.

By this time the Mississippian cities had also disappeared, probably as a consequence of the epidemics.

The Native American peoples of the Eastern Woodlands included the Iroquois and a number of Algonquian-speaking peoples, including the Lenape, also known as the Delaware; the Micmac; the Narragansett; the Shawnee; the Potawatomi; the Menominee; and the Illinois.

The Southeast

Many Native American tribes of the Southeast culture region engaged in warfare as a major activity.

Warriors tatooed their bodies with artwork signifying brave deeds, and battles were often waged for personal or tribal glorification.

The Southeast culture area is the semitropical region north of the Gulf of Mexico and south of the Middle Atlantic-Midwest region; it extends from the Atlantic coast west to central Texas. Much of this land once consisted of pine forests, which the Native Americans of the region kept cleared of underbrush by yearly burnings, a form of wildlife management that maintained high deer populations for hunting. The early history of the Southeast is similar to that of adjacent areas. Cultivation of native plants was begun in the Late Archaic period, about 3000 BC, and there were large populations of humans in the area. In 1400 BC a town, called Poverty Point by archaeologists, was built near present-day Vicksburg, Mississippi. Like the Mississippian towns of 2000 years later, Poverty Point had a large public plaza and huge earth mounds that served as temple platforms or covered tombs. The number of Native Americans in the Southeast remained high until European contact. Maize agriculture appeared about 500 BC.

Towns continued to be built, and crafted items were widely traded. The first European explorer, the Spaniard Hernando de Soto, marched around the Southeast with his army between 1539 and 1542; epidemics introduced by the Spaniards killed thousands. Southeastern peoples included the Cherokee, the Choctaw, the Chickasaw, the Creek, and the Seminole, known as the Five Civilized Tribes because they resembled European nations in organization and economy, and because they quickly incorporated desirable European imports (such as fruit trees) into their way of life. The Natchez, whose elaborate mound-building culture was destroyed by Europeans in the 18th century, were another famous Southeastern people.

The Plains

North American Plains Culture developed around the grasslands from central Canada south to Mexico and from the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains.

Bison hunting was always the principal source of food in this culture area, until the wild bison herds were exterminated in the 1880s.

Most of the Plains peoples lived in small nomadic bands that moved as the herds moved, driving them into corrals for slaughter.

From AD 850 onward, along the Missouri River and other rivers of the central Plains, agricultural towns were also built.

Among early Plains peoples were the Blackfoot, who were bison hunters, and the Mandan and Hidatsa, who were Missouri River agriculturalists.

As European colonists took over the Eastern Woodlands, many Midwest peoples moved onto the Plains, among them the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho.

Earlier, about 1450, from the valleys west of the Rockies, some Shoshone and Comanche had begun moving onto the Plains.

After 1630 these peoples took horses from Spanish ranches in New Mexico and traded them throughout the Plains.

The culture of the Plains peoples of the time thus included elements from adjacent culture areas.

The Southwest
The Southwestern culture area is Arizona, New Mexico, southern Colorado, and adjacent northern Mexico (the states of Sonora and Chihuahua). It can be subdivided into three sectors: northern (Colorado, northern Arizona, northern New Mexico), with high, pleasant valleys and pine forests; southern (southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, adjacent Mexico), with deserts covered with cactus; and western (the Arizona-California border area), a smaller area with desert terrain cut by the valley of the lower Colorado River.

The first known inhabitants of the Southwest hunted mammoths and other game with Clovis-style spearpoints by about 9500 BC.

Remember that the timeline for animals and people in North American is continually being pushed further and further back. This means current dates are potentially not accurate, with the actualy dates being much older.

As the Ice Age ended (about 8000 BC), mammoths became extinct. The people in the Southwest turned to hunting bison (known as buffalo in North America) and spent more time collecting wild plants for food. The climate gradually became warmer and drier, and a way of life-called the Archaic-developed from about 8000 BC to about 300 BC. Archaic peoples hunted mostly deer, small game, and birds, and they harvested fruits, nuts, and the seeds of wild plants, using stone slabs for grinding seeds into flour. About 3000 BC the Southwesterners learned to grow maize (also known as corn), which had been domesticated in Mexico, but for centuries it was only a minor food.

In northern New Mexico's Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito spreads over more than three acres. The formation of the dwellings is shaped like a D. The dwellings, which date from around the 10th century, may have housed up to 1000 residents.

About 300 BC, some Mexicans whose culture was based on cultivating maize, beans, and squash in irrigated fields migrated to southern Arizona. These people, called the Hohokam, lived in towns in adobe-plastered houses built around public plazas. They were the ancestors of the present-day Pima and Tohono O'Odham (Papago), who preserve much of the Hohokam way of life.

