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Early Cultural Interaction, Native America in 1580

Powhatan confederacy, Incas of Peru, medieval London, Pueblo peoples, confederacies

The lands and human societies that European explorers called a New World were in fact very old. During the Ice Ages much of the world’s water was bound up in glaciers. Sea level dropped by hundreds of feet, creating a land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Asians walked across to become the first human inhabitants of the Americas. Precisely when this happened remains unknown, but most scientists believe it occured before 15,000 years ago. When the last glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago (thus ending this first great migration to America), ancestors of the Native Americans filled nearly all of the habitable parts of North and South America. They lived in isolation from the history—and particularly from the diseases—of what became known as the Old World.

The Native Americans who greeted the first Europeans had become diverse peoples. They spoke between 300 and 350 distinct languages, and their societies and ways of living varied tremendously. The Aztecs of Mexico and the Incas of Peru built great empires. In what is now the United States, the Mississippians built cities surrounded by farmland between present–day St. Louis, Missouri, (where their city of Cahokia was larger than medieval London) and Natchez, Mississippi. The Mississippians’ “Great Sun” king ruled authoritatively and was carried from place to place by servants, preceded by flute–players. The Pueblo peoples of the Southwest lived in large towns, irrigated their dry land with river water, and traded with peoples as far away as Mexico and California.

In the East, the peoples who eventually encountered English settlers were varied, but they lived in similar ways. All of them grew much of their food. Women farmed and gathered food in the woods. Men hunted, fished, and made war. None of these peoples kept herds of domestic animals; they relied on abundant wild game for protein. All lived in family groups, but owed their principal loyalties to a wider network of kin and to their clans. Some—the Iroquois in upstate New York and the Powhatan confederacy in Virginia—formed alliances called confederacies for the purposes of keeping peace among neighbors and making war on outsiders. Even within these confederacies, however, everyday political organization seldom extended beyond villages, and village chiefs ruled their independent–minded people by consent.

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