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The indigenous peoples of the Americas are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas, their descendants, and many ethnic groups who identify with those historical peoples. (The precise definition of the term is the subject of the Native American name controversy.)

According to current scientific knowledge, human beings did not evolve in North or South America but instead arrived by sea or by a land bridge that formerly connected North America with Asia. Most (if not all) of those indigenous peoples descended from peoples living in Siberia. They entered North America by at least 12,000 years ago and diversified into hundreds of culturally distinct nations and tribes.[1]

Some indigenous peoples of the Americas supported agriculturally advanced societies for thousands of years. In some regions they created large sedentary chiefdom polities, and had advanced state level societies with monumental architecture and large-scale, organized cities. Scholars' estimates of the total population of the Americas before European contact vary enormously, from a low of 10 million to a high of 112 million.[2] Whatever the figure, scholars generally agree that most of the indigenous population resided in Mesoamerica and South America, while about 10% resided in North America.[3]

Smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria, measles and other epidemics swept in after European contact, killing a large portion of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, causing one of the greater calamities in human history.[4] At least 93 waves of epidemic disease swept through native populations between first contact and the early 20th century.[5] Another reason for the dramatic decline of the Native American population was the treatment of the native population by European settlers, as well as continuing wars, either with Europeans or between tribes.

See also: Mississippian culture, Cahokia, Mesoamerica, Maya, Olmec, Zapotec, Toltec, Teotihuacan, Aztec, Raramuri, Aymara, Inca, Urarina, indigenous people of Brazil.


See also: Archaeology of the Americas, Models of migration to the New World

The Bering Strait Land Bridge TheoryEdytuj

Based on anthropological, genetic, and linguistic evidence, scholars generally agree that most indigenous peoples of the Americas descended from people who probably migrated from Siberia across the Bering Strait, 9,000-15,000 years ago. The exact epoch and route is still a matter of debate, and continual challenges are issued to this model. For more information, see Models of migration to the New World and Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.

A 2006 study (to be published in Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology) reports new DNA-based research that uniquely links the DNA retrieved from a 10,000-year-old fossilized tooth from an Alaskan island, with specific coastal tribes in Tierra del Fuego, Ecuador, Mexico and California.[6] Unique DNA markers found in the fossilized tooth were found only in these specific coastal tribes, and were not found in any of the other indigenous peoples in the Americas. This finding lends substantial credence to a migration theory that at least one set of early peoples moved south along the west coast of the Americas in boats.

Migration wavesEdytuj

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In spite of the lingering controversy about who were the first Americans, anthropologists and archaeologists generally agree that most of the indigenous peoples who lived in the New World right before the European conquest descended from Siberian hunters, who entered North America about 15- 20.000 years ago, and then gradually spread to Central and South America.

Several genetic surveys have indicated clear affinities between present-day indigenous American populations and peoples of Siberia. According to Ilya Zakharov of Moscow's Vavilov Institute of General Genetics, the Northern Native Americans are genetically related to the Tuvans, a Turkic group of people located in the Tuva Republic at the southwestern edge of Siberia.

The general consensus of such studies is that at least three separate migrations from Siberia to the Americas are highly likely to have occurred:

  • The first wave came into a land populated by the large mammals of the late Pleistocene, including mammoths, horses, giant sloths, and woolly rhinoceroses. The Clovis culture would be a manifestation of that migration, and the Folsom culture, based on the hunting of bison, would have developed from it. This wave eventually spread over the entire hemisphere, as far south as Tierra del Fuego, and became the inhabitants of central to eastern North America and most if not all of Central and South America.
  • The second migration brought the ancestors of the Na-Dene peoples. They lived in Alaska and western Canada, but some migrated as far south as the Pacific Northwestern U.S. and the American Southwest, and would be ancestral to the Dene, Apaches and Navajos.
  • The third wave brought the ancestors of the Eskimos (Inuit and Yupik) and the Aleuts. They may have come by sea over the Bering Strait, after the land bridge had disappeared.
  • In recent years, molecular genetics studies have suggested as many as four distinct migrations from Asia. These studies also provide surprising evidence of smaller-scale, contemporaneous migrations from Europe, possibly by peoples who had adopted a lifestyle resembling that of the Inuit and Yupiks during the last ice age.

