Ancient America: A Century Before Columbus

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A century before the beginning of the European invasion of North America, there were a wide variety of different Native cultures on the continent. Just as the Europeans would discover a century later, there was no single American Indian culture in 1400, but many hundreds of distinct cultures. The archaeological record and Native American oral traditions provide some information about a few of these groups.  


In Arizona, the Hohokam began to abandon many of their towns. Towns which had once been prosperous were stripped and burned. Archaeologists debate the possible reasons for this sudden change. Some have suggested environmental problems, including the build-up of salt in the soil from irrigation. Others see the cause as civil war. According to some O’odham oral traditions, the elite Hohokam leaders had become oppressive and the people rose against them as a part of a liberation movement to drive them back to the south. At the beginning of this decline, the population of the Phoenix basin was estimated at 40-50,000. During the next 200 years, it would drop to 5,000.

North of the Hohokam, the Sinagua people abandoned the Verde Valley at this time. They migrated north and east to Anderson Mesa, Chavez Pass, and the Hopi mesas.

In Arizona, the cultural sequence called Mogollon by archaeologists ended as the people abandoned their homes in the mountains.

In Arizona, the Anasazi  pueblo at what is now Fourmile Ruin was abandoned.

In Arizona, the Patayan culture was flourishing along the Colorado River area. This cultural tradition included permanent villages with subsistence based on flood-water agriculture. While the Patayan seem to have developed out of Hohokam, they did not have the technological nor architectural complexity of other southwestern sedentary traditions. The present Yuman-speaking groups along the lower Colorado River-Havasupai, Yavapi, Walapai, and Yuma-may represent a continuation of Patayan culture characteristics.

While the Hohokam were abandoning their villages and towns in Arizona, Indian people in New Mexico were engaged in building new pueblos. The Tewa constructed Poshuouinge Pueblo. The pueblo would grow to about 700 ground floor rooms with two large plazas. The pueblo was mostly one- and two-stories, but there was one three-story section. The walls were built from adobe mixed with river cobbles.

With regard to farming, the people of Poshuouinge were using grid gardens: plots which are delineated by river cobbles and covered with gravel. This stone mulch helped to conserve moisture, as well as moderate soil temperatures, and keep down weeds. It was an adaptation to farming in high, arid conditions.

At this time, the people of Pecos Pueblo built a multi-story building around their central plaza.

Oregon and Washington:

Near what is now Portland, Oregon, the Chinook built a rectangular long house which was more than 400 feet long. Building the house required 50,000 to 75,000 board feet of cedar lumber. The house would be occupied for the next 400 years, during which time it would be rebuilt at least 18 times and would use nearly a million board feet of lumber.

Across the Columbia River from present-day Portland, the Indian people at the Cathlapotle village were now using an iron adz blade.


In Tennessee, a village was established at the Chucalissa site near the present-day city of Memphis. The site included a three-meter-high mound, a plaza surrounded by a ridge of house mounds, and a number of houses. The village covered about six hectares.

In Alabama, two achondropolastic dwarfs-a male who was 50 inches tall and a female who was nearly 47 inches tall-were buried at Moundville. Both had been relatively healthy individuals and were 40-45 years of age at the time of their burial. The backs of their heads had been flattened as a result of being strapped to a cradleboard as infants. Both had been functional members of the society and were probably related.

In Alabama, many of the mounds at the necropolis of Moundville were being abandoned and only a handful of people remained.

In Mississippi, Indian people established the Parchman Place Mound Site. The 30-acre village site had three mounds, one of which would reach a height of 50 feet.

In North Carolina, the Pleasant Garden phase begins at the McDowell site. This archaeological phase is characterized by two different types of pottery and the blending of these two types with regard to surface treatment, temper, and form. One of the ceramic types was Burke ceramics, which were made using a soapstone temper. Burke pottery was decorated with complicated curvilinear stamping. At this time, the site was a palisaded village.

In North Carolina, the Burke phase begins at the Berry site. The site included a platform mound. This phase was characterized by ground stone and pottery disks, small triangular projectile points, and small ceramic elbow pipes.

In North Carolina, the Catawba were living at the Low site.


In New York, the phase of Iroquois history called “Chance phase Iroquois” by archaeologists begins. In the Onondaga area there was a village resettlement which resulted in a larger village being fairly close to a smaller village. It is apparent that some mutual non-aggression agreement was reached between the two communities. Some archaeologists see this as the founding of the Onondaga Nation.

Throughout much of the Northeast, a new type of pottery vessel appeared. This new style featured more spheroidal bodies which were often surmounted by a cylindrical collar decorated by fields of complex geometric-incised decoration.

Great Plains:

One band of Crow broke away from the horticultural Hidatsa in North Dakota and moved into the Bighorn Mountains of northeastern Wyoming.

In North Dakota, the Arikara moved to the Big Bend region of the Middle Missouri.

In Kansas, the Pratt Complex begins. During this time, Indian people were living in small villages of 5 to 10 earthlodges which were located along oxbows and terraces. The earthlodges usually had four center posts, a central hearth, and storage pits. A variety of pottery was being made.

In Arkansas the Upper Nodena site, a fortified, tightly nucleated village, was established near the Mississippi River. Nodena was a ceremonial center with three major mounds. The Nodena people were making red and white pottery using shell-tempered clay. They were also making small, teardrop-shaped points.

Great Lakes Region:

As the climate in North America became colder, the Ojibwa, Ottawa, and Potawatomi moved south to Lake Huron. The Ottawa stayed at the mouth of the French River and Lake Huron Islands while the Ojibwa and Potawatomi occupied the shoreline to the Mackinac Strait.

In Michigan, people from outside of the area began to enter the southwestern portion of the state. This was characterized by the appearance of shell-tempered, plain Heber ceramics.

In Michigan, Indian people abandoned their village at the Fosters site. Some archaeologists feel that the  people who had been living at Fosters may have been the ancestors of the Fox and Sauk.

Great Basin Area:

In Utah, Indian people were now occupying the Heron Springs and Sandy Beach sites on the shore of Utah Lake. The material culture at these sites included crudely made, coarsely tempered pottery in the form of large-mouth jars. Both of the sites were used repeatedly for substantial periods of time.