The peoples of the northern sector of the Southwestern culture area, after centuries of trading with the Hohokam, had by AD 700 modified their life into what is called the Anasazi tradition. They grew maize, beans, and squash and lived in towns of terraced stone or in adobe apartment blocks built around central plazas; these blocks had blank walls facing the outside of the town, thereby protecting the people within. During the summer many families lived in small houses at their fields.After 1275 the northern sector suffered severe droughts, and many Anasazi farms and towns were abandoned; those along the Río Grande, however, grew and expanded their irrigation systems. In 1540 Spanish explorers visited the descendants of the Anasazi, who are called the Pueblos. After 1598 the Spanish imposed their rule on the Pueblos, but in 1680 the Pueblos organized a rebellion that kept them free until 1692. Since that time, Pueblo towns have been dominated by Spanish, then Mexican, and finally United States government. The Pueblos attempted to preserve their culture: They continued their farming and, in some towns, secretly maintained their own governments and religion. Twenty-two Pueblo towns exist today. See also Acoma Pueblo; Cliff Dweller; Hopi; Isleta; Laguna; Zuñi.

In the 1400s, hunters speaking an Athapaskan language-related to languages of Alaska and western Canada-appeared in the Southwest, having migrated southward along the western Great Plains. They raided Pueblo towns for food and-after slave markets were established by the Spanish-for captives to sell; from the Pueblos, they learned to farm, and from the Spanish, to raise sheep and horses. Today these peoples are the Navajo and the several tribes of Apache.

The Snake dance is a ritual performed in North America by the Snake and Antelope societies of the Hopi. There are many stages to this ritual, including fasting and preparing the altars. Four days are spent collecting 50 to 60 snakes. On the 16th day of the festival, performers catch snakes in their teeth and dance. The day after the ceremony the snakes are returned to their natural environment to spread the word that the Hopi are in harmony with the spiritual and natural world.

The western sector of the Southwest is inhabited by speakers of Yuman languages, including the isolated Havasupai, who farm on the floor of the Grand Canyon; and the Mojave, who live along the lower Colorado River. The Yuman-speaking peoples inhabit small villages of pole-and-thatch houses near their floodplain fields of maize, beans, and squash.

Masks play an important role in the culture of many Native American communities, including that of the Iroquois. This "false-face" mask is made of wood carved from a living tree, but the Iroquois are also known for their cornhusk masks.

The California-Intermountain Area Native Americans in the California-Intermountain region relied on a wealth of natural resources for sustenance and trade.

Along the Pacific Coast, they hunted fish and sea mammals, including sea lions and dolphins. In the interior, they hunted deer and other wildlife, as well as harvested wild nuts and grains. The Native Americans of this region also established a monetary system, using shells for currency, which facilitated trade among their various communities.

The mountain ridges and valleys of Utah, Nevada, and California resemble one another in the pine forests of the mountains and the grasslands and marshes in the valleys.

An Archaic way of life-hunting deer and mountain sheep, fishing, netting migratory birds, harvesting pine nuts and wild grains-developed by 8000 BC and persisted with no radical changes until about AD 1850. Villages were simple, with thatched houses, and in the warm months little clothing was worn. The technology of getting, processing, and storing food was sophisticated. Basketry was developed into a true art. On the California coast, people fished and hunted sea lions, dolphins, and other sea mammals from boats; the wealth of resources stimulated a well-regulated trade using shell money.

The Paiute, Ute, and Shoshone are the best-known peoples of the Intermountain Great Basin area; the tribes of California include the Klamath, the Modoc, and the Yurok in the north; the Pomo, Maidu, Miwok, Patwin, and Wintun in the central region; and the "mission tribes" in the south, whose European-given names were derived from those of the Spanish missions that sought to conquer them-for example, the Diegueño. F The Plateau Region The Plateau people in northwestern North America hunted deer and small game, while gathering fruits and nuts from wild plants in the region.

They also supplemented their diet from the region's rich salmon runs. Most salmon were caught in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The Native Americans dried the fish, preserving it as a staple for trade and winter consumption. In Idaho, eastern Oregon and Washington, western Montana, and adjacent Canada, mountains are covered with evergreen forests and separated by grassy valleys. As in the Great Basin, the Archaic pattern of life persisted on the Plateau, but it was enriched by annual runs of salmon up the Columbia, Snake, Fraser, and tributary rivers, as well as by harvests of camas (western United States plants with edible bulbs) and other nutritious tubers and roots in the meadows. People lived in villages made up of sunken round houses in winter and camped in mat houses in summer. They dried quantities of salmon and camas for winter eating, and on the lower Columbia River, at the site of the present-day city of The Dalles, Oregon, the Wishram and Wasco peoples kept a market town where travelers from the Pacific Coast and the Plains could meet, trade, and buy dried food.

