They built astronomical observatories and innovative farming systems — and we don’t even know their names. Meet the first great civilizations of Native American history.
Nearly four thousand years ago — as the city of Babylon was first growing into a metropolis and Egypt’s Middle Kingdom was in full swing — a group of hunters along North America’s Mississippi River assembled in their thousands, to build something very strange.
In a place that would someday be known as northern Louisiana, they staked out an area of some five hundred acres, and began to heap the earth into enormous mounds.
By the time their great project was completed, these people had arranged more than one million cubic feet of soil into a sprawling system of concentric semicircles, ten feet high and nearly a square mile in diameter. At the far western end of these earthworks, they raised a towering mountain of earth.
Standing on that mountain’s peak, gazing eastward across the construction, one would see the sun rise precisely above its center on the days of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes.
But this vast, intricate structure did not serve as the center of a city, like the ziggurats of Mesopotamia.
It wasn’t a king’s tomb, like the pyramids of Egypt. The people who built these earthworks did not surround them with fields of crops, or pens of livestock, or imposing royal palaces, as did the builders of so many other holy monuments.
Instead, they stockpiled vast hoards of copper, slate, quartz and other exotic materials – often imported from hundreds of miles away. They used these materials to manufacture finely tooled knives, beads, stone effigies and animal figurines, which they sold to a network of trading partners throughout North America’s Gulf Coast region.
Their business flourished for more than a thousand years – until at last, around 700 BCE, they abandoned their great distribution center, never to return.
We don’t know what the builders of these earthworks called themselves – or even what language they spoke. We have no idea which (if any) living American Indian groups they might be related to, because we’ve found none of their depictions of themselves, or any remnants of their DNA. Today, they’re known as the Poverty Point culture, after the modern English name for the place where they once made their home.
The Poverty Point people were not the first great civilization to rise in North America.
As early as 3500 BCE — centuries before Stonehenge or Egypt’s Great Pyramid were built — people in what’s now Watson Brake, Louisiana raised a set of circular mounds 900 feet across, towering 25 feet high.
These earthworks seem to have served as a base for hunter-gatherers – meaning that even without agriculture, these builders (whoever they were) knew how to organize human expertise on a large scale, over an extended period.
To create, in other words, a civilized society.
But long before anyone raised earthworks in North America, technological and societal innovation had already been flourishing for a very long time.
In the first article of my “Great African Empires” series, we met the San people, whose technology may date back as far as 44,000 BCE, and whose languages may be directly related to the primordial mother tongue spoken by the first Homo sapiens.
We also met the Australian Yidindji people, whose oral traditions clearly describe a sea level rise that happened at the end of the last Ice Age, no less than 13,000 years ago.
Sometime during that last Ice Age, people first started walking from Russia to Alaska.
Starting around 30,000 years ago, the eastern tip of Siberia was connected to western Alaska by a land bridge known as Beringia. This bridge was no narrow strip of ice, but a sprawling tundra, teeming with mammoths and woolly rhinos.
Around 13,000 BCE, a few thousand people crossed Beringia into Alaska – most likely pursuing herds of the great beasts they hunted.
These Ice-Age hunters could not have known, of course, that they were entering a brand-new continent.
The landscape in Alaska would have looked much the same as that of Russia and Beringia: a half-frozen steppe-tundra, bounded by towering glaciers, filled with forests of pine and birch, and with the same thundering menagerie of furred, tusked, horned beasts depicted in the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet.
In fact, the culture of these North American newcomers would remain strikingly similar to that of their relatives in Siberia.
Long centuries after the ice melted, the seas rose, and the land bridge of Beringia was no more, peoples on both sides of the Bering Strait would continue to dress in furs and feathers, to speak very similar languages, to live in pointed houses wrapped in animal skins, to throat-sing to the sound of pounding drums, and to send shamans to journey between the worlds of life, dreams and death.
But as the ice melted and the newcomers multiplied, their descendants began to push southward, lured by warmer weather, greener meadows, and greater herds of mammoth, mastodon — and of course, by the bison, which thronged in their millions across the North American plains.
