When most of us who now live in the United States and Canada learn about the history of our homeland, material starts with Christopher Columbus’s landing on islands in the Caribbean in 1492. Little attention is given to the thousands of years before his arrival, to the people who had been living here and their accomplishments. Further, when information is given, it is generally a historical or archaeological list of “first this happened, then that,” with little attention to the cultural diversity of the peoples who lived on what many Native peoples call Turtle Island.
Columbus and his men were probably not the first Europeans (or Asians or Africans) to come to the North American continent, but they did come with the intention to stay, and stay they, and many others following them, did. These early Europeans encountered people as diverse and advanced as they themselves were. Those of us living in the twenty-first century are often unaware of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the peoples who inhabited (and continue to inhabit) what we now call North America, how they got here or how long they’ve been here. We will examine those questions, looking first at the population and cultural diversity of the First Peoples of North America previous to 1492.
How Many Were There?
American Progress by John Gast 1872 / Wikimedia Commons
It is difficult to estimate populations in the fifteenth century in most parts of the world. Most people lived in small societies; everyone knew everyone else, their families, and their ancestors. There was little reason to do a population count of how many people, how many women, men, and children, people over or under a certain age, and their occupations. This is the type of census now done in the United States and Canada every 10 years. A census shows not only the number of people in a society, but also how that society changes over time. Such a census is an important source of data for governments and for future historians and anthropologists. In the past, empires such as Rome in Europe, and the Aztec in Meso-America (present day Mexico and Central American) conducted censuses, largely for tax or tribute purposes, but most small-scale societies had no reason to do so. So how do we go about estimating population numbers from so long ago?
One way is to examine documents left by the Europeans (Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Russians, and many more) who came to the Americas. There are a number of problems with this method. First, not everyone kept records. Among the French, for example, while religious missionaries kept population counts (largely to show how many people they had converted), the voyagers who came for animal skins to trade in Europe did not. Further, Europeans based their population estimates on people they encountered; there is no way to estimate how many people they didn’t meet.
Which leads to another issue: various Native peoples were encountered by Europeans at different times. The Caribbean peoples (Caribs, Tanios, Arawaks), the Meso-American peoples (Maya and Aztecs) and the many South American peoples were probably not the first indigenous peoples to encounter the Europeans. Perhaps surprising to many Euro-Americans and Canadians, the first Native Americans to encounter Europeans were not the peoples of the Caribbean, but the peoples of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic. Archaeological evidence indicates the Norse established villages in Greenland and Newfoundland 1,000 years ago. For whatever reasons, these sites were abandoned by 1500, and it is questionable these Norse sites had much impact on the Native peoples.
What is more intriguing, however, is the incidence of Native peoples from the area who somehow made it to Europe. There is historical evidence to show that Native peoples and artifacts were found in Europe, particularly in Ireland and the northern coast of Scotland. In the case of the artifacts, it seems they were found in the bodies of seals and other marine life. Perhaps the currents of the Gulf Stream and storms brought what were possibly Inuit peoples to the coast of Ireland. In Lonely Voyagers, the historian Jean Merrien notes that a man and woman were tied to wrecks that came ashore near Galway, Ireland; and that another man—specifically described as “red and strange” and not African, came ashore on the coast of Spain in a craft that appeared to be a hollowed-out tree. Merrien further suggests in Christopher Columbus: The Mariner and the Man, that Columbus may well have known about these incidents and assumed the people were from Cathay (China). In the 1500s (not long after Columbus’s display of people he had captured in the Caribbean) an Eskimo man and woman captured at sea were put on exhibition in various European cities.
Christopher Columbus came in contact with the peoples of the Caribbean, among them the Tanios, Arawaks, and Caribs. Later, Spanish conquerors such as Hernando Cortez conquered the peoples of Meso-America (present-day Mexico and Central America) such as the Maya and Aztecs. The contact continued to peoples living along the eastern seaboard, to the southwestern part of the United States, then the western coast of North America, and finally the peoples of the interior part of North America—the last to be encountered by Europeans. However, Native peoples did not have to have direct contact with Europeans to be affected by them. One of the most devastating of these encounters—direct or indirect—was disease.
