Evolving Economies on the Plains

The Eastern woodlands of North America was home to Indigenous people for at least 10,000 years and maybe more. Although the first North Americans, eastern Paleo-Indians, who lived there used stone tools  they were not by and large hunters of big game.  They stuck close to the “river roads,” by which was meant the amazing rivers of North America.  They were nomadic, but usually travelled along those major rivers and systematically took advantage of the seasonal availability of grasses, fruits, nuts, fish, and game. Meandering you might say. This was wise. As Hurst Thomas said, “Their broad spectrum adaptation spread out the risk and buffered people against the failure of any particular plant or animal species. This generalized ecological adaptation was to gain them a head start toward the more intensive gathering economies evident in later periods. As their population increased, Eastern Woodland people became more efficient, intensifying their economic exchanges with others, and improving their ability to store food for the future. They learned to protect themselves against year-to-year fluctuations in resources.”

Unlike European farmers, they knew enough to avoid monocultures like they avoided plagues, at least until they came across a plague they could not stop.

According to David Hurst Thomas, “The earliest true pottery in North America appears about 2500 B.C. in coastal and riverine Georgia, unassociated with any archaeologically visible trace of agriculture.”

As always happens, some people are better at producing food in their environments than others. When this happened, inevitably, as if following the rules of Adam Smith, trade followed. With time it was noticed that in some North American indigenous societies that were often very egalitarian moved away from that to more rigid and unequal societies. Archaeologists have discovered this from examining graves. Status was reflected in the disparity of the goods kept in graves. Perfection is as hard to maintain as it is to achieve.

There was one famous archaeological site which I would love to visit. This is Poverty Point in northeastern Louisiana. I think I drove past it a couple of years ago without knowing what I was missing. As I keep saying, life is hard when you are stupid.

Around about 1300 B.C. Indigenous people there began to construct some spectacular earthworks. One in particular was very large and bird-shaped. It was about 75 feet high. Nearby were 6 huge concentric ridges that were likely used as dwelling sites. The outer perimeter extended about 2/3 of a mile. It was necessary for the people to move millions of cubic feet of earth to build the structures.

The people who lived there participated in far flung exchanges that were used to trade copper and other stones. Even though they lacked the stones that Indigenous people in California could use to heat up and drop into baskets for heating up the water,  they cleverly  “manufactured” artificial stones out of clay balls.

Although the people there probably cultivated small gardens, the site was eventually abandoned, like so many other sites in North America, and it took another 1,000 years before North America would again see such elaborate ceremonial spaces.

We have a lot to learn from Indigenous people.  It is very unfair to call them savages, as Canadians at one time routinely did.

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