One result of these successive waves of migration is that large groups of peoples with similar languages and perhaps physical characteristics as well, moved into various geographic areas of North, and then Central and South America. While these peoples have traditionally remained primarily loyal to their individual tribes, ethnologists have variously sought to group the myriad of tribes into larger entities which reflect common geographic origins, linguistic similarities, and life styles. (See Classification of indigenous peoples of the Americas.)

European colonizationEdytuj

The European colonization of the Americas forever changed the lives and cultures of the peoples of the continent. From the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were ravaged by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with European groups and enslavement by them. The first indigenous group encountered by Columbus were the 250,000 Arawaks of Hispaniola. They were enslaved. The culture was extinct by 1650, and only 500 had survived by the year 1550, though the bloodlines continued through the modern populace. In Amazonia, indigenous societies weathered centuries of unforgiving colonial affronts (Varese 2002).[7]

Spaniards and other Europeans brought horses to the Americas. Some of these animals escaped and began to breed and increase their numbers in the wild. Ironically, the horse had originally evolved in the Americas, but the last American horses, (species Equus scotti and others [3]) died out at the end of the last ice age with other megafauna with their extinction possibly due to overhunting by the natives. The re-introduction of the horse had a profound impact on Native American and First Nations culture in the Great Plains of North America. This new mode of travel made it possible for some tribes to greatly expand their territories, exchange many goods with neighboring tribes, and more easily capture game.

Europeans also brought diseases against which the indigenous peoples of the Americas had no immunity. Chicken pox and measles, though common and rarely life-threatening among Europeans, often proved fatal to the indigenous people, and more dangerous diseases such as smallpox were especially deadly to indigenous populations. It is difficult to estimate the total percentage of the indigenous population killed by these diseases. Epidemics often immediately followed European exploration, sometimes destroying entire villages. Some historians estimate that up to 80% of some indigenous populations may have died due to European diseases. (For more information, see population history of American indigenous peoples.)


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Though cultural features including language, garb, and customs vary enormously from one tribe to another, there are certain elements which are shared by many of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Music and artEdytuj

Native American music in North America is almost entirely monophonic, but there are notable exceptions. Traditional Native American music often includes drumming but little other instrumentation, although flutes are played by individuals. The tuning of these flutes is not precise and depends on the length of the wood used and the hand span of the intended player, but the finger holes are most often around a whole step apart and, at least in Northern California, a flute was not used if it turned out to have an interval close to a half step.

Music from indigenous peoples of Central Mexico and Central America often was pentatonic. Before the arrival of the Spaniards it was inseparable from religious festivities and included a large variety of percussion and wind instruments such as drums, flutes, sea snail shells (used as a kind of trumpet) and "rain" tubes. No string instruments were used.

Art of the indigenous peoples of the Americas comprises a major category in the world art collection. Contributions include pottery, paintings, jewelry, weavings, sculptures, basketry, and carvings.

Agricultural endowmentEdytuj

Over the course of thousands of years, a large array of plant species were domesticated, bred and cultivated by the indigenous peoples of the American continent, particularly the advanced civilizations that lived in Mesoamerica, i.e. southern Mexico and Central America. Many of these cultivars spread throughout the American continent and are presently common staples in diets worldwide. More than half of all crops grown worldwide were initially developed by indigenous peoples of the Americas. In many cases, the indigenous peoples developed entirely new species from existing wild ones, as was the case in the domestication and breeding of maize from wild teosinte grasses in the valleys of southern Mexico. A great number of these agricultural products still retain their original Nahuatl names in the English and Spanish lexicons.

The modern American (U.S.) holiday of Thanksgiving is a national holiday of thanks featuring the bountiful produce provided by indigenous peoples to European immigrants. The holiday is celebrated by a family meal with dishes prepared exclusively of indigenous agricultural produce and the domesticated turkey game bird.

