The key traits of North American Indian culture which flourished before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1492

The simplistic version of history suggests a primitive/tribal way of life for indigenous Americans. Such a simplification detracts from the community a rich, ecologically informed culture, as well as an egalitarian social organization. The first chapter in the book by Roark, Johnson and team attempts to flesh out a complete picture of North American Indian culture before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.

One of the key characteristics of Native Americans is their unique genealogy, which derives from African and Asian populations. Although this connection is not the most intuitive, anthropological studies using genetic markers have substantiated this understanding. In the late medieval period, they were believed to have adopted a hunter-gatherer mode of life. It is an important revelation, for everywhere else in the world agriculture and urbanization has already become entrenched. Bison was a great stock prey during the time as the ecology of the Great Plains suited it well. In many of the cave paintings from this period, we can see how bison was an emblematic animal for the entire community.

It is important to remember that, despite common features, native American culture is not one monolithic system. The breadth and width of the continent’s landscape, with its varied climates, geographies and ecologies, made adapting to local conditions an imperative. As a result, we see different set of customs and norms being practiced in the Great Basin, Pacific Coast or Eastern Woodlands. Likewise, in contrast to the widespread adoption of hunter-gatherer lifestyle, native Indian cultures of South-western and Woodland Burial Mound regions practiced agriculture. The social organization of these regions was also different, in that they were chiefdoms, with a definite hierarchy among its members.

Just as Spanish Conquistadors started trickling into the continent in the late 15th century, the meso-American culture became predominant. This unique culture retained many key traits of the community’s traditions while also including new elements that they were introduced to. It is an unfortunate fact of history that despite the amicable and warm welcome of the conquistadors by native Americans, the former did not reciprocate the hospitality. After having acquainted themselves with the exotic culture of the natives, the conquistadors systematically proceeded to dominate the defenceless natives. Those who had the courage to resist domination and exploitation were ruthlessly rounded up and executed. As a consequence, within a few decades of the arrival of the Spanish expeditions, the Native American population diminished drastically. This pattern has continued for a century of more and reached a point of near-extermination of these people. It continues to remain one of the greatest acts of genocide in the history of humanity. It is all the more tragic because the culture and social values of the victims were very rich and vibrant. The proof for this assertion lies in the great colour and wisdom of their customs, practices and norms witnessed at the time of the arrival of the Spanish expeditions. Their lives during this period were far from barbaric as the perpetrators of their oppression would have us believe.


Roark, Johnson, Cohen, Stage & Hartmann, Chapter 1 – Ancient America Before 1492, The American Promise – A History of the United States, Fifth Edition, Published by Bedford/St. Martins.