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North America

Native Americans

Portrait of a Nez Percé bravePortrait of a Nez Percé braveBy the time European explorers first arrived in the Americas at the beginning of the 16th century, there were already millions of people (some experts estimate as many as 50 million across North, Central and South America and the Caribbean) living there. It is thought around 10 million people lived in North America. These Native Americans—also known as American Indians, Amerindians, or First Nations in Canada—were descendants of the Palaeo-Indians, a name given by archaeologists to people who first crossed into Alaska from Siberia in Asia by foot after about 26,500 years ago, then spread southwards across the continent. 

A map of cultural areas in North AmericaA map of cultural areas in North America


Over thousands of years, Native American people adapted to the various environments they chose to live in—forests, grassy plains, arid scrubland, lush river valleys—and diversified into a patchwork of nations and tribes, each with their own language, religious beliefs and customs. Wherever a tribe lived, daily life centred around providing the necessities of life—food and shelter. Many tribes were nomadic (wandering) and they lived by hunting animals such as buffalo and deer, or by gathering berries, roots and other wild plants. Others were farmers, growing maize, squash, beans and other crops.

Scientists have identified 10 “cultural areas” in North America, rough groupings of native peoples who shared similar environments: the Arctic, the Subarctic, the Northeast, the Southeast, the Plains, the Southwest, the Great Basin, California, the Northwest Coast and the Plateau. They are shown on the above map.

The Arctic

Totems (from the Algonquian Anishinaabe word "doodem" meaning “family group”) are sculptures carved out of tall trees by native peoples of the Pacific Coast of northwestern North America. The world’s tallest totem pole is 53 m (173 ft) tall and was carved in Alert Bay, Canada, in the 1960s.

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