The peoples of the Americas had no immunity to the diseases brought by Europeans. The populations of the Americas had been largely isolated from Europe, Africa, and Asia for thousands of years. In that time, many diseases evolved in the Old World. Diseases like smallpox, the plague, and even diseases that are now commonplace, such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox. Over time, the Europeans who survived these diseases, and their children, developed immunities to them. Despite surviving, they were still carriers of the disease, and they carried it to the Americas. The Native peoples had no immunity to these diseases and many died from the exposure. Probably far more Native peoples died from disease than in warfare with Europeans. Europeans may have contracted diseases, such as a form of syphilis, from Native peoples as well, but the diseases passed onto the Europeans did not seem to have had the same devastating impact.
This population lost due to disease further complicates estimating how many people lived in the Americas before the significant European contact that followed in the wake of Columbus’s arrival. Native peoples had extensive trade routes throughout Turtle Island. People met, traded goods, and often formed marriage alliances. As a result, trade goods often spread the European diseases before a specific society ever encountered a European, and well before the population size could be estimated.
Starting in the nineteenth century, archaeology and the examination of burials and the material remains of a society became a tool in helping to estimate Native populations before European contact. However, many early archaeologists didn’t just examine burials for population estimates. In numerous instances, Native American skeletons were exhumed from burial sites and sent to various museums in the United States, Canada, and Europe for examination and storage. Often the data accompanying these remains were inadequate, so that now it is difficult to determine where a skeleton and other artifacts came from. Therefore, they are not very useful in determining population size.
It must be clear by now that trying to estimate a population from more than 500 years ago can be very difficult. Estimates for North America at that time have ranged from 8.4 million to 112.5 million. In 1976, geographer William Denevan (1992) used a combination of techniques and data to arrive at what he called a “consensus count” of 53.9 million people in the Americas in 1491 (with a margin of error of 20%, Denevan suggests population could have ranged between 43 million to 65 million). He divides the population into: 3.8 million for North America, 17.2 million for Mexico, 5.6 million in Central America, 3.0 million in the Caribbean, 15.7 million in the Andes, and 8.6 million in the lowlands of South America. The largest populations coincide with the city-state societies of the Aztecs and Maya in Mexico, and the Inca in Peru. Denevan further estimates that the First Peoples of the Americas suffered a death toll of 89%, striking their numbers from 53.9 million to 5.6 million by the sixteenth century, as a result of disease, warfare, and the experience of slavery (Denevan: Pristine Landscape). Some populations, like the Maya, would not attain their pre-1492 population levels until the twentieth century. Some never have, some have become extinct. It is no wonder Native Americans refer to their experiences at the hands of European invaders as genocide.
Why then, from the very beginning of European settlement were the Americas described as vast, empty spaces ready to be occupied by Europeans who were feeling population pressures in their home countries? Both European governments, like the Spanish, French and British, and private companies with royal charters, like the Virginia Bay Colony, encouraged landless people to move and settle in the New World, where land and resources were plentiful. In part, this policy was based on relieving population pressure and civil unrest in Europe, and partly on the need to have people to harvest the resources of the Americas. Following the wake of the Spanish—who, it is estimated, removed $40 billion of gold and silver from Meso- and South America—many came looking for gold, and instead found lumber, fish, animal skins, and a variety of foods not known in Europe, Asia, or Africa (Cowan). In the long run, these resources proved to be more valuable than the gold and silver that were soon depleted.
