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Introduction Continued

A Second Agricultural Revolution
The oldest human remains discovered so far have been dated to around two-hundred thousand years old. For most of our existence people lived in small groups supporting themselves through a combination of hunting and gathering. People were forced to live in relatively small populations because of the energy limits imposed by hunting and gathering, i.e. the number of people a given area could support was limited by how many total calories were available.

This all changed approximately 12,000 years ago when an agicultural revolution took place in the Middle East (see Fertile Cresent map). During this revolution people began growing crops and raising (domesticating) animals. The agricultural revolution led to the creation of food surpluses. More food meant more people could be supported. This led to the appearance of larger and larger settlements and more and more sophisticated technologies. For example, over the next few thousand years the wheel and iron tools/weapons were developed. Sumeria was one of the first to make use of these technologiees and the first to develop a system of writing thereby establishing itself as the first great civilization (around 3,000 BCE).

Ignorant of the history of North America, historians believed there was only ever one agricultural revolution which took place in the Middle East. These same historians also assumed that since the Siberians who settled North America moved before the agricultural revolution they missed out on it; therefore, the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere survived on fishing, big game hunting and foraging for food. These same historians were skeptical that a society as sophisticated as Sumeria could ever develop in the New World. This is no longer the case. Informed by science historians and archaeologists alike now know, without a doubt, that an independent agricultural revolution took place in Mesoamerica. We might debate the exact time this revolution took place but that it took place is undeniable.

The agricultural revolution in Mesoamerica encouraged the growth of civilizations like the Olmecs, Maya and Aztecs; it also encouraged cultures to develop much farther south in a region known as Beni (the lowlands of Bolivia). Farmers in the Fertile Crescent grew mainly wheat and barley. In Mesoamerica, the staple crop was maize (commonly referred to as corn). The first technologically complex civilization in the Americas was the Olmec. The Olmecs appeared on the scene in 1800 BCE. They constructed cities, towns, religious monuements, and used roads as part of a trade network. Like all early civilizations the Olmec practiced a religion. Although they practiced human sacrifice, the Olmec were both scientifically and technologically advanced. They invented their own system of writing, mathematics, astronomy, and recorded their histories for future generations to read. The story of the Olmecs is not exceptional in the Americas: by 1000 AD a series of civilizations established themselves throughout the Western Hemisphere (Mann, Pages, 20-23).

Prehistory & the Fossil Record 2

According to the current scientific model, the Cosmos is 13.82 billion years old while the planet Earth itself is approximately 4.5 billion years old. Geologists arrived at this number through the use of various dating techniques. The principle behind dating techniques like radiocarbon, etc. is pretty straightforward, i.e. over time elements decay (emit electrons) thereby turning in to daughter elements. For example, the element uranium (U) has a half-life of 4.47 billion years. Thus, after the passage of 4.47 billion years uranium (U) will decay into its daughter element lead (Pb). If enough time hasn't passed giving the uranium an opportunity to decay, you will not find any of its daughter element (Pb) in the environment. Scientists can compare the ratio of uranium to lead to get an idea how old the specific sample is. Logically speaking, the earth is at least as old as the oldest sample of uranium-lead we've found so far.


The age of our planet is difficult (if not impossible) for someone to understand because we ourselves live a relatively short time. So I'll try to help you wrap your head around this idea called "geologic time." Scientists insist that at one time all the continents of the world were once attached to one another in a super-continent they have called Pangaea. The current distance separating North America from Western Europe is approximately 4000 km (or roughly 2000 miles). Continents move at approximately the same speed as it takes your finger nails to grow. How long would it take for a fingernail 4000 km in length to grow? Now you have a better appreciation for the concept of geologic time.


Click here to read the article "Timing is Everything" covering different dating techniques.

Rocks and the fossilized remains of plants and animals form something called the fossil record. This record is useful because it tells us a number of things about prehistory. Prehistory is the period before human beings actually started writing down their stories. In particular, the fossil and geological record give us an appreciation for ancient weather patterns, animal (or human) migratory patterns, and when mass extinction events took place, e.g. KT Extinction. Information gathered from both the fossil and geological records is used by scientists to reconstruct what a particular area might have looked like in the past.

