North and Central America was populated by the Native Americans about 13,500 years ago. In that time, they have been a source of much interest and were “first” with a few things you might not know about.
Abstract art was used by nearly all tribes and civilisations.
Native American art was believed to be ‘primitive’ until the 1990s, when it served as inspiration for the modern abstract art movement.
The apartment block
The Anasazi and other tribes which once thrived in the present day South-West of the USA, developed complex multi-story apartment complexes, some of which are still in use today. Indeed, the Native Pueblo communities in present-day New Mexico continue to reside in some of these ancient multi-story apartment complexes which were constructed by their ancestors many centuries ago, even before the first apartments were built in the United States during the 18th century.
Pueblo Bonito, one of the seminal archaeological sites in America, is a marvellous example of this ancient Native American complex construction technology, originally built during the Anasazi and Hohokom time periods of about roughly a thousand years ago.
The bunk bed
Was invented to squeeze more members of the family into Iroquois longhouses, where they lived communally.
They gave us words you use regularly
A number of Native American words have become a part of the English language. Just a few of these include: barbecue, cannibal, chocolate, hammock, hurricane, potato, skunk, squash and more.
Our personal favourite is the word ‘avocado’ which is from the Nahuatl tribe and actually translates to ‘testicle’.
Native Americans were actually quite advanced by “hunter-gatherer” standards.
Not unreasonably, their technology was sourced from the world around them.
They would use porcupine hairs to make hairbrushes, and sticks were cut into the right shape and frayed at the edges to make toothbrushes. Their dental decay was much less than their historic equivalents in Europe.
Native Americans in present-day Pennsylvania lit petroleum, which seeped from underground to fire ceremonial fires. In addition, they also used petroleum to cover their bodies against insect bites and as a form or jelly to prevent their skins drying out.
Drugs and Anaesthetics
The Native Americans possessed a huge knowledge of plants and how to to cure ailments with them. They had been using willow tree bark for thousands of years to reduce fever and pain (as were the ancient peoples of Assyria, Sumer, Egypt and Greece).
When chemists analysed willows in the last century, they discovered salicylic acid, the basis of the modern drug aspirin.
Historians have also discovered that they were the first developers of anaesthetics. While European patients were dying of pain during a surgery, Native healers utilised plants in their procedures to help them.
Indigenous people also realised the antibiotic property of peyote and used the extract to treat fevers and enhance the energy in their bodies, and as an anesthetic.
There are recorded instances of Native Americans who took medicines which prevented pregnancies. Such instances date back to the 18th century, which are centuries earlier from the time modern oral contraceptives were developed by western scientists. The Shoshone tribe used the crushed powder of stone seed as a form of oral contraceptive, while the Potawatomi nation used herb dogbane, which when taken orally would prevent pregnancies.
A Third Sex
Pre-dating current LGBT+ debates by hundreds of years, some Native American tribes recognised a third gender that was separate from male and female. A “two-spirit” was one whose body manifested both masculine and feminine spirits simultaneously. They were often male – and they sometimes married other males – but weren’t seen as homosexual among their tribe.
A rich sporting life
Native Americans enjoyed sports and games. All the tribes played some kind of stickball or hand game which was popular and entire villages participated as games weren’t seen as strictly for children. Many of them are akin to games that Europeans would recognise like hockey and lacrosse.
North American Indians also invented the spinning top, used as a toy and made out of wood.
Among the many items developed by the Native Americans were tomatoes, pumpkins, corn, the domesticated turkey, manioc, peanuts, vanilla, the muscovy duck and cranberries. They were also responsible for a number of breeds of domesticated dogs, including the xochiocoyotl (coyote), xoloitzcuintli (known as xolo or Mexican hairless), chihuahua, the Carolina dog, and the Alaskan malamute.
One of the less wonderful things the Native peoples bequeathed us was tobacco, which was used in the Americas for many centuries prior to the arrival of white Europeans. Consumed in high doses, tobacco can become highly hallucinogenic and was accordingly used by many in the Americas to inspire dreams and dream time. Tobacco was also often consumed as a medicine amongst some tribes, although this was strictly practiced by experienced shamans and medicine men. Eastern tribes in mainland USA also traded tobacco as a trade item in exchange for food, clothing, beads, and salt and would often smoke tobacco during sacred and ritualised ceremonies using pipes. Tobacco was considered to be a gift from the Almighty and it was believed that the exhaled tobacco smoke generated from smoking a pipe would carry one’s thoughts and prayers to the creator up above in the heavens.
Were developed by Native Americans throughout North America, Mesoamerica, and South America. They are known to have been in used since 600 BC. American native calendars were so precise that by the 5th century BC they were only 19 minutes off.
Think the Europeans dreamed up democracy and the American republic? Think again.
Indian governments in eastern North America, particularly the League of the Iroquois, served as models of federated representative democracy to the Europeans and the American colonists.
The United States government is based on such a system, whereby power is distributed between a central authority (the federal government) and smaller political units (the states).
Historians have suggested the Iroquois system of government influenced the development of the Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. In 1988, the United States Congress passed a resolution to recognise the influence of the Iroquois League upon the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
A close relationship to nature
Like many “uncivilised” peoples – some would argue that should read “more civilised” – the Native Americans believed strongly in nature; they believed that all living things such as humans, plants, animals, and even the rivers and wind were all connected. They believed that these elements of nature were sacred as some of their religious beliefs involved the origins of the world and nature itself. There was no one religion that united all the peoples, but they all had common elements.