How American Indians Adapted to Different Environments

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  • 0:04 American Indians &…
  • 0:41 The Northeast & The Southeast
  • 1:51 The Great Plains
  • 2:25 The Southwest & The West
  • 3:37 The Great White North
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

North America features an incredible range of environments, and the people who first lived here had to adapt to each of them. This lesson explores cultural adaptations to diverse climates and what America looked like to those who lived here first.

American Indians & Environments

Last summer, you probably went to the beach. You may have also climbed mountains. Or perhaps, you saw massive forests and great deserts, and you probably did it all without pulling out your passport, at least if you live in America. The United States has a wide range of ecosystems. For us, this is pretty neat, but it also meant that the first people who lived here had to adapt to several different environments. From sea to shining sea, the American Indian, or Amerindian, people of North America had to deal with the realities of life in purple mountain majesties or amber waves of grain, and knew that while America was beautiful, it could also be dangerous.

The Northeast & The Southeast

There were dozens of distinct cultural groups that emerged in North America, and we can't cover them all, but we can take a quick tour of different regions. Let's start with the Northeast, the area roughly encompassing New England and the Ohio River Valley. This is a very fertile area, with abundant resources and reliable weather. There was little need to move around, and Amerindian cultures were mostly sedentary, meaning they lived in permanent villages. With the great amount of resources, Amerindian societies divided chores by gender. Women were generally in charge of farming, while men were responsible for hunting and fishing.

Moving down south, we find a great number of societies based around the Mississippi River valley. Amerindians in this region also had several resources to choose from, and farming was very productive thanks to the heavy rains of the South. One thing that we may notice about Amerindian cultures of this region is an architectural style of mound-building. Mound builders built temples on top of massive platforms, which were made of compacted soil. Why? Well, there aren't an abundance of accessible stone quarries in the region, particularly without metal tools. So, instead of stone, these cultures built with soil, and the results were pretty impressive.

The Great Plains

Moving west, we enter the Great Plains, which is the vast area of the continental United States called the Midwest. Today, this area is covered in farms, but before the introduction of metal plows, the soil was too rough for agriculture. So Amerindian societies of the Plains were much more nomadic, meaning mobile, societies. Without farming or abundant fishing, these cultures were much more reliant on hunting, and moved their camps seasonally to follow their prey. This meant that they needed to develop easily-transportable habitation structures, like tipis, which could be efficiently moved during hunting seasons.

The Southwest & The West

In the Southwest, we find yet another climate. This area is largely characterized by dry deserts, and does not support the abundance of wild game as in the Great Plains. This meant that a semi-nomadic hunting lifestyle was less practical, and these societies tended to be more sedentary, building large cities of stone or mud brick. They were also in most direct contact with the major civilizations of Mexico and learned a lot about agriculture. Water isn't widely available in the Southwest, so Amerindian nations developed complex irrigation systems to sustain their farms and bred strains of crops that needed less water.

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