At daybreak on the morning of Friday, August 3 1492, an Italian adventurer named Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to find a new way from Europe to Asia. His aim was to open up a sorter trade route between the two continents. In Asia, he intended to load his three small ships with silks, spices and gold, and sail back to Europe a rich man. Columbus first sailed south to the Canary Islands. Then he turned west across the unknown waters of the mid-Atlantic Ocean. Ten weeks after leaving Spain, on the morning of October 12, he stepped ashore on the beach of low Sandy Island.
He named the island San Salvador – Holy Savior. Columbus believed that he had landed in the Indies, a group of Inlands close to the mainland of India. For this reason he called the friendly, brown-skind people who greeted him los Indios – Indians. In fact, Columbus was not near India. It was not the edge of Asia that he had reached, but islands off the shores of a new continent. Europeans would soon name the new continent America, but for many years they went on calling its inhabitants Indians.
Only recently have these first Americans been described more accurately as Native Americans or Amerindians. There were many different groups of Amerindians. Those north of Mexico, in what is now the United States on Canada, were scattered across the grasslands and forests in separate groups called tribes. These tribes followed very different ways of life. Some were hunters, some were farmers. Some were peaceful, others warlike. They spoke over three hundred separate languages, some of which were as different from one another as English is from Chinese.
Europeans called America the New World. But it was not new to the Amerindians. Their ancestors had already been living there for maybe 50000 years when Columbus stepped on to the beach in San Salvador. We say maybe because nobody is completely sure. Scientists believe that the distant ancestors of the Amerindians came to America from Asia. This happened, they say, during the earth’s last ice age, long before people began to make written records. At that time a bridge of ice joined Asia to America across what is now the Bering strait.
Hunters from Siberia crossed this bridge into Alaska. From Alaska the hunters moved south and east across America, following herds of caribou and buffalo as the animals went from one feeding ground to the next. Maybe 12000 years ago, descendants of these first Americans were crossing the isthmus of Panama into south America. About 5000 years later their camp fires were burning on the frozen southern tip of the continent, now called Tierra del fuego – the Land of fire. For many centuries early Amerindians lived as wandering hunters and gatherers of food.
Then a more settled way of life began. People living in highland areas of what is now Mexico found a wild grass with tiny seeds that were good to eat. These people became America’s first farmers. They cultivated the wild grass with great care to make its seeds larger. Eventually it became Indian corn, or maze. Other cultivated plant foods were developed. By 5000 BC Amerindians in Mexico were growing and eating beans, squash and peppers. The Pueblo people of present day Arizona and New Mexico were the best organized of the Amerindians farming people.
They lived in groups of villages, or in towns which were built for safety on the sides and top of the cliffs. They shared terraced buildings made of adobe ( mud and straw ) bricks, dried in the sun. Some of these buildings contained as many as 800 rooms, crowded together on top of one another. The Pueblo made clothing and blankets from cotton which grew wild in the surrounding deserts. On their feet they wore boot-shaped leather moccasins to protect their legs against the sharp rocks and cactus plants of the desert. For food the grow crops of maize and beans. Irrigation made them successful as farmers.
Long before Europeans came to America and Pueblo were building networks of canals across the deserts to bring water to their fields. In one desert valley modern archaeologists have traced canals and ditches which enable the Pueblo to irrigate 250000 acres of farmland. A people called the apache were the neighbors of the Pueblo. The apache never became settled farmers. They wandered the deserts and mountains in small bands, hunting deer and gathering wild plants, nuts and roots. They also obtained food by raiding their Pueblo neighbors and stealing it. The Apache were fierce and warlike, and they were much feared by the Pueblo.
The Iroquois were a group of tribes – a nation- who lived far away from the Pueblo and the Apache in the thick woods of northeastern North America. Like the Pueblo, they were skilled farmers. In fields cleared from the forest they worked together growing beans, squash and twelve different varieties of maiz. They were also hunters and fishermen. They used birch bark canoes to carry them swiftly along the rivers and lakes of their forest homeland. The Iroquois lived in permanent villages, in long wooden huts with barrel-shaped roofs. These huts were made from a framework of saplings covered by sheets of elm bark.
Each family had its own apartment on either side of a central hall. The Iroquois were fierce warriors. They were as feared by their neighbors as the Apache of the western deserts were feared by theirs. Around their huts they build strong wooden stockades to protect their villages from enemies. Eager to win a glory for their tribe and fame and honor for themselves, they often fought one another. From boyhood on, male Iroquois were taught to fear neither pain nor death. Bravery in battle was the surest way for a warrior to win respect and a high position in his tribe.
Many miles to the west, on the vast plains of grass that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, there was another warrior nation. This group called themselves Dakota, which means allies. But they were better known by the name which other Amerindians gave to them – Sioux, which means enemies. Te Sioux grew no crops and built no houses. For food, for shelter and for clothing they depended upon the buffalo. Millions of these large, slow- moving animals wandered across the western grasslands in vast herds. When the buffalo moved, the Sioux moved.