SS7 Chapter 01 Notes: The First Americans

Section 1: Migration to the Americas (p. 4-7)

The Migration Begins

Archaeology is the study of ancient people.  They study how the first people arrived in North and South America.  Archaeologist learn about history from artifacts (tools, weapons, and other objects people used in the past).  The most popular theory as to how people came to North and South America is that they traveled across a strip of land that once connected Asia and the Americas approximately 20,000 (or more) ago.

During the last Ice Age (12,000 years ago), large glaciers formed that reduced the amount of water in the ocean.  When the ocean levels decreased, a “land bridge” was revealed connecting northeastern Asia to what is now Alaska.  Today this bridge no longer exists but has been replaced by the Bering Strait.  A strait is a narrow body of water that connects two larger ones.  Not all archaeologists agree this is how the early people got to the Americas.

As early people migrated to the Americas, they settled in various parts.  Migration is the movement of people from one area to another.  Many of the early Americans were nomads (people that move from place to place) and it is believed that were in search of hunting grounds/food.  They hunted mammoths and bison with spears.

As the Ice Age ended, the land bridge disappeared and the Bering Strait emerged.  Also, large mammals started disappearing due to overhunting.  This meant early Americans had to search for new sources of food.


Fishing, hunting, and berry-gathering were food gathering methods.  With the development of farming, people could now live in one location and give up their nomadic lifestyle.

The early people in present-day Mexico learned to grow maize (a type of corn) along with other crops.  People spent less time hunting and more time learning new activities.  This helped improve their lives.

Some early people remained nomadic but most established permanent settlements.  Scientists use carbon dating to determine the age of an artifact.  It gives a rough estimate of how old objects are.  As the early people thrived in the Americas, new customs and beliefs developed.  These groups formed their own cultures (shared traditions and behaviors).

Section 2: Cities and Empires (p. 8-13)

Great Civilization of Mexico, Central America, South America

The four civilizations (highly developed society) in these area were the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and Inca.  They covered large areas and contained millions of people.  Their achievements included grand cities, advanced tools, impressive art, as well as methods for tracking time, counting, and writing.

They lived in what is now Mexico and had large farms.  It decline for unknown reasons but strongly influenced other cultures.

They lived in what is now Mexico and Central America.  They too were farmers with a very large population.  Their society was a theocracy which means it was ruled by religious leaders.  They were also polytheistic which means they believed in more than one god.  Their achievements include advance mathematics, astronomy, and hieroglyphics (a form of writing that uses symbols or pictures to represent thing, ideas, and sounds).

They traded goods with other civilizations.  They followed trade routes that they carved out of the jungle.

It is a mystery why the Mayan civilization declined.  Some theorize they exhausted the soil and in turn faced food shortages.  Descendent of the Mayans are still alive today.

The Aztec settled in central Mexico after the Mayans.  They were hunters and built their capital city, Tenochtitlan (today it is Mexico City), after a sign from god.  Their capital was one of the largest in the world and drew many traders.  The construction of the city was a marvelous feat.

The Aztecs were warriors and conquerors.  They overtook neighboring communities.  They practiced human sacrifice to please their goods.  Countless prisoners were sacrificed as tribute to their gods.

The Aztec civilization was strong until the arrival of Spanish explorers from Europe.  Even the explorers were impressed by Tenochtitlan.

The Great Inca Civilization

The Inca Empire was the largest of them all and was located in western South America (present-day Peru).  Their capital was Cuzco and the empire expanded to over 3000 miles.

Inca civilization was built around war and many young-to-middle-age men were drafted to serve in the army.  Many surround empires chose not to fight the Incas.  If they didn’t resist then they could cooperate in the empire’s government.

The Inca believed their emperor was a descendent of the sun god.  They built cities devoted to religious ceremonies like Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains.  The Inca people had to farm their mountainous lands to feed their people.  The Inca cut terraces (broad platforms) into the steep slopes.  They built roads that stretched throughout the empire to keep it all connected.  They had no written language but did manage to keep records with colored strings.

Section 3: North American Peoples (p. 14-21) 

Early North American Cultures

In North America some of the more noted cultures were the Adena, Hopewell, Mississippians, Hohokam, and Ancient Puebloans.

In central and eastern North America, tribes built large earthen mounds (earthworks).  It was built by many cultures who are referred today as the Mound Builders.  Many of them were in different shapes (a snake for instance) and were used for religious and burial purposes.  The Mound Builders have been divided into three cultures: the Adena, the Hopewell, and the Mississippian.  Inside the mounds were objects from their civilizations.

Cahokia was the center of Mississippian civilization.  They built the largest earthworks.  In the center of Cahokia was a pyramid-shaped earthwork nearly 100 feet high.

The Hohokam lived in present-day Arizona.  They lived in desert regions and therefore had to irrigate (bring water to) their crops.  The did this by digging channels.

The Ancient Puebloans lived in what is now the southwestern part of the United States.  They lived in stone dwellings called pueblos (villages).  They even built homes in the walls of steep cliffs which protected them from the weather and enemies.

The Native Americans Circa 1492

As the Adena, Hopewell, Mississippians, Hohokam, and Ancient Puebloans civilizations faded away new ones took their place.

The Inuit settled in the northernmost area of North America, near the Arctic.  They lived on the frozen tundra.  The survive in the cold climate.  They built igloos to protect them from severe weather.  They were skilled hunters and fishers.  The hunted whales and seals in kayaks.

They lived on the western coast of what is now the United States.  The had a mild climate and dependable food sources.  Some of the tribes that lived in the forest areas used wood to construct homes and canoes.  Present-day California was home to a diverse group of cultures.  Some fished for food while others lived as nomads in the desert regions.  In the Great Basin, the soil was too rocky and hard for farming so they had to rely on hunting and berry-gathering.

Farming was very important to their cultures and maize served was their central food source.  They built home from dried mud bricks called adobe.  The used irrigation and traded.  Two of their more well-known tribes are the Apache and Navajo.

They were nomads and had temporary villages.  The men hunted and the women grew their food source.  They lived in tepees (cone-shaped skin tents).  They lived off of buffalo and used it not only for food but also shelter and clothing.  They did not originally have horses.

These groups lived in the woodlands.  Groups like the Cherokee and Iroquois formed federations (agreements among different groups to join together).  Five Iroquois groups joined together along the now northern New York State.  The once fought each other but established the Great Peace, alliance called the Iroquois League.  Dekanawidah, tribal leader, and Hiawatha, Mohawk chief, formed the league.  These united five tribes followed the Great Binding Law, an oral constitution, and created a Grand Council, leaders that settle disputes.  Members of the league were organized by clans (groups of related families).  Women held great power in these clans.

They also lived in the woodlands area but had a warmer climate.  Farming was very important to these people.  The most well-known tribe among these people were the Cherokee (followed by the Creek and Chickasaw).

Native Americans developed rich and varied cultures.  Their cultures are reflective of their environments and climates.  When Europeans would arrive in the 1500s their way of life would be forever changed.