A partial list of this agricultural endowment would include:

The triumvirate crop system known as the “three sisters”:

  1. Maize* (domesticated from teotsinte grasses in southern Mexico)
  2. Squash* (pumpkins, zucchini, marrow, acorn squash, butternut squash, others)
  3. Pinto bean (Frijol pinto) ("painted/speckled" bean; nitrogen-fixer traditionally planted in conjunction with other "two sisters" to help condition soil; runners grew on maize; beans in the genus Phaseolus including most common beans, Tepary beans and Lima beans were also all first domesticated and cultivated by indigenous peoples in the Americas)

Other widely common staples now used globally:

  1. Tomato*
  2. Potato (papas*)
  3. Camote or "sweet potato" (often called incorrectly as "yams" in English; distinct from true-yams)
  4. Avocado* ("aguacate" in Spanish)
  5. Cacahuate* (peanuts)
  6. Cacao* beans (used to make chocolate*)
  7. Vanilla
  8. Black raspberry
  9. Strawberry (various cultivars; modern Garden strawberry was created by crossing sweet North American variety with plump South American variety)
  10. Pineapple (cultivated extensively)
  11. Cassava* (edible starchy root also known as manioc; also used to make tapioca)
  12. Peppers (species and varieties of Capsicum, including bell peppers, jalapeños, paprika, chili peppers, etc.)
  13. Allspice

Staples still used regionally:

  1. Nopales* (stem segments of prickly pear Opuntia cactus)
  2. Tunas* (fruits of many different species of cultivated Opuntia cactus )
  3. Jicama*
  4. Papaya*
  5. Guayaba* (guava fruit)
  6. Huautli* (amaranth grain; other species present on other continents)
  7. Quinoa (pseudo-cereal grain crop)
  8. Cherimoya* (fruit)
  9. Sapote* (generic Nahuatl name for a soft fruit from various unrelated species, including the Black Sapote or Black Persimmon, which is native to Mexico)
  10. Mamey* (fruit, other parts of plants have noted uses)
  11. Pitaya (also known as pitahaya; the fruit of several cactus species, especially of the genus Hylocereus)
  12. Yerba Buena (aromatic herb)
  13. Mexican Oregano (a distinct herb from a different plant species than the milder Mediterranean Oregano)
  14. Lemon Verbena (herb with a powerful lemony scent)
  15. Jerusalem artichoke, tuber related to the sunflower.
  16. Stevia an herb, non-caloric sweetener.

Indigenous protein sources:

  1. Sunflower seeds (under cultivation in Mexico and Peru for thousands of years; also source of essential oils)
  2. Pecan (a species of hickory native to southeastern North America)
  3. Pinyones (Pine nuts from: Pinus edulis, Pinus monophylla and Pinus cembroides (Mexican Pine))
  4. Turkey (the ocellated turkey was a large domesticated bird developed by the Maya, and is thought to be the founding lineage of the modern American wild turkey.)
  5. spirulina (cyanobacteria or blue-green algae harvested in lakes, and dried into cakes)
  6. Guinea pigs (domesticated species and other species in the genus Cavia)
  7. Chapulin* (grasshoppers)
  8. Fresh water/marine: Fish (numerous species), shellfish (numerous species)

Ceremonial entheogens:

  1. Tobacco* (leaves smoked in pipes)
  2. Tesguino* (fermented corn drink)
  3. Octli* (fermented beverage made from agave cactus, later known as pulque; pulque is the precursor of the distilled spirit mezcal; mezcal made from the blue agave is known as tequila)
  4. Peyote* (hallucinogenic cactus used in religious ceremonies)
  5. Ayahuasca (hallucinogenic drink made from a mixture of a vine of the same name and another plant used as an MAOI which is used in religious ceremonies)
  6. Psychedelic Mushrooms (hallucinogenic mushrooms used in religious ceremonies)
  7. Coca* (leaves chewed for energy and medicinal uses)
  8. yerba mate* - (used to make a hot infusion or beverage for both medicinal and religious purposes.)

Non-food agricultural products:

  1. Rubber (used indigenously for making bouncing balls, foot-molded rubber shoes and other assorted items)
  2. Chicle* (also known as chewing gum)
  3. Cotton (cultivation of different species independently started in both the Americas and in India)
  4. Chinchona* (tree which yields the anti-malarial drug quinine)
  5. Achiote* (fruit and seeds are used to extract a culinary red dye known as Annatto)

(* Asterisk indicates a common English or Spanish word derived from an indigenous word)

Modern statistics on indigenous populationsEdytuj

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The following table provides estimates of the per-country populations of indigenous people, and also those with part-indigenous ancestry, expressed as a percentage of the overall country population. of each country that is comprised by indigenous peoples, and of people with partly indigenous descent. The total percentage obtained by adding both of these categories is also given (One should note however that these categories, especially the second one, are rather vaguely defined and measured differently from country to country).

