Early American Civilizations
Although it’s unclear who got here first and when, it’s known that the forerunners of Native Americans were beginning to settle down by about 1000 BC. They cultivated crops, most notably maize, a hearty variety of corn that takes less time to grow than other grains and can also grow in many different climates. Beans and squash made up the other two of the “three sisters” of early American agriculture.
Growing their own food enabled the groups to stay in one place for long periods of time. Consequently, they could make and acquire things and build settlements, which allowed them to trade with other groups. Trading resulted in groups becoming covetous of other groups’ things, which eventually led to wars over these things. Ah, civilization.
One of the earliest cultures to emerge in what’s now the United States was the Anasazi. The group’s name comes from a Navajo word that has been translated to mean “ancient people” or “ancient enemies.” Although they were around the southwestern United States for hundreds of years, they flourished from about AD 1100 to 1300.
At their peak, the Anasazi built adobe-walled towns in nearly inaccessible areas, which made the communities easy to defend. The towns featured apartment houses, community courts, and buildings for religious ceremonies. The Anasazi made highly artistic pottery and tightly woven baskets. The baskets were so good that the culture is sometimes referred to as the Basket Makers.
Because of the region’s arid conditions, the Anasazi people couldn’t support a large population and were never numerous. But just why their culture died out so suddenly around the beginning of the 14th century is a puzzle to archaeologists.
One theory is that a prolonged drought simply made life unsustainable in the region. A more controversial theory is that marauding Indians from Mexico conquered the Anasazi or drove them off. However the Anasazi’s demise came about, their culture was developed enough to continue, in many ways unchanged, and is evident in some of the Southwest tribes of today.
The Mound Builders
East of the Anasazi were groups of early Americans who became known as Mound Builders, after their habit of erecting large earthworks that served as tombs and foundations for temples and other public buildings.
One group, known as the Woodland Culture, was centered in Ohio and spread east. Their mounds, which took decades to build, reached more than seven stories in height and were surrounded by earthwork walls as long as 500 yards. The largest of these mounds was near what’s now the southern Ohio town of Hopewell.
The largest Mound Builder settlement was on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, about 8 miles from what’s now St. Louis. It was called Cahokia. At its zenith, around AD 1100, Cahokia covered 6 square miles and may have been home to as many as 30,000 people.
To put that in perspective: Cahokia was about the same size as London was in 1100, and no other city in America grew to that size until Philadelphia did, 700 years later.
The residents of Cahokia had no written language, but they had a knack for astronomy and for building. Their largest mounds, like the pyramids of cultures in Mexico, were four-sided, had a flat top, and covered as much ground as the biggest pyramids of Egypt.
The Cahokia Mound Builders also had a penchant for constructing stout, wooden stockades around their city. In doing so, however, they apparently cut down most of the trees in the area, which reduced the amount of game in the region and caused silt to build up in nearby waterways. The city also may have suffered from nasty air pollution because of the wood fires that were constantly burning.
By 1200, people were leaving Cahokia and its suburbs in large numbers. By 1400, the city was abandoned, an early victim of the ills of urban growth.