In addition to the fossil record, historians have used the oral history of North America's first inhabitants to reconstruct what life was like thousands of years ago. Although the fossil record has more practical applications, the oral tradition is nonetheless valuable because it provides us with insights into the religious and cultural values North America's early inhabitants. For instance, through the oral tradition we learn that First Nations peoples valued and depended heavily for survival upon their extended family. Moreover, native peoples had a profound respect for all natural and living things. This does not mean they were "enviromentalists" (in the modern sense) who never did anything destructive to the environment. On the contrary, the First Peoples of North America profoundly shaped, excavated, altered, etc. the land with their activity.

For most of the 20th century, experts believed that the majority of indigenous peoples of North America were nomadic hunter-gatherers. It was believed cities or towns were the exception rather than the rule. Recent scholarship has unearthed evidence challenging this notion; that is, while it is true that after Columbus nomads pursued millions of bison stomping their way about the Great Plains, it is false to assume this was the case before Columbus.

In the first two decades following contact with Europeans, diseases hitherto unknown in the New World ravaged the indigenous populations. The consensus view on the number of Native Americans who died is roughly nine out of every ten individuals. Disease spread effectively by making use of the existing trade networks then spanning the entire Western Hemisphere. Before the introduction of disease and the mass loss of life that followed, sophisticated civilizations established themselves on the so-called New World. These civilizations practied farming and animal husbandry; they developed math, writing, and philosophy; and they expressed sophisticated political and economic structures.

Ecosystems & Succession

The Earth is organized in to a series of eco-systems supporting different types of life. In every ecosystem, life develops according to a well-defined sequence of steps. Ecologists call this the Principle of Succession, e.g. one plant takes root and flourishes followed by another, and then yet another, until a climax is reached where the introductoin of large trees stops the process. To put it plainly the first life forms to get established in any given eco-system are microbes. These are followed by insects and smaller plants. These in turn create conditions favorable for the growth of medium sized plants, bushes and small trees. The climax comes when large trees like Douglas fir, oak or hickory establish themselves.

Mount St. Helens provides an excellent example of succession at work. The mountain actually is a volcano; it erupted (more like exploded) in 1980 flattening hundreds of square miles of forest. The eruption left the area devestated by magma, ash and mud. All animal life completely disappeared. Yet, despite the destruction smaller plants in the area clung to life. Within a few weeks of the disaster purplish flowering plants called lupines began peeking out from amid the charred remains of fallen trees and burnt grasses. Shade cast by the lupine created conditions for the return of wild grasses which liked the shade. Fifteen years after the eruption small trees and shrubs began to appear on the mountain side. This was followed by the re-emergence of the climax eco-system, e.g. hemlock and Douglas fir trees. These large trees cast shade on the mountain's side pushing out the lupine (and other smaller varieties of plant and tree) that preferred growing in sunnier conditions.

In 2009, my wife and I visited Muir Forest just outside of San Francisco, California. We visited the forest for two reasons: firstly, this was one of the only places in North America where you could see massive redwood trees growing; and secondly, this is where George Lucas shot the ewok/stormtrooper speed bike scene for the movie Return of the Jedi.

I was blown away by the immensity of the trees. They towered upwards of 300 feet in to the sky. Some of the trees were so thick a person could dig out a tunnel and drive a medium-sized car through it. I saw the trunk of one fallen redwood. I counted the tree rings (one ring per growing season). This tree had thousands of rings. Someone had even gone to the bother of identifying the growing seasons when Napoleon, Julius Caesar and Jesus walked the Earth.

When I was growing up I was in the boy scouts. I had plenty of opportunities to camp, canoe, portage, hike, shoot rapids, etc. In all my wilderness experiences, I swear I never heard what I did in Muir.

Nothing. I heard nothing but absolute and silence.

