The Aboriginal Inhabitants of North America Part I


Introduction: Pages: 16-19

State of the Tribes When First Known

Little or nothing is known of the life of mankind in this western hemisphere before Columbus made his memorable voyage to it in 1492.Some reasonable conjectures are founded on facts learned then and since, but no actual knowledge of the aboriginal people of America prior to that time can be said to exist. Numerous tribes of a race very different from any seen in other parts of the world were found inhabiting the two continents and the neighboring islands, and, while most of them were savage or barbarous, a few had advanced to the half-civilized state. These latter were beginning a rude invention of writing by pictures mixed with signs, but they had not yet made it a means of preserving the records of their past. In the proper sense of the term history, the History of America begins, therefore, with the arrival from Europe of people who practiced the recording art. Behind it lies an undoubtedly long "prehistoric " time, of which some glimpses have been obtained by a careful study of relics, remains, traditions, myths, languages, customs, and religious beliefs. These furnish facts of a kind from which much can be inferred that is probable, but little, after all, that is not open to frequent questioning and dispute.

The tribes and confederacies of tribes found in different parts of the western continents and islands differed widely in character, in condition, and in language ; but nearly all scientific men now believe that they came from one stock, and that no other stock or race had ever existed in this part of the world. Furthermore, it seems to be a fairly well settled scientific belief that the race did not have its origin in America ; but whence its ancestry came, and at how remote a time, are questions much debated, on slender grounds of fact. We will not enter the debate.

Until lately it was believed that large parts of this continent, especially in the great valley of the Mississippi, had been inhabited once by another more civilized people, whose imagined empire had suffered worse than the fate of Rome, being obliterated so entirely by invading barbarians that no relic remained, except a multitude of mysterious artificial "mounds," scattered widely throughout the land. But speculation concerning those singular mounds and their builders is now silenced by the systematic and scientific study which the United States Bureau of Ethnology, organized by the government, at Washington, has brought to bear on the subject in recent years. It has been proved beyond doubt that the mounds in question are of no great antiquity; that they were the work of known aboriginal tribes ; and that they signify no state more civilized than that in which those tribes were found. In some instances they were burial mounds ; in others they were works of defense.

If the making of pottery is taken (as suggested by the late Mr. Lewis H. Morgan, in his work on " Ancient Society ") for the mark of distinction between savage and barbarous peoples, the native tribes of North America were generally in the barbarous state when first known to the European world. A few would be classed as savages, but not low in the scale ; a few more had risen to the rank of the half-civilized man. Not any had passed out of what is known as " the stone age " of The culture ; the period, that is, in which weapons, tools, stone and other implements are made wholly or mostly of stone. Copper, found in its pure state and easily worked, had come into use in many parts of the continent ;and even the hardening of copper into bronze, by an alloy of tin, is said to have been practiced by some of the Mexican tribes, which had also learned the working of silver and gold ; but, even among the latter, tools and weapons of stone remained
in common use.

Many tribes, in many parts of the country, carried on some rude cultivation of the soil. Maize, or Indian corn, the one cereal native to America, and cultivated more easily were pumpkins, squashes, potatoes, and beans. These native articles of food were welcomed by the European settlers when they came, and have had importance in American agriculture and diet ever since. Another gift to the newcomers was tobacco, the liking for which was learned so quickly and spread so rapidly abroad that tobacco-culture soon became the most profitable industry of the New World. In their labors and in the improvement of their modes of life the native Americans had no domesticated animals to give them help, except the llama of Peru. No beasts in the northern continent appear to have been capable of domestication, save the wolf, from the taming of which a poor species of dog had been obtained. The horse is found to have had a primitive existence in North America, but the species became extinct ; the buffalo has proved practically domestic
untamable ; and, in fact, the continent was singularly wanting in dumb helpers for man. Without flocks and herds, or beasts of burden, the American race was handicapped seriously in its rise out of primitive conditions of life.

The tribes most advanced were found in Mexico, Central America, and Peru ; but the state of culture among them is now known to have been much lower than formerly was supposed. The Spaniards who subjugated them misunderstood many things that they saw, and exaggerated many particulars, so that wholly wrong ideas of the native people, and of their social and political organization, were drawn from the early Spanish accounts. In Mexico for example, they mistook a league or confederacy of three dominant tribes for an " empire," and its war chief for an emperor or king. They mistook huge communal buildings, like the "pueblos " still existing in New Mexico and Arizona, the fortress tenements of many kindred families, sometimes populated by thousands of men, women, and children, they mistook these for palaces, and described them as evidences of royal magnificence and power.

The facts, placed now beyond doubt by recent studies, show a condition that can fairly be called half-civilization, among the Aztec or Nahuatl tribes of Mexico, the Maya-Quiche" tribes of Central America, and the tribes of Peru. In agriculture and in some mechanical arts the Peruvians were the more advanced, and in their religious worship they were innocent of the human sacrifice and the cannibalism of the hideous Mexican rites ; but written language, in which the Aztecs and the Mayas had made beginnings, was unknown to the Peruvian tribes. The skill of the three peoples in architecture was much beyond that found elsewhere in the New World.

Continue: Part II


Website: The History
Article Name: The Aboriginal Inhabitants of North America Part I
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: A History of the United States for Secondary Schools by J.N. Larned; Houghton, Mifflin and Company New York 1903
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