History Files History Files
Donate add-in

The Americas



Early Cultures IndexEarly Americas

The pre-history of the Americas seems comparatively short in terms of human activity, but small windows of opportunity to view events can be gained through archaeology. Masses of material are found each year by archaeologists, and a system was long ago needed to help organise all these findings. The system that evolved in the early twentieth century was one that involved cultures, with each culture being defined by distinct similarities in burials, settlements, technology, or objects in space and time. Archaeological cultures remain the framework for global prehistory.

These cultures are defined on the basis of pot sherds, grave types, architecture, and other material remains. They are meant to capture and define regional variation within a broad sweep of generally similar artefacts. They show the progress of cultural advancement, where such advancement usually means replacing one culture with another to highlight a marked progression. This practice tends to result in a profusion of cultural names, some of which refer to the same culture but which bear different names when they cut across modern national borders. Every attempt has been made here to combine different cultural names that refer to the same culture. The relationship between the archaeological cultures listed here and the living cultures which they represent may seem tenuous, but every attempt has also been made to link, where possible, perceived social and linguistic cultures with their matching archaeological cultures. The social and linguistic fields are more theoretical than the archaeological ones, and there is resistance on both sides by academics when it comes to accepting the other, but recent progress has shown that both disciplines can work well together. DNA research is doing a great deal to further this.

The earliest migrations into the 'New World' of the Americas seem to have begun between 40.000 and 15,000 years ago. These first arrivals made the most of the Bering land bridge which joined Asia to North America during the most recent ice age. Elements of modern Native American society prefers to propose that they have always been living in the New World and that a migration simply did not take place, while others hotly contest the proposed dates for the first arrivals. In fact, it is quite clear that there was not one long migration but several, perhaps hundreds, each depositing small groups of new arrivals. However, the starting point for these many migrations may have been northern Canada, from one or more small populations that made the journey across the Bering Straits and then incubated in Canada for several thousand years (see 22,000 BC, below).

The anthropologist Douglas C Wallace has studied modern human habitation of Africa over more than the last 100,000 years to their very origins. His studies in relation to migration into the Americas are backed up by DNA evidence that proposes not a land bridge migration but a seaborne movement from south-east Asia. The scene he reconstructs depicts groups of prehistoric, intrepid seafarers moving not out of Siberia, as has long been assumed, but across the Pacific Ocean to reach the Americas around 12,000 to 6,000 years ago. Doubtless this is one possibility for many of the later migrations, and it would make many American Indians distant cousins of the Polynesians.

Prehistory IndexThe earliest cultures of the Americas are perhaps the easiest to catalogue and also amongst the most frustrating, the latter due to the relatively small number of artefacts (and also population figures) left behind to provide evidence of existence. These early cultures include the near-universally widespread Palaeo-Indian era and the Clovis culture. These are especially interesting as they chart human progress after around 25,000 BC, roughly around the time at which the most recent ice age was building to a peak (very severely in Europe and less so in Central Asia). Humans in the Americas had no cultural competition except from other humans, provided of course that they could survive another 15,000 years of ice age (see the 'Prehistoric World' index for information on pre-modern human Earth, via the link on the right).

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, and from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Link: Humans in America (Phys.org).)

Anasazi ruins

c.128,000 BC

FeatureDating for mastodon remains found in southern California seemingly shatters the timeline of human migration to the Americas, pushing the presence of hominins (not modern humans) back to 130,000 years ago. The teeth and bones of a elephant-like creature which are unmistakably modified by human-like hands, along with stone hammers and anvils, leave no doubt that a species of early human has feasted on its carcass. The identity of this species of human is not known, but the most likely candidates include Homo denisovan, Homo erectus - prolific in Asia from around 1.8 million years ago - and, less likely, Homo sapiens (archaic). (See feature link to start with the earliest of these.)

50,000 BC

FeatureThe dimensions of prehistoric skulls which are found by archaeologists in Brazil match those of the aboriginal peoples of Australia and Melanesia. The site is at Serra Da Capivara in remote north-eastern Brazil, where cave paintings provide the first clue to the existence of these people. They could reach South America as far back as 50,000 BC, with their arrival most likely due to their ocean-going vessel being blown off course.

