If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Native American societies before contact

American history starts 15,000 years ago with the first people in the Americas. These societies were diverse, adapting to their environments. Key developments included the domestication of corn around 5000 BCE and the formation of complex societies. By the time Europeans arrived, there were about 50 million people in the Americas.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] Often when we think about the beginning of American history, we think 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, or maybe 1492, when Columbus arrived in the Americas. But the history of America really begins about 15,000 years ago, when people first arrived in the Americas. In this video, I want to provide a very brief overview of native societies before contact to give you an idea of just how diverse and complex these societies were, as native groups adapted to and interacted with their environments. Now there's recently been a scholarly debate about how people first arrived. We know that maybe 12,000 years ago, during an ice age, the sea level was lower, and so a spit of land in between the Americas and Asia was exposed, over which people may have traveled. But recent archeological evidence suggests that people were perhaps already in the Americas at the time of this ice age, so it's possible that they may have come earlier in boats. Now however it was that they arrived, they spread north and south and east throughout the Americas so that by the time that Europeans arrived in the late 1400s there were perhaps 50 million people. That's kind of a mid-range number for the estimates, that historians have made, living in the Americas. And of those, four to six million were living in North America. So how did these societies develop? Well, a really big moment was around 5000 BCE, when people in Mexico domesticated corn, maize, as it's also known. And domesticating maize meant that people who had originally been hunters, gatherers, following herds of animals could partake in settled agriculture. So they could develop villages, complex societies. This isn't to say that they stopped hunting or gathering, but they began staying in one place. So let's zoom in a little bit and take a look at some of the major societies in these regions. Native American societies developed around their natural environments, using the resources that were available to them. For example, the Southwest, Plains and Great Basin were quite dry. A lot of desert. And so societies in these regions adapted to the dry climate in several ways. For example, Native American groups that lived on the Great Plains continued their hunting and gathering way of life. Hunting bison, and following the herds of animals in teepees, which were dwellings that were easy to set up and then take down. People in the Southwest, like the Ancestral Puebloan people, dealt with this dry environment by creating very complex irrigation projects so that they could water their maize crops using what little moisture there was. The Puebloans lived in large cave complexes as agriculture allowed them to grow their population. In the Northwest, fishing in the Pacific Ocean gave Native Americans a plentiful source of food, while farming allowed the Mississippian peoples to develop large settlements, like Cahokia, near modern day St. Louis, which, at its peak, may have had as many as 25,000-40,000 residents. The Mississippians and other East Coast native peoples relied a lot on what's known as three-sister farming, in which people would plant corn, beans and squash together, which was mutually beneficial to all three plants, as the corn served as a trellis for the beans, and the squash protected the root system of the corn. All three together create a very nutritious diet, which allowed for a relatively high population density on the East Coast. So by the time that Europeans began to arrive in the late 1400s and 1500s, native societies had been evolving for over 14,000 years. But the introduction of European people, pathogens, plants, and animals would introduce an unprecedented amount of change in the Americas.