When it comes to climax eco-systems, this area was completely dominated by the redwood. Smaller trees incapable of growing to the height of the redwoods simply couldn't compete for the necessary sunlight. They just didn't exist here. And the reason there weren't any birds is because redwoord bark is over 12 inches thick. The thickness of the bark protects redwoods from fire and insects; and since there were no insects...there weren't any birds.

Succession: Avoiding the Unavoidable
If succession is unavoidable, an inescapable law of nature, why then wasn't the entire continent of North America covered by climax-stage vegetation like redwoods or sequioa when English settlers first started arriving in the early 17th century? In reality, the earliest written accounts describe how settlers were astonished to find well-groomed orchards and green spaces. They did not find an untamed wilderness at all but a region shaped for centuries by Indian peoples to be productive. Some accounts from early settlers describe how an entire army could march through the forest without so much as being interfered with by undergrowth or trees.

There is evidence that large areas of Canada and the United States were at one time covered by these massive trees. This ancient world would have been just as dark and just as quiet as the one I encountered at Muir. So if succession is unavoidable, what happened to all the trees? Why isn't the world covered in climax-stage vegetation? The answer is catastrophes and humans.

Succession is frequently interrupted by catastrophes like lightning fires, mud slides, flooding, comets or, as the case may be, volcanic eruptions. Following a catastrophe life finds a way to take root again and flourish. Catastrophies are game changers which alter eco-systems making it possible for new fauna (animal life) and foliage (plant life) to live. North America, has been shaped by fire for thousands of years.

Fire is destructive and life-giving, e.g. fires open the ground up to direct sunlight by destroying large trees. This makes room for sun-loving grasses, bushes, plants, etc. to grow; and inevitably one type of plant encourages another type of plant to grow; it also encourages herbivores (plant eating animals) to move in to the eco-system. And predators (humans, wolves, bears) move in to the eco-system to exploit the herbivores. As you can see, fire shapes an entire eco-system.

Aside from volcanoes, there are only two other significant sources of fire, e.g. lightning and people. Lightning cause fires in the boreal forest all along the north-south expanse of the Rocky Mountains as well as in the Hollywood Hills of California. In Northern Saskatchewan and other similarly treed areas, forest fires are frequently the product of lightning. However, as we turn our attention eastward the primary source of fire was, and has been for thousands of years, people. First Nations peoples used fire to control vegetation and animal life near their settlements. Fire was even used in the hunt, e.g. hunters lit fires forcing prey in to ambushes. Native peoples weren't always practical when it came to the use of fire. Sometimes they applied torches to sap-dripping fir trees just to watch them explode.

Native Americans did not generally raise animals for meat like Europeans, Africans and Asians. They didn't have to. They used fire to alter eco-systems encouraging large game animals like deer, moose, elk and bear to live within hunting range. Before 1492 the entire expanse of the Eastern Woodlands was an "ecological patchwork of garden plots, blackberry rambles, pine barrens, and spacious groves of chestnut, hickory, and oak trees. The first Europeans in Ohio found woodlands that resembled English parks—they could drive carriages through the forests (Mann, Page 286)." So much for the idea there was nobody here when Columbus discovered the New World. The Indians had established long ago massive orchards, fields of maize, causeways for fishing, and practiced a form of animal husbandry by using fire to encourage game to remain close to Indian towns and villages.


Indian Fire & the Bison

Originally bison could only be found upon the Great Plains of North America. These immense creatures depended entirely upon grass for food. Thus, their range was limited by the boundaries of the grassy flat lands. Nonetheless, Native Americans were able to expand the range of the bison by using fire. The Indians burnt down trees and encouraged the growth of grasslands. The bison simply followed their stomaches eastward becoming a reliable source of food for the Indians living there.

The bison were potentially a problem for Native farmers. (The Iroquois, in particular, are reputed to have planted fields of maize stretching for tens of miles.) Yet, Natives Americans constructed no fences. Instead, they kept the bison population down by regularly harvesting them. This prevented the bison populations from becoming unmanageable. Also, when using fire to shape the land Native Americans made sure to maintain a healthy distance between their farms and the newly created grasslands.

