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Natives, North American

Introduction

Natives, North American, peoples who occupied North America before the arrival of the Europeans in the 15th cent. They have long been known as Indians because of the belief prevalent at the time of Columbus that the Americas were the outer reaches of the Indies (i.e., the East Indies). Most scholars agree that Native Americans came into the Western Hemisphere from Asia via the Bering Strait or along the N Pacific coast in a series of migrations. From Alaska they spread east and south. The several waves of migration are said to account for the many native linguistic families (see Native American languages), while the common origin is used to explain the physical characteristics that Native Americans have in common (though with considerable variation)—Mongolic features, coarse, straight black hair, dark eyes, sparse body hair, and a skin color ranging from yellow-brown to reddish brown. Some scholars accept evidence of Native American existence in the Americas back more than 25,000 years, while many others believe that people arrived later than that, perhaps as recently as 12,000 years ago. In pre-Columbian times (prior to 1492) the Native American population of the area N of Mexico is conservatively estimated to have been about 1.8 million, with some authorities believing the population to have been as large as 10 million or more. This population dropped dramatically within a few decades of the first contacts with Europeans, however, as many Native Americans died from smallpox, influenza, measles, and other diseases to which they had not previously been exposed. Native Americans were far more likely to die. From prehistoric times until recent historic times there were roughly six major cultural areas, excluding that of the Arctic (see Eskimo), i.e., Northwest Coast, Plains, Plateau, Eastern Woodlands, Northern, and Southwest. Information about particular groups can be found in separate articles and in separate biographies and subject articles (e.g., Pontiac's Rebellion; Dawes Act).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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