Archeology This Month: Native American Heritage

Mounds at Hopewell Culture
Hopewell Culture National Historical Park. NPS photo.

November is Native American Heritage Month. Archeology is one way of learning about Native Americans. It is combined with traditional knowledge, such as that passed through oral history, for a richer understanding of the past and its meaning today. Read on and explore the links to learn about some of the ways archeology reveals past Native American life in North America.

First Arrivals

Traditional knowledge and Western science offer multiple lines of evidence about the first people to populate North America. Archeological and genetic evidence show that people have been here at least 23,000 years and as long as 30,000 years, underscoring American Indians' oral history that their ancestors lived on these lands from time immemorial. Archeology and indigenous knowledge show that humans arrived by land and sea.

One first route into North America crossed a land mass linking Siberia to Alaska. The Bering Land Bridge theory has a long history and is still debated with other theories of arrival and distribution. Due to sea level rise, the best archeological evidence may be underwater. Archeologists keep finding new evidence of the earliest known human occupations and surveying their migration across the Alaskan landscape. After people set foot in North America, they continued to spread.

Archeology helps pinpoint by when people lived across North America. Around 22,000 years ago, teenagers and children left footprints in the muddy grasslands and wetlands surrounding the great ancient Lake Otero, now White Sands National Park in New Mexico. Other examples are much more recent. In Hawai'i, archeological evidence shows that Polynesians from the Marquesas Islands first arrived between 1000 to 1200 CE.

Urban Centers

Indigenous people built America's first cities. These massive infrastructure projects provided hubs for commerce, trade, transportation, and culture that rivaled contemporaneous centers in South America, Europe, and northern Africa. Three such places are not only significant in American history, but to human history around the world.

Poverty Point in Louisiana has been called America's first city. Hundreds -- or even thousands -- of people lived there. Archeologists are not sure why the city was built, or whether it was continuously occupied or used for specific occasions. They do know, however, that it required social organization, as well as a sophisticated understanding of engineering and construction. Built between 1700 and 1100 BCE, the earthwork core covers 345 acres. The settlement further extends for more than three miles along the Bayou Macon. The core includes six concentric, C-shaped ridges that extend to the edge of the Macon Ridge and several mounds outside and inside of the earthen ridges. Its inhabitants and visitors were hunters, fishers, and gatherers. Poverty Point is a National Historical Landmark, a State Historical Site, a National Monument, and a World Heritage Site.

Cahokia Mounds in Illinois was occupied primarily between 800–1400 CE. The complex covered nearly 1,600 hectacres and included some 120 mounds. Cahokia's population may have numbered 10-20,000 people, perhaps as many as 50,000, at its peak between 1050 and 1150 CE. An agricultural society led by chiefdom, Cahokia was the largest and most influential urban settlement of the Mississippi culture. The complex included a central area, satellite mound centres, and numerous outlying hamlets and villages. One of the most impressive features was Monks Mound, the largest Native American earthwork in the Americas, which covered over 5 hectacres and stood 30 meters high. Cahokia Mounds is a National Historic Landmark, a State Historic Site, and a World Heritage Site.

Chaco Canyon in New Mexico contains 15 major complexes that remained the largest buildings ever built in North America until the 19th century. The Ancestral Puebloan people planned and constructed massive stone and timber buildings (Great Houses) of multiple stories containing hundreds of rooms. Construction on some buildings spanned decades and even centuries. During the middle and late 800s, the great houses of Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Peñasco Blanco were constructed, followed by Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Alto, and others. These structures were often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions. Between 900 and 1150 CE, the canyon was the cultural, ceremonial, administrative and economic center of the San Juan Basin. The National Park Service manages Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is also a World Heritage Site.