By 12,000 BCE, these hunters had settled throughout what’s now the west coast of Canada.
Their most distinctive mark was the pair of fluted incisions they made on the sides of their stone arrowheads. We still don’t know why these peoples fluted their arrowheads – this technique is unique to North America; stone-age hunters around the world got along perfectly fine without it — or whether they were even a single culture, or a diverse array of peoples who happened to share certain ideas.
We call these mysterious people the Clovis culture — though we have no idea how they categorized themselves.
But the Clovis people were not alone on their new continent.
As early as 17,000 BCE — a full 4,000 years before the Clovis people arrived in Canada — people at Pennsylvania’s Meadowcroft Rockshelter were stockpiling corn, squash and fruit, hunting deer and small game, and creating arrowheads without the distinctive Clovis fluting.
In fact, a wide variety of hunting-gathering peoples already thrived throughout the North American continent, thousands of years before the Clovis people showed up.
Who were these primordial American peoples? Where did they come from?
We simply don’t know. Some experts think they came across Beringia much earlier, perhaps tens of thousands of years before the Clovis people. Others have connected them with even more ancient sites — such as Monte Verde in Chile, where people constructed hide buildings and clay-lined pits as early as 20,000 BCE.
In any case, one fact is very clear:
By 13,000 BCE, Native American history had already witnessed a diverse cast of well-developed cultures.
By 9000 BCE, people in the Great Basin — the sprawling watershed region at the center of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and California — had become experts at hunting ducks and rabbits, harvesting roots and pine nuts, and carving scenes of animals into the rocks.
A few thousand years later, in 6000 BCE, people in the Lower Pecos region of Texas were practicing organized agriculture and creating complex cave paintings. By 5500 BCE, people in what’s now Florida had settled down to a fishing life not unlike that of the earliest Sumerians.
Although ancient North America didn’t experience a bronze or iron age, it gave birth to a staggering array of complex societies.
When Babylon rose to power far to the east, North America was home to a dizzying range of civilizations, about which we know astonishingly little. Some of these peoples hunted bison on the Great Plains, while others fished in the southern marshes, or grew crops on hilltop farms — living in dread, no doubt, of raids from the wild nomads of the steppes.
But since none of these peoples felt inclined to leave inscriptions or compile written texts, our understanding of Native American history is somewhat limited: we do not know these people’s names, or the names of their cities, or of the gods in their pantheons.
We know exactly what they liked to eat, because they left plenty of it lying around — but we can make only vague guesses about what they believed and how they worshiped, based on scant clues from their effigies, paintings, carvings and sculptures.
We know they must have spoken thousands of dialects of hundreds of languages, in dozens of different language families. Among some of those language families, only one lonely language remains alive — as in the case of Zuni; while other families, like the Uto-Aztecan languages, still have several living members, along with many extinct ones.
There are, without a doubt, entire families of extinct North American languages about which we know nothing.
And while it’s easy to pin the blame for these losses on European colonialists — who certainly did inflict apocalyptic destruction on thousands of North American peoples, societies and languages — the fact remains that ancient North America was already a stage for war, oppression, slavery and ethnic hatred, thousands of years before Columbus arrived.
Throughout those centuries, the North American continent played host to legendary cities, epic migrations, mighty kings, transformative religions, and a myriad of intertwined, ever-evolving ways of life — some of which you’ll experience later in this series, while others still remain buried beneath the dust of prehistory.
Europeans did not invade an untouched paradise. They invaded a continent already dense with thousands of years of civilization.
Over the course of this series, we’re going to see how the great civilizations of ancient North America developed a breathtaking variety of societal structures and ways of life. We’ll visit the mighty cities those civilizations raised in ancient Arizona and Colorado, and in medieval Missouri and Arkansas.
We’ll meet powerful merchant princes who built a trade empire across the Northeast, and steppe warriors who defeated and enslaved their would-be European conquerors.
You’re about to see North America as you’ve never seen it before.
Because the truth is —
This so-called “New World” is one of the oldest worlds on earth.