Early Cultures IndexPalaeo-Indian Era (Mesolithic)
c.40,000 - 8000 BC

The term Palaeo-Indians or Palaeoamericans is applied to the first peoples who entered and afterwards inhabited the Americas during the concluding glacial episodes of the late Pleistocene period. The prefix 'palaeo-' originates in the Greek adjective, palaios, meaning 'old' or 'ancient'. The term 'Palaeo-Indians' relates precisely to the 'stone-tools' period in the western hemisphere and is different from the term 'Palaeolithic'. Until comparatively recently, the first prehistoric Native American communities were regarded as being part of the Clovis culture. An improved picture of events has shown that quite a bit happened before the rise of the Clovis, but the Palaeo-Indian era still provides an umbrella for the Clovis culture, the Western Fluted Point tradition, the Post Pattern culture, the Folsom tradition, the Plano cultures, and the Cody complex.

Traditional theories suggest that big-animal hunters crossed the Bering Straits from North Asia into North America over a land and ice bridge (referred to as Beringia). Modern human populations were undergoing rapid expansion during this period, also entering Europe after at least twenty thousand years of less vigorous expansion following migration out of Africa. This land bridge existed between about 45,000-12,000 BC. Minor, isolated groups of hunter-gatherers migrated alongside herds of large herbivores (Pleistocene megafauna, such as mammoths and mastodons), far into Alaska. From around 16,500-13,500 BC, ice-free corridors developed along the Pacific coast and the valleys of North America. This allowed animals, followed by humans, to migrate south into the interior.

FeatureThe exact dates and routes travelled by the Paleo-Indian migration are subject to ongoing research and a great deal of discussion (some of it heated). Various sources contend that Palaeo-Indians migrated from Asia across the Bering Straits and into Alaska sometime between about 40,000-16,500 years ago (with the earliest proposed dates being the most heatedly-discussed - see feature link). Sea levels were significantly lower at the time due to the Quaternary glaciation - huge amounts of water were locked up in the ice. Another proposed route takes the migrants down the Pacific coast to South America, either using primeval boats or on foot. One recent theory has pioneering groups of Pacific natives making the perilous trans-Pacific crossing towards the Aleutian Islands, thereby bypassing the land-bridge route across Beringia (this theory seems unaware of the likelihood that the Aleutians were part of this land bridge - see 30,000 BC below).

One of the few points that can be agreed is that North Asia was the place of origin of these people, with extensive habitation of the Americas during the late glacial period, around 14,000-11,000 BC. Evidence and linguistic factors link many indigenous Americans to eastern Siberian populations. The blood types of native American aboriginal peoples have also been linked to Siberia. However, alternative theories about the origins of Palaeo-Indians continue to persist, including migration from Europe. Despite the controversy, there is evidence for at least two separate migrations from North Asia. Then, between 8000-7000 BC, the climate stabilised, leading to a rise in population and advances in lithic (stone) technology, resulting in a more sedentary lifestyle.

(Information by Mick Baker and Peter Kessler, with additional information from A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry, David K Faux, from Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability, and Transmission, Benjamin W Roberts & Marc Vander Linden (Eds), and from External Links: Science Advances, and Humans in America (Phys.org), and A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas, Adam Rutherford (The Atlantic), and The first Americans could have taken a coastal route into the New World, Bruce Bower (Science News), and Mastodon meal scraps revise US prehistory, Jonathon Webb (BBC), and From Siberia to the Arctic and the Americas, Douglas Wallace (DNA Learning Center), and Tracking the First Americans, Glenn Hodges (National Geographic).)

40,000 BC

FeatureEvidence exists in New Mexico to support an early arrival of humans in the Americas. What appear to be human footprints are preserved in volcanic ash in the town of Clovis, although the claim that they are human is controversial.

Berengia's land
An archaeologist's view of Alaska's modern coast wouldn't look too much different from the coastal regions of Berengia, the lost 'continent' of land that once linked the Americas to the Far East

30,000 BC

The period known as the Last Glacial Maximum begins around this time. The planet is subjected to a cold snap that sucks up ocean waters into glaciers and ice sheets which extend outwards from the poles. Current estimates shown that the sea level falls somewhere between sixty and one hundred and twenty metres lower than it is today. Previously submerged land is exposed all the way from Alaska to Russia, and all the way southwards to the Aleutians, a crescent chain of volcanic islands that speckle the northern Pacific. The prevailing theory about the first peopling of the Americas concerns them using that Alaska-Russia land 'bridge' (more of a lost continent than a bridge) - Beringia.

