The First North Americans: An Archaeological Journey

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Thames & Hudson, Jan 24, 2012 - History - 272 pages
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This new history of North America is based mainly on archaeology, but also on cutting-edge research in many scientific disciplines, from biology and climatology to ethnohistory and high-tech chemistry and physics. Brian Fagan describes the controversies over first settlement, which likely occurred via Siberia at the end of the Ice Age, and the debates over the routes used as humans moved southward into the heart of the continent. A remarkable diversity of hunter-gatherer societies evolved in the rapidly changing North American environments, and the book explores the ingenious ways in which people adapted to every kind of landscape imaginable, from arctic tundra to open plains and thick woodland.

Professor Fagan recounts the increasingly sophisticated acclimation by Native Americans to arctic, arid and semiarid lands, culminating in the spectacular Ancestral Pueblo societies of the Southwest and the elaborate coastal settlements of California and the Pacific Northwest. He then traces the origins of the Moundbuilder societies of the Eastern Woodlands, which reached their apogee in the flamboyant Mississippian culture of the South and Southeast and the mounds of the ancient city of Cahokia. The book ends with a description of the Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples of the Northeast and St. Lawrence Valley, and an epilogue that enumerates the devastating consequences of European contact for Native Americans.

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Although of necessity very broad and shallow (272 pages to cover 15,000 years of history of an entire continent), it none the less manages to illustrate very broad trends within the discipline of North American archeology. Fagan is limited by his subject matter (they simply don't know how the first North Americans got here, what they did when they got here, and how early they got here, which isn't surprising considering they would have been very small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers with little material culture) but still somehow manages to stitch together climate, history, archeology and diversity into a coherent picture. An excellent overview of what is known by experts with just enough detail to give a sense of lives and lifestyles without delving too deeply into how we know what we know. 

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About the author (2012)

Brian Fagan is Emeritus Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His many books include The First North Americans, Discovery!, and The Complete Ice Age.

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