In his books Indian Givers and Native Roots, anthropologist Jack Weatherford examines how Native Americans enriched the world through their contributions of food and medicines. Weatherford estimates 70% to 75% of the world’s food and medicines come from the Americas and were unknown in the Old World previous to the l500s. Euro-Americans and Canadians usually think of tobacco, a plant used by Native Americans for religious and medical purposes, as an example of an indigenous American crop. Early colonial farmers like John Rolfe, the husband of Pocahontas, had to hybridize the native tobacco to suit the tastes of European smokers. More crucial were crops such as corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, chili peppers, and chocolate. Not only did Native Americans develop and grow these important crops, they developed various varieties to adapt to various environmental factors. Thus they grew over 30 varieties of corn: some varieties adapted for drought, pests, and the shorter growing seasons of the Northeast. Early conquerors of the Southwest noted the rainbow colors of corn drying on the roofs of the pueblos.
In the nineteenth century, when Americans were working to distinguish themselves from their European kin as they established communities across the continent, they developed the concept of Manifest Destiny. This concept held that it was the destiny of “Americans” to occupy, settle, and civilize North America. This idea is depicted in the painting American Progress by John Gast in which a woman holds a book leading the way west for “American” settlers, driving the indigenous (Native Americans) people away into the darkness. Inherent within the understanding of Manifest Destiny was the belief that the Americas were vast nearly empty lands, not an area that was home to up to 53 million people. This myth that the Americas were nearly empty lands until Europeans got here is one that continues in the minds of Euro-Americans today. But Turtle Island, like Europe, was home to vast array of people who harvested resources, raised families, ran their communities, traded, and sometimes fought with, other communities.
Where Do Your People Come From?
Monk’s Mound, a Pre-Columbian Mississippian culture earthwork, located at the Cahokia site near Collinsville, Illinois. The concrete staircase is modern, but it is built along the approximate course of the original wooden stairs. / Photo by Skubasteve834, Creative Commons
When Christopher Columbus returned to Spain after his first voyage to the Caribbean, he brought with him people, animals, plants, and other artifacts he had found during his travels. A two-month journey in a small, crowded ship was no doubt very difficult for the Caribbean natives who were unused to ocean travel. In Spain (indeed in all of Europe) their arrival caused quite an upheaval in the way Europeans viewed the world. At this time Europeans held that the earth was about 8,000 years old (based on the calculation of generations in the Bible), and that the world and everything in it was the same now as it was at the time of creation. So how could Europeans account for very different animals, plants, and people that did not fit into this very ordered view of the world?
The question of who the Native peoples of Turtle Island were and where they came from is one that various people have tried to answer since 1492. In the 1500s there were arguments about whether these indigenous peoples were even human or had souls. The Dominican priest Bartolome’ de Las Casas, in 1542, established (at least for the Catholic Church) that Indians were human and had souls, that they were not a separate creation or created by the devil. But if that was so, how did they come to be in the Americas, separated from the rest of the world?
Over the last 500 years there have been a number of highly speculative theories about where the indigenous peoples of the Americas came from. One was that they are a remnant population from the Lost Continent of Atlantis. Another theory was that American Indians were the descendants of western societies (Egyptian, Greek, Irish, or Welsh) sailors who were blown off-course by storms to the Americas (were there women on these ships?). Another theory speculates that Native Americans were the descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel, though no explanation is given to how these tribes traveled from the deserts of the Middle East to the Americas. More recently, some speculators like Erich von Daniken (Chariots of the Gods: 1968) have maintained that Native Americans are the descendants of alien visitors from space who have lost the knowledge of their ancestors.
These theories are often based on the premise that Native Americans were not capable of building the monumental architecture and art found through out the Americas. But those who encountered Native peoples early in the conquest of the Americas had no such thoughts. Cortez, the Spanish conquistador who attacked, conquered, and destroyed much of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs, was convinced the Aztecs had built the city. Cortez marveled at Tenochtitlan’s floating gardens and public baths, which were so large that he said Rome could fit in one corner. However, he then destroyed much of it. But he didn’t think men from outer space had built it; he knew that Aztecs had.
Archaeology has shown us how Native peoples were able to build monuments like those in Mexico; Monk’s Mound of Cahokia, found not far from the present-day city of St. Louis; pueblos found throughout what is now the southwestern part of the United States; and mounds found in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. Like people throughout the world who built monuments, they started off small and learned as they went along.
