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Growth Through Immigration, Ancient Immigrants and Early Cultures

European Canadians, cliff dwellers, Aleuts, Hawaiian people, Beringia

The earliest arrivals of humans into the territory that is now the United States are poorly documented, but archaeological work provides an idea of when human settlement began in the Americas. Most anthropologists believe that small groups of hunters and foragers began migrating from northeastern Asia to northwestern North America at least 15,000 years ago. These ancient migrants crossed to North America during the most recent of the ice ages, when glaciers had frozen much of the world's water on land. At that time, sea levels were lower than they are today, and a natural land bridge, called Beringia, linked present-day Siberia and Alaska. The earliest archaeological sites in North America, dated at more than 11,000 years old, indicate that humans quickly spread south and east across the continent. Separate waves of peoples migrated to the Americas over thousands of years. The last of these occurred around 4,000 years ago when the Inuit and Aleut peoples arrived in what is now Alaska from northeastern Asia. Other migrations include the Hawaiian people, who arrived from the island of Raiatea, near Tahiti in Polynesia, in the 7th century ad. More migrations to Hawaii from the same region occurred through the 13th century.

By the 15th century thousands of separate groups lived in North America, speaking hundreds of mutually incomprehensible languages and many more related languages and dialects. The cultures were as varied as the languages, ranging from agricultural, mound-building cultures in the Southeast and in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys to the cliff dwellers in the Southwest, and from the complex fishing societies in the Northwest to the foragers of the northern Great Lakes. These various groups were neither static nor homogeneous populations. They only seemed alike to the later-arriving Europeans, who mistakenly labeled all these groups as “Indians.” In fact, recent histories of native America show that towns and cultures emerged, prospered, and sometimes fell because of changes in climate, technology, or available resources. Warfare, diplomacy, and trade also affected native cultures and settlements. The peoples of America have always exhibited social, political, and economic diversity, and American history did not begin with European settlement.

The arrival of Europeans and Africans starting in the late 16th century brought irreversible changes. As the European population grew, conflicts developed between Europeans and Native Americans over the control of the land. From the early 17th century to the late 19th century, war, disease, and the confiscation of land, resources, and livelihoods took a severe toll on all native populations. In what are now the lower 48 states, a native population that ranged from 1.5 million to 8 million or more prior to European conquest was reduced to 243,000 by 1900. On the Hawaiian Islands, the native Hawaiian people numbered 300,000 when Europeans arrived in 1778 and only 135,000 by 1820. In Alaska, 20,000 Aleutian natives existed before contact with Europeans in the 18th century and only 1,400 by 1848.

Entire peoples and ways of life disappeared, and straggling survivors formed new nations or tribal groups with the remnants of other groups, moved to new territories, and adopted various social, economic, and military strategies for survival. Some migrated west, ahead of the advance of European migration. Some went to Canada, where westward settlement by European Canadians occurred somewhat later and where government relations with native peoples were somewhat less harsh. The overall decline of native populations masks periods of recovery and the continued resistance of native peoples, but the dominant trend was one of a steep decline in numbers. This trend was not reversed until the second half of the 20th century—by the 2000 census, 2.5 million Native Americans, including Inuits and Aleuts, lived in the United States.

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