Indigenous populations of the Americas1
as estimated percentage of total country's population
Country Indigenous Part-indigenous Combined total
Argentina 1% 13% 14%
Bolivia 55% 30% 85%
Brazil2 0.4% [?] [?]
Canada3 1.9%4 2.7% 4.6%
Chile 3% 60% 63%
Cuba5 1% NA NA
Costa Rica5 [?] [?] [?]
Colombia 2% 68% 70%
Dominican Republic 1% 40-60% 41-61%.
Guatemala 44% 52% 96%
Ecuador 25% 55% 80%
El Salvador 5% 94% 99%
French Guiana,
Guyana and Suriname
5 – 20% [?] [?]
Honduras 7% 90% 97%
Mexico 30% 60% 90%
Nicaragua 5% 69% 74%
Panama 6% 70% 76%
Paraguay 5% 93.3% 98.3%
Peru 45% 37% 82%
Puerto Rico 0.4% 20% 20.4%
Venezuela 2% 69% 71%
USA6 0.9% 0.6% 1.5%
Uruguay 0% 8% 8%

1 Source : The World Factbook 1999, Central Intelligence Agency unless otherwise indicated.
2 2000 Brazil Census
3 Canada 2001 Census
4 1.9% is for single origins only, Aboriginal identity population is 3.3%
5 indigenous peoples mixed into the general population; NA = "not available".
6 2000 U.S. Census

History and status by countryEdytuj


See also Demographics of Argentina

Argentina's indigenous population is about 403.000 (1% of total population)[8]. Indigenous nations include the Toba, Wichí, Mocoví, Pilagá, Chulupí, Diaguita-Calchaquí, Kolla, Guaraní (Tupí Guaraní and Avá Guaraní in the provinces of Jujuy and Salta, and Mbyá Guaraní in the province of Misiones), Chorote, Chané, Tapieté, Mapuche, Tehuelche and Selknam (Ona).


Mestizos (European with indigenous peoples) number about 45% of the population; unmixed Maya make up another 6.5%.


In Bolivia about 2.5 million people speak Quechua, 2,1 million speak Aymara, while Guaraní is only spoken by a few hundred thousand people. The languages are recognized; nevertheless, there are no official documents written in those languages and people who do not speak the only official language Spanish are badly treated. However, the constitutional reform in 1997 for the first time recognized Bolivia as a multilingual, pluri-ethnic society and introduced education reform. In 2005, for the first time in the country's history, an indigenous Aymara president, Evo Morales, was elected.


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Szablon:Main The most commonly preferred term for the indigenous peoples of what is now Canada is Aboriginal peoples ("eskimo", being thought of as an offensive term). Of these Aboriginal peoples who are not Inuit or Métis , "First Nations" is the most commonly preferred term of self-identification. First Nations peoples make up approximately 3% of the Canadian population; Inuit, Métis and First Nations together make up 5%. The official term for First Nations people—that is, the term used by both the Indian Act, which regulates benefits received by members of First Nations, and the Indian Register, which defines who is a member of a First Nation—is Indian.



A small minority within Colombia's overwhelmingly Mestizo and Afro-Colombian population, Colombia's indigenous peoples nonetheless encompass at least 85 distinct cultures and more than 700,000 people. A variety of collective rights for indigenous peoples are recognized in the 1991 Constitution.


The indigenous peoples of Guatemala are of Mayan heritage. Pure Maya account for some 45% of the population; although around 40% of the population speaks an indigenous language, those tongues (of which there are more than 20) enjoy no official status. Maya sources, however, place estimates at around 60% of the population.


Szablon:Main The territory of modern-day Mexico was home to numerous indigenous civilizations prior to the arrival of the European conquistadores: The Olmecs, who flourished from between 1200 BC to about 800 BC in the coastal regions of the Gulf of Mexico; the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs, who held sway in the mountains of Oaxaca and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; the Maya in the Yucatán (and into neighbouring areas of contemporary Central America;the Purepecha or Tarascan in present day Michoacán and surrounding areas and, of course, the Aztecs, who, from their central capital at Tenochtitlan, dominated much of the centre and south of the country (and the non-Aztec inhabitants of those areas) when Hernán Cortés first landed at Veracruz.