25,000 BC

For the moment, despite increasing evidence to the contrary, this is the earliest generally-accepted arrival date for the first migrants to enter North America from Siberia via the Bering land bridge.

22,000 BC

An emerging theory which is being expanded by DNA data involves the first peopling of the Bluefish Caves (Yukon, Canada) around this time. These people apparently represent a culture that remains isolated for thousands of years in the cold north, incubating a population that will eventually seed the rest of the Americas. This idea has become known as the Beringian Standstill.

These founders had already divided themselves from their Siberian cousins of the Aurignacian culture around 40,000 BC when they entered Berengia. They reach the Bluefish Caves around 22,000 BC (perhaps with some influence from and interbreeding with the early Mal'ta-Buret' people of Siberia) and remain there until around 14,000 BC. DNA analysis of the genomes of indigenous people show fifteen founding mitochondrial types not found in Asia. It is new gene variants from this population that subsequently spread across the Americas but do not cross back into Siberia - the land bridge has been submerged.

Nowadays, the levels of genetic diversity in modern Native Americans - derived from just those original fifteen - are lower than they are in the rest of the world. Again, this supports the idea of a single, small population seeding the Americas, with little admixture from new populations for many thousands of years.

Mastadon bones
Unbroken mastodon ribs and vertebrae, including one vertebra with a large, well-preserved neural spine, which have been dated around 130,000 years old and which seem to show signs of handling by non-modern humans

15,000 BC

Another theory for the peopling of the Americas places this event towards the end of the most recent ice age, at a point at which glaciers have just receded from a cluster of southern Alaskan islands. Life-supporting habitats appear soon after the ice has melted, allowing people to spread southwards by stopping off at coastal retreats along the Gulf of Alaska and down through British Columbia. The contention is that the ice-free corridor that would permit a land-based southwards migration will not be anywhere near as hospitable as early as this, so a coastal migration should be the preferred option. Prior to this, Douglas C Wallace's seaborne migrations from south-east Asia are given an earliest proposed arrival date of 12,000 BC.

12,550 BC

Dated to this period, stone tools and bones from a butchered mastodon are found by archaeologists at the bottom of the Aucilla River in Florida. A wealth of further evidence is pulled from the same murky sinkhole which includes many more tools, animal bones, and dung samples with chewed-up vegetable matter that allows for conclusive, accurate carbon dating. Before the river and sediments are laid down at a later date, this area appears to contain a water hole at which both animals and humans gather. The mastodon is either hunted or scavenged.

10,500 BC

There is evidence of humans living in southern Chile around this time, immediately after the disappearance of the Clovis culture. These people do not use Clovis technology, and are too far away from the town of Clovis in New Mexico to show a direct link between them and the Clovis in such a way that indicates that the Clovis is the founding culture for South America. Instead, they are either a completely separate group of migrant-descendants or - less likely due to the lack of cultural similarities - are refugees from the possibly climate-change-induced collapse of the Clovis.

Early Cultures IndexClovis Culture (Palaeo-Indian Era)
c.11,500 - 10,900 BC

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Native American culture that first appears in south-western North America, roughly between 11,500-10,900 BC. Until comparatively recently the Clovis people were thought by many to have been the first to appear in the Americas, but recent finds and a process of revision have shown that pre-Clovis people, labelled Palaeo-Indians, are now to be regarded as the first human inhabitants of the New World and the ancestors of all other indigenous cultures of North America and South America. Clovis culture is part of this Palaeo-Indian era, but is generally accepted not to have been influenced by the discredited Solutrean hypothesis.

Artefacts found near the town of Clovis in New Mexico gave this culture its name following a 1932 excavation. Clovis people were efficient, successful big-game hunters and foragers, especially with ice age mammoths and mastodons. Evidence found in 1926 included a mammoth skeleton with a spear-point in its ribs. Clovis cultural sites have been located throughout the contiguous United States plus Mexico and the rest of Central America. A single animal was able to provide meat for several weeks on end and, if dried, for much of the winter too. Despite this, a proportion of the kill was never used. Bison kills were more comprehensively exploited and a lesser amount remained at the kill sites. It is presumed that the hides, tusks, bones, and pelts were used to make domestic belongings or survival tools, or were used for shelter and even clothing.

