North America Before the Europeans Arrived

Native Americans getting water from a creek.
A deer running on a frozen meadow.
Squash — one of the crops which farming Indians grew.

Before people of European origin began arriving in North America, millions of Native Americans are estimated to have called the land home. The natives were divided into many different peoples and tribes, all living according to their own traditions and speaking their own languages. Some tribes were mainly farmers whereas others were hunter-gatherers.

Neither farmers nor hunter-gatherers in pre-colonial times had horses. This meant that when fighting between tribes broke out, Native Americans waged war on foot, chasing each other around. Some of the weapons used in these wars were the classical spear and bow and arrows, with both spearheads and arrowheads habitually being carved out of stone or bone.

Imitating sounds of animals

A common reason for Indians to go to war against another tribe or another people was competition over the same hunting grounds. This motivation to take up arms demonstrates the important role that hunting played in many Indian societies. Nevertheless, even with access to lucrative hunting grounds, catching prey was no easy task. Without horses and firearms, successful hunting required experience, and was a matter of smarts rather than strength. Hunting bison, for example, was sometimes done by sneaking up on the mighty animal camouflaged in bison hide and surprising it. Other elaborate Indian hunting tactics, developed to perfection over thousands of years, included imitating sounds of animals and chasing herds off cliffs.

Coming changes

When white settlers finally arrived in North America, some four hundred years ago, Native Americans began obtaining horses, firearms and sturdy iron utensils through trade or conquest. This, as explained in other chapters, transformed Indian hunting and Indian warfare, as well as many other areas of their lives.