In contrast to what was the general rule in the rest of North America, the history of the colony of New Spain was one of racial intermingling (mestizaje). Mestizos quickly came to account for a majority of the colony's population; however, significant pockets of pure-blood indígenas (as the native peoples are now known) have survived to the present day.

With mestizos numbering some 60% of the modern population, estimates for the numbers of unmixed indigenous peoples vary from a very modest 10% to a more liberal 30% of the population. The reason for this discrepancy may be the Mexican government's policy of using linguistic, rather than racial, criteria as the basis of classification.

In the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca and in the interior of the Yucatán peninsula the majority of the population is indigenous. Large indigenous minorities, including Nahuas, Purépechas, and Mixtecs are also present in the central regions of Mexico. In Northern Mexico indigenous people are a small minority: they are practically absent from the northeast but, in the northwest and central borderlands, include the Tarahumara of Chihuahua and the Yaquis and Seri of Sonora. Many of the tribes from this region are also recognized Native American tribes from the U.S. Southwest such as the Yaqui and Kikapoo.

While Mexicans are universally proud of their indigenous heritage, modern-day indigenous Mexicans are still the target of discrimination and outright racism. In particular, in areas such as Chiapas — most famously, but also in Oaxaca, Puebla, Guerrero, and other remote mountainous parts — indigenous communities have been left on the margins of national development for the past 500 years. Indigenous customs and uses enjoy no official status. The Huichols of the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas, and Durango are impeded by police forces in their ritual pilgrimages, and their religious observances are interfered with.


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Most Peruvians are either indigenous or mestizos (of mixed Indigenous, African, European and Asian ancestry). Rampant racism in Peru has caused poverty and neglect among indigenous peoples and their traditional communities since the Spanish invaded this land, and has continued for centuries from the central government of Lima. Arguably, Peru has the second largest indigenous population of South America, and its traditions and customs have shaped the way Peruvians live and see themselves today. The most visited tourist destinations of Peru were built by indigenous peoples (the Quechua, Aymara, Moche, etc.), while Amazonian peoples, such as the Urarina and the Aguaruna, developed elaborate shamanic systems of belief prior to the European Conquest of the New World. Macchu Picchu is considered one of the marvels of humanity, and it was constructed by the Inca Civilization. Even though Peru officially declares its multi-ethnic character -it has at least six dozen languages, including Quechua, Aymara and hegemonic Spanish- discrimination and language endangerment continue to challenge the indigenous peoples of Peru, which is a culturally diverse country of many nations.[9]

United StatesEdytuj

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Szablon:Main Indigenous peoples in what is now the United States are commonly called "American Indians" but more recently have been referred to as "Native Americans". Native Americans make up 2% of the population, with more than 6 million people identifying themselves as such, although only 1.8 million are registered tribal members. A minority of US Native Americans live on Indian reservations. There are also many Southwestern U.S. tribes, such as the Yaqui and Apache, that have registered tribal communities in Northern Mexico.

Other parts of the AmericasEdytuj

Indigenous peoples make up the majority of the population in Bolivia and Peru, and are a significant element in most other former Spanish colonies. Exceptions to this include Costa Rica, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. At least three of the Amerindian languages (Quechua in Peru and Bolivia, Aymara also in Bolivia, and Guarani in Paraguay) are recognized along with Spanish as national languages.

See alsoEdytuj


  1. Szablon:Cite web
  2. New World, Old Myths: A review of Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,, Bruce S. Thornton, Claremont Review of Books, July 2, 2006, accessed September 14, 2006
  3. Alan Taylor, American Colonies (New York: Viking, 2001), p. 40
  4. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (ISBN 1-4000-4006-X), Charles C. Mann, Knopf, 2005.
  5. Native Americans of North America,, Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2006, Trudy Griffin-Pierce, accessed September 14, 2006
  6. "DNA Ties Together Scattered Peoples," Los Angeles Times (accessed Sept. 11, 2006); [1]
  7. Szablon:Cite journal
  8. INDEC: Encuesta Complementaria de Pueblos Indígenas (ECPI) 2004 - 2005
  9. Dean, Bartholomew. "State Power and Indigenous Peoples in Peruvian Amazonia: A Lost Decade, 1990-2000." In The Politics of Ethnicity Indigenous Peoples in Latin American States. Chapter 7, David Maybury-Lewis (ed.) Harvard University Press[2]
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