In the decades following Christopher Columbus' arrival to the New World, European settlers unwittingly unleashed a series of devestating diseases upon the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Indian societies a thousand years or more in the making disintigrated disappearing almost overnight. In the resulting vacuum the forests and bison which the Indians previously managed so well became unmanageable. Forests overtook huge tracts of land reaching as far west as Kansas and as far south as Georgia. Bison populations likewise exploded without the Indians to manage them. Indian farms, orchards, fishing causeways, villages, towns, religious monuments, etc. disappeared under grasses, brush and a variety of climax-species like hickory, oak, maple and fir. As Indian settlements faded from view so too did their memory. Within three generations after contact, European settlers forgot about the peoples they'd encountered in those first years. The rest is history as they say: the myth of an unoccupied wilderness that was North America was born. (Mann, Pages, 283-288)

In the decades following the arrival of Columbus the number of bison grew from hundreds and thousands to tens of millions. The population explosion was made possible for primarily two reasons: firstly, the Indians increased the land's carrying capacity through their clearing of forests and encouragement of grasslands; and with an increase in food supply more bison could be supported; and secondly, with the virtual disappearance of the Indians there was no longer anyone managing bison populations (the bison basically had nothing to fear from predators). Ultimately, the millions of bison which eventually stomped their way about the prairies was not something "intended" by the Indians but definitely the "unintended" result of the Red Man's removal.

Cahokia: Indian Influence

In the centuries before European settlement (pre-1492), two-thirds of Canada and the United States was covered by one crop or another; large tracts of land in the American Southwest was terraced and irrigated. Cahokia, the largest human-made structure in the world until the 20th century, was constructed in Missouri (see picture below). Thousands of smaller mounds have been discovered all throughout the Americas. Evidence of ancient causeways and water levies has also been found. The Eastern Coast of the United States was not originally covered by dense, thick forest (or climax species). Rather, the forest had been pushed back by nations like the Potawatomi who established farms all along the coast. Salmon nets stretched across almost every ocean-bound stream in the Northwest. And almost everywhere there was Indian fire.

In Mexico, Indians shaped the eco-systems of the Mexican basin and Yucatan peninsula to make them suitable for farming; and in South America societies constructed terraces, canals and stoney highways in to the western faces of the Andes Mountains. In the Beni (Bolivia), other societies both farmed and fished (using Venice-like causeways to fish and travel from community to community). Agriculture reached down into Argentina and central Chile. Indians converted approximately a quarter of the vast Amazon forest into farms, orchards and turned the once-forested Andes to grass and brush (the Inca, who were worried about a fuel supply for their cities, actually established tree farms).

In 1539, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto completed an expedition through the American Southeast (Florida). His written account tells of seeing vast numbers of people on his travel but not a single bison. (In fact, not a single account from an early explorer even mentions sighting a single bison.) A century later, after disease had swept Indians from the land, the French explorer La Salle canoed down the Mississippi. Where De Soto found prosperous communities La Salle encountered only "a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man." Everywhere the La Salle encountered bison, "grazing in herds on the great prairies which then bordered the [Mississippi] river." When Indians died, the shaggy creatures vastly extended both their range and numbers, according to Valerius Geist, a bison researcher at the University of Calgary. "The post-Columbian abundance of bison," in his view, was largely due to diseases from Europe which killed the Indians and reduced the hunting (controlling) of bison populations. The massive, thundering herds were pathological, something that the land had not seen before and was unlikely to see again (Mann, Pages, 360-371)."

The First Peoples 3

People of the Great Plains: Blackfoot
The Blackfoot (Siksika) were the dominant member of a confederation of nations on the Great Plains. They and the other members of the organization—Piegan and Blood (Kainah)—were known as the "black feet" due to their ashen-stained moccasins. Although there was no central authority in the Blackfoot Confederacy, members were sufficiently organized to cooperate in times of need and defense.

The Blackfoot were nomadic hunters whose lives revolved around the buffalo. Over many centuries the Siksika developed various tactics for hunting bison. One such technique involved herding the animals into a "buffalo pound" where hunters could kill at will (with minimal risk of being trampled). Later in the 18th Century when horses were introduced to the prairie, the Siksika rode beside the galloping bison shooting them with arrows. This was not the safest thing to do as these immense creatures were powerful enough to knock a horse off its feet.