Drawing of the Serpent Mound Archaeological sites in Ohio by Ephraim George Squier & Edwin Hamilton Davis, Surveyer, 1836 / Wikimedia Commons
From the 1700s to today, amateur archaeologists and anthropologists wondered about the Native Americans they encountered and the artifacts they found. Thomas Jefferson, for example, had an extensive collection of Native artifacts he found in Virginia. The poet William Cullen Bryant wrote the poem “The Prairies,” in which he postulated that the peoples who had built the monumental architecture found in various parts of the Americas had been killed and supplanted by the more “brutish” and warlike Indian Americans. This belief about Native Americans was commonly held by Euro-Americans well into the twentieth century.
The development of archaeology and anthropology as an academic discipline in which people are trained to gather information with a defined set of protocols (the systematic collection and recording of data) started to develop in late nineteenth century. Throughout the twentieth and now twenty-first century, anthropologists and archaeologists continue to gather data about the Native peoples of the Americas. One of the big questions continues to be: Where did they come from?
The issue of where humans come from, how they developed (evolved) is one of the biggest general questions in anthropology and archaeology. The origination of people of a particular geographic area is part of that question. Scientifically there are two ways of looking at the evolution and migration of humans—monogenesis and polygenesis. Did humans start the evolutionary process in one geographic area (monogenesis), or in two or more (polygenesis)? Currently the evidence suggests, and most scientists would agree, that human (Homo sapiens) evolution started in Africa. For example, while archaeologists continue to find older and older skeletal remains of humans in the Americas, all these remains are fully modern humans. There have been no Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo hablis, nor any of the other early stages of human evolution found in the Americas.
Early populations of humans migrated from Africa to other parts of the world. In the twenty-first century we may forget that until the 1869 construction of the Suez Canal, a thin strip of land connected Africa to Asia and Europe. So that part of the migration pattern is relatively easy to understand, but how did people (fully modern humans like us) get across vast oceans to the Americas?
Here knowledge of geology is helpful. Unlike the Europeans of Columbus’s time, we now know the world we live in did not always look like it does now, and it will change in the future as well. The planet Earth has gone through periods of glaciations and melting. What is now dry land, may have been an ocean thousands of years ago. Mountains erupt and then wear down. Earth is an ever-changing landscape. Changes in land, geology, and topography made it possible even necessary for early humans to migrate out of Africa.
One of the oldest theories about how humans came to the Americas is based on geological evidence that suggests present-day Alaska was connected to present day Siberia by a land bridge. This phenomenon is called the Bering Land Bridge (for the Bering Strait, which it crosses) or Beringa.
Bering Land Bridge
Beringian Standstill and Spread of Native American Founders. PLoS ONE 2(9): e829. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000829 / Creative Commons
The Bering Land Bridge was in existence at several different periods in the last 100,000 years: 28,000-10,000 BP (before present), 50,000-40,000 years BP and 100,000-70,000 years BP. It was over 100 miles wide at its widest point and would have been crossable for hundreds of years before it was covered up in water and then appeared again as ocean levels rose and fell. While most of northern North America was covered by glaciers, geological evidence suggest there might been ice-free corridors that could have allowed for the migration of people and animals. These factors made it possible for not just people, but also plants and animals to migrate back and forth between North America and Asia over long periods of time. It is postulated that humans came east, while early ancestors of the horse (hyraacotherium, which was about the size of a fox) for example, went west to Asia where they continued to migrate and evolve until they were brought back, first by the Spanish and then other Europeans.
Until recently the Bering Land Bridge was the most commonly accepted theory about how people came to the Americas. However, new archaeological evidence continues to emerge that suggests other migratory patterns. If you looked at the map of the Bering Land Bridge you may have speculated about another possible route to the Americas: down along the Pacific coastal areas of present-day western Canada and the United States. Archaeologist Carole Mandrik has called this the Aboriginal Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, archaeological evidence to support this theory in most cases would now be under water, as the coastal area of western North America has shifted. However, some archaeological evidence has been found in caves and other protected areas along the West Coast that supports the theory of possible migration along coastal areas.