The main hallmark of Clovis culture is the use of a distinctive leaf-shaped rock spear point, known as the Clovis point. This is fluted on both sides, allowing the tip to be mounted on a shaft. There is some disagreement regarding whether the extensive presence of these objects suggests the development of a single people or the advocacy of these methods by non-Clovis people. In some respects, the Clovis people seem to have magically appeared on the North American continent. It has been assumed that their ancestors moved south from Alaska in pursuit of the mammoth herds. However, both in Alaska and Canada, Clovis sites are conspicuous by their absence. Similarly, there are no scientific precursors for Clovis people anywhere in the Americas or in Asia. Clearly the Clovis people only invented their fluted spear points after arriving in the south-west, making it the earliest-known American invention (to date).

Clovis points were made for only about six centuries before they disappeared, along with the culture that created them. As Clovis people settled into different ecological zones, the culture divided into separate groups, each adapting to its own separate environment. However, a more immediate reason for the termination of the culture may be found in climate change around 10,900 BC (see the timeline below). The cultural groups that subsequently appeared were the Clovis survivors beginning to rebuild after the catastrophe, but along varying lines that effectively produced new cultures. The end of Clovis marked the beginning of the enormous social, cultural, and linguistic diversity that characterised the next ten thousand years of pre-history in the Americas.

(Information by Mick Baker and Peter Kessler, with additional information from The First Americans: The Pleistocene Colonization of the New World, Nina G Jablonski (California Academy of Sciences, 2002), from The Brave New World: A History of Early America, Peter Charles Hoffer (JHU Press, 2006), from First peoples in a new world: colonizing ice age America, David J Meltzer (University of California, 2009), and from External Links: The Clovis Point and the Discovery of America's First Culture, and Why won't this debate about an ancient cold snap die? (Science News), and Clovis People, and Clovis people not first to arrive in North America, Kazi Stastna (CBC News).)

10,900 BC

Archaeological evidence from the Topper site in South Carolina, USA, suggests that Clovis populations here go through a population collapse at the time of the proposed ice age blast. Earth is abruptly plunged back into a deep chill which is known as the Younger Dryas. Temperatures in parts of the northern hemisphere plunge to as much as eight degrees Celsius colder than they are today. This cold snap lasts 'only' about 1,200 years before, just as abruptly, Earth begins to warm again. But many of the giant mammals are dying out and the Clovis people have apparently vanished.

North American large mammals
The Younger Dryas cold spell hit North America hard, just when things were starting to warm up at the end of the ice age - not only did many of the large mammals die out but so did the Clovis culture (click or tap on image to view full sized)

FeatureThe cause of this sudden cold spell is a mystery. Most researchers suspect that a large pulse of freshwater from a melting ice sheet and glacial lakes flood into the ocean, briefly interfering with Earth's heat-transporting ocean currents. A more radical and controversial theory states that a comet - or perhaps its remnants, hit or explode over the Laurentide Ice Sheet that covers much of North America. The explosion would result in wildfires across North America, producing enough soot and other compounds to block out the sun and cool the planet (similar to the much smaller effect experienced after the 1908 Tunguska comet strike).

Early Cultures IndexMississippian Culture (Classic & Post-Classic)
AD 600 - 1400

The mound-building tradition was a feature of many Native American woodland tribes - including the Mississippian culture. Mound building had begun in the Middle Archaic period around 3500 BC, when the people responsible were still hunter-gatherers. Their successors throughout the subsequent Woodland period all practiced farming and animal husbandry, and their collective cultures covered the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River and its various (many) tributaries, and the Ohio river valley. The mounds were platforms, similar to small pyramids of the Mesoamerican kind, and they required a concerted effort by hundreds of people working in unison to complete each mound. They could be flat-topped, or with elongated ridges, conical, or even some other designs. The practice continued right up until the first European settlements had been established on the eastern coast of North America.

The cultural capital of the Mississippian was Cahokia, near what is now Collinsville, Illinois. Cahokia was the largest pre-Columbian settlement to the north of the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico - the largest city on North America until Philadelphia in the 1790s. It is not called the mound city for nothing, as some 120 mounds have been identified by archaeologists. At its height it accommodated around twenty thousand people and this was about five hundred years before the arrival of Columbus. It appears to have been highly dependent upon good rains, thanks to a climatically-wet period, and would suffer when those rains failed to arrive or arrived too enthusiastically. In the end, Cahokia's reliance on the climate was what destroyed it. The rest of Mississippian culture quickly faded after it fell, with only the Natchez communities still practicing it when the Spanish arrived in 1539 in the form of Hernando de Soto, governor of colonial Cuba.

