• Before the Explorers: The First Americans

    People lived on the North American continent long before Christopher Columbus’s voyage. Archaeologists have found evidence that the first settlers came to North America at least 16,000 years ago. They probably followed grazing animals across a land bridge that connected Alaska to Siberia during the Ice Age. This land bridge disappeared when the ice melted; the area is now covered with water and is called the Bering Strait. In 2013, scientists and archaeologists made a surprising discovery. They learned that at least one-third of Native Americans probably descended from people from the Middle East or Europe, rather than East Asia. We still don’t have all the answers, but the history of Native Americans is more complex than archaeologists originally believed.

    The First Americans- Image of Ice Age
    The First Americans- Image of Ice Age

    Fun Facts

    • The first people were excellent hunters. They probably hunted large animals, such as wooly mammoths and bison using nothing but spears.
    • Native Americans used the natural resources around them for all their needs. They made weapons and tools from bone, stone, and wood. They made clothing from animal skins and plant fibers. They ate wild roots, seeds, and berries, and of course, fish and game.
    • Native Americans adapted to their environments and climates. In the forests of the Northwest, Native Americans built wooden homes and became skilled fishermen. In the Southwest and Southeast, Native Americans learned how to grow crops. They cleared forests for farmland. The Plains Indians relied on buffalo for food and clothing
    • Native Americans lived in tribes, or social groups. Each tribe spoke its own language. There were more than 1,000 languages and dialects. Tribes had their own specific traditions and culture.
    • In general, women had more power in Native American tribes than European women of the same period.


    1. Archaeologist: a scientist who studies human history and culture
    2. Ice Age: a period of time in which glaciers cover much of the Earth
    3. Complex: having many details
    4. Dialect: a language variation spoken by a certain group of people and based on location and culture Questions and Answers

    Questions and Answers

    Question: Did Native American tribes have government and leaders?

    Answer: Many smaller tribes consisted of only 3 to 5 extended family groups. These tribes had no formal government, although wise women or men might sit on a council and offer suggestions. Larger groups sometimes had a chief. Native Americans believed the land was to be shared and used carefully. Individuals couldn’t claim a piece of land as their own.

    Learn More

    Visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian for lesson plans about Native Americans.


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