In the popular media such as the January 2000 issue of The Atlantic Monthly the article “The Diffusionists Have Landed” speculated that people from Europe, Asia, or Africa might have been coming to the Americas by boat for long periods of time before Columbus appeared. Archaeologists have evidence for Viking settlements in Greenland and what is now Labrador in Canada, but for whatever reasons these settlements did not last long. The impact of these Viking settlements on Native peoples was probably negligible.
People could also have sailed from Asia on boats. Archaeologists now know people were migrating to and settling in Polynesia 60,000 to 80,000 years ago. Most recently some researchers have speculated that people could have sailed from Africa to the Americas, as the ocean and wind currents are more favorable for western sailing in the Southern Hemisphere than in the Northern.
Certainly we don’t give our ancestors enough credit. They had the same three-pound brains we have. The fact that humans are still here attests to their intelligence and ingenuity. However, just because people could have done something doesn’t mean they did. We need archaeological or biological evidence to demonstrate that Africans or Asians sailed to the Americas. And if they did, what impact did they have? Further archaeological inquiry will help to either prove or disprove these hypotheses.
From the story at the beginning of this section we see that Native American societies have their own beliefs about where they came from, but not all Native American societies have the same beliefs. In 1491, over 700 languages were spoken in what is now North America. Each one of those languages represents a different society with its own set of customs and beliefs. So there may well have been 700 stories about each society’s origins. However, these Native stories seem to fall into two categories, and the stories at the beginning of this section illustrate both: Emergence from the Underground and Earth Diver stories.
In Emergence stories people once lived underground. For various reasons, they embark on a journey that eventually leads them to emerge into the above-ground world. Societies that have emergence tales are able to point out where their ancestors emerged from the underground. In Earth Diver stories, people once lived in the Sky World above Earth, which was a great body of water with only aquatic animals living in it. For various reasons, a pregnant woman (Sky Woman) falls from the Sky World. The water birds see her falling and fly up to cushion her fall with their wings. They put her on the back of a turtle. An Earth Diver (often a beaver, otter, or muskrat) dives to the bottom of the water to bring up a paw-full of earth, which Sky Woman takes and spreads over the back of the turtle. As she does so, the Earth spreads to become the land the Natives knew. That is why many Native Americans refer to their world as the Island on the Back of the Turtle, or Turtle Island.
How Long Ago?
The United States and Canada are young countries. Perhaps for that reason some Euro-Americans or Euro-Canadians find it very important to be able to establish how long their ancestors have been in their respective countries. People will do extensive research to show when a certain ancestor came to North America and from where, or which ancestors fought in the American Revolution or the War of 1812. Native Americans tend not to worry too much about these matters; their ancestors have always been here.
But for many others, and certainly for historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists, the questions of how long people have been here are important ones. As has already been shown, only fully modern human remains are found in the Americas, which means migration would have occurred less than 100,000 years ago. The availability of the Bering Bridge would have been important for at least some migrations. Geologists believe the land bridge was in existence three times in the last 100,000 years: between 28,000 and 10,000; 50,000 and 40,000; and 100,000 and 70,000 years ago. Consequently, people could have been migrating to the Americas over different routes and at different times. Archaeological and linguistic (language) data certainly indicate this.
Archaeology has been very important in helping to determine how long people have been in the Americas, but it is far from perfect. Archaeological research done in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries relied on the concept of superposition to determine how old artifacts were. This basically means that the deeper down in the ground an artifact is found, the older it is. A nineteenth-century archaeologist would assume that artifacts found 6 inches under the ground are more recent than artifacts found a foot down. This makes sense, except that a number of factors can disturb areas in which artifacts are found. The freezing and thawing of water in lakes and rivers (where most early settlements are found), the freezing and thawing of the ground itself; earthquakes; and the effects of farming, such as plowing—these all may shift layers of dirt, moving artifacts farther up or down in the ground.