The Blackfoot acquired horses through trade with indigenous peoples from the southwest United States. Horses of the Great Plains are thought to be descended from animals brought to the New World by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th Century. The fossil record actually demonstrates that horses were in North America thousands of years before the Spanish re-introduced them; however, these ancient horses died out due to climactic changes 15,000 years ago.

The safest and most effective hunting technique was to force the animals to stampede off the side of a cliff. There are several locations on the prairies where this approach was employed with great effect. One of the more well-known sites is a place called "Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump." Apparently the location received its name from a not particularly bright hunter. The story goes that a young man wanted to watch the bison fall off the cliffs from below. And I'm sure you can guess what happened next....

Canada purchased the Northwest Territories from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870. The purchase encouraged an increasing numbers of white settlers to the Great Plains. White settlers, seeing the bison more of a nuisance than anything, hunted these creatures indiscriminantly and placed a lot of pressure on the Blackfoot. The final tragedy came in 1878 when the herds migrated south for the winter to the United States never to return. The Americans prevented the return of the bison by burning the grasslands on the shared Canadian-American border. With the Great Plains basically cut into two by a wall of burnt grass, the bison remained in Montana, Missouri, etc. where they were hunted to virtual extinction by 1879.

From the perspective of the Canadian Government, the destruction of the bison was desirable. The Canadians built a transcontinental railway linking east and western Canada. Settlers, particularly farmers, were encouraged to move westward and establish homesteads. However, white farmers were not any more capable of establishing farms than Indians with millions of bison trampling about. Canada did not offer any kind of meaningful protest at the slaughter of the bison by the Americans. Rather, the slaughter benefited the Canadians by forcing the Blackfoot Confederacy into treaty negotiations with them. Through these negotiations Canada was able to "legally" lay claim to lands that would eventually become the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union's dictator Josef Stalin once observed that if you wanted to get a man to obey all you had to do was starve his family. I think Stalin would've been proud of how the Canadians handled the situation with the bison and the Blackfoot, i.e. instead of using war the Canadians used a combination of treaties and starvation to settle the last great frontier known as the West.

native american

The term American was first used in reference describing natives of North America by European settlers in the early 17th Century. This changed following the American Revolution when the Thirteen Colonies (United States) broke away from Great Britain. The word "American" following 1776 was used thereafter to by white peoplt to refer to white people living in New York, Massachusetts, Virginia, etc. Arguably, this is just one more thing that has been stolen from the first Americans.


Inuit, Haida & Huron Nations

People of the North: Inuit
The Inuit were the last (or most recent) of the Asian migrant peoples to arrive in North America: the archaeological record indicates they arrived about a thousand years later than the ancestors of the Iroquois, Blackfoot, Apache, Incan or Olmec. They settled primarily in the arctic. It is worthwhile to note that the Inuit did not have to adapt or learn new ways of living to survive the harsh arctic climate. Their ancestors lived in similar conditions for centuries in Asia's arctic regions. Thus, when the Inuit settled North America they possessed all the necessary mental and technological tools to thrive in the cold and ice.

For food the Inuit hunted big game like caribou and walrus and harpooned whales. As the Inuit established their communities well north of the tree line, they developed a form of shelter made completely of ice and snow. They called these dwellings igloos (a word regrettably that witty Americans ignorant of Canada overuse to describe Canadian homes. And if there are any Americans reading this right now, "Canada is a big country and no I don't know Steve from Toronto").

At one time, anthropologists used to lump the Inuit into the same category as all the other First Nations; however, subsequent research has determined that genetically speaking the Inuit belong to a different bloodline than the Huron, Aztecs or Iroquois. Thus, they are considered to be an entirely separate ethnic group. Accordingly, in Canada the Inuit are not considered a First Nation. Instead, the Inuit are referred to as "Native Peoples", "First Peoples", or "Aboriginal Peoples" along with the Métis.