The Mississippian culture disseminated widely through eastern North America, generally following the river valleys to extend itself. Whilst Illinois and Cahokia saw its greatest development, variations also existed in the form of the Caddoan culture of north-western Louisiana, eastern Texas, and south-western Arkansas, the South Appalachian culture of Etowah and Moundville, the Plaquemine culture in southern Louisiana and Mississippi, and the Oneota of the eastern plains and Great Lakes. First appearing along the Mississippi River before spreading outwards, the Mississippian was also the last of the mound-building cultures of North America in the mid-western, eastern, and south-eastern United States.

FeatureAlice Kehoe suggested that this largest known centre of Mississippian culture would be better termed a state rather than using the more loose term of a culture. She has argued that the Mississippians had close trade and communications links with the civilisations of Mesoamerica (such as the Mayas, Aztecs, and their predecessors and contemporaries), and that this link is readily apparent in the archaeological record (see feature link for more on this). The rest of Mississippian culture consisted of urban settlements (none of which were as large as Cahokia) and primitive suburban areas around them. The culture's start and end dates are not set in stone - there is some regional variation.

(Information by Peter Kessler and Mick Baker, with additional information from Osage Texts and Cahokia Data, Alice B Kehoe (2007), from Wind Jewels and Paddling Gods: The Mississippian Southeast in the Postclassic Mesoamerican World, Alice B Kehoe (2005), Mississippian Period: Overview, Adam King (New Georgia Encyclopaedia, 2002), and from External Link: Mississippian Period (Encyclopaedia of Alabama).)

c.1050 - 1100

The transition from Late Woodland to Early Mississippian is complete by this stage. The related Fort Ancient mound-building culture has already formed along the Ohio river valley. Tribal living has been exchanged to an increasing level in favour of a sedentary, pastoral lifestyle. Corn production is high, allowing regional chiefdoms to form, around which cultural centres coalesce. Cahokia expands in terms of growth and organisation during what has been shown to be one of the wettest half centuries of the last millennium. Migrants flock into the area in this time of plenty as agriculture and fishing reach their zenith.

Map of Mississippian culture
The Mississippian culture and its related neighbours essentially had Cahokia as their capital, this being the largest pre-Columbian settlement to the north of the Aztec empire (click or tap on map to view full sized)


Tree-ring data suggests that the rains fail around this time, resulting in drought and crop failure - around Cahokia at least - which in turn leads to unrest and civil disturbance as people struggle to find sufficient food. Within a quarter of a century the population has plummeted, as shown by archaeology in abandoned dwellings and other areas of the Cahokia. Several large towns spring up within the vicinity of the city. Fortifications are built with a wall that is 4.5 metres high, and 3.2 kilometres in diameter around the city. Calculations show that it takes twenty thousand trees and around six years for twelve men working eight hours a day to complete the work.


The frequent rains of eleventh century Cahokia would seem to increase even further in intensity after that period. There is evidence of a catastrophic, almost Biblical flood of the type that had been seared into the memory of ancient Sumerians. The dating for this event is imprecise, with it being placed within a span that covers 1100-1260, but the effect is the same - instability and suffering. In the half century after 1200 there is a definite downturn in upland farming.

However, for the culture as a whole, the start of the Middle Mississippian at this point shows it reaching its peak. Regional chiefdoms are at their most evolved, with traits that have been developed at Cahokia being disseminated throughout the entire culture. Palisades are beginning to appear, but ceremonial complexes are still being built and centrally-produced pottery is being copied on a local basis.

c.1300 - 1400

There is evidence that a number of men are killed in a group in the 1200s. They are decapitated, perhaps suggesting executions, possibly for rebellion or for being captured in war. Many arrowheads are also found by archaeologists. It would seem that the increasing instability of the rains and the resultant food shortages have triggered some form of civil war which ultimately destroys this civilisation.

Cahokia is known as the mound-building city, after the Mississippian culture to which it belonged between AD 600-1400 until collapse occurred due to several external factors

The Late Mississippian is a period of decline. By 1300 Cahokia is a ghost town. A second massive flooding event takes place between 1340-1460, which probably helps to terminate the already-fading Mississippian culture itself. Cultural and even language traits survive in many former Mississippian groups, however. As those groups coalesce into the Native American tribes that exist to greet the Europeans in the next three centuries, many of those traits are recorded.