In the 1950s the use of carbon 14 (radiocarbon dating) was developed for dating purposes. In this technique, the amount of carbon 14, a chemical found in all living things, is measured. When an organism dies, the amount of carbon 14 starts to decay. By measuring the amount of carbon 14 left in the artifact, archaeologists can estimate how old an organic artifact is.
Using this technique archaeologists were able to estimate the age of a mastodon butchering area to 8,500 years. Found with the mastodon were very unique projectile points, called Folsom Points.
The organic bones of the mastodon supplied the dating information, while finding a projectile point embedded in one of the bones clearly indicated the animal had at least been butchered, if not killed, by the people who made the Folsom Points.
[LEFT]: A Folsom Point from the Paleo-indian Lithic stage Folsom tradition. / U.S. Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management
[RIGHT]: Clovis point: Example of a Clovis fluted blade that is 11,000 years old. / Government of the Commonwealth of Virginia
Problems associated with carbon 14 dating are that it can only be done with organic materials, so projectile points or pottery cannot be dated. Another problem is that the testing process destroys a large part of the artifact. Archaeologists and geologists also use potassium-argon dating which can be used to determine the age of igneous and volcanic rock. In potassium-argon dating, the radioactive isotope of potassium 40 decays to the gas argon 40. By comparing the proportion of potassium 40 to argon 40, the date of rocks can be determined. However, the rocks must be carefully collected, and it can be difficult to determine if any marks or wear on the rocks are the result of human activity or natural erosion. Additionally, the standard deviations for age estimates are very large (Fagan 1989).
Archaeologists, especially those within the subfield of bioarchaeology, have long used biological material such as skeletons, especially skulls, to make hypotheses and draw conclusions about where Native Americans may have originated and possible relationships to other populations. However, skeletal material is very plastic or flexible; it is changed, sometimes within a generation, by environmental factors such as diet. So, drawing comparisons between skeletons from one continent to another, or even on the same continent, can be tricky. However, with the ability of biologists to now isolate and study genetic material, a new area of data is available to bioarchaeologists. In the 1980s, Glen Doran of Florida State University conducted excavations at peat bogs at the Windover Site in Florida. The low oxygen levels and neutral pH of the bog preserved burials that were between 7,000 to 8,000 years old. Thanks to earlier research done in extracting DNA from brain tissue (see Allan Wilson 1977 and Svante Paabo 1988), Doran was able to extract DNA from the brain tissue of 60 mummies. Microbiologists discovered that the genetic material of the brain tissue from the bog mummies varied very little, even though the bog had been used as a burial site for thousands of years (Thomas: Skull Wars).
Research such as Doran’s leads other microbiologists and bioarchaelogists to study the genetic make-up of Native Americans. At this time, research such as this indicates the indigenous populations of the Americas probably diverged from common genetic ancestors between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. Combined with what we know about geology, this divergence would have occurred after humans came to the Americas. Data such as these helped scientists determine that the genetic differences between Asian and Native Americans populations would have occurred between 21,000 and 42,000 years ago (Thomas).
Another type of research that can be helpful in illustrating the differences between Native American and other world populations and how long ago they occurred is linguistics, the study of languages. Linguists have been studying the relationships between languages for hundreds of years. Typically they analyzed sets of cognates (common words) to find language families (languages that descend from a common proto or mother language). In this way the American anthropologist Alfred Kroeber postulated the possibility of seven American Indian languages in the early twentieth century.
More recently Joseph Greenberg of Stanford University hypothesized three language families that he called Amerind, Na-Dene, and Eskimo-Aleut. He suggests that the Eskimo-Aleut and Na-Dane speaking populations had arrived in the Americas more recently than the Amerind-speaking populations. Greenberg thinks that the speakers of Amerind would be responsible for the Clovis projective points found by archaeologists. However, many experts in Native American languages discount Greenberg’s (an expert in African languages) hypothesis.
