The First North American Civilizations

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Episode 25: North American Peoples and Tribes

The Big History of Civilizations (2016)

Dr Craig G Benjamin

Film Review

As Benjamin describes in this lecture, early human civilization developed spontaneously on four isolated continents: the Afro-Eurasian zone, the Americas, Australasia and the Pacific. The American civilizations developed 2,000 years later than those of Afro-Eurasia. According to Benjamin, this delay stemmed from difficult climatic conditions that made it difficult to produce sufficient food for the development of complex cities.

Unlike South America, early North American settlements never produced the rigid hierarchies, tribute taking, powerful coercive rulers or organized warfare that characterized most Afro-Eurasian civilizations. That being said, several complex North American societies arose out of sedentary and semi-sedentary settlements that supplemented food production with hunting and gathering.

Woodland tribes east of the Mississippi River lived in semi-sedentary groups that grew corn and beans via horticulture.* Prior to 60 AD, they practiced woodworking, leather working, shelter building and tool production. From 600-800 AD, they abandoned their semi-nomadic life ways to establish permanent villages of up to 40,000 inhabitants and began using a bow and arrow, rather than spear, to hunt. By 1400 AD, the five Iroquois tribes formed a state-like structure referred to as the Iroquois Nation.**

Tribes in the Ohio River Valley traded with tribes across the continent, obtaining mica from the Appalachian Mountains, conch shells and sharks teeth from the Gulf of Mexico and copper from upper Michigan.

In the Southwest, the Pueblo people employed irrigation from 600 AD and built permanent adobe structure. They abandoned these dwellings around 1300 AD to return to a lifestyle of hunting and gathering. Benjamin claims this was due to drought, but in The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow maintain foraging is even more sensitive to drought than agriculture and residents either overthrew a tyrannical regime or simply opted out. See https://stuartbramhall.wordpress.com/2021/12/14/the-dawn-of-everything-a-new-history-of-so-called-civilization/

In the Northwest, Chinook and Yakima tribes established semi-sedentary settlements lasting several thousands of years after bow and arrow technology spread across the Great Plains.

The Nez Perce, Sioux and Cherokee were Great Plains tribes who developed strong tribal leaders and social;y structured hierarchies and experienced a fair amount of inter-tribal warfare.

The Paleo Eskimo tribes became expert fishermen and hunters. They lived in ice houses they heated with fire and crafted fur clothing, canoes and exquisite tool, spears and knives from bone, antler, stone and tusks.

Benjamin notes that all North American tribes developed shamanistic practices and grew corn and tobacco (which were first domesticated in South America).

The Vikings were the first Europeans to make contact with North American tribes in Newfoundland in 1000 AD. They returned to Scandinavia during the Little Ice Age (1400-1600 AD), when it became too cold to produce sufficient food.


*Horticulture is the cultivation of domesticated plants at a small scale garden level, as opposed to agriculture, which focuses on mass production of food.

**Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/north-american-peoples-and-tribes

A British View of American History

the american future

The American Future: A History from the Founding Fathers to Barack Obama.

Simon Schama

Random House (2008)

Book Review

Written for a British audience, The American Future attempts to define the quintessential American national character by tracing historical movements that have shaped US society. The five political movements Schama considers most important are 1) the gradual rise of a professional military officer class, 2) the role of evangelical religion in the movement to abolish slavery, 3) the brutal imperialist war against Mexico and the Philippines, 4) the forced displacement of the Cherokee and four other Native American nations under Andrew Jackson, and 5) the development of large scale irrigation in to open the Southwest desert area to agriculture.

For me the primary value of this book is all the historical gems Schama includes that you never learn about in high school. For example:

• The founding of West Point military academy with its Jeffersonian emphasis on philosophy and civil engineering, as opposed to military tactics. Jefferson believed a sound liberal education for US military officers would help ensure the US never went to war except to defend liberty. Congress consistently refused to fund a US military or naval academy until an undeclared war with France broke out in 1796.* Over a period of ten months, the French seized 300 US merchant vessels. When Congress eventually authorized funding for West Point, its primary purpose was to train the Army Corps of Engineers, who built the levees, bridges, damns, dykes and forts that enabled westward expansion. They also drained the swamp in Washington DC and built the Capitol and other important federal buildings.

• President Lyndon Johnson’s role, in 1964, in blocking the credentialing of Mississippi’s Freedom Democratic Party, led by Fannie Lou Hamer, after the Mississippi Democratic Party declared their support for the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater. This blatant white cronyism would provide major impetus to the growing black power movement.

• The profound religious intolerance that persisted in the US even after the 1780 adoption of the Bill of Rights guaranteeing separation of church and state. ** In Massachusetts, Sunday church attendance was compulsory until 1833 – until 1840, blasphemy could be punished by one year in prison, public whipping or the pillory. In Maryland Jews weren’t allowed to vote or hold office until the state passed the Jew Bill in 1820.

• Anti-immigrant feelings, especially against Germans, Irish, Mexicans and Chinese were so intense during the 19th century that there were frequent riots in which immigrants were lynched or had their homes set on fire. An 1855 riot in Louisville would have affected my great grandfather, whose family arrived in the area after immigrating from Germany in 1840.

• President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1902 National Reclamation Act, which led to the construction of 600 dams (including Grand Coulee and Hoover Dam) in thirty years. These would provide irrigation to millions of acres of desert in California and the Southwest. This project would include the diversion of the Colorado River to supply Southern California’s Imperial Valley, which supplies nearly half the fresh fruit and vegetables consumed by Americans, as well as Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix and parts of Mexico.


*Prior to reading this book, I had no idea the US and France had been at war (with each other).

**The early view of the Bill of Rights was that it only pertained to the federal government and didn’t apply to state law.