Effigy Mounds

Although the first people entered the Mississippi region about 12,000 years ago, the earliest major phase of earthen mound construction did not begin until some 2,100 years ago. Native Americans continued to build effigy mounds for another 1,800 years, or until around 1700 CE. People in the Mississippi Valley and east to Lake Michigan constructed earthen effigy mounds in animal, spirit, and geometric shapes. Although the mounds served ceremonial purposes and delineated territories of choice gathering and hunting grounds, their true cultural significance remains a mystery. American Indian oral history, legends, and mythology help scientists to interpret the physical evidence.

Archeological studies at places such as Effigy Mounds National Monument, Hopewell Culture National Historical Park, Emerald Mound at Natchez Trace Parkway, and Ocmulgee Mounds National Historical Park show rich cultural beings with ties across the continent and beyond. These places continue to be deeply important to descendants of their original inhabitants.

The Mission System

Beginning in the 16th century, the Spanish Empire established Catholic missions as part of its effort to colonize the Americas. It sought to acculturate indigenous peoples to Spanish cultural norms, convert them to Christianity, and pacify them for colonial purposes. Missionaries managed autonomous mission communities that insulated indigenous people from outside influences, such as other indigenous groups. The mission system existed until the mid-19th century in the United States. Archeology explores the development of missions and everyday life within them. The National Park Service and other groups preserve many Spanish mission sites.

Two ancient southwestern cultural traditions -- the Mogollon and Anasazi -- resulted in the Puebloan communities of Abó, Quarai, and Gran Quivira (also known as Las Humanas). From about 1000 to the 1600s, the three villages operated as major regional centers of trade with Indians from the Plains, the Pacific Coast, and the Great Basin. Gran Quivira, the largest of the Salinas villages, became a bustling community of 3,000 inhabitants. It thrived until the late 17th century. Today, Gran Quivira is one of three sites that make up Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico.

San Jose de Tumacácori is part of a chain of missions established by the Jesuit Father Eusebio Kino. The missionaries encouraged the development of organized communities in which the O'odham attended daily services and worked together on farming, building, and other community activities. By 1800, the Franciscan missionaries were leading the Tumacácori community in building a new church. The work progressed slowly. During a particularly hard winter, following yet another Apache attack, the people of Tumacácori abandoned their community to join the O'odham at San Xavier del Bac near Tucson, ending the site's history as a mission. The mission is now preserved at Tumacácori National Historical Park in Arizona.

Disease and Massacre

Contact with Europeans had devastating results for many indigenous peoples. Europeans introduced smallpox, venereal disease, and other illnesses against which indigenous people had no natural immunity. They also implemented efforts to exterminate Native peoples in order to clear the West. As a result, many Native communities were decimated. Archeologists can interpret archeological evidence to understand life under these conditions and the aftermath.

Awatixa Village, also known as Sakakawea Village, was occupied from c. 1790-1834. The Awatixa Hidatsa subgroup established the village after a smallpox epidemic in 1782 forced them away from the Awatixa Xi'e or Lower Hidatsa Village.The smallpox epidemic greatly reduced much of the indigenous population of North Dakota and devastated its peoples' lifeways. Knowledge of traditional crafts died with many of the artisians. Archeologists working at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site found hundreds of stone tools used by the mid-18th-century villagers, but they dated to thousands of years earlier.

In the mid-19th century, European American settlers' desire for land across the Great Plains and into the Colorado Territory conflicted with the needs of Indian nations who lived, hunted, and traveled across the same areas. In 1864, the U.S. Army carried out a surprise attack on a village of about 600 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians camped on the boundary of their reservation along the Big Sandy Creek. By afternoon, about 160 members of the tribes lay dead, the majority women and children. Before departing, the soldiers ransacked and burned the village. Collaboration among the NPS and the Northern and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes using oral history and archeology located the site, which is now part of Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado.

Archeologists today have an obligation to work with Native Americans, Alaskan Natives, and Native Hawai'ians to correct the record of the past, share knowledge, and inform the future. Working together, we confront difficult stories in American history and reveal untold ones.

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Last updated: March 6, 2023