People of the Pacific Northwest: Haida
Compared to the other regions of Canada, the Pacific Northwest was by far the most densely populated. Some historians believe that about half of Canada's total First Nation population resided in British Columbia.

The Pacific Northwest region was unique in many respects from the others we have looked at so far: in particular, the linguistic diversity of the area was probably unparalleled in the world; and secondly, unlike 90% of the other First Nations in North America some groups like the Haida developed the practice of private ownership.

The Pacific Northwest Indians were the first to introduce the concept of bling bling to North America. Thousands of years before the arrival of Sean "puffy" Combs or "Dr. Dre," the Haida were collecting some serious bling. In particular, the chiefs of the Haida were so pre-occupied with appearances, reputation, and material belongings, it is surprising any leader ever accomplished anything constructive. On the Great Plains, material wealth was discouraged to ensure survival of the group and prevent fighting from breaking out between rivals. For the Haida acquiring material wealth was one of, if not the, most important thing a person could do.

The chiefs gave their huge homes extravagant names, e.g. House Which Thunder Rolls Across, House That Other Chiefs Peer at from a Distance, or House People are Ashamed to Look at as It is So Overwhelmingly Great. One thing is for sure, Haidan chiefs had an obvious appreciation for the extravagant.

In the spirit of the Haida, I have renamed my own home. But the name of my house is not related to how grand it is so much as it betrays the existence of three rug rat occupants: House With Rug that has been Ironed with Crayon Hieroglyphics All Over Walls . Based on the length of my house's name I would've had some serious Haida-bling, indeed. More recently my wife and I fixed up our place by filling holes and painting the walls. Nevertheless, my boys as we speak are at work undoing these repairs by playing hockey inside the house using mini-sticks and shooting small hard projectiles.

Unlike the communal societies found on the Great Plains, the Haida practiced a caste system. Just like India (and in some respects even England today), leaders were selected from a class of nobles. The next lowest class were the commoners who formed the basis of the population's majority. And then lastly, there were the slaves (prisoners captured from neighboring tribes or people stuck working in cubicles selling insurance in 9 to 5 desk jobs).

For the Nootka living on Vancouver Island, there was an additional class—the warrior. Only the warriors could belong to the most exclusive golf courses and get reservations to eat at the fanciest restaurants. Okay, so I made that last sentence up but it is true that the warrior enjoyed a great place of prestige and respect in his society.

The Haida were a sedentary people who lived in towns. Consequently, they were one of the few Pacific Northwest nations that carved totem poles. The Plains Indians were too busy chasing the bison to create totem poles. If you happen to find a totem pole outside of British Columbia, you are more than likely seeing something called an anachronism. These poles were constructed exclusively on the Western Coast of Canada and the United States.

People of the Eastern Woodlands: Wendat/Huron/Wyandot

Wendat (referred to as the Huron by French fur traders) society developed near the Great Lakes region. They migrated to the Great Lakes shortly after the glaciers receded north (about 9,000 years ago) after the last ice age. During the first few thousand years of their existence, the Huron relied primarily upon hunting and gathering for survival. However, this all changed once the climate became warmer and agriculture became possible. As a consequence of agriculture, the Wendat population increased and a confederation of Huron nations emerged called Huronia.

Huron Flag

What's in a name? The terms Wendat and Wyandot actually refer to the same nation, i.e. "Wendat" should be applied to the Huron prior to 1650; "Wyandot" to the remnants of the Huron following the destruction of Huronia (1650 onwards). To keep things simple I will try to confine myself to using only "Huron" wherever possible.

The Huron Confederation consisted of four nations—Wyandot, Erie, Neutral, and Tobacco—who spoke the Wyandot language (related to the Iroquoian language). Not unlike their fierce Iroquoian neighbors to the south, the Huron lived in palisaded villages for protection.

In 1615, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain visited Huronia the Huron and Iroquois Confederations had been at war for over a hundred years. The French, eager to find friends to help support their new colony at Quebec, agreed to support the Huron in their war against the Iroquois; it was a fateful decision because it ultimately led to a heightening of tensions between the two confederacies and the eventual destruction of Huronia by the Iroquois.