This bag is an example of the Plateau beadwork done by the Yakama during the early 20th century. It is brown velvet with cotton and wool trade cloth, buckskin, and glass beads. The two horses depicted are an Appaloosa and a pinto. The bag was used to carry the bones used in a Native American gambling game called slahal, the bone, or stick, game. In slahal two teams of players drum and chant while the leader of one team guesses in which hand the leader of the other team has hidden the marked bone. Ray Fowler/Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum Plateau peoples include the Nez Perce, Walla Walla, Yakama, and Umatilla in the Sahaptian language family, the Flathead, Spokane, and Okanagon in the Salishan language family, and the Cayuse and Kootenai, or Kootenay in Canada (with no linguistic relatives). G The Subarctic The harsh climate of North America's Subarctic region, which covers most of Canada, inhibited population growth. Agriculture was impossible due to short summers and extended annual freeze periods.

Native American communities survived as nomads, hunting moose and caribou and fishing for needed food and living resources. The Subarctic region comprises the major part of Canada, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean west to the mountains bordering the Pacific Ocean, and from the tundra south to within about 300 km (about 200 mi) of the United States border. The eastern half of this region was once heavily glaciated, and its soil and drainage are poor. No agriculture is possible in the Subarctic because summers are extremely short, and so the region's peoples lived by hunting moose and caribou (a North American reindeer) and by fishing. They were nomadic, sheltering themselves in tents or, in the west, sometimes in sunken round houses (as in the Plateau region). To move camp, they used canoes in summer and sleds in winter. Because of the limited food resources, Subarctic populations remained small; even the summer rendezvous at good fishing spots drew only hundreds, compared to the thousands of persons who gathered at seasonal rendezvous in the Great Lakes or Plains regions.

The peoples native to the eastern half of the Subarctic region are speakers of Algonquian languages; they include the Cree, Ojibwa (also known as the Chippewa), Montagnais, and Naskapi. In the western half live speakers of northern Athapaskan languages, including the Chipewyan, Beaver, Kutchin, Ingalik, Kaska, and Tanana. Many Subarctic peoples, although now settled in villages, still live by trapping, fishing, and hunting. H Northwest Pacific Coast The west coast of North America, from southern Alaska to northern California, forms the Northwest Pacific Coast culture area. Bordered on the east by mountains, the habitable land is usually narrow, lying between the sea and the hills.

The sea is rich in sea mammals and in fish, including salmon and halibut; on the land are mountain sheep and goats, elk, abundant berries, and edible roots and tubers similar to potatoes. These resources supported a dense population organized into large villages where people lived in wooden houses, often more than 30 m (100 ft) long. Each house contained an extended family, sometimes with slaves, and was managed by a chief. During the winter, villagers staged elaborate costumed religious dramas, and they also hosted people from neighboring villages at ceremonial feasts called potlatches, at which gifts were lavishly given. Trade was important, and it extended toward northern Asia, where iron for knives was obtained.

The Northwest Pacific Coast is known for its magnificent wooden carvings. Northwest Pacific Coast culture developed after 3000 BC, when sea levels stabilized and movements of salmon and sea mammals became regular. The basic pattern of life changed little, and over the centuries carving and other crafts gradually attained great sophistication and artistry. Tribes of the Northwest Pacific Coast include the Tlingit, Tsimshian, Haida, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Chinook, Salish, Makah, and Tillamook.

I The Arctic The Arctic culture area rings the coasts of Alaska and northern Canada. Because winters are long and dark, agriculture is impossible; people live by fishing and by hunting seal, caribou, and (in northern Alaska and eastern Canada), whale. Traditional summer houses were tents. Winter houses were round, well-insulated frame structures covered with skins and blocks of sod; in central Canada the winter houses often were made of blocks of ice. Populations were small because resources were so limited. The Arctic was not inhabited until about 2000 BC, after glaciers finally melted in that region. In Alaska the Inuit and the Yuit (also known as Yupik) developed ingenious technology to deal with the difficult climate and meager economic resources.

About AD 1000 bands of Alaskan Inuit migrated across Canada to Greenland; called the Thule culture, they appear to have absorbed an earlier people in eastern Canada and Greenland (the Dorset culture). These people are now often referred to as the Greenland Inuit. Because of this migration, traditional Inuit culture and language are similar from Alaska to Greenland. Living in southwestern Alaska (and the eastern end of Siberia) are the Yuit, who are related to the Inuit in culture and ancestry but whose language is slightly different. Distantly related to the Inuit and Yuit are the Aleuts, who since 6000 BC have remained in their homeland on the Aleutian Islands, fishing and hunting sea mammals.

Like the Subarctic peoples but unlike most Native Americans, the Inuit, Yuit, and Aleut peoples today retain much of their ancient way of life because their culture areas are remote from cities and their lands cannot be farmed.