Attempts to merge theories from archaeology, microbiology, and linguistics to make hypotheses about the origin and time of migrations to the Americas have run into much criticism, largely because the data used by these sciences are so very different. The data from archaeology and geology can be very useful, as can data from archaeology and microbiology. But including linguistics can be very problematic, as languages can be both conservative (resistant to change) and flexible. The rate of language change can be dependent on a number of factors; including how many other populations and languages one society encountered, and if that society decided to use language as a means to maintain cultural identity in the wake of encountering other cultures, or to incorporate new words and phrases as has often been done in our English language.
However biological, archaeological, geographic, and linguistic evidence indicates that the peoples of the Americas have been a unique population for more than 10,000 years. Peoples from other parts of the world may have found their way to the Americas, but there is no evidence these visitors had any impact on the peoples or the societies already here until the events of 1492.
It is interesting that the questions about how long Native Americans have been in the Americas, and what other populations may have influenced them, is such a hot issue of debate, especially in the popular media. In Europe, Germans or Spaniards seldom have to defend how long ago their ancestors arrived in Europe. If asked, they would probably say their ancestors were always in Europe, just as Native Americans would say their ancestors were always in the Americas. However, with the exception of the Basque people, the ancestors of Europeans migrated to Europe as well, many of them in time frames similar to that of the migrations to the Americas. This shows us the mobility of those ancestors and raises questions about why they migrated. It doesn’t call into doubt the identity or sovereignty of those peoples. Like questions about how many people were in the Americas in 1491, the subtext of such questions by Euro-Americans about how long ago Native Americans got here can be, “Well, they weren’t here that long ago. They are immigrants, just like us.” Like the concept of Manifest Destiny this underlying message undermines the validity of Native American claims for sovereignty.
More interesting questions than how long have people been in the Americas, and how many were here in 1491 are: What did they do once they got here? How did those societies organize their kin groups? What resources did they have? What was their political organization? Were the roles of women and men similar or very different? What were their religious beliefs? What did their expressive culture (art) sound like and look like? How did those societies survive (or not) their encounters with Europeans and Euro-Americans? What do Native American societies look like today?
Good references for pre-European contact indigenous populations and environments is The Pristine Landscape by William Denevan, published in The Wilderness Debate, edited by J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, and The First Americans: In Pursuit of America’s Greatest Mystery, by J.M. Adovasio with Jake Page.
Carole Mandryk’s article “Invented Traditions and the Ultimate American Origin Myth: In the beginning…there was an ice free-corridor,” in The Settlement of the American Continents, edited by C. Michael Barton, et al., is an excellent presentation of recent archeological investigations into alternative indigenous migration routes and dates to the Americas, as well as Quest for the Lost Land, by Renee Hetherington et.al. that appeared in the February 2004 issue of Geotimes.
Windover: Multidisciplinary Investigation of an Early Archaic Florida Cemetery, by Glen Doran, is an excellent presentation of archaeological and biological evidence about a unique Native American burial site.
The article “How Columbus Sickened the World: Why Were Native Americans so Vulnerable to the Diseases European Settlers Brought With Them,” by D.J. Meltzer (New Scientist, 1992:30-38) is a good summary of the consequences of European diseases in the New World.
For more information about Bartolome’ de las Casas, an accessible article is “Prophet and Apostle: Bartolome’ de las Casas and the Spiritual Conquest of America,” in Christianity and Missions: 1450-1800 edited by J.S. Cummins.
American Indian Population Recovery in the 20th Century by Nancy Shoemaker, is a good historical discussion of indigenous population loss and recovery.
In addition to the archaeology resources cited in the Introduction, An Introduction to Archaeology, by Brain Fagan, is a good presentation of how archaeology is done, with particular reference to North America.
If your library has a copy of the pricey American Indian Linguistics and Literatures by William Bright (English publication by Mouton de Gruyter, 1984) it is an excellent source of information about American Indian languages.
The Oldest Europeans: Who are we? Where do we come from? What made European women different? by J.F. del Giorgio, discusses human migrations to Europe and the history of the Basque people.
From Native Peoples of North America, by Susan Stebbins, published by the BC Open Textbook Project under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.