The Online Library of Knowledge

North America

Ancient North America

A Mississippian settlement, c. 1050–1400 ADA Mississippian settlement, c. 1050–1400 ADThe history of the American indigenous peoples, the original inhabitants of the continent, dates back to around 26,000 years before Europeans arrived. This is called the pre-Columbian era—the period of North American history before Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492. After they crossed into North America from Siberia, the first Americans, known to archaeologists as Palaeo-Americans or Palaeo-Indians, later diversified into many hundreds of nations and tribes that make up the Native American population (also known as American Indians, Amerindians or, in Canada, First Nations). Some Palaeo-Indians travelled south to Central and South America, where, thousands of years later, the Maya, Aztec, Inca and other peoples built great civilizations. Among those who made their home in North America were the mound-builders of the Mississippi basin and the cliff city dwellers of the American Southwest.


The first Americans

Beringia and migration routes into North AmericaBeringia and migration routes into North AmericaPeople migrating across BeringiaPeople migrating across Beringia 
People may have first arrived in North America around 26,500 years ago—the dates are still uncertain. During the Ice Ages, the sea level was lower than it is today. It was possible to walk from northeastern Siberia to Alaska, crossing what is known as the Beringia land bridge (today it is once again under the waters of the Bering Sea). Hunters followed their prey—mammoth, deer and other animals—from Asia into this new land. Centuries later, the Palaeo-Indians, as these people are called, managed to make their way south, either travelling through a “corridor” to the east of the Rocky Mountains, which became passable as the ice sheets melted and retreated to either side, or moving southwards along the Pacific coastline.

The discovery of a number of archaeological sites in the Americas with human remains and hearths (fireplaces used for cooking food) that date back to earlier than 13,000 years ago has now led most scientists to dismiss the idea that Clovis people were the first human inhabitants of the New World. There is evidence—still disputed—of a few settlements in the Americas that may have existed more than 20,000 years ago. The Topper site in South Carolina, for example, may be 23,000 years old.

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile